When a gunman attacked two US military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2015, it was widely considered to be ‘terrorism’. In 2009, Maj. Nidal Hassan, who attacked the military installation at Fort Hood, was also considered a ‘terrorist’, although he was not charged with terrorism.
But what constitutes terrorism?
According the US army field manual, terrorism can be defined as:
“ The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals”.
The US Federal Criminal Code, Title 18 defines terrorism as:
“activities that involve violent… or life-threatening acts… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”
While both of these definitions are different in terms of semantics, they express the same message: terrorism is violence meant to influence people.
In that case, acts of violence at US military installations can be considered terrorism, as the perpetrator(s) often wish to influence US foreign policy. But then US military actions against insurgent groups can also be considered terrorism, since the airstrikes are carried out with the intent to influence the insurgents’ actions.
However, the US avoids the “terrorist” label by simply, albeit not completely, declaring war on the group in question. President Obama used the 2001-era Authorization of Military force to declare war on Daesh. The AMF is a resolution which allows the US to pursue military actions against insurgent groups, although the constitutionality of those actions is often called into question by constitutional law experts. By quasi-declaring war on these groups, US military actions against them isn’t terrorism but part of war.
But groups like Daesh also declare “holy war” on the United States as well. So, excluding attacks on civilians, aren’t Daesh actions against US military bases simply part of war and not terrorism?
A reason why attacks on US military bases are considered terrorism is that the soldiers on these bases were not actively engaging in combat. Indeed, the laws of war dictate that “one cannot, for instance, legally hunt down soldiers while they’re sleeping in their homes, or playing with their children, or buying groceries at a supermarket.” Since the soldiers at US military installations in the US are not in combat attacks on these bases are not justified, and therefore terroristic in nature.
However, that argument is flawed in that it doesn’t consider a warring party who does not respect the laws of war. If one party attacks the other party while they aren’t in combat, doesn’t that give the other party the right to respond in the same way? The US, through its drone program which targets people considered “combatants” anywhere at anytime, does not respect the laws of war. Given that, doesn’t the enemy that was targeted in US drone attacks have the right to also attack US military installations?
The reality is that the US, and its allies, have created a double standard where any attacks against their enemies are considered legitimate in the context of war, but any attempts by the enemy to retaliate are considered “terrorism”. This double standard only adds to a culture where the enemies of the US are delegitimized in a war the US declared on them.