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Where Does the Just War Theory Fall in Countering Terrorism?

December 23, 2017


September 9, 2011, marks the beginning of an era that until date is concerned and alarmed by the existence of a universal security threat, so-called terrorism. Terrorism does not only live within, but also prospers, and continuous growth cannot occur without support, whether financial, ideological or material. It becomes problematic to question the sources and the origin of supporting terrorist groups, especially when one analyzes areas of armed conflict and foreign political intervention. Academics and policy makers are still challenged to define terrorism, as the term is often referred to in a revolting response following incidents that portend public order. Bruce Hoffman, an eminent political analyst and theorist within the study of terrorism, proposed the following definition: “Terrorism is thus violence – or equally important, the threat of violence- used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim[1]”. The United Nations has not been able to find a definition for terrorism that would be adopted by all member countries, although it adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings in 2001. This convention covered only a specific area of terrorism, with no clear definition of the term. Martha Crenshaw, one of the pioneers in terrorism studies, highlights that “terrorism can be understood as an expression of a political strategy [2]”.   

It remains crucial to identify a universal definition to understand terrorism as an international political and social phenomenon. Historically, governments often fail to respond to terrorism with diplomatic means. Response to violence caused by terrorist groups is usually implemented by military pressure and campaigns. Following the 9/11 attack in the United Sates, President George Bush declared war on terrorism with a military campaign “War on Terror” against Taliban-led government who allegedly gave consent to Al-Qaida's Osama Bin Laden to execute the terror attack on the Twin Towers. This also escalated an additional motive behind the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, where it was noted during the Council on Foreign Relations in 2005 that “the question of Iraq's link to terrorism grew more urgent with Saddam's suspected determination to develop weapons of mass destruction, which Bush administration officials feared he might share with terrorists who could launch devastating attacks against the United States”. Like any form of armed conflict, war on terrorism involves heavy weapons, extreme aggression, mass destruction and mortality of target groups, and sometimes civilians, even though international humanitarian law warns from targeting civilians, children and vulnerable populations. The "Just War" theory discusses the motives behind wars and where armed conflicts stand in relation to ethics and morality. This article will discuss important highlights and mentions by political theorists on the issue of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and whether war on terror can be subject to justification.   


Catholic Church on War Practices  

Since Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church has played an important role in influencing political decisions in Europe, also described as Feudalism. It served to give the people spiritual guidance and as their governor too. The Church faced the dilemma of being an official religious state and continuing the exercise of civil and military power, opposing the doctrine of the Christ.    


The first complete Biblical analysis of the use of military force took place in St. Augustin d'Hippone's writings, in the 4th century, who is thought to be the father of the just war theory in the Western tradition.  Augustin questioned the issue of a just war by witnessing the collapse of the Roman Empire. His jus ad bellum justifies a war if it has the right title, the right intention, the last resort, the legitimate authority, the proportionality, the hope for success. In parallel, his jus in bello is the set of legal rules applicable to the conduct of hostilities: the determination of the spaces, the goods and the protected persons, the determination of the authorized means of fight, the treatment of the prisoners. Traditionally, the jus in bello are within the Hague convention, but was completed by the Conventions of Geneva.   

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquiras was a revolutionary thinker, philosopher and “Doctor of the Church”. His “Summa Teologiae” discusses that war can be justified when it falls under the following three conditions:  


• The decision in engaging in a war should be taken by the legitimate political authority that seeks the wellbeing of its population. It shouldn‟t be a matter of defending the interests of an individual or a group. It shall be a public affair and not a private one; 

• Engaging in war should be in virtue and for a just cause. For example, in defense against an aggressor, the legitimate defense. In that frame, one questions if a preventive war (a real, supposed or imaginary threat) can be just;  

• War should be led with good intentions for a “just cause” does not justify alone, and those who engage in war should engage in a just way.   

Aquiras advocates that a war can only be just when it aims at guaranteeing peace. The 21st century has witnessed another progressive thinker of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, who appears to make groundbreaking statements transforming what is thought to be the “old church”. On January 1, 2016, on World Day of Peace, he declared that “peacebuilding through active nonviolence” to be a “natural and necessary complement” to reduce the practice of armed conflicts by applying moral and ethical norms. The 21st century was also the era of the Arab Spring and civil wars, as well as the rise of nuclear weapons and political instability in different regions on the map, notably in the Middle East.   


Political theory and the concept of armed conflict 


It is often believed that politics are practiced within a sovereign state to guarantee internal security, social and economic growth. That said, when applied outside the borders of the state, the purpose would be to prosper external relations and international cooperation. Idealism argues for a world of politics in which international cooperation is primordial in seeking perpetual peace. In other words, military power cannot be exercised for the purpose of threatening or pressuring another country. In the case of terrorism, military force comes to prevent or respond to acts of terror and limit terrorist groups. However, being unable to define terrorism, some countries tend to consider groups or organizations as terrorist movements, when the latter consider themselves a legitimate political identity within a state, with the purpose of resisting a political reality. This is the case of Hamas is Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Houthis in Yemen, resistant political groups considered terrorist organizations by the United States and other members of the international community. Various factors justify the United States' positioning against these groups, like ownership of military resources without direct control of their respective governments.     

Immanuel Kant is aware of the powerful warrior inclinations of men. According to him, war is “grafted onto human nature” as mentioned in his “Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view”. This is precisely why it remains necessary to set rules to overcome the conflicting relations between states. Kant doesn't explicitly treat the issue of terrorism and counter-terrorism, but his ethical theories including the Categorical Imperatives [3] highlights why terrorism is unjustifiable, as acts of terror are committed as a statement against a ruling authority. Kant also argues on universal moral rights, such as the right to life, which is violated by terrorist attacks. To him, peace cannot be achieved without a place where humans can live in dignity and respect. In the context of two conflicting opponents, the state and the terrorists, it remains challenging to identify the oppressed from the oppressor. In other terms, the desire of destabilizing a state can in fact be another way to resist a certain reality that has put dignity and respect at risk.   


Albert Camus, who himself was part of resistance movements to his denunciation of state terrorism in the URSS, had very quickly warned his contemporaries on the fight against terrorism which, by bringing strict justice, discredits the state in the eyes of its own people: torture, arbitrary repression and abuses of all kinds can only fuel the terrorist more “cause”. Settles then, between the oppressor and the oppressed a strange solidarity that Camus denounces and that he calls the “casuistry of the blood”. Camus encouraged the understanding of the opponent in reducing the need to destabilize a government.


Carl Schmitt belongs to the generation that witnessed the militarism of his country and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. In “The Nomos of the Earth”, Schmitt criticizes the concept of just war. Since it is impossible to make a judgment that transcends the opposition of the friend and the enemy, there is no concept of justice that makes it possible to decide, by placing oneself above the parties, if a war is right or not. Suspended by disagreements about justice, wars forbid by hypothesis any agreement on a common conception of justice [4]. There are no universally shared norms, against which a common concept of justice could emerge.  


The Rise of Terrorism  


The long history of radical extremism is still not treated in the 21st century. At the contrary, the world has witnessed repetitive series of terrorist attacks from different areas of the globe, whether in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, North America or other areas. Researchers suggest that an individual does not become a terrorist by coincidence, but follows a long path towards violence. Factors of influence can be an individual's vulnerability, cognitive rigidity, critical sense, sense of integration, isolation, protection, etc. Danish philosopher Kai Nielsen approaches questions to do with political violence in general and terrorism in particular as a consequentialist in ethics and a socialist in politics.  In his view, “terrorist acts must be justified by their political effects and their moral consequences. They are justified when they are politically effective weapons in the revolutionary struggle and when, everything considered, there are sound reasons for believing that, by the use of that type of violence rather than no violence at all or violence of some other type, there will be less injustice, suffering and degradation in the world than would otherwise have been the case” (Nielsen 1981: 446).  

Terrorism is a major contemporary issue. In addition to its intrinsic horror, it has weakened international relations and poses a permanent threat to the future of the world. Throughout the 20th century to the present day, it has targeted democracies on several occasions and using various methods. These attacks have a heavy impact on the public opinion of the democratic states concerned, or on the one of the States witnesses of these attacks. As a starting point for terrorism in the 20th century was the Sarajevo bombing of June 28, 1914, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. This event is considered the trigger of the First World War. Today, a different form of terrorism was established in small communities, with aspirations of educating others on personal beliefs and ideologies, and securing a geographic legitimacy. This is the case of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), often referred to as the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh. Some radical terrorist groups are reportedly funded by political powers.   


According to the Center of Prevention Against Radicalization Leading to Violence (France), extremism can be interpreted in different forms:   

Right Extremism: Form of radicalization associated with fascist, racialist/racist, supremacist or even ultranationalist motives. Characterized by the violent defense of a racial, ethnic or pseudo-national identity, this form of radicalization is also associated with radical hostility towards state authorities, minorities, immigrants and/or left-wing political groups.  

Politico-Religious Extremism: Form of radicalization associated with a political reading of religion and the defense, by violent action, of a religious identity perceived as attacked (international conflicts, foreign policy, societal debates, etc.). This violent radicalization can find its roots in all religions.  

Left Extremism: Form of radicalization mainly articulated around claims related to anti-capitalism and the transformation of a political system perceived as generating social inequalities - these claims finding their culmination in violence. This category also includes Anarchist, Maoists, Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninist groups using violence to defend their cause.  

Single Cause Extremism: Form of radicalization motivated essentially by a single cause. They fall into this category: environmental extremists or animal advocates, anti-abortion, some homophobic or anti-feminist movements, or ultra-individualist and autonomist extremists (Freeman on the Land) using violence to defend their cause. Mass killers whose motivations are partially or totally ideological can also be placed in this category. 


ISIS itself is a product of a series of imperialist wars, emerging as Al-Qaida‟s clone. It has reportedly prospered during the American war on Iraq that killed almost a million Iraqis, then used during the aggression war of the United States on Iraq who's killed Kadhafi. Some reports estimate that ISIS was reoriented to disturb the war in Syria. In that case, the efficacy of terrorism is somehow to promote a strategic goal. It is used as a tactic where little choices are left to execute a political agenda. Thus, terrorism is used as it's the most effective weapon these organizations hold, especially when it comes to the dissolution of a country. Today, Syria's civil war is unlikely to be the concern of the Syrian government and the free army, but more of a regional concern with foreign intervention from political powers, who may believe that terrorism can weaken the agenda of the enemy and achieve strategic goals.   


Countering  terrorism: Contemporary issues and practices


September 11, 2001, 19 men hijack four airliners to project them on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, while the fourth suicide plane crashes into the open countryside with 2,993 civilian casualties. The United States of America was targeted on its own soil and its biggest symbols. This operation and the number of casualties make it the most appalling terrorist attack of all time. The American reaction is immediate: George W. Bush declares "war against terrorism". No one had prepared for this war, which will embark the world in a decade of learning about the fight against terrorism. The day after the attacks of September 11, the daily Le Monde headlines “We are all Americans”, while the United Nations Security Council adopts resolution 1268, in which it says “resolved to fight by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts”. With time and the the intervention of broadcast media, countering terrorism has become a duty attributed to the United States, considering to play a role in liberating the world from terrorism. The subsequent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq mark the beginning of the American "terror-cleansing".  

If the United States has set the priority goal of eliminating Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, it is by virtue of their “decapitation theory” that the terrorist phenomenon exist because of their leaders. However, this theory is not shared by Europeans, who rightly believe that terrorism is not limited to its leaders. For if the United States managed to eliminate almost all the leaders who made 9/11, it certainly weakened al-Qaeda, but that did not make it disappear. Eliminating Bin Laden is important, but hasn't solved the problem until date. The difference of approach between the American school and the European school, especially French, is fundamental. The American doctrine postSeptember 11 was that of the war against terrorism: it is an offensive, active choice, downstream of the terrorist phenomenon. America's influence is sharper with international broadcast cooperations that help spread news easier and quicker to a global audience. The French doctrine considers the fight against terrorism a preventive choice, defensive, upstream. Federica Mogherini is an Italian politician and the current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission in the Juncker Commission since 1 November 2014. During her speech on the EU Internal-External Security Nexus, Mogherini highlighted that “terrorists want to divide us [Europeans] from our Arab and Muslim friends”, in times where the current President of the United States Donald Trump is confirming that there is no such thing as Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine.  


Ever since 2011, Syria's war has not only engaged the government versus the free army, but also supporting fronts from both sides. On the side of the Syrian government: (mainly) Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, all confronting the free army supported by (mainly) Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. ISIS, Al-Nusra and Al-Qaida also benefited from this conflict, either to receive extra support from affiliated coalitions, or to impose their ideologies by violence and force. While political powers claim to be contributing in the weakening of terrorism in the area from which millions of refugees have fled, the exact war on terrorism is still unclear and seems to be taking longer that needed. Iran and Saudi Arabia's conflict of interest can unlikely lead to bilateral war, thus the justification of proxy wars in different regions of the Middle East with claims to be focusing on terrorism.


Debates on ethical war can be summed up in three questions: Can a war be just? Can terrorism be justified? Can war on terrorism be legitimized? The absence of a coherent moral discourse on terrorism is still a major gap. Contrary to popular belief, waging war on terrorists or states complicit in terrorism is not always something impossible or unjust. The United States military intervention in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which serves as a case mentioned in this paper, falls into the category of legitimate wars justified by St. Augustin or St. Aquiras, but for reasons that are unlikely to be met. At the end of this exercise, it does not appear necessary to strictly adopt a position on whether war on terrorism is a just war or not, but more of an understanding on political powers and violent groups in the world of political theory.   

The Just War theory is completely analyzed from the point of view of the objective to be attained: peace based on the rule of law. What goal do we want to achieve? Prevention of future attacks in the world? The end of the domination of violent groups on conquered territories? What will happen next? What is the "right motive" and the "legitimate authority"? There is no United Nations mandate for military sanctions. The action invokes the legitimate right of countries to self-defense. The legitimacy of the use of military force, which, without a United Nations mandate, is ultimately arbitrary, is highly questionable from the point of view of restoring the rule of law. What is the "intention"? Could it be revenge, or simply a demonstration of a political power's own strength?   

[1] “Inside Terrorism”, Bruce Hoffman, 1998

[2] “Origins of terrorism: psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind”, Reich Walter, 1998 

[3] Categorical Imperatives were Introduced in Kant's 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 

[4] “The Concept of the Political”, Carl Schmitt, 1992 


Photo: Reuters/Danny Moloshok


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