In his inaugural address, President Trump railed against “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he promised to “eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” The statement was meant to signal a bold new approach to counterterrorism, one in which terrorism is defined by the religion embraced by its supporters.
But this rhetorical change is really a distraction from the more important issue: how terrorism itself is defined. Currently, the legal definition of terrorism in the United States is alarmingly broad. Experience from countries in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrates why that is a problem; it allows governments to use counterterror legislation against political opponents.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, counterterror legislation in the Middle East and beyond is frequently used not only against members of terrorist groups but also against members of the press and political opposition. Such political uses of counterterror legislation are possible because of intentionally broad definitions of terrorism.
In Morocco, it took just a few months for newly passed counterterror legislation to be used against journalists. Prior to the May 2003 Casablanca bombings, proposed counterterror legislation had been languishing in parliament, opposed by nearly all political parties. The law altered the definition of terrorism in the country’s penal code, increased the time someone can be held without charge from 96 hours to 14 days and increased penalties for those convicted under the statute. The law defined terrorism as acts that “are deliberately perpetuated by an individual, group or organization, where the main objective is to disrupt public order by intimidation, force, violence, fear or terror.” Because the definition does not require someone to have participated in a violent act, it greatly expanded who could be tried as a terrorist.
In response to the proposed legislation, scholar Jack Kalpakian referred to the bill as “a Moroccan version of the USA PATRIOT Act.” Human rights groups made similar critiques. Despite this resistance, after the bombings, civil society and political parties largely accepted the bill. The law was approved within a week. Less than three months later, Moroccan courts had already convicted multiple journalists under the new legislation, claiming that their reporting justified terrorism or incited violence.
The use of counterterror legislation against individuals who are not terrorists has far-reaching consequences for their access to other rights. In 2014, prominent Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla was arrested after his website reported on an al-Qaeda video that criticized the king. Because he was arrested under the counterterrorism law rather than another section of the penal code, the police were able to refuse him access to a lawyer for three days and not charge him for seven days.
Other authoritarian regimes have embraced similar tactics. In Egypt, new counterterror legislation passed in 2015 targeted the press. It is effectively now a crime to report a different narrative about a terrorist attack than that expressed by the regime. Journalists and news outlets that do not comply face stiff penalties, including huge fines and possible imprisonment. U.S. legislators’ proposal to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is a page taken directly out of General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s playbook. In 2013, within days of designating the group a terrorist organization, the Egyptian state arrested journalists covering the Muslim Brotherhood under the counterterror law, claiming that their coverage promoted the group. The speed of their arrest illustrates how journalists have little time to adjust to the changing political landscape.
In Saudi Arabia, changes to the country’s counterterror legislation in 2014 targeted free expression. The definition of terrorism embraced in the legislation is so broad that, as in Morocco, violence is not even necessary. Criminalized acts include those that “insult the reputation of the state” or “harm public order.” Even advocating atheism is considered terrorism according to the legislation. Multiple members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have been convicted under the law.
Beyond the Middle East, even democracies have fallen prey to problematic definitions of terrorism. In 2014, the United Kingdom appointed David Anderson to review the country’s counterterror legislation. His report called for the definition of terrorism to be narrowed. He told the BBC that the legislation “has begun to catch people it never really intended to catch.” In particular, he singled out bloggers and journalists as individuals at risk of conviction under the law.
As Andrew March recently described, the United States has already taken steps to interpret counterterror legislation and other statutes in a way that allows for wide applicability. Examples from the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate the risks of such an approach, particularly to journalists and members of the political opposition. The focus on whether or not to call it “radical Islamic terrorism” obfuscates the more critical issue of how to define terrorism and terrorists. In light of these examples, a narrow definition of terrorism would be a truly bold approach to counterterrorism.
Ann Marie Wainscott is an assistant professor of political science at Saint Louis University. Her new book, “Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror,” will be published by Cambridge University Press in fall 2017. Follow her @annmwainscott.