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‘Terrorism’: What’s in a Name?

The Biden administration’s word-games about the Houthis show the usual sinister obfuscation of sovereignty and the law.

Taiz,/,Yemen,-,02,Nov,2016:,Soldier,Fighting,In
Credit: akramalrasny

The Biden administration designated Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement—better known as the Houthis—a terrorist group Wednesday, reversing its February 2021 removal of the designation. The decision followed a series of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping in late December and early January, and accompanied a series of air and missile strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

The Houthis are, doubtless, not very nice people; lobbing missiles at passing civilian ships is bad behavior. The U.S. and its ally, Saudi Arabia, have backed the Yemeni central government against the rebel group in the years-long civil war, causing the sort of vast human misery that we are used to seeing in American-backed interventions in far-flung corners of the world. Maybe intervention is warranted in this case, although we have our doubts—as TAC’s contributing editor Doug Bandow wrote today, higher consumer prices from shipping disruption aren’t a serious casus belli—and the White House should at least request congressional authorization before chucking explosives around the Middle East. For the sake of argument, let’s concede it all—the Houthis are menacing vital American interests from 7,500 miles away, and the gods are calling out for war. 

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Does that make the Houthis terrorists?

“Terrorist” is a concept that has undergone an unusual degree of semantic creep. Historically, the general use of the term denoted the perpetrator of a terror, state actor or otherwise—the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, or the Red and White Terrors in the Russian and then Spanish civil wars, or the Great Terror under Stalin. (It is in this sense that Ronald Syme refers to the Roman emperor Augustus as a “terrorist.”) Well, fine. Sensible enough. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, while the older use persisted, the term came to rest mostly on non-state actors using violence especially against civilian populations. This is the version that made it into the U.S. Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;

(B) 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; and

(C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum

American law specifically excludes state actors: “No action shall be maintained under section 2333 of this title for injury or loss by reason of an act of war.” Further:

(4) the term “act of war” means any act occurring in the course of—

(A) declared war;

(B) armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or

(C) armed conflict between military forces of any origin

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As written, this makes a good deal of sense. The U.S. isn’t in the business of policing other countries within their own sovereign territory, and an attack from another state already has a name—war—and a set of legal theories that go along with it. “Terrorism” more or less deals with the ancient legal category of hostes humani generis—outlaws like pirates and mercenaries who do not fit into the usual structures of sovereignty and the law. This was the sense Rep. Ron Paul of Kentucky had in mind when he proposed reviving certain anti-piracy legal structures to deal with Al-Qaeda in the sequel to the September 11 attacks.

Yet around that time, the American language lost its straightforward grasp on the meanings of words. Perhaps the coinage “War on Terror” was responsible; maybe it was the conflation of the non-state Al-Qaeda with their chums, the Taliban, who were in fact in charge of a country. (The ultimate irony of our Central Asian adventure may be that, in the end, we did not in fact negotiate with “terrorists,” but the once and future de facto Afghan state.) In any case, “terrorist” became a category encompassing anyone we didn’t like who didn’t have an embassy in Washington.

This vague and capacious legal category is, however, quite useful if you want a blanket justification for the use of military force without the pesky impedimenta of republican government. The Trump administration killed the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani because he was a “terrorist.” The Obama administration killed an American citizen without the benefit of due process because he, too, was a “terrorist.” Now, the Houthis claim to be the legitimate Yemeni government and actually hold territory that they administer successfully, even in the face of massive pressure from the Saudis and the Aden government; they may be committing acts of war against us in the plain language of the law, but it does not seem they are committing terrorism. Yet they are “terrorists” again, after a stint of not being terrorists. Does this not make a mockery of the law?

As ever, Lewis Carroll provides the relevant citation:


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

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