In the wake of the brutal slaughter in Woolwich, London, debates surrounding the term “terrorism” have reemerged, particularly in social media—where the cover of Internet anonymity allows for uncensored reactions to the contentious term.

Currently, there is no legal consensus on what constitutes an act of terrorism. At best, the term is imprecise and subjective.  Accepted designations speak more to power dynamics than criminal motivations—does anyone need to be reminded of the trite-but-true phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter?”

Less discussed than the precise legal definition of “terrorism”—but far more problematic—is the broader set of related concepts and terms used in contemporary armed conflicts.

As commonly understood, particularly in the West, “terrorism” designates  politically-based violence wielded by a non-state actor—that is to say, undertaken by those operating outside the parameters of the nation-state’s traditional monopoly on legitimate violence.

For this reason, it is far more rare to hear the phrase “state terror,” as the general understanding of government-orchestrated violence is simply (and somehow excusably) legitimate and justifiable war.

Of the many campaign promises offered by President Barack Obama (economic justice, foreign policy, civil liberties), the closure of Guantanamo Bay (“Gitmo”) stands out as an example of the rhetorical dangers posed by warped and politically-biased understandings of violence.

Responding to the President’s recent terrorism speech, political commentator and attorney, Glenn Greenwald, pointed to Obama’s rhetorical obfuscation: “His most consequential speeches are shaped by their simultaneous affirmation of conflicting values and even antithetical beliefs, allowing listeners with irreconcilable positions to conclude that Obama agrees with them.”

No one, after all, can deny that the president is a phenomenal speaker. But language and action are two very separate domains. As Andrew Bacevich points out, the act of “naming” and describing matters influences the government’s ability to sell the public on warfare.

The glossy veneer of terms like “terrorism,” “collateral warfare,” and “asymmetric warfare” does far more to obscure the dynamics of armed conflict than to illuminate the factors at work behind violent acts.

For example, to deem an act of guerrilla warfare “terrorism” tells us nothing about the source of the conflict. Calling children killed by sanctions “collateral damage” does nothing to reanimate lost lives, or explain the cold calculus of “realpolitik” at work. The application of these words gives no insight into the stakes involved in a political crisis. Rather, the vocabulary of acceptable violence functions to gently direct public opinion, molding the idea—quite simply—that some lives are more valuable than others.

The problem, of course, is that these terms are used and abused through repetition, which attaches an upside-down meaning to these words. War means peace, and security is equated with the willful erosion of privacy.

In this world of never-ending combat, it is too simple and futile an argument to compare Obama’s drone strikes as an act of state-sponsored terrorism with lone-wolf attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombings.  Such comparisons can never resuscitate the innocent victims of such violent acts, nor will the deployment of a new political vocabulary.

Simply repeat “terrorism” enough, and it assumes a predefined connotation detached from its inherent meaning or misapplied through a reversal of its meaning.

“Asymmetric warfare” is another example of a word used and abused in present-day conflicts.

The term dates to Andrew J.R. Mack’s 1975 article “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars.” Initially, the phrase was simply descriptive, referring to a power disparity between actors engaged in conflict. It captured how weak actors in conflicts conduct guerilla insurgencies, and use tactics against which more conventional military powers are disadvantaged.

In the wake of the Cold War, the term has steadily assumed a narrower definition, with Orwellian implications.

The most recent example of this comes in an unlikely place – Guantanamo Bay. As of May 17, 2013, detainees at Gitmo prison completed 100 days of a collective hunger strike. More accurately, 102 inmates are attempting to participate in a hunger strike, facing force-feedings administered while strapped into restraint chairs.

Nearly twelve years since 9/11, 166 men remain imprisoned at Guantanamo, with approximately 102 participating in the strike. 90% of those languishing at Gitmo have never been charged with anything—not a single offense.

In 2006, the U.S. military referred to Guantanamo prison suicides as coordinated attacks. Dismissing despair as a motivation for these acts, a camp commander explained: “They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” (emphasis added)

The Pentagon engaged in similar discourse in reaction to the 2013 hunger strike campaign.

Keep in mind, once again, that the vast majority of these men, ostensibly holding “no regard for human life,” are being held in detention without charge. Many have even been declared innocent, and cleared for release—and yet, remain in the prison.

NPR’s Frank James has praised Obama’s counterterrorism policies, in particular for the administration’s embrace of nuance in response to “asymmetric” tactics confronting the United States.

James writes, “There are still enemies who seek to wage an asymmetric fight against the U.S. Thus the need for the kind of complex U.S. approach—in short nuance—that can be hard to explain or easy to misstate in the Twitter era…Obama greatly expanded the use of the remotely controlled unmanned vehicles, with their Hellfire missile payloads, far beyond anything that occurred under Bush…While the use of the high-tech weapons has engendered outrage elsewhere in the world, Americans have mostly embraced the tactic.”

James is partially correct—Americans have largely accepted Obama’s new, high-tech battle strategies, but in so doing, they have inadvertently championed the state’s own asymmetric war.

According to RAND, “The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan are among the best-known recent examples of asymmetric warfare: conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies.”

9/11 and Afghanistan may be the most prominently marketed examples, but they are by no means the most recent. After all, what could better demonstrate a lack of symmetry than unmanned predator drones?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, “asymmetric” means: 1) “Having two sides or parts that are not the same in size or shape;” and 2) “Not equal, for example in the way each side or part behaves.”

Pause, for a moment, and consider the implications. The simple definition of the term asymmetric is easy enough to understand, but its application is quite different.

There is a peculiar geometry at work in the phrase, which reveals more about disparities in power dynamics and dominant military capabilities than combat tactics. What could be more asymmetric, I wonder, than being strapped down in a restraint chair, with tubes forced down one’s throat—as control over a body-cleared-for-release belongs to another? What implies a more fundamental lack of balance than the loss of sovereignty over basic bodily functions?

The underlying message: how dare these men seek attention for wrongful imprisonment and indefinite detention?  How dare they suggest that the rules of the Geneva Convention may apply to them? Of course, defense-hawks will respond: “the rules of war do not apply to enemy combatants.” Never mind that the majority of these alleged “enemy combatants” are nothing of the sort.

The Pentagon dismisses these hunger strikes as acts of asymmetric warfare, and “publicity stunts;” a publicity stunt, as if these men are leaking sex tapes in the hopes of getting a reality TV show.

The meaning of the term, asymmetric warfare, has been manipulated through the repetition of altered meanings. Asymmetric war practiced beyond the parameters of international law is broadly considered to be terrorism—and yet, what of proxy wars conducted by states? —they operate using the same parameters as “asymmetric warfare” (even when waged covertly to preserve plausible deniability).

If one is to explain away a hunger strike by men held in detention as “asymmetry,” does the same logic not apply to civilians targeted without trial, due process—and by an unmanned aerial vehicle to boot? Is one action more asymmetrical than the other?


While the Obama administration recently appears to have declared a cessation in the “endless war on terror,” the situation is not quite so simple.  America’s drone war will undoubtedly continue, as will other proxy wars fueled by technological innovations and unequal financial resources. Obama’s statements mark merely a shift in terminology, a redefinition of the war vocabulary, intended to normalize indeterminate conflict.

The problem with “asymmetry,” you see, is that it cuts both ways. So define your terms.



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  • Livia

    Great piece.

    I would like clarification about your one detour into straw men. Can you cite whether anyone has actually said, “The rules of war do not apply to enemy combatants.” Who else would you be at war with for these rules to apply besides enemy combatants?

  • This article is riddled with factual and interpretative errors but for clarity on the above comment: the issue of Geneva Conventions applying to “enemy combatants” is misquoted here. Bush Administration officials referred to “illegal enemy combatants”. Illegal enemy combatants, legally speaking, do surrender many of their rights under the Geneva Conventions (not all though). The contentious part in this was that they were deemed “illegal enemy combatants” not on account of any act they may or may not have done, but purely on account of being identified as part of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

    Also important when going down the road of “Obama’s drones are just as bad for civilian victims as the Boston bombings” is to remember that according to the applicable law, terrorism (as defined in the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions) is an act designed to create terror amongst a civilian population. This would appear to be the case in Boston. But UAV strikes in Yemen/Pakistan? If the intended target is an enemy combatant it would be hard to prove it was an act of terrorism. Any adverse effects (death, injury, displacement etc) on civilian population may well breach conduct of hostilities but would be hard to pin it as terrorism.

    I do enjoy the range of articles available at Muftah but editors, please get people with the capacity to give informed interpretations of the law to write about it. Otherwise you fall in the same category of so many other media pushing uninformed commentary.

  • Livia, thanks for your comment. As far as the traditional laws of war not being applicable to enemy combatants, this is something Congress helped to define post 9/11. In terms of Boston, in particular, Graham and McCain (if memory serves me correctly), were among the prominent political voices using this rhetoric again. You might find this piece interesting: Cheers and many thanks.

  • Dear Quang,

    Thank you for your comment. You are correct: my PhD is not in the domain of law. I am not qualified to conduct legal analysis, in that respect. However, this article was a thought piece on the plasticity of terminology, and the implications of redefined vocabulary in international conflict — rather than a legal argument.

    I intended to draw attention to the fast and loose use of terminology beyond the legal realm, such as widespread abuse of a term like “terrorism,” which does not have a unilaterally accepted definition (various international actors have their own definitions, albeit overlapping, yet differing on minute points), or “asymmetric,” which is used in political discourse in a manner that does not necessarily align with its legal definition.

    I by no means intended to suggest that “Obama’s drones and the Boston marathon bombing are the same thing.” Rather than an interpretation of legality, per se, it is the power of vocabulary which interested me in this piece, and its often extremely subjective power.

    I appreciate your constructive criticism. Thank you.

  • The above is a great article that will probably get overlooked by many in the flood of news and information coming out via the Internet. It is good that we have a good definition and understanding of what is ‘asymmetric warfare’ in today’s hostile world with loaded words.

    The major forces at war today are the forces of liberation and the forces of repression. Each of us must decide which side we are on or risk being shot in a crossfire as we sit on the fence. I agree with Ms. Rogers that we need to define our terms on occasion. It is hard to be on the same page when we are not even in the same library.

    We utilize the power of the word, the image and emotion to communicate to others and convince them of the humaneness of our various positions on matters. Words are relative symbols we use to exchange ideas and ideals.

    Power to the Truth! Peter S. López aka @Peta_de_Aztlan
    Sacramento, California, Nazi Amerika c/s

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