For Counterterrorism Words Matter

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May 2012 | Brian Fishman,

Every good academic course on terrorism should begin with an inconclusive argument over the definition of the term 'terrorism.' The purpose of that debate is to explore the troublesome questions of legitimacy, targeting, and group dynamics that make terrorism not just a difficult word to define, but a vexing phenomenon to counter. As Menachem Begin recognized when he eschewed the convention of earlier anarchist militants to claim the title 'terrorist' and instead referred to the Irgun as "freedom fighters," terrorism is often a fight over language.

Every good academic course on terrorism should begin with an inconclusive argument over the definition of the term 'terrorism.' The purpose of that debate is to explore the troublesome questions of legitimacy, targeting, and group dynamics that make terrorism not just a difficult word to define, but a vexing phenomenon to counter. As Menachem Begin recognized when he eschewed the convention of earlier anarchist militants to claim the title 'terrorist' and instead referred to the Irgun as "freedom fighters," terrorism is often a fight over language.

That is why the Breakthrough Institute's choice to refer to Al Qaeda and affiliated movements as "hirabis", not "jihadis," is such an interesting choice. For much of the last decade, terrorism scholars and policy makers have lamented Al Qaeda's successful ability to define themselves as 'jihadis,' because such terminology may imply that their unrepentant violence is a traditional form of 'jihad,' which in traditional Islamic practice can be a wide range of predominately nonviolent endeavors to serve God. Observers worry that this confers legitimacy on Al Qaeda while denigrating a religious struggle that most Muslims pursue in entirely peaceful and productive ways.

These are legitimate concerns, but they are easily exaggerated. The violence and ideology of violent groups like Al Qaeda is now widely understood among Muslims; very few are likely to confuse Al Qaeda's brand of violence with the peaceful striving most Muslims recognize as 'jihad.' To paraphrase an Iraqi I know, Al Qaeda has changed the definition of jihad and given the word a bad name. While this is one of the softer crimes Al Qaeda has committed, it suggests that Al Qaeda's co-optation of the term 'jihad' is not likely to confer much legitimacy on the group. Muslim observers of the group, especially those in the Middle East nearest to Al Qaeda's violence, are simply too savvy.

There are other costs to changing the terminology we use to describe Al Qaeda. The most important of those is confusion over what the term means. This is not an idle problem. One of the most damaging mistakes of the 9/11 Decade has been the misdiagnosis of various political and militant organizations as minions of Al Qaeda. A wide range of groups, from largely-peaceful Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to militant networks with distinct goals, such as HAMAS or nationalist insurgents in Iraq, have been conflated with Al Qaeda. Under the ridiculous indistinct terminology of "Islamo-fascists," some have even tried to lump Al Qaeda together with Iran and Shia organizations with very different ideological and strategic outlooks.

Such misdiagnosis has real costs, no more plainly than in Iraq. For years before the "surge" strategy was implemented in late 2006, the United States failed to systematically distinguish between various Sunni militant groups and as a result missed the opportunity to pry them apart from one another: our intellectual and terminological framework lumped all Sunni insurgents into Al Qaeda's camp. Only after recognizing that not all militants were "jihadis," did the United States begin to reduce the violence, albeit with uncertain long-term political effects.

The analytical precision that guided the "surge" has been reflected throughout the American defense community. Analysts, operators, and law enforcement officers increasingly distinguish between "jihadis" affiliated with Al Qaeda and other Islamist and militant actors that are not. That difference has helped focus the fight against Al Qaeda and paved the way for creative strategies to divide Al Qaeda from organizations that might offer it support.

That is why I worry about changing the terminology used to describe Al Qaeda and its affiliates from "jihadi" to 'hirabi.' Although "hirabi"--and other terms, like 'takfiri'--do not carry the unintended religious connotations of 'jihadi,' switching terminology is likely to cause confusion in the counterterrorism community. It took more than five years for the "jihadi" nomenclature to become widely understood among counterterrorism professionals, and that delay cost the United States tremendously. This problem is compounded because "hirabi" is a general term for terrorism and does not refer specifically to Al Qaeda and groups like it. It could be applied equally to HAMAS as to Al Qaeda, whereas 'jihadi,' as understood today, does not.

Counterterrorism is about precision, whether in investigations, targeting, or terminology. There is no doubt that "jihadi" is an imperfect word, but so is 'terrorism,' as every student that has sat through the first day of a course on the subject knows. Ten years into a war on Al Qaeda, using "jihadi" still has real costs, but the dangers of switching are even higher.

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Research Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.


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