When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

Spoiler alert: I am not getting into the debate about “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (sorry).

The word “terrorist” conjures up all kinds of images, from shadowy figures with evil intent to soulless monsters who like to kill.  Complicating matters is the plethora of definitions out there.  Every country – and even organisations like the UN and EU – have their versions.  In Canada, the crime of terrorism is explained in the Canadian Criminal Code, section 83.

To my mind, two things have to be in place for something to be called a terrorist act. The first is an act of serious violence.  Usually this involves the death or injury of people, but significant damage to infrastructure counts too.  The second – and this is crucial – is the presence of an underlying ideology that motivates or justifies the violent act.  Remove the ideology and you’re left with simple violence.  Caution: it is not always easy to determine what constitutes an ideology.  Is hate a sufficient component? I don’t think so, even if most terrorists have a lot of hate inside them.

So, what should we make of the decision of the El Salvadoran government to charge a gang member with terrorism (see Al Jazeera article here)?  At a minimum it strikes me as bizarre and indefensible.

I know that El Salvador, and several other  Central American nations, are struggling with what appears to be endemic violence, as many of their cities rank among the most dangerous ones in the world. Gangs seem to run rampant in their societies and even control several prisons.  The problem is a serious one and quick solutions are wanting.  Governments seem incapable of stopping the killing and many citizens are voting with their feet, fleeing north to the US (and maybe Canada).

But does calling gang violence “terrorism” help?  It’s hard to see how.  Does treating these criminals as terrorists make it easier to prosecute or leverage harsher sentences?  Perhaps, but does the shift in focus act as a deterrent?  Unlikely as I have yet to see any examples where resorting to terrorism legislation has moved anyone to re-consider carrying out acts of terrorism.

More importantly, gang activity has little if anything to do with terrorism.  What “ideology” do gangs operate under?  None that I know of (running drug and prostitution rings and killing rivals is not “ideology”).  Furthermore, I have often heard radicalisation to terrorism compared to gang recruitment.  While there may be some similarities, there are huge differences.  Gangs target “vulnerable” people, whose vulnerability often stems from their situation in life (poor upbringing, lack of self-esteem, previous criminal behaviour, etc.): terrorists, or at least the vast majority of those we have seen in Canada, do not have the same vulnerabilities and yet still follow the path to extremism. It is often surprising how “normal” our terrorists are.    Calling a vicious gang member a terrorist cheapens the term and dilutes it in ways that are not helpful.

I suppose that if we look at the underlying meaning of “terrorism”,  i.e. “sowing terror in society”, then gangs are terrorists as they spread fear.  But if we accept that then we have to label serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and others as terrorists too.  And I don’t think we want to do that.

As difficult as it may be, we need to get to an agreement where one man’s terrorist is another man’s terrorist.


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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