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The US has been at war for a decade without having a clear definition of whom – or what – it is fighting.  The Bush administration repeatedly used the terms “War on Terrorism,” “War on Terror” and “Global War on Terror,” ignoring critics who said declaring war on a method of violence was too vague and unlikely ever to be won.  
The Obama administration emphasized that the US was not involved in a war against Islam, but rather against certain extremist groups.  It urged the Pentagon to adopt  “overseas contingency operation” to describe its expanding battlefield.    But this terminology has not replaced the “War on Terror” in the public mind, and government agencies like the FBI are still devoting the lion’s share of their resources to the hunt for “terrorists.” 
One major problem with the term “terrorist” or “terrorism” is the lack of clarity about what these words mean. 
There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. It is defined in the US Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). This was the definition that the FBI used in compiling its various reports on terrorist incidents before 2006.  
In 2006 it used the definition of terrorism contained in US law 22 U.S.C. § 2656f – “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” It also broadened its methodology in its 2006 Report on Terrorist Incidents, resulting in a dramatic surge in the number of reported incidents. 
The authors of the 2006 Report admit that the “determination of what constitutes an incident of terrorism is often subjective…because it is frequently based on incomplete information about an incident, including the perpetrator’s specific motivation or ideology.” Other problems include the difficulty of determining who exactly is a “non combatant” and what exactly is “politically motivated” violence.
Who gets classified as a “terrorist” ultimately depends on US foreign policy. Take the example of the Kurds. According to the October 23, 2007 New York Times, the Kurdish guerrillas fighting Turkey – the P.K.K. – are classified as terrorists because Turkey is an important ally.  The Kurdish guerillas fighting Iran – the P.J.A.K. – are not classified as terrorists, and instead may enjoy (covert) US support. The Times writes:
Because the P.K.K. is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and aiding such groups is illegal, the United States is eager to avoid any hint of cooperation with the P.J.A.K….In fact, the two groups appear to a large extent to be one and the same, and share the same goal: fighting campaigns to win new autonomy and rights for Kurds in Iran and Turkey. They share leadership, logistics and allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the P.K.K. leader imprisoned in Turkey.
The confusion over the use of the term “terrorism” was ratcheted up in March 2011 when the United States joined an international military campaign to defend Libyan “rebels” who had taken up arms against a long-established government.   
The speed with which yesterday’s terrorist suicide bomber could become today’s freedom-seeking hero was illustrated by the March 25 CNN Situation Room which featured the self-sacrifice of Ahmed Al Mendhi. On February 19, this 49-year-old oil worker reportedly loaded his car with explosives, read the Qu’ran for 30 minutes, and then drove the car at high speed into the gate outside the barracks in Benghazi occupied by government soldiers.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.