Counterterror Conference Sidesteps Issue of Defining Terrorism

By Patrick Goodenough | February 8, 2005 | 7:15 PM EST

( - An international conference on counterterrorism, hosted by Saudi Arabia, has run up against some Arab participants' reluctance to accept the widely-held Western view that violence against civilians constitutes terrorism, irrespective of the circumstances.

The four-day gathering in Riyadh has also reportedly witnessed heated behind-closed-doors exchanges between U.S. delegates and their counterparts from Iran and Syria -- countries accused by Washington of sponsoring terror.

The conference has brought together hundreds of officials and experts from international organizations and 50 countries, including 16 Arab states. Although the government announced that it had invited all countries that had suffered from terrorism, Israel was not on the invitation list.

Local media reports said that a series of workshops held on Monday focused on ways of fighting terrorism rather than the sensitive issue of how to define it.

"The solution is in trying to [come up with] detailed proposals to counter terrorism, while dismissing things that might stir controversies and which are related to the definition of terrorism," the host country's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was quoted as saying.

The main controversy in recent attempts to define terrorism has centered on the Arab-Muslim argument that those fighting "foreign occupation" -- usually a reference to Palestinian "militants" and anti-coalition "insurgents" in Iraq - are not terrorists.

According to summarized transcripts made available by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), some Arab delegates at the Riyadh conference felt that a distinction should be drawn.

Egyptian delegate Mahmoud Allam, a deputy foreign minister, "emphasized the importance of laying international definitions for terrorism and differentiating it from a legitimate struggle."

Sudan's delegation head, secret service chief Gen. Salah Abdullah Mohammed, "underlined the necessity of differentiating between terrorism as a crime, and the people's right in armed struggle to liberate their land."

Syrian delegate Brig. Ahmed al Houri said the conference should remove "international confusion over the topic of terrorism." He also said the definition of terrorism should include that of "state terrorism" - a routine reference in the Arab world to Israeli security operations.

Even the host government appeared to agree. Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh al-Sheikh was quoted as saying his ministry had condemned suicide bombings as acts of terror, but that those fighting occupation were not terrorists.

Late last year an expert panel on reforming the United Nations proposed a definition for terrorism for the international community:

"Any action ... that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."

The panel emphasized in its report that "there is nothing in the fact of occupation that justifies the targeting and killing of civilians."

In an address to the Saudi conference, read out on his behalf, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the need for a comprehensive anti-terror convention, "based on a definition of terrorism that makes clear that any targeting of civilians or non-combatants is wrong."

Annan said that all countries "must make clear that no cause whatsoever justifies the targeting of civilians and non-combatants. For Islamic countries, this is doubly important."


The U.S. is represented at the Riyadh conference by a delegation headed by Frances Townsend, the administration's deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism.

In her remarks at the opening session, Townsend quoted directly President Bush's State of the Union assertion that "Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror."

"State sponsors of terrorism are with the terrorists and therefore against all of us," Townsend said, according to a transcript of her comments, also made available by the SPA.

"They are the cowards who hide behind the hateful and murderous surrogates whom they arm, finance, and harbor," she added, urging the delegates to be "unanimous in our strong condemnation of such state sponsorship of terrorism and demand its end."

The proceedings were closed to media, but local newspapers said Iranian delegates had taken issue with the comments, calling the U.S. accusations "baseless" and saying Iran had itself been negatively affected by terrorism. Bush was reportedly accused of using "extremist" language.

The reports said Syrian participants were involved in the verbal clash too. Syria was also singled out by Bush in the State of the Union address.

Before the conference began, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sent a letter to the president urging him not to send Townsend to a conference that would also be attended by three countries - Iran, Syria and Sudan - on the State Department's list of terror-sponsors.

"I believe that U.S. participation in the creation and exchange of effective counterterrorism strategies with known sponsors of terror defies good policy as well as common sense," he said.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said last Friday that U.S. participation in the conference would strengthen counterterrorism cooperation.

It "certainly will not, in any way, lead to looking the other way or condoning or ... in any other way sanctioning or approving what countries who support terrorism do," he said.

See related stories:
Saudis Praised for Fighting Terror, But Incitement Continues (Feb. 08, 2005)
Terrorism is Terrorism, UN Reform Panel Says (Nov. 30, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow