The Usefulness of the “Civilian” vs. “Military” Targeting Distinction in Defining Terrorism

February 24, 2016
The Usefulness of the “Civilian” vs. “Military” Targeting Distinction in Defining Terrorism
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

In the longstanding debate about how best to define terrorism, some distinguish terrorism from other forms of political violence based on the targets of the violence. That is, a terrorist attack targets civilians, and not military personnel.

Does this targeting distinction provide a sound basis for defining terrorism?

There are several reasons why some might be drawn to this distinction. It reflects the popular experience of terrorism in the modern age, in which we witness horrific attacks like those recently on the seaside resorts of Tunisia, and the cities of Beirut and Paris. In addition, many scholars and analysts find the distinction useful as a means of discriminating between different types of non-state actors. In academic studies, attacks on military targets are often attributed to “insurgents,” or “guerrillas,” while “terrorists” attack civilians.

The standard is also practical because it provides a straightforward, if sometimes controversial, way of ruling out terrorism: if military personnel are targeted, the attack is not terrorism. For example, by this criterion none of the following incidents qualify as terrorist attacks: the July 2015 shooting spree that killed five service members at two Chattanooga, Tennessee military installations; the May 2013 stabbing of a soldier on the street in Woolwich, south east London; the 2009 attacks by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at  the Fort Hood military base in the United States; the 1983 bombings of French and American military barracks in Beirut; or the September 2001 Al Qaeda attack on the Pentagon that killed large numbers of uniformed military inside the building (that is, if we exclude those that were civilian employees).

Another reason why some focus on this targeting distinction when defining terrorism is that it accords with International Humanitarian Law. According to the Geneva Conventions, an attack against a state’s military personnel is an act of war, while targeting civilians is a crime. Finally, it seems to follow a seemingly clear and just principle: members of the state’s armed forces are directly implicated in executing its policies. In contrast, civilians bear no direct responsibility for the state’s policies or actions in the conflict that inspires the militant violence.

Clearly, in the abstract, this targeting distinction has many advantages as a starting point for defining terrorism. But, how well does it fare in practice? Unfortunately, not especially well, for at least three reasons.

First, some would dispute whether or not focusing on the target of an attack is an especially sound way conceptually to distinguish terrorist violence. The target of an attack is inconsequential in discriminating whether it is terrorism. What really matters is the strategic logic underlying an act of violence and whether it exhibits the features of terrorism as a form of armed conflict.

Consider the classic strategy of terrorism as outlined by Neumann and Smith. As they explain, the strategic logic of terrorism is based on “provocation”: attacks generate fear or disorient a population, eliciting a repressive or incompetent response by the government. This provides an opportunity for the militants to mobilize supporters and win adherents to their cause.

By this logic, what makes the 2001 attacks on military personnel in the Pentagon qualify as terrorism is Al Qaeda’s aim to incite a repressive response by the United States and mobilize supporters around the globe. Similarly, the Woolwich stabbing might be deemed a terrorist attack given that the attacker stated he was avenging Muslim deaths overseas and called on passersby to “remove your governments.” For some analysts, political goals of this kind are sufficient to deem attacks against military targets terrorism.

Second, what qualifies as a military or a civilian target is far from obvious. Take, to start, what counts as a military target. One could simply follow the legal definition—current membership in a state military.

Some would contest, however, whether this legal definition really captures the spirit of what is intended by a “military target.” This is especially the case if the justification for attacks on military personnel is that they are directly involved in executing the state’s policies.

The problem is that just because a victim is a member of the armed forces does not mean he or she is actually involved in a particular conflict, at least in any meaningful sense. What matters is the individual’s proximity to the conflict and role within it.

In other words, the circumstances of an attack are crucial in determining whether it is against a “military target.”  The time, place, and what the victim was doing at the time of the encounter matter. Were the soldiers deployed to the conflict zone or engaged in combat-related duties? Were they instead off-duty, or otherwise geographically or functionally remote from the conflict?

By this logic, an attack on a member of the military could qualify as terrorism. Consider the incidents cited above, which involve an attacks on: service members at a recruiting office in a suburban strip mall and at a nearby reserve center (Chattanooga); a soldier out of uniform, walking home on an urban street (Woolwich); marines and soldiers off-duty in their barracks (Beirut); and military personnel engaged in administrative duties in a distant headquarters (the Pentagon). When we take into consideration the actual jobs of these individuals or what they were doing when they were attacked, those incidents start to look a lot more similar in kind to attacks on civilians.

And then there is the corollary problem: what counts as a civilian target? International law defines civilians in the negative sense—anyone not in a state military is a civilian. But what is crucial, once again, is what people actually mean when they use the term “civilian.”

For many, “civilian” is equivalent to “innocent.” That is, someone who is a civilian is not responsible for an offending actor’s policies or actions. In this more philosophical sense, “civilian” is shorthand for those we do not consider culpable for the state’s actions.

Whether one is “innocent” or “culpable” in a dispute, however, does not depend intrinsically on whether one is, in fact, a civilian or a member of the military. Civilians may be guilty in the sense of being deeply implicated in supporting an adversary’s policies. In this circumstance, some would see attacking them as legitimate, as ethically akin to attacking a military target. Conversely, in some circumstances we might conclude that members of an armed force are “innocent.”

An example from the philosopher Uwe Steinhoff in the book, Civilian Immunity in War, illustrates this point. Consider the case of a farmer who provides succor to a state’s military and morally supports its position in a conflict. Now compare him with a conscript who knows little about, and has little influence on, the state’s political decisions; the soldier remains in the army only because he otherwise will be shot or imprisoned. From a legal perspective, targeting the conscript is a legitimate act of war. Targeting the farmer—a civilian—is not. But, from an ethical or philosophical stance, who is more innocent in the conflict?

There is a third problem with the targeting distinction: even were it possible to devise an objective schema classifying targets according to their culpability in a conflict, the schema would fail to gain wide acceptance. That is because assigning guilt and innocence is inherently subjective. Who is “culpable” or “guilty” in a conflict and therefore deserving of the status of a legitimate military target, is socially constructed in different communities—it depends on how local participants see things. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, many Catholics, for example, agreed with the Provisional IRA that off-duty British soldiers drinking in a pub constituted legitimate military targets. The British, of course, saw things quite differently.

In the end, any effort to discriminate terrorist attacks by their targets falls prey to the same subjectivities and conceptual ambiguities that plague the larger project to define terrorism.