What makes someone a terrorist?
Is it the way they look? Where they’re from? Their weapon of choice? Perhaps their ideology or subscribed religion? Scholars and politicians have debated this subject for decades, arguably for centuries, and have come to only one agreed conclusion – terrorism is bad.
In September 2005, 150 world leaders met to define the term. However, after sitting for two full days of debate, they came out with nothing. What makes terrorism so difficult to define is that it often depends which side you’re fighting for. Not only do sides matter, but agendas matter as well. Something that would be perceived as a regular crime in one place could be regarded as terrorism in another.
“..to be classified as a terror attack the terrorist presumably needs to be motivated by “terror.”
In 2014, Iranian-born lone gunman Man Haron Monis held 18 people hostage during what has come to be known as the Lindt Cafe siege. While at the time police treated the incident as a terrorist attack, the event was subsequently debated. What made this event so controversial was the gunman’s motives. Though at first it seemed clear he was carrying out the attack in the name of Islamic State, it later transpired that this case was unique. Because of Monis’s history of mental health, it is still unclear whether his siege should be considered a terrorist attack or plain criminality. While for a criminal attack the perpetrator must always be punished for the damage incurred, to be classified as a terror attack the terrorist presumably needs to be motivated by “terror.”
But what’s really the difference? If Monis claimed his attack was in the name of the ISIS, should it really matter that he was mentally ill and debatably aware of what he was doing?
“…he claimed allegiance to both ISIS and al-Qaeda, two known enemies!”
A similar questionable incident occurred at the 2017 Brighton siege. Yacqub Khayre, 29, a Somalia-born Australian, murdered a receptionist and held a prostitute hostage at the Buckingham International Serviced Apartments. A shoot-out with the police ensued, Khayre was killed and three police officers wounded. This was, at the time, considered an act of terror. However, after further investigation, it became evident that Khayre, himself, was confused about why he was committing the attack since he claimed allegiance to both ISIS and al-Qaeda, two known enemies!
This episode leaves us with a glaring question – if the terrorist himself doesn’t know who he’s fighting for, can we really consider it a terror attack? Clearly his agenda is skewed! Maybe he was just a crazy guy, doing a crazy thing and should be treated as your average criminal.
Time will tell if the recent attack on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand will be classed as terror or the actions of a madman. What is clear, as the story and investigation unfolds, many dark truths about this attack will be revealed opening a new chapter in what is defined as terrorism.
“While every crime is punishable by law, not everything “merits” the unique status of terrorism.”
Unfortunately, there are many other examples of attacks with ambiguous agendas. However, these both shed light on the gray areas of this undefinable word. There is no doubt that both criminal and terror hostage situations are illegal, but, discerning the motives of the perpetrator is key to understanding the ramifications. While every crime is punishable by law, not everything “merits” the unique status of terrorism.