A short history of who gets to define terrorism and why we ought to question it

Written by: Lance Espejo

Artwork by: @manshaade

Despite many appeals against it, the Philippine government has released the implementing rules and regulations of the Anti-Terror Act (ATA). Its criteria for terrorism is still questionable. So who gets to decide the definition of terrorism, and for what purpose? And why is it crucial for us to stop the Anti-Terror Act by all means?

The Summary

1. The “Terrorist” discourse is manufactured for the usage of regimes who struggle to maintain the problematic status quo; and that status quo is imperialism.

2. The Terrorist is a derivative of social boogeyman tactics of old. It is predicated on the discourse of preserving the current order; in this case, the order where the monopoly capitalist’s state and property are sovereign. It is a discourse that reacts to any form of resistance.

3. Looking at the Global Terrorism Index (GTI’s) report on Terrorism, one can read between the lines and see that any group which uses armed means to resist (particularly American) capital’s interest is tagged as Terrorist, without distinction as to which groups are really just conspiratorial bands resorting to terror tactics, and which are actual mass rebellions.

4. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, America, its allies, and puppet states like the Philippines, have put a spotlight on the Terrorist to justify their intervention to us common people. This is why the Terrorist is always seen everywhere as sensationalized spectacles of violence against state forces and elite property.

5. Duterte’s Anti-Terror Law is a hodgepodge of reactionary discourses rooted in our worsening semi-feudal condition, to hold on to such status quo.

6. We must take back the initiative and steer the political discourse away from the reactionary talk, towards addressing the real problems of the Philippines right now. It is only through this path that we can sincerely look towards the ending of armed conflict, and towards progress.

The different origins of terrorism and the Terrorist

While terrorism as a tactic has already existed, these were not framed as terrorism.”

Violence for political means has been a running phenomenon throughout human history. It is the most blatant expression that there exist differences that are based on real problems like exploitation, oppression, and discrimination.

For centuries, human societies have had political violence from below, (mobs against foreign invaders and oppressive masters), as well as violence from above, (the tyrant’s display of despotism in the bodies of the hanged). Acts of political violence by a small band of conspirators have happened as early as the Israeli Zealots of the first century, who harassed and attacked their Roman invaders. These acts, which are similar in nature to what is now portrayed as terrorism, have been happening for a long time.

It is with the advancement of society towards mass production, and the ensuing forms of political friction, that terror as a discourse would begin to appear in legal documents, state proclamations, and other forms. It is during the rise of the bourgeoisie at the end of the 18th century, that the word terror comes into play. It coincided with the Jacobin reign of terror during the development of the French revolution, in which the bourgeoisie attempted to instill fear and suppression upon their enemies.

Death by Guillotine was a prominent tool used during the Jacobin Reign of Terror

Despite the entrance of terrorism in the language of political discourse, the Terrorist figure arrives when the bourgeoisie has taken reigns of the state from the feudal order, and have developed capitalist production into a new stage.

This new stage has intensified the antagonism between the efficiency of socialized production, new technologies and techniques, and the private ownership of these means of production.

This stage can be summarized as a world where capital is concentrated in a few hands, developing a merger between industrial capital and bank capital to form a finance oligarchy, which makes production more efficient, but contradicted by the greed of capitalists and their unplanned production, worsens the crisis of overproduction; these nations export capital globally to attempt to offset overproduction, and the world becomes economically then territorially divided and redivided.

This new stage in human history is what we call imperialism.

The current imperialist order has made the procurement of arms and other forms of destructive technology easier. This has led to an explosion of different new forms taken on by bitter class conflict.

The dominance of imperialism has exacerbated the social antagonisms among the imperialist countries (see the never-ending wars waged by or backed by world powers since the last decade of the 19th century), against colonies and semi-colonies fighting for national sovereignty (see the struggles from third world nations like us, to be rid of the burden of foreign powers plundering our resources and dictating our politics), and within the local classes inside these imperialist nations (see the growing protests, strikes, and growing political tension within these imperialist nations.)

The economic crisis in this era charges the political aspect of the class conflict. Our age is filled with an ebb and flow of national liberation movements against colonial and neocolonial hegemony. It is also rife with bitter struggle both from forces of reaction and those that advocate for radical societal changes. We see this in groups like the Klu Klux Klan in America, blood-thirsty racists who lynched black Americans, and whose sympathies clearly lied with the reactionary plantation-owning class in the South. But we also see this in the countless armed movements and actions from all the oppressed classes, against the system: from peasant guerrilla warfare, urban barricade fighting, and yes, even acts like bank-robbing for political purposes, assassination of political figures, etc.

However, while terrorism as a tactic already has existed, these were not framed as terrorism. Anarchist groups in the 19th century called this as propagande par le fait or propaganda of the deed. This rested on the notion that certain violent acts on their own would serve as catalysts for revolutionary movements from the masses.

An 1881 drawing of G. Broling depicting the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the conspiratorial Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will)

But during this time, governments protecting the interests of imperialism have used other discourses like rebellion, subversion, banditry, and red scare tactics among others.

For the bourgeois state, the discourse they wanted to set was one of loyalty to one’s nation meant loyalty to the government. With the background of two world wars, and the rise of international communism which resisted the bourgeois order, part of red scare tactics included painting these resistance movements as unpatriotic.

If one goes back to the history of the Philippines, one will remember President Carlos Garcia’s Anti-Subversion law of 1957, or Marcos’ Presidential Decree №1834, which revised the terms and punishment of rebellion, sedition, among others. In this document, the Communist Party of the Philippines (1930) was not tagged as a terrorist organization. It was an organization that pushed for the overthrow of the government and was inciting rebellion and sedition. The rhetoric of the Philippine government still rested on notions of patriotism and loyalty to one’s government.

Anti-communist posters from America (left), Philippines (middle), and Germany (right)

It wasn’t until the Cold War that the Terrorist came into discourse.

From the ’60s onward, imperialist powers began to shift to proxy warfare, (which produced groups like Al-Qaeda, and ISIS today), many destabilization projects (from coups, assassinations, and backing actual terrorist attacks like the many attempts of the CIA on Fidel Castro’s life, one of which infamously caused an airplane filled with civilians to crash), and other armed movements around the world.

It is during this time that several legislation and conventions were formed to deal with a new threat: the Terrorist. Two particular events are key in the development of this figure: the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and the infamous 9/11 attack.

However, it is with 9/11 that the US government fully waged this “War on Terror”, with many states soon following suit in using the rhetoric of the Terrorist who threatens public order. Since 9/11, more countries have enacted anti-terrorism legislation over the course of the 2000s

The Beirut bombing of 1983 (left) and Sept 11 attacks (right)

In the Philippines, our first anti-terrorist legislation came in the form of the Human Security Act of 2007. Terrorism is defined with the usual suspects of rebellion and insurrection, but also the adage of destruction or seizure of certain forms of property (piracy and arson among others), as well as criminal acts such as kidnapping and murder. The political discourse in the arena of laws has metamorphosed from merely just being about loyalty to the government. Now it has the adage that these persons or groups labeled as Terrorists are a threat to the alleged peace and order in our country.

With the end of the Cold War resulting in a general retreat of the socialist camp and the intensification of the internal contradictions within the world order of imperialism, the Terrorist takes center stage in official state discourses when it comes to armed or violent conflict against the established regimes.

The quintessential good guy-bad guy discourse used by the bourgeosie has changed. From “democracy vs fascism” of the Second World War, to “Capitalism vs Communism” of the Cold war, this popular good guy vs bad guy rhetoric of regimes worldwide has changed form (but not in essence) into our childhood Counter-Strike game of counter-terrorists vs terrorists.

So who defines terrorism?

“We see how the discourse of the Terrorist is at its core, coming from the status quo dominated by imperialism.”

What other things we learned in the past few decades when the Terrorist appeared?

For one, no so-called “Terrorist group” calls itself a terrorist. So who defines who is a Terrorist?

The 2019 Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace

The Global Terrorism Index report, which is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a US-based think tank, defines terrorism as: “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non‐state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”

However, the GTI itself confesses that “Defining terrorism is not a straightforward matter. There is no single internationally accepted definition of what constitutes terrorism and the terrorism literature abounds with competing definitions and typologies.”

So where do they base their definition from? The report says, “IEP accepts the terminology and definitions agreed to by the GTD and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).” A quick internet search reveals that these institutions were founded by the US Department of Homeland Security.

Looking at the GTI 2019 report’s top 10 countries most affected by the Terrorist, we have Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of these nations have some form of American interest in them that are being violently attacked by these non-state elements.

We see this in how all of these nations have had a history of intervention from the CIA or the American military machinery in history and until now.

Let us zero in on the case in the Philippines. The GTI lists 3 major groups responsible for terrorism in the country: These are the New People’s Army (NPA), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The NPA ranked first, citing the increased NPA activity on the island of Negros, with 53% of its targets being police, military, and other government forces.

GTI report on terrorism in the Philippines in 2019

There are two things of note here: first is that in the United Nations Security Council Consolidated List, the NPA is not listed as a terrorist organization. Designated “Islamic extremist” organizations like the Abu Sayaf Group, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Rajah Solaiman Movement are the groups listed there that operate in the Philippines. However, only the US (in 2002) and Duterte (in 2017) have declared the CPP-NPA-NDF as terrorist organizations. It is also of note that Duterte has increased American military presence through different programs, even as he sings a Chinese tune publicly.

Second, what happened in Negros? The GTI attributes the attacks in Negros to land rights issues. But multiple sources reveal to us that this is not merely a simple land dispute. Backtracking to 2019 will reveal to us that the response to the Negros people’s struggle for land was attacked by militarization. This included the infamous Oplan Sauron and other Synchronized Enhanced Managing of Police Operations (SEMPO) assaults. It is in this context in which the NPA, which is mostly composed of Filipino peasants nationwide, retaliated with huge blows to state forces.

We see how the discourse of the Terrorist comes from the status quo dominated by imperialism. It is obviously not a potent force for social progress, but a rhetoric against imperialist resistance.

This reactionary discourse of making social boogeymen and scapegoats is rested on turning a blind eye to why certain groups resist, by labeling them as motivated by simple “political, economic, religious, or social goals.” It is as if people take on politics or any ideology the same way they buy any commodity, and just so happen to consume “bad” ideas. This notion of a free market of ideas spouted even in academic institutions is dangerously blinding us to the fact that ideologies like religion or politics are always rooted in real tangible problems like hunger and poverty. They are a product and a weapon of the on-going conflict between social classes.

If the Terrorist is the tool of the monopoly capitalist class and their allies who maintain imperialism, people from different social classes have come up with their own devices to subvert this order, regardless of the objective truth to any of these discourses (militant religious movements for example). At the end of the day, the objectivity of discourse is judged by history based on how much the material social world is changed by correct hypotheses.

For every crime these imperialists put under their definition of terrorism, there are countless examples of state forces doing so, albeit it does not occur to them that they too subscribe to their own “political, economic, religious, or social goals” as they enforce the normality of such ideological positions.

What is crucial to the discourse of the Terrorist is not precisely the general definition of terrorism, but who is perpetrating the act. Why? This is because there exists terrorism without the Terrorist, and this is what we call State Terrorism.

Duterte’s state-terrorism

“To the common Filipino people, Duterte and his imperialist masters are merely projecting their own fear of an organized people who won’t take these conditions any longer, especially if they get militant enough to contest the power of the current regime.”

It is at this juncture where the massive clamor against Duterte’s Anti-Terror Act begins.

Duterte’s Anti-Terror Act is not merely an attack on a small band of conspirators in the archipelago. The clauses in the document could make any form of legitimate criticism be packaged as the order-threatening Terrorist.

But with the current economic crisis, and rampant human rights violations caused by the military, the people have a legitimate reason to criticize.

Despite all his economic propagandists, Duterte’s claims of economic improvement are a sham. Contrary to his promises during the 2016 electoral campaign, Duterte has proven to be a staunch ally to imperialism, both American and Chinese, by continuing to beg for funds improperly used to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as maintain whatever grip he has on Philippine politics through parliamentary and military means.

It is in this context which gives the common Filipino reason to criticize Duterte, and organize themselves to struggle for their democratic rights and legitimate needs. It is also in this context in which Duterte responds with the morbid and reactionary Anti-Terror Act.

However, nothing in the discourse within and surrounding the ATA is original. It is a copy-paste of past and present reactionary discourses. In propagandizing the public acceptance (if he still cared) of the Anti-Terror Act, Duterte uses the Terrorist, communist red scare tactics of the previous century, as well as the feudal display of power by arbitrarily tagging, despite the contrary evidence and any consensus, as to who are state threats.

In his speeches, he acts like a despotic monarch who will have his way because he said so. He also enjoys the spectacle of violence against his enemies. It is the same logic that goes behind the spectacle of capital punishment and the arbitrariness of justice in medieval times.

He acts like a fascist demagogue who uses anti-communism to mask simple cries against human rights violations.

He uses the law to scare the public with the figure of the pillaging Terrorist, even as he simultaneously uses actual terrorist tactics to the common people.

This mixture of ideological devices (Foucault’s dispositif, or Althusser’s ideological state apparatus may be of conceptual use here) all serve the same purpose of maintaining a Philippines dependent and subservient to imperialist interest, taking advantage of its underdeveloped economy.

We see here that the discourse of the Anti-Terror Act is rooted in these same concrete social factors that comprise what we call semi-feudalism: a pre-industrial agricultural economy in subservience to imperialism.

With the Anti-Terror Act, Duterte has made a massive error by essentially declaring war against an ocean of common Filipinos. In resorting to social boogeyman tactics, Duterte tries to make us afraid of the innocent folk airing what their tired and hungry bodies cry, into political slogans.

We ask, “if that is what the Terrorist looks like, why would we be scared?”

To the common Filipino people, Duterte and his imperialist masters are merely projecting their own fear of an organized people who won’t take these conditions any longer, especially if they get militant enough to contest the power of the current regime.

Despite this, we must go back to the basic truth in the grumbling bellies and empty wallets of the masses. This is what is objectively true that no rhetoric or discourse can deny forever. This is the heart of the rising opposition in the country right now, from militant gatherings, voices echoing online and on the streets, and even in the motivations of armed groups.

Duterte, and all their military propagandists cannot dismiss these as indoctrination by “foreign ideologies.” Hunger and economic instability do not lie. That is where we must shift the conversation, not to social boogeyman tactics and other reactionary talks. It is only through this path that we can sincerely look towards the ending of armed conflict, and towards progress.


The New York Times, The New York Times, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/hoffman-terrorism.html.

“Anti-Terrorism Legislation.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Sept. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-terrorism_legislation.

“History — The Changing Faces of Terrorism.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/sept_11/changing_faces_01.shtml.

Joselito Guianan Chan, Managing Partner. “CRALAW.” 15 Years of Public Service to Filipino People and the World, www.chanrobles.com/republicactno1700.htm#.X5JpQYgzb4Y.

Olea, Ronalyn V. “Negros Killings, ‘a War against Unarmed Civilians’ — Groups.” Bulatlat, 4 Aug. 2019, www.bulatlat.com/2019/07/27/negros-killings-a-war-against-unarmed-civilians-groups/.

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Vision of Humanity. “Global Terrorism Index.” Vision of Humanity, visionofhumanity.org/indexes/terrorism-index/.

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The Institute advances ideas and information campaigns on social issues to ferment a nationalist consciousness for the interest of the people’s welfare