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A New Definition Of "Terrorist" I: Why A Terrorist Is Not A Common Criminal

Jun 24, 2009
A preliminary warning is in order. From Colorado to Cairo, Bali to Peru, data show that most terrorists come from the middle class. But if most terrorists are middle class rebels, most middle class rebels are not terrorists -- and should not be considered or reated as terrorists.

Perhaps the ultimate truth of the relationship is that a terrorist is a middle class rebel, albeit even more so. That is to say, intermediate, transitional, marginal conditions -- along with the ambivalent emotions created by them -- are multiplied and magnified in the terrorist. A middle class youth out of college but unemployed, residing outside his native country and whose parents divorce, has an accumulation of transitions and marginal conditions which not all middle class people share.

Indicative of the crucial importance of accumulation is Dr. Marc Sageman's conclusion from his sample of mujahedin, that a" remarkable 78 percent were cut off from their cultural and social origins, far from their families and friends."*

Although the threshold for passing from rebellion to terrorism differs with the sensitivities and experiences of each individual, the basic reality of accumulation remains.

As with the term "middle class" -- and for many of the same reasons -- no adequate definition of "terrorist" has ever been given. Almost all definitions of human phenomena are inherently partial and provisional. The one that follows is no exception.

I will start with a basic distinction: a terrorist goes through certain rites of passage which most middle class rebels do not experience.

Marc Sageman noted, for example, that "the interviewed militants viewed their prison sentences as an integral part of their struggle (jihad), as God's test of their faith and perseverance." Other rites include committing a crime ("At some point, they formally broke with the legal world through an illegal act."), a last night out of drinking and sex before committing a terrorist act, and participation in training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan ("The trainees live in a communal setting, where their normal life responsibilities are suspended and mutual care is encouraged. The camps re-create the ideals of the mythical umma...for which the graduate mujahed might be willing to sacrifice himself.")**

A thorough and systematic knowledge of such rites, which vary over time and place, is fundamental to the development of creative indicators of terrorists. That knowledge is also vital for the creation of practical rites of passage for the cooperation and reintegration of terrorists into society -- rites that presently are at best nonexistent or irrelevant, at worst counterproductive.

For obvious reasons, the development of those indicators will not be undertaken here. An example of a "creative indicator" in another field:

One evening, a lobbyist for the American Wine Institute invited me to dinner at a fancy restaurant outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gazing at the wine list, my attention was called to the sticker price of French Burgundy: $400. I asked him if the wine was worth it.

"No wine expert would pay $400 for a bottle of wine in a restaurant," he solemnly pronounced. That did not mean, however, the restaurant was charging too much. "If the FBI stationed agents in restaurants like this for two months, they would identify all the local drug dealers. They're the ones who are buying the stuff."

As helpful as they are in practical regards, however, specific rites of passage answer only a part of the question asked daily around the world: What is a terrorist?

Is a terrorist simply a criminal?

Probably, most people at one time or another commit a crime, but that act does not make them criminals. To determine what a criminal is, we turn to the professionals, both literally and figuratively.

To be a criminal requires a conscious decision to be a criminal. In a penology study of North Carolina inmates, Dr. Richard McCleery found that for incorrigible prisoners, i.e., those who are isolated from home, family, society in general, as well as from the other, non-incorrigible prisoners,

"the term 'criminal'...does not apply to all who commit crimes. It is restricted to those who intend to resist society and it excludes those who are 'driven' into misdeeds by passion, circumstances, or accident. These forces, they believed, may lead anyone into illegal action. By their reasoning, after an offender has been subjected to unfair or excessive punishment and treatment more degrading than that prescribed by law, he comes to justify his act which he could not have justified when he committed it. He decides to 'get even' for his unjust treatment in prison and take reprisals through further crime at the first opportunity. With that decision he becomes a criminal."***

As noted above, committing a criminal act and going to prison are rites of passage for many terrorists. However, there is no indication that a terrorist subsequently makes a decision to become a criminal per se. He has in mind another self-identification, e.g., a Soldier of Allah. Strictly speaking, then, on the level of the content of his decision, a terrorist is not a criminal.

In the initial stages, the terrorist may actually be a normal person who commits a crime because he is driven by circumstances, passion, or accident. Indeed, all three areas have been identified by scholars, journalists, and other analysts as causes of terrorism. A terrorist, however, is not "just" a normal person. In the end, the simple fact that such purported causes of terrorism as poverty (circumstance/accident) and humiliation (emotion) are not satisfying -- that the search for a definition of terrorist goes on -- indicates that those definitions are leaving something unsaid. Something major.

Unlike normal people who commit illegal acts, the terrorist makes a decision. That decision is crucial; it is a rite of passage. It takes material form in the videos terrorists make before acting. It is also manifested in the meticulousness of planning that has become Al Qaeda's trademark. When numerous bombs are detonated simultaneously, the attacker sends an unambiguous signal that his criminal act is premeditated, deliberate, chosen; in that regard, he wants no mistake made on our part.

Because the terrorist makes a decision BUT the decision is not to become a criminal, the terrorist is and is not similar to a common criminal. For the same reasons, a terrorist is and is not a normal person who commits a crime. The terrorist is comparable to one, then to the other; sometimes both.

And subsequently, neither.

We are at an impasse. To break through it, an outside force must be introduced: the French Resistance fighter of World War II.


*Marc Sageman, "Understanding Terrorist Networks," University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2004, p. 92.
**Ibid., pp. 134, 131, 94, 163. I do not underestimate the importance of systematic, deliberate indoctrination such as in the camps Sageman described. However, in order to indoctrinate, there must be something there, a "materia prima," to work with. In the majority of terrorists, that something is middle class rebellion.
***Richard McCleery, "The Strange Journey: A Demonstration Project in Adult Education in Prison," University of North Carolina Extension Bulletin, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, March 1953, p. 24.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion" atBooklocker, Amazon , andBarnes and Noble.
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