The words “Terrorist” and “Terrorism” were first used during the French Revolution. The use of the word “Terrorism” began in 1795 in reference to the Reign of Terror initiated by the Revolutionary government. The largest act of international terrorism occurred during the September 11th attack in the year 2001, where Islamic terrorists hijacked civilian airliners and used them to attack the World Trade Center twin towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington DC. The operations hub of Islamic terrorism is said to be mostly centered in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With terrorism now becoming a threat to most countries around the world, the question that rings in most people’s minds is, “who is to be held accountable when such damnable attacks happen in a country?” Most people consider the government, especially when it comes to matters of both internal and external security, but in this case, this is not so. Becker (2006) says that in general, “the state cannot be held responsible for the private acts of non-public individuals”. He however says that the state could be held indirectly responsible for private conduct, if it did not act to prevent the terrorism in question, which is an international obligation it owes to the global community. He says that the main exception to this rule is when the person committing the act, is acting as an agent of the state. The state will therefore be held responsible for his actions.
The concept of agency applies particularly in cases involving formal state organs that have been accorded the authority to exercise public functions and as a result, represent the state in question. This is especially so for the officials working in these organs. If it is found out that a certain terrorist activity is linked or can be attributed to a state, then the latter is considered to have itself committed the crime with almost no regard for the person who committed the actual crime.
There is however a downside to this notion. The author says that this agency paradigm beats the purpose. He says that firstly, “it does not reflect many contemporary forms of terrorist behavior.” Secondly, reliance to this view has also led to the state colluding with terrorist organizations right under the nose of the international law. Illustrations to highlight just how bad this is would be the Sudan’s effective and overall control of the Janjaweed (Darfur-based militia with an ‘Arabist’ agenda) while Iran’s is found blameless for its support of Hezbollah. This calls for a revision of this view because it is not sensible.
According to the State Responsibility for Private Armed Groups in the Context of Terrorism, there are four levels that a state can be declared to be responsible for terrorism. Firstly, there is Direction. This is where the state actively controls terrorist activities. An example of this is when Libya directed the terrorists who bombed the Berlin discotheque in 1987, killing an American serviceman. Secondly, there is Support, whereby the state involved does not actively control the terrorist activities, but it encourages such activities and provides them with such things as training, money, equipment and transport. An example that reiterates this is one of the ways Iran and Syria give a lot of financial assistance, training, weapons, and other support to the Palestinian terrorist group Hezbollah. Thirdly, there is Toleration. This is where the state is not directly involved in terrorist activities but it makes no effort to curb it. The example given here is how the Taliban regime time and again permitted international terrorists to use Afghanistan as a training ground and as the epicenter of their operations and refused to co-operate in the incarceration of big time terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Finally, there is Inaction. In this level, the state is not fully in control and is ineffective in dealing with the terrorists. This may be due to weakness on their part or political factors. In this case, Lebanon is a culprit, because for some time, it did not have control over its southern territory, where terrorists operated against Israel. Despite the fact that a state can be held responsible for all the four levels, they will not be dealt with equally. The most important thing is that not all situations can be solved through military intervention; the actions taken to address the issues should be proportional to the consequences of the terrorist attack.
There is another way also that the state can be held responsible for the acts of terrorism. This is if a terrorist group could be considered to be a de facto state organ. Though responsibility of the state is mainly with official state organs, it is explained in The Draft Articles that “an organ includes any person or entity which has the status in accordance with the internal law of the state”. However, this is not the case in all states. In some states, the status of various individuals is determined by practice and not only by the law.
In regard to the position that I have taken on the question of the state being legally responsible for acts of terrorism conducted by private individuals or organizations, I partly agree with this stand. This is because, firstly, if the organs or individuals taking part in the terrorism activities have been given the authority to exercise public functions on behalf of the state and by extension, be its representative, then it would be alright to charge the state if anything went wrong, because they are in essence the state’s responsibility. They are answerable to their employer – the state.
I however do not comply with this statement when it comes to the issue of de facto organizations. This is because despite the fact that they carry out state functions to some degree, the fact that they are not officially recognized should be reason enough not to make the state responsible for their actions. This would of course be a different case if the state actually knew of the existence of such an organization. In a scenario where there is such an organization and the government knows nothing about it, I do not think that the government should be held liable for their actions.
One of the flaws that I have noted in some of the statements that have been postulated in regard to “the levels that a state can be declared responsible for terrorist activity” is the point on Inaction. Using the example of failed states, Rene (2006) says that they would be the most probable examples in the context of terrorism. He says that this is a system that has collapsed as a result of a revolution and the government therefore becomes unable to execute the functions in certain parts of the region. A terrorist organization then comes in and takes over the running of that state and starts fighting a neighboring state. He says that although the country is incapacitated, it is still responsible for the action of that private entity. The author says that the government “is the organ that guards and controls the territorial sovereignty and should ensure that there is no illegal rival to its monopolistic right to exercise public power”. In my opinion, I do not think that it would be fair to hold a person or an organization responsible for something they have no control over. In an instance where the country is taken over by armed militia like in instances of coup and the state authority is rendered helpless, I do not think it would make sense to still hold the state responsible because the matter now is completely out of their hands.
List of References
Becker, T. (2006) Terrorism and the State: Rethinking the Rules of State Responsibility. [Online]. Available at: http://jicj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pdf_extract/5/1/245 [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]
Cordesman, H.A. (2002) Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Washington, DC: Westport, CT
Vark, R. (2006) State Responsibility for Private Armed Groups in the Context of Terrorism. [Online]. Available at: http://www.juridicainternational.eu/public/pdf/ji_2006_1_184.pdf [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]
United Nations (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, With Commentaries. United Nations Publications
Terrorism Research. Early Origins of Terrorism: 14th -18th Century. [Online]. Available at: http://www.terrorism-research.com/history/early.php [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]
 Terrorism Research. Early Origins of Terrorism: 14th -18th Century. [Online]. Available at: http://www.terrorism-research.com/history/early.php [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]
 Becker, Tal. (2006) Terrorism and the State: Rethinking the Rules of State Responsibility. [Online]. Available at: http://jicj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pdf_extract/5/1/245 [Accessed: 3 May, 2008] 245
 Vark, Rene. (2006) State Responsibility for Private Armed Groups in the Context of Terrorism. [Online]. Available at: http://www.juridicainternational.eu/public/pdf/ji_2006_1_184.pdf [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]
 United Nations (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, With Commentaries. United Nations Publications
 Vark, R. (2006) State Responsibility for Private Armed Groups in the Context of Terrorism. [Online]. Available at: http://www.juridicainternational.eu/public/pdf/ji_2006_1_184.pdf [Accessed: 3 May, 2008]