February 17, 1988 | Car bombing in SouthWest Africa

On this day in 1988 a powerful bomb ripped through a crowded South African bank in Oshakati, killing 27 and wounding 70.

Sometimes acts of terrorism can quite easily be seen as legitimate acts of violence.

TODAY IN TERRORISM — It is often said that ____ is in the eye of the beholder. Put in any noun you want (beauty, success…) and you will see what I mean. All this to say that we rarely, if ever, agree on what constitutes X. And that is probably a good thing – who wants 100% consensus all the time? Boring!

So what about terrorism? Do we all share a single view on what is and what is not this international scourge? If you carry out even a cursory glance at news reports, or even just look at headlines, I think you will conclude quickly that the answer is no.

These differences of opinion are sometimes expressed in the simple cliche ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. Many have either heard or used this phrase, and even US President Ronald Reagan more or less supported it when referring to the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua (which his security intelligence services were supporting against the Sandinista regime).

On this day in 1988 a powerful bomb ripped through a crowded South African bank in Oshakati, killing 27 and wounding 70.

If you want another great example of this how about Nelson Mandela? The apartheid regime in South Africa certainly saw him as a terrorist (and jailed him for decades). The rest of the world saw him as a fighter for the freedom of black Africans. And, of course, he ended up being the first president of a truly free South Africa in 1999.

There is a complication here, however. Mr. Mandela was associated with the African National Congress (ANC) which was indeed a terrorist organisation by just about any definition. Where does that leave the Nobel Prize winner and a man who has inspired millions?

1995 car bombing in SouthWest Africa

What to do then with acts of violence committed by groups such as the ANC? Recall that these deeds must be seen as terrorism if they are executed for political or ideological ends. The ANC was not alone in this regard.

On this day in 1988 a powerful bomb ripped through a crowded South African-owned bank in the northern Namibian (or SouthWest Africa as it was called then, ruled by South Africa) border town of Oshakati, killing 27 and wounding 70. Police blamed the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), although the latter’s spokesperson in Windhoek, claimed the group had nothing to do with the explosion, which was “part of South Africa’s dirty propaganda campaign to smear the name of SWAPO.”

SWAPO went on to lead Namibia upon independence in 1990. This is exactly parallel to what the ANC did in South Africa. What we have then is two terrorist groups that went on to assume state power. What the hell does all this mean?

It means that sometimes the terrorists win. Governments or occupation forces sometimes get fed up with the violence and leave power or leave the country.

What does that do to consensus on what terrorism is?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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