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How Autocrats Exploit the Definition of Terrorism for Their Own Purposes

Russia, Turkey, and Egypt are states whose leaders have targeted and labeled the opposition as terrorists, resulting in thousands of human-rights violations.

Russia added President Vladimir Putin critic Alexei Navalny and a handful of his supporters to its list of terrorists and extremists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Secularists, and Gulenists as terrorists. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization after he overthrew the Morsi government and replaced it with a junta. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former Ethiopian government, as a terrorist organization when the Tigrayans defied Abiy because he postponed upcoming elections. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev labeled demonstrators who protested against increasing oil prices in the country bandits and terrorists. The list goes on. Is the label appropriate in these cases? Is the word terrorist – one of the most nefarious terms in the world – being used indiscriminately to label any group that opposes or disagrees with government as dangerous and a threat to the country? The opposition groups in these countries may deserve labels such as rioters, demonstrators, protesters, plotters, or criminals (when they have violated the law), but do the groups’ acts of violence meet the criteria for designation as a terrorist group?

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were galvanizing events that made terrorism one of the top security issues worldwide and prompted the Western world to make countering global terrorist organizations a national security priority. In the years that followed, government leaders in some countries realized that labeling a group a terrorist organization would give the government a legitimate reason to repress the opposition even if doing so violated their constitutional systems. Nonetheless, the Western world has been stunned to see how authoritarian leaders have exploited the labeling of groups as terrorist organization to maintain their positions of power and to oppress their opponents. The actions of such authoritarian leaders have pushed Western governments to designate those same groups as terrorist organizations. Government leaders in the United States, however, have been reluctant to allow their country to be exploited at the hands of authoritarian leaders.

Definitional Debates

Though attempts have been made to define terrorism, political issues have largely thwarted individual countries’ efforts to do so. Consensus is not expected anytime soon, given that terrorism experts, scholars, relevant U.S. government departments, the European Union, and the United Nations simply cannot agree on what the definitional components of terrorism should be. The most hotly debated components are non-state actors; intentional acts versus nonintentional acts; noncombatants; the practice of instilling fear among citizens; low-level tactics; violence; and the political, social, economic, and religious goals of terrorists. Of these components, violence typically gets the most attention. One could argue, however, that the identification of non-state actors and non-combatants is just as important, if not more so. For example, when authoritarian leaders accuse their opponents of being terrorists, the accused are arrested or detained even though they have not engaged in any acts of violence against the regime.

Why Authoritarian Leaders Exploit Terrorism

Authoritarian leaders exploit terrorism to maintain their paranoiac regimes. These leaders view their response to terrorism as a way to achieve international legitimacy, control domestic politics, and cover up their illegal actions.

International Legitimacy  

Authoritarian leaders lack international legitimacy because they are the ones who jail journalists, shut down media outlets, and target political parties in their countries. They seek to create a sense of legitimacy where none exists by falsely claiming that their regimes are being threatened by terrorists. The reality is that these states have recorded more suspicious and murkier attacks than democratic regimes and routinely accuse opposition groups of being the perpetrators of terrorism. The situation is similar to what transpired in Germany during the Reichstag fire in 1933. The Reichstag was set on fire by a Nazi, who also was a communist sympathizer opposed to Germany’s treatment of the working classes. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, however, accused the country’s communists of being responsible for the fire and used that claim as justification for purging the communist opposition. A year later in the Soviet Union, Sergey Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik leader, was assassinated. Despite a lack of evidence, historians believe that Joseph Stalin was behind Kirov’s assassination and that the action served as a pretext for Stalin to perpetrate the Great Purge in the 1930s. Today, almost every authoritarian regime has engaged in such false-flag operations. For example, the supreme court in Caracas, Venezuela, was the target of a suspicious helicopter attack in 2017. Then President Nicolás Maduro claimed that terrorists were behind the attack. In Syria, the Bashar al Assad regime was the perpetrator of three chemical attacks in 2017, for which it denied any involvement and instead accused terrorist groups in Syria of being responsible. Details about both attacks may never be known, given that law enforcement and the judiciary are under the control of authoritarian leaders. The common tactic, however, is to accuse the opposition.

Control of Domestic Politics 

Domestic politics also prompt authoritarian leaders to use terrorism for self-serving purposes. These leaders intentionally label their opposition as terrorists and use state-run media outlets to shape the minds of the people they govern. The shaping of minds occurs through regime’s construction of a reality based on misleading statements and false accusations that are repeated over and over again until the public believes – without questioning – whatever the regime says. For example, Turkish President Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have labeled the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Halklarin Demokratik Partisi-HDP) a terrorist organization. Erdogan-controlled media outlets then use the label in all references to the Kurdish political party, prompting other opposition parties in Turkey to steadfastly refrain from siding with the HDP because the public has come to perceive the HDP as a terrorist organization.

Cover-Up of Illegal Actions

Authoritarian leaders, prompted by their paranoiac tendencies, exploit terrorism to hide their wrongdoings and cover up illegal acts such as political corruption and the financing of terrorist organizations, violating the human rights of their citizens if someone else can be made the scapegoat. These leaders, in most cases, have been able to control the police to such an extent that corruption investigations targeting the leaders and their cabinets are never initiated by police officials who fear the repercussions of going against the government’s wishes. It is rare to see courageous investigators who are willing to jeopardize their own safety for the sake of investigating government wrongdoing and exposing the perpetrators. In Guatemala, for example, a group of prosecutors and judges was forced to leave the country after handling the country’s biggest corruption and criminal case that implicated the Guatemalan president. In Turkey, a group of police officers who conducted an international criminal investigation that exposed corruption by the Erdogan government paid a huge cost. The investigating officers and other members of the police force were purged from their jobs. Many were thrown in jail, and the safety of their families was in jeopardy. In Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, a Ukrainian-born Russian tax advisor who exposed corruption and misconduct by Russian government officials while representing his client, Hermitage Capital Management, was tortured and sent to prison, where he died. The fear of being prosecuted domestically or internationally and fear for their own survival has left paranoiac authoritarian leaders acting like they have no other option but to continue targeting their opponents, thereby thwarting the efforts of investigators to uncover the truth.

Case Study: Russia

The Western world is concerned about Russia’s global expansion and the influence it wields in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and specific countries such as Kazakhstan, Syria, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, the Sahel countries, and Ukraine. Whether its assistance is requested or not, Russia is eager to engage. When demonstrations broke out in Kazakhstan in 2021, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked Russia for help in quelling protesters. With its presence in Syria, Russia has managed to solidify Assad’s power and weaken, if not defeat, the anti-Assad bloc in Syria. In Africa, Russia has been able to exert its influence through shadowy paramilitary organization known as the Wagner Group. Russia also maintains an active presence in Mozambique, the Central African Republic, and the Sahel countries. In perhaps two of its bolder moves, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and in 2022 began building up its military presence along the Ukraine border and then invaded the country. The response from NATO, however, has been to take a position much like the one it held during the Cold War. On the home front, Russia has taken oppressive actions even against his own people – most notably, those who support or are members of opposition groups. Russia also has not been shy about seeking to influence U.S. politics through attacks on U.S. cybersecurity systems as part of an attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. According to a staff report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russian President Vladimir Putin has solidified his power by exploiting fears about blackmail, terrorism, and war and combining political repression at home with military adventurism and aggression abroad.

Putin’s rule over Russia reflects a paranoid pathology that speaks a strong message to the people of his country: “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” The country’s priorities revolve around the maintenance of Putin’s power and wealth through whatever means necessary to do so. Putin, for example, has targeted journalists in his country, killing 28 of them between 1999 and 2018; committed violent crackdowns against his purported enemies; and unjustifiably labeled his critics as terrorists and extremists. The most recent example of the latter is Alexei Navalny, Putin’s fiercest critic and alleged terrorist, who survived an attempted poisoning by the Putin regime.

Case Study: Turkey

Turkey once was considered a model country that combined Islam and democracy. That model crumbled in late 2013, when corruption investigations implicating Erdogan, his family members, and his cabinet were made public. Two consecutive investigations proved how Erdogan and his inner circle siphoned millions of dollars from government contracts for their personal use. Erdogan responded by shutting down the investigations and relentlessly retaliating against the judges, prosecutors, and police officers involved in uncovering the government corruption. He labeled the investigators as terrorists and targeted all real and perceived opponents of the government. Erdogan’s motivation was simple: ensure that he remains in power. That goal led Erdogan to essentially nullify the country’s constitution and take absolute control of the country.

About three years later, on July 15, 2016, Turkey experienced one of the most suspicious coup attempts in its history, an event that Turkey’s Minister of the Interior accused the United States of plotting. Solid evidence proved that Erdogan knew about the coup before it happened but allowed it to happen because he wanted a pretext for the repression of his opponents. Erdogan, however, fooled no one. Countries in the West dismissed Erdogan’s theory about the coup and agreed that the circumstances surrounding the event were suspicious.

Erdogan then proceeded to label hundreds of thousands of his opponents as terrorists, starting with the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric in Pennsylvania. Erdogan designated the Gulen movement as a terrorist organization, referred to it as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO),” and urged other countries, most prominently the United States, to do the same. The U.S. government, however, would not comply and refused to label the “FETO” as a terrorist organization. Undeterred and without evidence to support his action, Erdogan charged more than 600,000 Gulen followers with terrorism, saying that the Gulenists used violence to achieve their political goals. Erdogan then turned his ire against secularists and Kurds, labeling both as terrorists, along with opposition columnists in the country’s secular media. Even students at Bogazici University, who had protested in 2020 against what they believed to be the politically motivated appointment of the school’s president, were labeled as terrorists. The results of such a massive exploitation of terrorism for personal gain have been the destruction of more than 100 years of democratic gains and the solidification of an authoritarian regime amid the cries of millions of innocent people.

Case Study: Egypt

After it was established in March 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood soon became an active participant in Egyptian politics. It aimed to mix religious teaching with political activism and social welfare programs, remove Western culture from the social, economic, and political realms of Islam and, ultimately, rule the country. The road toward those goals was not always easy. Followers of the Muslim Brotherhood were often tortured for their beliefs and activities, but the group was not deterred. Even attempts by the Egyptian government in 1948, 1954, and 1965 to crack down on the group and a 2013 ruling from an Egyptian court that the Muslim Brotherhood be banned and its assets seized did little to eradicate the group. It remained steadfast and never renounced its ambition to be the ruler of Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood turned into a movement, and its model spread to other Muslim countries. Political parties with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, among others. The anti-government protests and armed rebellions that came to be known as the Arab Spring created opportunities for the Muslim Brotherhood movement in 2011. Members of the group took to the streets to overthrow autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose 30 years in office were marked by corruption, repressive police tactics, and widespread poverty. After 18 days of protests and millions of everyday Egyptians joined in the uprising, Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11, 2011. When elections for president were held in the summer of 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm won a plurality in Egypt’s lower house, and its candidate, Mohammed Mursi, won the presidency. The victory, however, was short-lived. A military coup led by the Egyptian army’s chief general, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ousted Morsi in 2013. Al-Sisi suspended the Egyptian constitution and, not surprisingly, labeled the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Fearful of the influences of the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia acted quickly to designate the group as a terrorist organization. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were either imprisoned or were forced underground or to flee the country in exile.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump intended to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2019, but a report from the Carnegie Endowment listed nine reasons why doing so would be unwise. The authors of the report argued, for example, that offshoots of the organization (e.g., Hamas, Hasm, and Liwa-al Tahra) had already been designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. Therefore, the report’s authors concluded that it was not in the strategic interests of the United States to label the entire organization, whose followers numbered in the millions, as a terrorist organization. From this perspective, it is understandable that the al-Sisi government would choose to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. What mattered most was the protection and preservation of the current regime. It was, however, a risky move with the potential for destructive consequences. For example, a significant number of the group’s followers have been sympathetic toward al-Qaeda and ISIS. Al-Qaeda, in turn, recently expressed sympathy for Muslim Brotherhood members in Turkey and Egypt.

Conclusion

The list of countries that exploit terrorism is likely to grow rather than abate, given the number of authoritarian states across the globe – including the 76 countries that were not invited to the Summit on Democracy hosted by President Joe Biden in December 2021 – that have yet to adopt the self-serving practice of terrorism exploitation. Authoritarian states and dictatorial regimes label their opposition as terrorists, aiming to benefit from a widespread fear and condemnation of terrorism. These leaders believe, wrongly, that labeling the opposition as terrorists will make their unlawful oppression of opponents appear to be legitimate actions to combat terrorism that will garner support from the Western world.

Russia, Turkey, and Egypt are three examples of states whose leaders have targeted and labeled the opposition as terrorists, resulting in the emergence of thousands of human-rights violations for jailing, torturing, poisoning, and killing of their own citizens. The extent of such illegal activities varies according to the degree to which the opposition is perceived as a threat to the ruling regime. In the cases such as Turkey, where a group of courageous investigators used solid evidence to decipher Erdogan’s wrongdoings, the opposition suffered dearly. Hundreds of media outlets were shut down, hundreds of journalists were jailed, and hundreds of thousands of people who had not engaged in any type of violence were tortured and labeled as terrorists. In Egypt, the pressure that al-Sisi exerted on the opposition will produce more radicals eager to join jihadist groups. Russia, too, will be a breeding ground for new terrorists and extremists and innocent people falsely labeled as terrorists. As with Turkey and Egypt, all that matters for the leaders of these countries is to remain in power through whatever means necessary.

The efforts of autocratic state leaders to label the opposition as terrorists are merely ruses invented to obscure their true intentions. No supportive evidence is provided, and the excuses given do not meet the criteria for labeling someone a terrorist. The violence used against the opposition, however, clearly justifies including states such as Turkey, Egypt, and Russia among those countries that use terrorist tactics against their own people.

Unless a solution can be found, authoritarian leaders will continue to exploit terrorism for their own benefit. They will continue to fabricate stories to justify labeling their opposition as terrorists while seeking support from the Western world in fighting terrorism. Fortunately, the Western world will continue to defend its values and refuse to be exploited by these paranoiac regimes.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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