Rethinking States And Terrorism: States as Terrorists

By Caleb Newton

        Can a state commit an act of terrorism, and does it matter outside of theory? The question, given occasion by the Islamic State (IS), looms large over the international community. For example, if IS is a “state” then it cannot, according to most definitions of terrorism, commit a terrorist act. Still, IS is a product of Islamic terrorism through and through; I do not imagine that many would dispute that claim. If the international community, though, takes it upon itself to define what constitutes a state, then it is engaging in dangerous power centralization. 

        As one can see from the problem outlined above, there is a major need for a systematic legal definition of terrorism. An inability to prosecute terrorists, who according to my definition willfully harm civilians in the absence of war, is a terrible problem. Such a legal tying of hands allows for relative freedom from consequences for the perpetrator. Traditionally, state entities that commit atrocities against civilians have been free from terrorist designation. The most effective path would be to abandon theories restricting terrorism to non-state actors, and instead to rearrange our understanding of states towards a person-centric understanding, thereby allowing the notion that states, by definition, commit terrorism and, in an important application, allowing for a clear and unified system of prosecution.

        Here, I would like to highlight an issue that is important for our discussion about terrorism: The state is, technically, a figure of imagination. At International Roundtables, one does not find USA, Russia, and China sitting around a table. Instead, Ambassadors, Representatives - people, in short - from each of the respective countries are present at the figurative table. My contention, then, is that instead of people being instruments of states, states are instruments of people. The world’s primary actors are people, persons, the inhabitants of the world, not states.

        Historically speaking, the modern definition and understanding of a state, a nation-state, goes back only to the 1600s and the founding of the Netherlands from the midst of the Spanish Empire. Although there were organized governments before that time, the modern insistence on the societal, anti-personal level, is precisely that - modern. The transition into the era of the primacy of the macro level of society, as opposed to the micro level of the person, is the hallmark change of the era of the nation state (i.e. all of a sudden the entire world became fixated on societal betterment and blind nationalism). The state became a living and breathing entity on its own. The macro level as the theoretical predominance in power of the state is quite dangerous since it shuts out any importance, or at least any predominance, to the level of the individual human being, allowing atrocities like terrorism to unfold.

        Since the person is the true primary actor in the world system and states are “new,” there is little difference in theory between the actions of a lone wolf terrorist committing an attack against civilians and of an established entity, like the Syrian regime or the Islamic State, committing a reasonably similar act. The acts are the same in that they are both committed by the same entity - the person – and perpetrated against the same target – civilians. Although the person is operated upon by social forces, like trust and incentive, nevertheless he - or she - is still the one and only primary actor of operation.

        Therefore, since there is little fundamental difference between the acts committed by an individual person and the acts committed by a person operating within the social construct of a state, the two acts should be legally recognized as the same. People operating as the leaders of societies should be held accountable for atrocities with the same fervor as a domestic terrorist in any Western country. In conclusion, yes, a state can “commit a terrorist act,” through the hands of a leader, and the question is incredibly important outside of theory because of the need to systematically and legally address obvious atrocities against civilians. 

(Image: Minos, Judge of the Damned/Gustave Doré)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. Yes, states are made of people they are not independent entities, but if we are start to accuse the state of terrorism we'll do in the person of who? Who should we prosecute as a terrorist, the president, the prime minister, the defense minister, the economy minister, the interior minister, state clerks, all civil servants working for that regime, like the did with Nazi elements after the war? To me it doesn't sound very practical but it was a nice read, thank you.

    1. Hello Pietr,
      The practicality of prosecution for terrorism when the charge is leveled at the state is an important question. The Nuremberg trials were an important precedent, as were the other tribunals that have been set up throughout modern history. There is a certain tedious nature to prosecuting every member of a government.
      What is the practical solution? Although states are commonly conceived of as perfectly legitimate entities, my quest is to find the ideal system of governance, discarding the many examples of illegitimate regimes. So many have taken the same quest, but anyway,.
      In that regard, the most practical and immediately doable part of my proposal is a disregard for social cronyism. Sure, there "is" a way to prosecute leaders of states for crimes- in a legal code that is perhaps more accurately called a "lel cd" because it has so many holes. What we need is the conservative ideal of small government. A small government is a controllable government.
      My proposal has highlighted a "worst case scenario." The most practical thing to do is to wear down the totalitarian influence of nationalistic states and to prevent the scenario from ever happening that a state can be accused of terrorism. How to do that? Stop the oppression of centralized power.

  2. Hi Caleb,

    I don't think states can commit acts of terrorism but they do commit crimes against humanity. What is terrorism? Terrorism is a violent act directed at civilians, perpetrated by non-state actors, to achieve a political purpose.
    Now, you suggest an absolute change in the core of the several definitions of terrorism (and I agree 100% with you that we do need one solid definition of Terror) by eliminating the "non-state actor" condition from the definition; how do you intend to convince policy makers to do just that? They will want to defend their future space of manoeuvre, so we have to ask ourselves whether you're not adding ashes to an already fiery debate (so far with no conclusion in sight).

    You suggest a state may direct its attacks at civilians: when we speak of asymmetric warfare, does a state really attack civilians or do the rebels hide among the civilian population prompting a situation where civilians will be a casualty of war (the international law does not say it is forbidden to kill civilians, it just says it is forbidden to target them on purpose)? President al-Assad may not have purposefully targeted civilians, his law enforcement started by repressing protests (organised by the opposition supported by foreign elements); then rebel groups began to form and arrive in the country, by this time his military stepped into the scene and the civil war broke out (meanwhile the people began moving out of the country, i.e. displaced population - did President al-Assad attack these civilians or did he let them leave the country? The answer is clear).
    So to accuse Bashar al-Assad of terrorism may reveal itself to be complicated because he can always allege he was after the rebels, who did keep the war inside the cities. But why did the rebels do that? Maybe to lead the world into accusing the President of being a terrorist. Perhaps the countries sponsoring those rebels wanted to influence the world system...?

    This is a thought-provoking post, Caleb. I like it.


  3. People operating as leaders of societies should be held accountable even for political negligence, economic destruction of the country, for instance. But what we have is politicians ruining economies and then being rewarded with either high income jobs or freedom to trade influence and information.

    Regarding the question in hand: as I told you before, Caleb, States are considered legitimate entities, whereas terrorists - non-state actors - are not, obviously. However, when states target civilians directly there are legal provisions to prosecute leaders for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity - look at the cases of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, for instance. Having said this, if we have the legal instruments to go after leaders who "terrorise" - which differs from committing acts of terrorism - their civilians, then it would be redundant to want to create another legal instrument to punish them for their crime.
    A State may be a modern term - before that we had Kingdoms - but the entity of general authority remains, and this authority needs to be regarded under the law as a legitimate one lest we encourage anarchy.
    A non-state actor is not legitimate under no circumstance and the way it chooses to pursue its political goals is very important, since that choice is what differentiates a terrorist from a freedom fighter - and the old axiom "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is absolutely false by target selection and spread for political convenience.

    I appreciated the challenge and I appreciate your request, if you will, for more personal responsibility when people, in this case politicians, act.

    Shabbat Shalom

    1. Hello Cristina,
      Perhaps my proposal could be regarded as an argument by absurdity for the scaling back of centralized government. If the end result of a state as conceived of in the traditional centralized sense committing terrorism does not fit well, then the perception of what is a state should change. My answer is that the state is a social construct, at the whims of the people. Locke said something similar in the concept of government as a social compact.
      I do not feel that a centralized government is legitimate. Decentralized government, government in the hands of the people, is the only legitimate entity under Locke's system and mine. The ideal is expressed by conservatism and Republicanism. Not the US GOP, but the ideal of government in the hands of the people, a balance between mobocracy and dictatorship.
      I think the problem with the modern world is mobocracy, which is really nothing more than a form of dictatorship. Why? Because it is the tyranny of the few, the tyranny of the heads of the interest groups.
      Government should be considered as in the hands of the people at all times. There is no place for the crushing of dissenters. The practical method for prosecution of a terrorist state is the ending of that state. Which leads me to the question, well what is a state?, which I will address soon.
      The issue of multiple legal systems for the same act is an important question. Firstly, I feel that the current legal systems are extremely lacking. There are many holes. I also feel, when looking at the ICC's definition of crimes against humanity, that terrorism committed by the state is a crime against humanity.
      I could say much more but I will leave some for future articles. The end result of my proposal is the reorganizing of what we think of as states and the support of a social system that allows for the individual man to shine forth freely. Legal prosecution in a courtroom is not an often practicable goal. My ideal courtroom is the court of the public action, that which is housed in man's mind. Republican government is the best.
      I also question: How is a nonstate actor an illegitimate entity? People, nonstates, are the ones in control in the ideal system. The people come first, not the state.

  4. I think that one forgets to consider Pakistan when discussing this topic. Ask Indians and Afghanistans and the Bangladeshis of pre 1970 vintage and they will tell you all about state terrorism.

    1. Historical events and atrocities do give a sort of urgency when looking for ways to stop crimes against humanity (which I feel should be regarded as one in the same with terrorism, but that can be explained later). I will keep Pakistan in mind.


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