Acts of Omission in the “War on Terrorism”


Originally published as

Johansen, Jørgen, “Acts of Omission in the “War on Terrorism”” in The ethics and efficacy of the global war on terrorism : fighting terror with terror, edited by Charles Webel and John A. Arnaldi. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Buy the book here.

Acts of Omission in the “War on Terrorism”

“Terrorism”[1] is a contested term, and how to respond to it is also widely debated. A United Nations (UN) Ad Hoc Committee to Eliminate Terrorism was created by the General Assembly in 1996. They have remained in deadlock as they try to reach agreement on a comprehensive draft convention to eliminate terrorism. In October 2010 they made another unsuccessful effort at drawing a distinction between “freedom fighters” and “state sponsored terrorism”.[2]

In this article, I will define this type of political violence in a way that is less influenced by the political rhetoric so frequently used by politicians and mainstream media. I will also describe the complexity of these forms of violence. I am not arguing that “terrorism” does not exist; but that as it is defined by states it is a minor problem and that as a term it is so loaded that is difficult to use. In the last part I will discuss the ethical dimensions of failure to act to reduce violence; “terrorism” included. A main point is that the task of reducing “terrorism” should not be left to state actors only. My conclusion: The morality of acts of omission in dealing with political violence should be judged similarly to acts of commission.


“Terrorism” is, like many other elements in our society, a social, political, and ideological[3] construction. “Probably the most significant contribution of social thinking to our understanding of terrorism is the realisation that it is a social construction …terrorism is not a given in the real world but instead an interpretation of events and their presumed causes” (Turk, 2004, p.271).

Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on 9-11[4], the need for a clear understanding of what is meant by “terrorism” has escalated. The U.N. Security Council called on all member states to include anti-terrorism laws in their criminal laws.[5] In addition, a number of state agencies and international bodies have expanded old, and created new, lists of “terrorist” organisations and individuals. Essential to any use of the term “terrorism” or “terrorist” in a legal document is an agreed upon, clear, and useable definition of the act of “terrorism”. It is no secret that many struggled hard to come up with functional definitions and descriptions. When Schmid and Jongman published their first edition of Political Terrorism in 1984, they identified and discussed 109 different definitions of “terrorism”. Their new and expanded 2008 edition is crucial reading for anyone who wants to discuss “terrorism” as it clearly identifies the many difficulties in defining the term. The total number of definitions in use today are in the hundreds. Schmid and Jongman do not include them all, but their analyses and discussions of how definitions are constructed are still very relevant and useful.

Another useful definition was published in a special issue of the journal Mobilization in June 2007. There, Albert J. Bergesen presented a three-step model for how to identify and define ”terrorist” violence, as opposed to other forms of violence. His main point is to separate victim from target. The Perpetrator harms or kills the Victim, but the Victim is not the ultimate Target.

The perpetrator A attacks the victim B in order to influence the target C.

In this model the victim is no longer the target whom the perpetrator is trying to influence or have an effect upon; in effect B is demoted from an ultimate end to an instrumental means for A to affect C. The essence of terrorism as a type of violence, then, is not that it is so labeled ”terrorism”, or that it is a strategy, or that it is clandestine, or nontraditional violence, but that it is violence where harm/damage is inflicted upon one set of actors for the sole purpose of affecting another set of actors. (Bergesen, 2007, p.115)

In addition to this separation of target from victim, at the core of “terrorism” as a political means are not only the actual actions but the threats of such actions as well. The threats of future acts of “terrorism” have a predictive function. The fear of new violent actions inspired by “terrorists” like bin Laden will be around long after the perpetrators are dead. The main effect of “terrorism” is that it creates fear; and the fear is very often exaggerated far beyond any rational level.

With the definition by Bergesen, 9-11 is obviously seen as an act of “terrorism”. But none of the victims in the four hijacked planes, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, or the flight crashing on the countryside in Pennsylvania were the real targets. The victims were killed and harmed in order to influence the main target: power-holders in the U.S. Empire[6]. Almost all letters and video-recordings from al-Qaeda argue that they wanted a change in the U.S. foreign policy, and hence the real target was the U.S. government (Bin Laden and Lawrence, 2005). This is similar to the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. His real target was the U.S. government, while the victims were the 168 people who were in the building at the time of the explosion (Hoffman 1998). Both of these cases are relatively undisputed cases of “terrorism”. But the definition by Bergeson would just as well fit the allied bombing of Dresden and Hamburg during World War II as well as the U.S. atomic bombs on civilian targets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In these cases, we can separate the victims from the real targets (the German and Japanese political leadership). The victims were not something that can be labeled “collateral damage”. The allied forces knowingly attacked civilian targets, which is clearly a violation of international law. When Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur Travers Harris, also called “Bomber Harris”, ordered and carried out bombing of civilians in Germany, he was very much aware of the expected consequences in terms of civilian deaths[7]. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities were largely untouched during the nightly bombing raids and the Army Air Force agreed to leave them off the target list so accurate assessment of the atomic weapons could be made[8]. The numbers of civilians killed in such “terrorist” attacks by states vastly outnumbers (by some estimates, of over 100/1) all of those killed in non-state “terrorism” in the whole of history. Yet, to this day, such acts by the Allies are omitted from most discussions of “terrorism”.

It is not only the use of heavy bombing and weapons of mass destruction against civilians that make such state actions “terrorist” acts:

”Nicaragua took Mr. Reagan’s America to the World Court for America’s proxy and other attacks on it in the 1980s – those attacks fall pretty squarely under a lot of definitions of terrorism, including [their] own. The World Court found America guilty…” (Honderich, 2002, p. 130).

There are many cases of state “terrorism”, but in most legal documents and too many academic ones, states are excluded as actors in the definitions of “terrorism”. The main reason these definitions do not specify what sort of actors are carrying out acts of “terrorism” is to avoid a definition with implications that might be seen as too political[9] by members of powerful states. However, it makes little sense to say that identical actions carried out by state and non-state actors are completely different. But when lawmakers, political-decision makers, and their conventional advisers realised this discrepancy, they frequently claimed that acts of “terrorism” excluded state actors. These omissions are purposeful political decisions by state actors intended to protect them from being grouped together with the non-state terrorists, and thus to avoid running the risk of prosecution for having committed crimes against humanity.

The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center in their annual reports omits state actors by defining “terrorism” to be “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”[10] (italics by the author). We should separate how the actors publicly justify their use of violence from the actions themselves. States as well as all other actors using violent means have a strong tendency not to focus on their own intentions but on the consequences of actions by their opponents. This has serious ethical implications. The combination of excluding states as actors and at the same time concentrating only on the consequences of “acts by others” guarantees a biased picture of what “terrorism” is about. Core questions about responsibilities for such acts and for preventing such acts are not possible to answer when the dominant discourse is so biased by what has been omitted.

When the attacks of 9-11 are described in western media and by western politicians, we see very clearly that the focus is on the consequences. They almost never try to understand the intentions and motives behind these actions. When the “war on terrorism” is described, they focus solely on what representatives of the main actors have said in public to defend and explain their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, omitting other actors from the discussion. With the release of materials from WikiLeaks, the evidence of atrocities committed by state actors are piling up. The consequences of acts committed by state actors are easily forgotten and often denied. The same tendency to focus on own intentions as contrasted with the consequences of the others are observable on Web-sites and in clandestine documents: their own intentions are often mentioned; the human consequences have been omitted[11]. Brynjar Lia, in his book Architect of Global Jihad[12], presents a nuanced and complex picture of Al-Qaeda, including its internal conflicts, but the tendency of focusing on their own intentions and the consequence of what others are doing is clear.

Acts of, and threats of, “terrorism” should be understood and analysed based on the action itself, not on who is committing the atrocities. To use a definition of “terrorism” that automatically excludes states as actors is neither wise nor helpful in legal or academic texts. Just as state actors frequently commit acts of war crimes, they also carry out acts of “terrorism” which, if the analysis is to be useful must not be omitted from scrutiny.

Putting “terrorism” in a perspective

In recent years, several world leaders have presented “terrorism” as the greatest threat to the world. Here follows a collection from The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World (Abbott, Rogers et al. 2007 p. 5):

“Terrorism is the greatest twenty-first century threat.”

–British Prime Minister Tony Blair, May 2003

“Terrorism is the greatest threat facing free democracies in the twenty-first century.”

–German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May 2006

“The greatest threat this world faces is the danger of extremists and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.”

–U.S. President George W Bush, September 2005

“No challenge is greater than the threat of terrorism.”

–Australian Prime Minister John Howard, May 2006

“Terrorism is the greatest threat to world peace.”

–Russian President Vladimir Putin, September 2000

None of these proclamations can be taken as anything but political rhetoric because they have no basis in actual facts. Statistical data on reasons for early deaths indicate that acts of “terrorism” are not a main cause of death[13].  The consequences of such statements by leading politicians are not only the creation of a misguided population, but also a disproportionate use of valuable resources. This rhetoric has direct ethical consequences. Since there are limits to the resources available in a society, every budget allocation will have ethical implications. Resources that are disproportionately allocated to a minor societal problem will reduce the amount of resources available for more serious and deadly problems. Within the health sector, transportation, and domestic violence there are more cost-efficient ways to save lives than what today is spent on counterterrorism activities.

The number of people dying as a direct consequence of “terrorism” is relatively limited. There are many causes of premature death other than by acts of “terrorists”. For example, in the U.S. in 2001, food poisoning took more lives than the attacks on 9-11 (Heldmark, Ryman, et al. 2008, p. 160). Deaths by firearms are much more frequent causes of death in the U.S. than all the acts of “terrorism” together, including the attacks of 2001[14].  Suicide took 11 times more lives and homicide almost six times more lives than “terrorism” (Jiaquan Xu, 2009, p. 5).  With some specific exceptions, politically-motivated violence against innocent civilians are not on the top twenty list of leading causes of death in any country during any year. The exception is when states mobilize their armies to attack and occupy other states. In recent years we have seen huge numbers of civilians killed by politically-motivated violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all other countries, more people are killed by a partner or a relative every year than by “terrorism”. The most frequent reasons for early deaths are hunger and easily curable diseases. These causes result in around 100,000 deaths per day globally[15]. One conclusion that could be drawn from this data is that if any political actor wants to reduce the number of premature deaths, their resources would be much better spent on clean drinking water, nutrition, and medicine for poor people than on counter-terrorist warfare[16]. However, it is unlikely that such a conclusion will be reached by a public that is misinformed by a political rhetoric that consistently omits the significance of social and health problems that are not related to “terrorism” by non-state actors.

The correlation between actual number of early deaths and the resources misappropriated used by states and other actors to reduce the problem of “terrorism” is problematic to understand and even more so to justify. The money spent on “anti-terrorism” activities is skyrocketing[17], while funding for the far more serious problems of fulfilling basic needs are declining[18]. There are a growing number of companies who make huge profits from the “terrorism-threat” and the security industry hits new peaks on the stock market after every spectacular bombing. The growth in tasks, equipment, and personnel for security companies after 9-11 has been exceptional. Combined with the outsourcing of military and police duties, the private security industry now captures a lucrative sector of the U.S. economy.  A parallel is seen at universities and think tanks where there are growing numbers of academics doing research in this field. According to Sheperd, since 2001 a new book on terrorism is published every six hours in the English language (Shepherd, 2007, July 3). Is this due to the seriousness of the problem, or are there other agendas behind these priorities? That researchers do their best to please their funding sources and write research proposals that fit the popular narrative is well known. It is not always what is most “important” that guides the search for financial support of research.

In the U.S. in fiscal year 2002, federal spending for homeland security was $21 billion. By fiscal year 2006, federal homeland security spending had grown to $55 billion (OECD, 2008, p. 1), an increase of more than 161 percent. This total covers the homeland security funding and activities of all federal agencies, not just the programs funded through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The costs of some activities of agencies within the DHS are not included. The budget allocation going to support Coast Guard Search and Rescue activity, for example, is not included in the total funding for homeland security activities (see the report from U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2006, pp. 37-52). In contrast, the total sum for all development aid in the world is around 100 billion U.S. dollars a year (OECD, 2008, p. 1). This is money dedicated to cure diseases, deliver food, give people access to clean drinking water, etc., in other words, to help poor people to fulfill their basic needs. Is it justified to spend more than half that sum on a threat that has a limited impact on our societies and that takes relatively few lives?

One preliminary conclusion is that the profit motives of armament and security companies could be a significant factor in encouraging more government spending on military solutions to “terrorism”. More studies should be done on the impact of money and profit in the political handling of “terrorism” as a societal problem. As mentioned above, this development of allocating more and more resources to fighting “terrorism” has serious ethical implications because it will prevent resources from being spent on more needed and efficient life-saving activities.

There is no evidence that non-state terrorism is a current threat to a states’ existence. “We may require extraordinary patience in dealing with ‘terrorism’, but we can do so with some confidence that states will endure resiliently.” (English, 2009, p. 123). Professor Wilhelm Agrell argues that not even the events like those on 9-11 can be seen as threats against our societies (Heldmark, Ryman et al., 2008, p. 160). That some Western governments, militaries, parts of the intelligence branches, and the security industry have described the possible threats as much more serious than what can be justified by actual data is due to factors other than the threats themselves (Zedner, 2009, pp. 89-115). Domestic political agendas, demands from the public to act, struggle for the next year’s budgets, and catastrophic (in the dual meaning of the word) descriptions in the mass media are some possible explanations for the exaggerations (Ahmed, 2003; Jackson, 2005).

The threats from sub-state groups we have seen in the last decade should have been dealt with by police and criminal law, NOT with militaries and international law. The reason for this is clear when data on the threats of and casualties from “terrorism” are compared with the threats and casualties resulting from the “war on terrorism”, however such comparisons have been omitted from discussions by news media and policy-makers. Several authors have warned that the means used in combating “terrorism” constitute serious threats to western societies and their values (Cole, 2002; Donohue, 2008). Benjamin Franklin was very clear when he stated in 1759: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither” (Ahmed, 2002, p. 9). The argument here is that the counterterrorism actions carried out since 9-11 have seriously harmed the democracies involved and reduced respect world-wide for human and civil rights. Even among many former officers inside the secret services and think tanks close to governments, we hear voices that the remedy (the Global War on Terrorism) has done more harm than the illness it had hoped to cure. In addition, the number of people who engage in “terrorism” is growing due to some of the means used in the “war on terrorism”.[19] Practices at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. Patriot Act, long imprisonment without trials, torture, escalating surveillance, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have generated intense anti-American feelings thereby aiding the recruitment of new members to networks of non-state “terrorists”. Typical indications of the anti-American attitudes are seen the annual “Arab Public Opinion Poll 2010”[20]. A sample of the results:

“In a world where there is only one superpower, which of the following countries would you prefer to be that superpower?”

France 55%, China 16, Germany 13, Britain 9, Russia 8, United States 7, Pakistan 6.

“Name TWO countries that you think pose the biggest threat to you.” Israel 88%, US 77, Algeria 10, Iran 10, UK 8, China 3, Syria 1.

“Which world leader (outside your own country) do you admire most?” (partial list) Recep Erdogan [Turkey] 20%, Hugo Chavez 13, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 12, Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah/Lebanon] 9, Osama bin Laden 6, Saddam Hussein 2. (Barack Obama not mentioned) 1

In the months following 9-11, 80,000 predominately Arab and Muslim persons were required to register in the Special Registration Program. It resulted in not a single terrorist conviction. Of the 8,000 young men of Arab and Muslim descent sought out for FBI interviews, and more than 5,000 foreign nationals placed in preventive detention in the first two years after 9/11, virtually all Arab and Muslim, not one stood convicted of “terrorist” crime up till today (Cole and Lobel, 2007, p. 107). It is easy to understand that some of these persons might feel justified in joining “terrorist” networks after such humiliating treatments. In fall 2010, we have seen the first cases of prisoners from Guantanamo facing trials in civilian courts. The courts have so far only accepted a few of the prosecutors’ charges. Anti-Americanism has not only grown in the Muslim regions of the world, but also close allies distanced themselves from the U.S. during the Bush era (Nassar, 2005, p. 106). Steven Kull presented a paper based on several surveys at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s annual conference in 2010. He found that the anger against America has not diminished following President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009.[21]

Not only the state

Traditionally “terrorist” acts were dealt with by the combination of police work, criminal laws, trials, and prison. In other words, they were handled as other forms of crimes. This had been a relatively successful strategy that reduced and removed the classical leftist terrorism in Europe in the 1970s (Johansen, 2003, p. 59; English, 2009, ch. 4). Since 9-11 we have witnessed a growing use of military means in the fight against “terrorism”. This changeover from police to militaries in the fight against “terrorism” had a tremendous impact on the whole concept of “counter-terrorism” work. Not only do the military forces use a more deadly and advanced range of weaponry; but of even greater significance is that they are required to follow international law, not criminal law. However, international law, as it has developed since the Peace Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, has been designed to handle conflicts between states, not between a state and a network of non-state actors. There are good reasons to have two separate sets of rules/laws for handling these two types of crimes, but the U.N.S.C. Resolution 1368[22] erased the important distinction between them. It is problematic to apply a set of rules to a conflict for which they were not constructed to handle, as in the case of Resolution 1368:

The Security Council,

Reaffirming the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations,

Determined to combat by all means threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts,

Recognizing the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in accordance with the Charter.” (U.N.S.C., Resolution 1368, 2001)

Just as criminal law is not designed to handle conflicts between states, international law is not constructed to handle conflicts between a state and a network that has no specific territorial base. It is only “state-terrorism” that to some degree can be treated with international law, because the conventions, treaties, and regulations for jus in bello[23] do define what sorts of weaponry, tactics, targets, etc. are legal.

The main problem in the contemporary way of handling non-state “terrorism” is not the lack of legal justifications for the means used. There are two principal weaknesses in the present strategy: the over-militarization of state responses to “terrorist” attacks and the lack of state engagement with actors other than state actors. Louise Richardson expressed a commonly held view among “terrorist” researchers in her book, What Terrorists Want:

[W]e cannot defeat terrorism by smashing every terrorist movement. An effort to do so will only generate more terrorists, as has happened repeatedly in the past. A policy informed by the work of the terrorism studies community would never have declared a global war on terrorism, because we know that such a war can never be won …  A policy informed by those of us who have studied this subject for years would never had as an objective the completely unattainable goal of obliterating terrorism and would have sought, instead, the more modest and attainable goal of containing terrorist recruitment and constraining resort to the tactic of terrorism. (Richardson, 2006, pp. 10-11)

Richard English, an expert on terrorism and political conflicts in Northern Ireland, expresses it this way in his book, Terrorism, How to Respond:

Despite the frequent assumption that military retaliation can deter future terrorists, the reality seems very different; ‘defeating or diminishing the overall threat of terrorism is not something that either small- or large-scale retaliations have yet been able to achieve’. (English, 2009, p. 128)

Others argue that the military war on terrorism has been counterproductive:

”There is a widespread misconception that using terror to defeat terror will ultimately work. On the contrary, the evidence is that this policy is counterproductive”. (Wilkinson, 2001, p. 69)

The war on terror can hardly claim many victories. Secret services and politicians frequently argue that they have been successful in preventing acts of “terrorism”. However, while it is difficult to prove preventive actions, it seems that if these  claims were valid there should have been more people convicted for planning and preparing “terrorist” activities. As described above, the backfire[24] mechanisms have been more visible than the intended effects.

Expand the number of actors

Why shall only state actors have the central role in the struggle to reduce non-state “terrorism” while other actors have been omitted from discussion of potential solutions? The most important work for all who are engaged in handling conflicts is to identify the multiple actors who are influencing the outcome of the conflict. Conventional diplomacy has been extremely narrow in its engagement in conflicts between alleged “terrorists” and their adversaries. When diplomats engage in negotiations, it is rare that more than two actors will be invited into the process. This is far from enough. Through conflict analyses it is possible to identify many more than two. By ”actor” I mean any group, individual, company, society, or community who have an influence on the outcome. They can be domestic, international, or transnational. They can be part of a state, an NGO, a business entity, a media company, religious community, or any other organization which in some way influences or can influence the conflict.

The geographical distance between the observer and the conflict has a big impact on the understanding of how many actors are involved in a conflict. For example, students in Ramallah, on the West Bank of Palestine, can easily list 40-50 different actors in the Israeli/Palestine conflicts, but seldom more than a handful from the civil wars in Colombia. And the students in Bogota can without difficulty list 40 actors in their country but very seldom more than five in Palestine/Israel. The mass media, which are usually the main source of information, are the main reason for these disparities. By failing to recognize all the main actors, the possibilities to act are limited. For conflicts where acts of “terrorism” have been used, it is possible to include many more actors than those normally regarded as actors. It is essential to expand the list of actors if we want to expand the possibilities for more engagement. To leave the struggle against “terrorism” to the police and military alone is a serious mistake that omits many potential sources of understanding and help.

Four phases in the struggle against “terrorism”

I have identified four different stages in dealing with “terrorism”. Phase one is to identify what can be done to prevent future acts of “terrorism”. The next is to clarify what can be done in order to stop ongoing “terrorism”. The third phase is to specify what can be done to reduce the effects of “terrorism”. Finally, there is the phase of healing and reconciliation. By combining the categories of possible actors with these four stages of counterterrorism efforts, it is possible to discover many more activities by many more actors than what has been done to date.


Stop on-going

Reduce Effect

Heal & Reconclie

Military forces
Fire Brigades
Ex ”terrorists”
Religious Communities
News Media
Public Figures
Civil Society
Security Industry
Educational Institutions

The main objective in using this matrix is to expand the number of actors outside the state sphere.  That state actors like militaries, police, and fire-brigades have acted against “terrorism” is well known, but many more “new” actors and activities are possible for those who want to reduce “terrorism”. There is currently a lack of constructive proposals about what can be done to prevent and counter “terrorist” acts. Future research should examine specific possible actions in all four phases for each category of actors.

Politicians have, until now done more to expand the problem than to reduce it and put it in a useful perspective. In contrast, new approaches have come from some unexpected sources. For example, former “terrorist” Noman Benotman gave an interview about the inner workings of Al-Qaeda’s leadership to CBN on June 3, 2010. [25]  His change of sides and decision to go public about it was not only brave but had the potential to discourage suicide bomber candidates from participating in attacks. In another case, when Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the founding leader and patron-in-chief of Minhaj-ul-Quran International, issued his more than 600 page Fatwa against “terrorism”, he might have done more to prevent future acts of “terrorism” than any ongoing police surveillance.[26]  Within the next years we will know the real impact of such actions by non-state actors such as ex-terrorists, religious leaders, and others.

The mainstream mass media, with very few exceptions, have generated fear with their reporting after acts of non-state “terrorism”. They have used war-related terms in overly dramatic headlines to report both actual attacks and speculations about possible future actions. If a primary goal of non-state “terrorists” is to create fear, then the news media must be seen as (unconscious?) supporters of the “terrorist” agenda. In contrast, for state-“terrorism” mainstream media have in general functioned as a justifier, not as a critic or reporter. Typical cases are found throughout the coverage of the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Victims of “terrorism” can play important roles in all of the four phases of counterterrorism efforts mentioned above. The U.S. organization, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was created by surviving victims and relatives of those who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001.[27] Their outspoken goal was to oppose the use of their suffering to justify U.S. wars of occupation and more civilian causalities as a consequence of these wars. Their courageous, ethical stand went unreported in most U.S. news media, but should be seen as a model for more to follow. Another example of a group of people opposing the war on terrorism is “Courage to Resist”. It is a group of concerned community members, veterans, and military families who support war resisters.  While there are those who would like to dismiss war resisters as cowards, the reality is that it takes exceptional courage for soldiers to resist unjust, illegal, and/or immoral orders. For many resisters, it was their first-hand experiences as occupation troops that compelled them to take a stand. For others, “doing the right thing” and acting out of conscience began to outweigh their military training in unquestioned obedience.

Public figures are often role models for young people. Their views on what is right and wrong are taken as truths by their fans. Obvious cases like Nelson Madela and John Lennon are well known, and many more could play important roles in preventing acts of “terrorism” as well as in healing and reconciling. When famous persons encourage people to take a stand against violence, to oppose extremism, to respect human rights, and not engage in “fundamentalist networks” they will influence many young minds. This can be done in political speeches, written texts, music, or in movies. The main point is to support tolerance and peaceful means when confronted with injustices.

Civil society, in all its variety, has not played a prominent role in the issue of “terrorism”. With the exception of protests against parts of state-“terrorism,” the traditional peace, women’s, solidarity, trade union and other movements have been silent. These acts of omission run counter to values these movements have kept high, such as nonviolent processes for conflict prevention and resolution. To open channels of communication between different parts of the society could help to build friendships. Maybe more important is intra- rather than inter-religious communication. Dialogs between open-minded and tolerant representatives of different religions seems less important than the tolerant from each religion engaging in dialogs with fundamentalists and extremists of their own religion. And for secular, political and cultural networks, the same is true: There is a lack of communication between different camps. As Mark Perry argues in his book Talking to Terrorists (2010): it is essential to talk to your enemies, and this should take place on several levels, not only on a governmental level.[28] In their failure to seek constructive dialogue with enemies, civil societies have committed serious acts of omissions that will effectively prevent satisfactory resolution of conflicts.

The security industry is one of the main winners in the war on “terrorism”. From locksmiths to security guards, from producers of screening equipment to fence factories, we have seen an exceptional growth in the size of these companies as well as in their profits. Much of their activities contribute more to the illusions of control and security than to effective prevention strategies. Airport security personnel will not let you take your nail clippers and mouth wash on board but they won’t stop you from bringing a bottle of vodka from the tax-free shop on-board! How much of the expansion of the security industry is a psychological game to pretend to have control and how much is in fact helpful? There are several research projects on these topics going on, but few substantial contributions delivered to date. Berndtsson (2009) in his The Privatisation of Security and State Control of Force: Changes, Challenges and the Case of Iraq has published some of the best analyses so far. He is in midst of a new research project to be published 2012.

There are also important ethical questions regarding the role of universities, both as educational institutions and as research facilities. The field of “terrorism” and security studies has expanded enormously in recent years, often with major funding from national defense agencies. The majority of courses and publications are biased and limit discussion of the problem to a state point of view, with dissenting views omitted. The network of Critical Studies of Terrorism was established following an article in European Political Science.[29] The authors of the article, Jackson, Gunning, and Smyth, claim that the western state-centrism of “terrorism” studies and the surrounding discourse has led to a “moral certitude” and a reluctance to consider the motivations of terrorists. The orthodox discourse which casts all “terrorists” as evil (rather than their acts) eliminates opportunities for consideration of motivation because of the risk of appearing to justify or condone their actions. Within this framework, attempts to examine the motivations of “terrorists” can be labeled apologetics and dismissed or researchers themselves can be demonized. In addition, there is a serious lack of solution-oriented approaches in “terrorism” studies. Most of the academic studies focus on explaining how and why non-state terrorism occur. Only a few present ideas for how to cope with the problems. This is very different from medical research and training where positive results are at least as important as describing the problem.


The concept of ”terrorism” is often used with a political bias. In order to act effectively on ”terrorism” there is a need for a clear and operational definition that does not omit potentially significant concepts or actors. Without an objective (scientific) understanding of the complexity of these conflict processes, there is little hope for effective and wise actions. The simplifications and naïveté in typical news media reports provide a distorted picture of what is going on as well as what is needed.

There are many more actors than states who could act to reduce the problem of ”terrorism”. Outside the state sphere (with its biased emphasis on military interventions), few actors are involved in the important task of reducing “terrorism”. This general lack of engagement is a serious ethical issue because without a multitude of new actors and methods the important task to reduce “terrorism” is left to those who so far have partly failed and partly expanded the problem. And if the goal is to reduce the number of premature deaths there are many more efficient ways to do that. The failure to engage or not to act enough seems to be typical for most non-state actors in the struggle against “terrorism”. There is no reason why the problem of “terrorism” should be left to state actors only. Like all other human evils, the civil society, in its widest definition, should engage and act to reduce the problem. This is not to say that states should not act. The main critique of states in the “war on terror” is that most of their means have so far been counterproductive. The limitations of military means in fighting political motivated violence are obvious and there is a lack of engagement with other tools for building peace.

Not acting is just as difficult to justify ethically as to act with a negative impact. I have indicated a number of possible activities and am sure there are many more to be found and tested. But this in not only an ethical problem; the purposeful, reckless, or negligent absence of an action is considered a voluntary action and therefore fulfils the voluntary requirement of actus reus.[30]  Not to intervene when serious crimes are committed can also be crimes according to criminal laws. And on the global arena there are similar principles in international law; acts of omission can be violations of the law and conventions.[31]

Media have so far too much focused on the consequences of acts of terror against states and the good intentions of the state actors in the “war on terror”. There is a need to add the consequences of what states are doing as well as the intentions of those fighting against foreign troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other places. In addition most of the media have omitted proposals for peaceful solutions in this “global civil war”[32].

Without more engagement, by far more actors than present, the acts of omissions will face a tough scrutiny by history. It is the responsibility for each potential actor to do their best to reduce “terrorism” of all sorts in the world.


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[1] I will write “terrorism” and “terrorist(-s)” in quotation marks because I believe these are too loaded to be proper terms in a scientific text–they are too vague and elastic.

[3] See Chomsky’s discussion in this book: The Evil Scourge of Terrorism: Reality, Construction, Remedy.

[4] These events are in the following referred to as just “9-11”.

[5] UNSC Resolution 1368.

[6] I use Empire in the same sense as Johan Galtung and make a distinction between the US Empire and the US Republic.. See Galtung “The Fall of the US Empire –And Then What? Successors, Regionalization or Globalization? US Fascism or US Blossoming?

[7] Longmate, Norman. The Bombers: The RAF offensive against Germany 1939-1945. London: Hutchinson, 1983.

[8] See documents from the Target Committee, Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945. Accessed 2010-11-23

[9] See Webel. C.Terror, Terrorism, and the Human Condition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[10] National Counterterrorism Center 2007 Report on Terrorism 30 April 2008 Accessed 2010-11-01

[11] These internet sites are moving around on the web all the time. This is done partly because they regularly are closed down and partly because they want to avoid detection of those running them.

[12] Lia, B. (2008). Architect of Global Jihad : The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’Ab Al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press.

[13]  See statistics from WHO and national databases

[15] See Johan Galtung (2010), A Thory of Development – Overcoming Structural
Violence p. 11

[16] World Health Organization has several databases presenting reliable statistics for mortality and risk factors. See

[17]Budget of the United States Government 1996-2011 Accessed 2010-11-23

[18] The United Nations has estimated the cost of ending world hunger at about $195 billion a year.

[19] See Newsweek: Accessed 2010-11-23 and Washington Post Accessed 2010-11-23 among many.

[22] The first U.N. Security Resolution dealing with 9-11 (Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts). Available online:

[23] jus in bello is a set of rules regulating the limits to acceptable wartime conduct.

[24] See Martin (2007) Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire.

[27] See Accessed 2010-11-27.

[28] Perry, Mark (2010). Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with Its Enemies. New York: Basic Books,

[30] The objective element of a crime.

[31] Se William Shabas (2000) in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes, Cambridge University Press

[32] A term used by Stein Tønneson in a lecture at the University of Tromsø on 24 April 2002. The ongoing conflicts between states and networks have many similarities to civil wars, but the conflicts are not confined to a specific territory. The networks can hit almost anywhere in the world and the actions by states are similar global.

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