On March 24, 2015, a Germanwings flight carrying 144 passengers and six crewmembers crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. Investigations revealed that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz brought down the plane intentionally, after he locked the captain out of the cockpit.
Many people posted on social media following the crash, expressing anger for the fact that major news outlets did not explore the possibility that the crash was an act of ‘terrorism’. The question then remains: what constitutes “terrorism?” Why is it that one deliberate plane crash can be labeled an ‘act of terror’, yet another cannot?
In its simplest terms, the dictionary definition of “terrorism” is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”. It is a difficult subject to approach, however, and the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” quite accurately depicts the problem.
The key to identifying a “terrorist” lies in the usage of the word “coercion.” Terrorists generally aim to replace a state’s political, religious, or social ideology by forcefully implementing their own. Despite the fact that a standard definition does not exist, it is agreed upon in the study of international relations that terrorism has traditionally been identified by certain factors. They are generally violent acts that have some sort of political motive, i.e. an aim to impose a specific ideology on the target state. Furthermore, while these acts are directed at a larger audience, they deliberately target civilians.
Andreas Lubitz did not possess any of these characteristics. Evidence showing that he had been treated for depression, and that he had searched methods of suicide on the internet prior to the flight emerged, further demonstrating that this was not an act of terrorism. For this reason, the outrage on the media coverage of the cause of the crash is misplaced. It may rightfully be an act of premeditated mass murder, however, but not of terrorism.
Although it may seem logical to define a terrorist as one who spreads terror, an act of terrorism has some sort of political aim. This is not to say that the use of terrorism is effective when it comes to achieving political goals. In fact, terrorist attacks are quite ineffective and do more harm than good for the terrorist group’s mission.
Max Abrahms, a prominent theorist on the topic of terrorism, explains that objectives of a terrorist group can be categorized as either maximalist or limited. A maximalist objective intends to reform the target state’s entire political system or to destroy it because of its values, whereas a limited objective demands control over territory or demands that a foreign military vacate a land. These are essentially the two types of objectives that a “terrorist” has. A study on twenty-eight terrorist groups, conducted by Abrahms, found that these groups achieved their policy objectives only 7% of the time.
Violent acts of terrorism end up harming what may even be a legitimate cause, because the governments of target states will make conclusions about the group based on the consequences of their actions, not on the group’s intentions. A target government will see a violent act, such as the 9/11 attacks for example, as an attack on the state’s values and as animosity towards the state’s political ideology.
Without a doubt, the aftermath of terrorist attacks is often devastating for the target state. However, as much as terrorist groups would like to believe that these violent acts coerce and manipulate governments and help further their own agendas, the truth could not be further from reality. Violent acts of terrorism are ineffective when it comes to achieving long term goals, such as changing government policy As such, terrorist groups must re-evaluate their methods if they hope to achieve legitimacy for their causes.