"Intelligence services throughout the Middle East and Europe are scrambling to track down more than two dozen fighters linked to al-Qaida who have recently left their base in southern Lebanon. The missing men are thought to have gone to Europe by a newly established route through Syria, Turkey and the Balkans, and multiple intelligence sources in Lebanon warn that the group appears to be operational and could be planning attacks in Europe in the holiday season... "We have received warnings of a significant militant plot in Europe during the holidays and we have been warned about these missing fighters from Lebanon"...If you follow the link and view the article as published, you may notice that the word terror appears exactly once - in the headline: European terror attack feared as al-Qaeda fighters disappear from base in Lebanon.
In the body of the article, these Al Qaeda individuals are called "fighters", "missing men", "group", "militants" and even "a disparate group of freelance fighters and jihadists" which comes close to the heart of the matter. Not once are they called terrorists.
So what is it about the jihadists that causes this odd metamorphosis? So long as they remain in the Middle East - in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and especially in the towns and villages controlled by the Palestinian Authority, by Hamas and by Hezbollah - these men, women and children are routinely described by the kind of circumlocution that is on display in the Guardian.
But once they execute their satanic plans in Europe, North America and elsewhere, or even do no more than threaten, they undergo reclassification - as terrorists.
What is it about otherwise intelligent and sober editors and journalists that prevents them from applying to the executors of acts of terror - the jihadists and the child-killers and the murderous Islamicists and the homicidal/suicidal/genocidal human-bombs - the simple English-language name that most fits them: terrorists?
Could it be that it depends on the religion or nationality of the intended victims?
We are the parents of a fifteen year-old daughter murdered by the terrorists, and we are sickened and alarmed by the repeated use in various news media of circumlocutions and double-speak about the practitioners of terror. Terrorist acts are too often called "revenge bombings" and "revenge attacks", which is half-way towards explaining and justifying acts of unfathomable hatred. Innocent people murdered by the terrorists are too often said to have been "caught in the crossfire". [This month alone, you can see examples in the Financial Times, Business Week, NPR, Washington Post and many other places.] But the reality is terrorists fully intend to harm, maim, terrorize and kill - indiscriminately. There is no crossfire with terrorists. There are no innocent victims. The more casualties the better. We are all in their crosshairs.
Not everyone sees it our way. Speaking at a conference in Washington in May 2010, the head of the US National Security Council’s Counterterrorism and Homeland Security adviser said [according to this Arab News report] the Obama Administration will no longer tolerate use of the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist”. “Jihad" he explained, "is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purity oneself or one’s community." His chief executive, President Obama, says he knows America is "at war" but it's a war against "terrorism" and not against any particular religious segment. He feels it is
"absolutely important now for the overwhelming majority of the American people to hang on to that thing that is best in us – a belief in religious tolerance, clarity about who our enemies are... We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other... If we’re going to successfully reduce the terrorist threat, then we need all the allies we can get."Not surprising, then, that much of the world is still struggling to understand what motivates "homegrown Muslim plotters who are European citizens" like those arrested this week in the UK (London, Cardiff, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham - at least five of them of Bangladeshi origin) and accused of "plotting to carry out a terrorist attack" [to quote the Christian Science Monitor].
There are sane voices in the world of ideas - like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - who argue that, rather than avoid mention of the religious motivation behind the terrorism of al-Qaeda et al, the Obama administration should sharpen the distinction between Islam and the political ideology they call radical Islamism. But they're not being heard.
The religious motivations of Islamic terrorists are clear. To ignore them is not only self-deluding but likely to produce bad outcomes where it counts - in law enforcement, in the courts, in government.
This has real and practical life-and-death importance. There has been a wave of warnings from intelligence agencies since October 2010 about terror attacks that are coming to European cities. A British university graduate called Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly carried out a mostly-ineffective bombing in Stockholm this month - so the Swedes at least know there is some basis to the stories. The Italians too: in Rome, a bomb was found on a train last week. In the Netherlands, the authorities arrested 12 Somali men two days ago on suspicion of preparing a terrorist attack on the port of Rotterdam, Europe's largest. The list goes on. It will surely get longer.
Simple good sense dictates that it's time to draw a tight connection between the terrorists and the terrorism. It can't be that these people are militants, fighters and insurgents so long as they operate in the Middle East, but then turn into perpetrators of terror only when they arrive in London or Mumbai. When civilized societies fight them by putting police onto the streets and in the airports and train stations and shopping precincts, it's nice to have "all the allies we can get", as the US president says. But it's even more important to have a clear-eyed, concrete sense of who these terrorists are and what makes them tick, tick, tick.