Growing up in the Middle East, it was always clear that there are two standards for what constitutes terrorist activity. The conventional understanding is that activity targeting civilians by non-state actors is terrorist, while state actors who kill civilians as part of ongoing military conflict are just doing what needs to be done in a war scenario. This line was constantly blurred in the Arab world. Sometimes, it was because state actors funded non-state actors as players in proxy wars. Other times, as was the case with Hamas in Palestine, it was because the state wasn’t fully formed, and so solo organisations took matters into their own hands. The complexity of who is a terrorist and who is a patriotic soldier defending their country or furthering its political interests has become further complicated by the advent of extrajudicial killings via remote assassination technology. 

When it’s Jihadi John, an executioner who was part of Isis, a man who kidnapped and killed hostages, the termination by US forces is straightforward. When it is Osama bin Laden, a man who has waged a campaign of terror across both the west and the Muslim world, his elimination on sight by US forces in his hideaway in Pakistan may raise some questions on due process, but nothing more. When the target is a major general in the Iranian military, the moral and legal terrain becomes more fraught.

On the one hand, there is little to mourn about Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander killed in Iraq by a US airstrike on 3 January who rained death on civilians in Iraq, Syria, and lately Yemen. That sentence should not be followed by a “but”. And yet, if his actions are part of a legitimate state policy, then the definition, and consequently the political handling of such an individual, should be litigated government to government. That sounds like apologism for the career of a man whose death many are celebrating, but the normalisation of extrajudicial killings outside a political process in countries with established diplomatic relations with the rest of the world seems like the start of a new era.

The same goes for what constitutes an extremist organisation. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion was last week included on a list of extremist movements. There couldn’t be anything less “extreme” than campaigning for climate change awareness. The justification seemed flimsy. A decision was made after an assessment of a “range of security risks”. Traffic disruption seems to be the worst that Extinction Rebellion has got up to. The decision seems ideological, rather than neutral. 

I haven’t got to the bottom of all these questions, but it seems to be heading to the erosion of trust in the state to make such designations in ways divorced from political agenda or ideology. But if we can’t trust governments to make such calls, then who can we trust?

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