Terrorism And Politics In International Relations – Analysis


By O. Igho Natufe, Ph.D


Since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States, the concept of terrorism has gained significant currency in contemporary international relations. The US presidents (George Bush, 2000-2008; and Barack Obama, 2009 – ) have enlisted their allies and cronies around the globe to wage a “war on terror.” US Oresident Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” has been internationalized. When he ordered the invasion of Iraq on the basis of a spurious argument in March 2003, he described that invasion as a “crusade”, a terminology with negative historical ramifications in the Middle East.

Governments and political organizations opposed to the US are either tagged terrorists or sponsors of terrorism. Interestingly, several governments have discovered terrorist organizations in their respective polities. In 2012 the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan announced that they were terrorists in his government. This broad view of terrorism has obfuscated a rationale analysis of terrorism and politics in international relations. In a usage reminiscent of the cold war era, each government has its own favourable terrorist. Thus, a terrorist group of Nation A can be an ally of Nation B, just like the Kremlin and the White House had their favoured dictators in Addis Ababa and Santiago, respectively. In fact, in contemporary parlance, the governments of Mengistu Haile Mariam and Augusta Pinochet would be classified as terrorist regimes backed by their sponsors in the Kremlin and the White House, respectively.

Terrorism and Politics

Scholars of war and politics to a large extent grew out of the overcoat of Karl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” This Clausewitzean notion has influenced the writings of treaties in military strategy and (international) politics. To define war in this way implies that we can also perceive politics as the continuation of war by other means. Thus, war and politics have dialectical relationships explicable by the correlation of forces that determine the socio-political dynamics of society. As used in this context, war could be a hostile activity within a nation or between nations, as it could also mean a hostile activity or struggle between conflicting political forces. The Marxian concept of class struggle is in fact a hostile activity between opposing classes within and between nations. War is no longer the sole preserve of states in the international arena. Non nation-states, for example, political organizations have become important actors in contemporary international politics.

We view terrorism as the use or threat of the use of violence to attain socio-economic and political objectives, of public or private interests, by engaging in destructive activities that are geared to compel the other party or parties to comply with the demands of those engaged in terrorist activities. These destructive activities could be either sporadic or protracted. For all practical purposes, terrorist activities constitute a state of war between contending forces over the distribution of power or of resources or of territorial adjustments, etc. From the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) of 19th century Russia to al-Qaeda those engaged in what is commonly referred to as terrorism have anchored their grievances on the prevailing dictatorial rule, their lack of access to power and the distribution of resources, etc.

We already know what terrorism is. But who is a terrorist? Could a State be a terrorist? Or a terrorist is one – a guerrilla, an armed organization, the oppressed – that engages in terrorism against a State? If we invoke the concept of class struggle as a war between contending forces of society, that is, a war between a State and those opposed to the regime of the State, which of these would be labelled as “terrorist?” For the British, Kwame Nkhrumah was a subversive element suspected of being a communist and therefore a terrorist. For the apartheid regime of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and members of South Africa’s resistance movements were terrorists. For the British authorities in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues in the Mao Mao movement were terrorists. For the British authorities in Palestine, Menachem Begin and his colleagues in Ingun Zvei Leumi (Jewish guerrilla army against British rule) were terrorists. For the French authorities in Algeria, Ben Bella and his colleagues in the Algerian Liberation movement were terrorists. For the Nigerian government, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and the Boko Haram organizations are terrorist entities. The US government and its allies have already branded al-Qaeda a terrorist organization. A terrorist group challenging the sovereignty of Malaysia enjoys the support of the US and Britain.1

These are just a sample of cases in contemporary international politics. In all of these cases, can we consider the issue of power and its use and misuse as legitimate grounds for terrorism? By definition, a state is the highest organ of coercion in any society, as it has at its disposal all the instruments of force to terrorise perceived opponents to its rule. Those who control a state have access to the use of coercion and terror at the highest level.

The concept of a just war was universally accepted in reference to the anti-colonial movements, which the colonial powers, Britain and France, for example, referred to as terrorist and/or subversive. This colonialist position failed to recognize their imposed rule on the colonies as a product of terroristic activities in the first place. For the colonized peoples, a colonial state is a terrorist organization vis-à-vis the rights of the colonized to freely govern themselves. In the post-colonial era, several powerful states, including former colonial powers and the USA, exhibit policy tendencies bordering on terrorism vis-à-vis less powerful states in the international arena. How else, for example, would we classify the US-invasion of Iraq in March 2003? How else would we classify the apartheid regime in South Africa vis-à-vis the black and non-white populations of that country prior to 1994?

Given the climate of contemporary discourse about terrorism, there is a danger in tagging the terrorist appellation on any opposition group that challenges the political elites in power. Thus, the boundary between opposition politics and terrorism becomes blurred as the regime regulators lack adequate responses to genuine political challenges. As articulated by Leonard Weinberg:

“Terrorism and terrorist groups emerge in situations where alienated and highly motivated elites confront the difference of the population they hope to lead in challenging those in positions of power.”2

Arguing along this line Weinberg opined that “Terrorism is, after all, not an ideology but a technique, one of a repertoire of techniques that political groups may employ to advance their interests….”3 The contest for power among Nigerian political parties eloquently testifies to this thesis. Over the years it has become a normal practice for Nigerian political contestants to organize, equip and sponsor their respective army of volunteers, commonly referred to as youth vanguards whose main activity is to terrorise the opposition groups by limiting and/or restricting their access to pooling booths. Agents of these political contestants routinely fire gunshots into the air to scare off political opponents from casting their votes. A similar phenomenon, though without any armed vanguards, occurs in the United State where political parties construct strategies aimed at disenfranchising prospective voters belonging to the opposition. Such a political party, to borrow Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of terrorism and terror, employ terror “as a means of coercion” by creating “a state of intense fear” in the minds of prospective voters who belong primarily to ethnic and racial minority groups in the electoral process.

The prevailing view about political parties and terrorist organizations is that the former adhere to democratic principles while the latter is considered anti-democratic and therefore subversive and destructive. We seem to disregard the fact that terrorist organizations and political parties share a “commitment to the achievement of some political goal or public purpose,” reflective of the aspirations of contending members of the polity, particularly as “terrorist groups, like political parties, often though not always emerge in response to broad social cleavages and discontents.”4 Politics and political contest is a state of perpetual warfare in several countries, a phenomenon which makes it problematic on how to distinguish a terrorist organization from mainstream political parties for, as argued by Weinberg, “nor is it true political parties invariably pursue their goals by peaceful means.”5 Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe, for instance, vividly exemplify polities where political parties employ terrorist techniques to achieve and/or retain power.

Internationalization of Terrorism

Just as political parties and so-called terrorist organizations represent contending constituencies in a given country, so too do they speak to different audiences in the international arena. Consider a situation whereby a political party perceived to be unfriendly toward the US is projected to win an impeding election, and a US warship navigates close to the territorial waters of that country on the eve of that country’s election, would we say the US Government was engaging in terrorist acts? As we recall during the cold war, radical anti-colonial movements were routinely classified as terrorist organizations by the colonial powers and their Western allies, while liberal anti-colonial movements were referred to as lackeys of colonialism by the communist states. Thus, the definition of terrorism is influenced by the ideological orientation of political protagonists.

In a 2006 article Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu referred to the Hezbollah and its supporters as “ideological brutes and forces of darkness” and invited “all men of goodwill” to “pray for the nation of Israel to prevail.”6 It is interesting to note that the Palestinians are engaged in the same struggle that propelled Menachem Begin’s struggle against British rule in Palestine, but from contending perspectives and principles. The Palestinian question is more complex than Nwobu’s simplistic position would allow. For example, since 1948 when the State of Israel was established, the government of Israel has consistently refused to abide by the series of resolutions passed by the Security Council of the United Nations, ordering it to withdraw from occupied Palestinian and Arab territories. That no world power had thought it “right” to compel Israel to comply with UN resolutions, by invading Israel, as was “justified” by US President Bush in the case of Iraq in 2003, is a question for public discussion. Both the Jews and the Palestinians have legitimate rights to live in peace in their respective territories, but a mutually beneficial framework must be negotiated and agreed upon by both contending parties. Unfortunately, because of the depth of the conflict, proponents of both parties have refused to accept the legitimacy of the other. Interestingly, while Golda Meir, a former Israeli prime minister, said Palestinians did not exist, Menachem Begin, as prime minister of Israel, recognized Palestinian legitimate rights. Some elements within the Palestinian resistance movement also do not recognize the right of Israel to exist. It is the challenge of the international community, therefore, to persuade both extremities to engage in a meaningful dialogue that will lead to peace in the Middle East. But it would be tragic if any member of the international community, disguised as a mediator, is scheming to undermine the sovereignty of one of the contending parties in favour of the other. It is easy to engage in war, peace, on the other hand, is a difficult proposition to attain especially in a region that has not known peace since 1948.

Nwobu made a troubling linkage between the Hezbollah-Israeli war and Nigeria that, in my view, defies reason and logic. Bedsides congratulating the “United States of America, the European, Ndigbo, and all men of goodwill” for supporting Israel, he informed us that “Igbo youths have volunteered to go and fight to defend the nation of Israel.” In referring to the ethno religious conflicts in northern Nigeria over the past years, he declared:

“These Northern Nigerian fundamentalists are lucky Biafra was not actualised in the 60’s; they would have been getting exactly the same treatment from the Biafrans that Israel is currently giving to the Arabs.”

He continued: “Christians and Southern Nigerians must get ready to defend their religion and civilisation by preparing to do what the Israelis are currently doing….For this group of subhuman brutes, human life is worth probably less than that of a chicken. It is foolhardy to assume that they will become civilised overnight and stop the killing of Christians. We can only hope to put a final stop to such killings if we employ the same tactics that Israel has sufficiently employed, which most honestly is the only language such brutes understand and respect….”

At the time of Nwobu’s publication the militant groups (read terrorists) in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, headed by MEND, constituted the main security challenge to Nigeria’s federal government. Since then, following the amnesty granted to the militants and the subsequent peace accord, the Boko Haram militant group has become the major threat to the regime of President Goodluck Jonathan. Anchoring its philosophy on the rejection of western education and influences, Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, has embarked on destructive activities to lives and property, mainly in northern Nigeria. While the Nigerian government has sought foreign help in responding to Boko Haram, it is interesting to note that President Jonathan has ruled out direct discussion with the group.

The political party in power in any state normally defines the rule of political engagement in the polity. In doing so it ensures that its core interests are never threatened by opposing political parties or organizations. Where it perceives a threat to its core interests, it quickly labels the opposing political parties or organizations as enemies of democracy and therefore, by implication, terrorists. The readiness to append such a label on political opponents has acquired political currency in several countries. In this regard, politics is a euphemism for war. The boundary between politics and terrorism becomes blurred, as the properties of terrorism are brought to bear on political intercourse. A polity defined by this phenomenon increasingly lacks the capacity to resolve political contests peacefully, a situation which renders instability inevitable. But politics ceases to be a continuation of war by other means, if the contending forces agree to be regulated by the rules of civil society. Where a party declines to obey these rules then we witness a tilt toward anti-politics. Nigeria is currently experiencing this phenomenon. It is simplistic to assume that the contradictions in Nigeria can be resolved by labeling opposing political parties or organizations as terrorists. Contradictions can only be resolved by a genuine engagement of the contending parties in a search for mutually beneficial solutions.

Concluding Remarks

In their haste to label unpleasant opposition groups as terrorist organizations, key players in the international community have compounded the search for peace by allying with the regimes of some countries in the ill-defined “war on terror.” Terrorism and terrorist activities take place in polities irrespective of their level of development. In both more advanced and less-advanced societies, we have witnessed terrorist activities since the past two decades.

For example, the domestic terrorist activities witnessed in Russia, and in the United States were motivated by policy inadequacies perceived injurious to the terrorist groups. Six years before the al Qaeda attack on the United State, a US citizen, Timothy McVeigh executed a terrorist act that killed 168 people and injured more than 800 in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Russian policy in Chechnya, for instance, has provoked a series of terrorist activities in several Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past two decades. Thus, it will be misleading to assert that terrorism is confined to less-developed countries with weak governments and a plethora of ethno-religious conflicts, as argued by A. C. Rozanov.7

Governments that have failed to institute meaningful social change beneficial to the general population have resorted to institutionalized terrorism by deploying their armed forces to combat dissent. When governments fail to listen to legitimate concerns of their citizens they create an environment conducive to clandestine activities.

There has not been any sustained effort by most governments of African countries, for example, to address the deep cleavages and dissent that give rise to troublesome militancy in their polities. The poor governance record of these regimes, anchored on corruption and gross mismanagement of public funds, that pauperize the gross majority of the population, is a recipe for violent social change.

Until political leaders in more advanced and less-advanced polities begin to govern democratically with a significant measure of fiscal responsibility, and address the socio-economic problems of their countries, they will continue to deal with militant groups that challenge their legitimacy to govern. To label these groups terrorist is a failure of policy and a prolongation of social strive.

The expansive role being assumed by the US and its NATO allies in countries and regions outside of NATO’s primary area of operation is a troubling phenomenon which is bound to intensify terrorist activities against the US/NATO military command and the regimes benefiting from this expansion. As the September 11, 2001 attack on the US has aptly demonstrated, governments that support dictatorial and corrupt regimes in other countries expose themselves to potential terrorist attacks by citizens of those countries who perceive such support as detrimental to their quest for justice, good governance and democracy in their respective countries. It is therefore imperative that these governments, including the US, Britain, France, for example, revise their foreign policies in light of this potentiality.

O. Igho Natufe, Research Professor, Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Author of Soviet Policy in Africa: From Lenin to Brezhnev (iUniverse, 2011), Igho is researching on a couple of books on foreign policy. E-mail: [email protected]

1. Nile Bowie, “US-Britain Backed Militants Launch An All-Out War On Malaysia – OpEd,” Euroasia Review, March 10, 2013, http://www.euroasiareview.com/10032013-us-briitain-backed-militants-launch-an-all-out-war-on-malaysia-oped/?utm

2. Leonard Weinberg, “Turning to Terror: The Conditions under Which Political Parties Turn to Terrorist Activities,” Comparative Politics, 23, 4, July 1991, p.427.

3. Ibid., p.428.

4.  Weinberg, pp. 423; 427.

5. Ibid., p.424.

6. Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu, “Israel must defeat the terrorists and fundamentalists,” http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/content/view/3489/55/

7. A. C. Rozanov, “Mezhdunarodnyi terrosizm kak globalnaya problema sovremennosti,” Vek Globalizatsii, 2(10), 2012, p.115.

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