When is a criminal a terrorist?

Two decades ago many Rwandans were slaughtered in cold blood, in what is now known as the Genocide of the Tutsi. It occurred decades after the Holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War.

Two decades ago many Rwandans were slaughtered in cold blood, in what is now known as the Genocide of the Tutsi. 

It occurred decades after the Holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War. In just 100 days in 1994, more than one million people were slaughtered in Rwanda by Hutu extremists. 


They were targeting members of the Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin. 


While all this madness was happening, the international community was discussing the right terminology to use so that they can intervene and stop the blood that was flowing like rivers in Rwanda.


Like the Genocide, the greatest danger facing the world today is now terrorism, it comes from religiously inspired, state sponsored terrorist groups that seek to impose their own political ideology by using weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets.

According to Dershowitz, terrorism is our own making; we must and can take steps to reduce the frequency and severity of terrorist acts.  

The bombing of Madrid in 2004 would have suggested plans and measures that would stop this kind of madness from happening again on the doorsteps of Europe.

However, the following year on July 7, 2005, the London 

Metro was hit by violent explosions that killed 52 people and wounded thousands.  As if this was not a lesson for Europe to work together and cooperate to prevent further human and property destruction, the Charlie Hebdo newspaper was attacked by terrorists  and 13 lives were lost with hundreds of thousands left with serious injuries.

The failure by the international community to understand the root causes of terrorism and inappropriate reaction to them has left terrorists exploiting weaknesses and loopholes in the European legal systems. 

This explains why terrorism seems to rise even further when the international community gives in to the demands of terrorists – or even taking weak measures to eliminate the “root causes” of terrorism. 

Indeed, the extreme approaches to wiping out international terrorism would work if the security institutions were not constrained by legal, moral, and humanitarian considerations. 

Given that the European community operates under legal constraints, the rules of the game should be changed so that terrorism and its root causes could be dealt with effectively and severely by striking a balance between security and liberty.

When a Brussels Airport was attacked last month, interestingly most, if not all, the suspects were well known criminals roaming the streets of the European Capital Brussels. After the attack the Minister for Justice and that of Interior resigned. But this happened after scores of lives had been lost. 

The question is, why is Europe so weak when it comes to combating terrorism compared to other parts of the world, including even small African countries with limited resources?

Indeed, one of the Brussels attack suspects was on parole after being released from prison for criminal offences. 

And, despite having abused his parole and left to Syria before he was intercepted and returned home by Turkish officials, Belgian authorities were caught up in definitions; whether he was an ordinary criminal or terrorist? Does it make a difference if one is caught entering a terrorist group’s territory with the intention to commit acts of terrorism and is prevented to commit it? 

And, by calling him a criminal, not a terrorist, does it help to reform his mind?

The West has often exhibited double standards on global issues, especially with regard to Africa. Imagine one of the campaign managers of Donald Trump, a Republican hopeful in the ongoing United States presidential campaign, was arrested for assaulting people; if this was in Africa the West would have called it overreaction and accused the government in government in question of harassing the opposition.

Europe should learn from other countries on how effectively they can address threats of terrorism. Terrorism is not necessarily about poverty, social inequality, social integration… because many of the terrorists are educated, have money, and are Europe born, not new entrants or immigrants or asylum seekers.

Unless Europe strengthens its legal system, ensures co-operation of security agencies and strikes a balance between security and liberty – in the same way some African nations have done and have subsequently been wrongly been criticized by the West as committing human rights violations –, we will continue to see victims of terrorism on our streets.

The writer is an International Criminal Law Consultant based in the UK.

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