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Terrorism is terrorism, whatever its source

Much like radical Islamists who perpetrate terrorism against both Christians and Jews, white nationalists have been launching violent attacks against Muslims and Jews

A poster at a memorial site for the victims of mosque attacks in Christchurch on Tuesday. The Western world must ensure that the white nationalist movement does not turn into a major global threat.

HOW to define the term "terrorism" - the way we tend to refer to the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence against civilians as a means of creating terror among masses of people - has been one of the major topics for heated debates among political activists and academic scholars.

There is a general agreement that terrorists - unlike, say, psychotic serial killers - are usually trying to promote certain causes (political, social, religious) when they use illegal violent means, although there are some of us who may regard those causes to be legitimate or justified. Hence, what has become by now a cliché - the notion that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and vice versa.

Moreover, since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, and the ensuing war on terrorism - the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the official term employed by the US government to describe the military campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates - some critics have insisted that government officials and the media refrain from tagging these groups as "Muslim terrorist" organisations, the argument being that Islam was a religion of peace, that the majority of the world's Muslims do not engage in terrorist acts, and that therefore associating "Islam" with "terrorism" amounts to a form of Islamophobia.

Responding to these and similar arguments, US officials have reiterated time and again that the war on terrorism was not a war against Islam but against terrorist organisations that identify themselves as Muslims despite the fact that most Muslims supposedly reject their agendas and their means to advance them. In fact, former president Barack Obama has even encouraged using the term "violent extremism" instead of "terrorism" when referring to, well, terrorism.

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Unfortunately, there is an element of silly word games in these and similar debates about what is terrorism. Recalling the way US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain in 1994 what was "hard-core" pornography, or what was "obscene" should probably apply also to "terrorism". As Judge Stewart put it, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... but I know it when I see it ..."

Indeed, when we were watching the horrific television images of Friday's terrible massacre of Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we knew that what we saw was terrorism. Which was our same reaction when we saw the images of death and destruction transmitted from New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Florida, Tel Aviv or, for that matter, the recent mass shooting at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue. Those were acts of terrorism perpetrated by terrorists against innocent civilians.

And while it is true that the majority of Muslims are peace-loving and reject terrorism, much of the violence directed against Western targets since 9/11 has been promoted by terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that identify themselves as part of a general programme that embraces so-called Islamist political ideas and depend on an international network from which they could draw strength, inspiration, and even resources.

So whether you have referred to them as "jihadists" or as "Muslim terrorists" or as plain "violent extremists", the GWOT would have been effective, if the response to them hadn't taken into consideration the historical, geographical, religious and cultural or "civilisational" environment in which they were operating - in the Greater Middle East and in the Muslim World - or that their violence was not fuelled by angry Muslim reaction to Western behaviour and policies.

It is now becoming clear that this evolving civilisational conflict and the perception of a political Islamist threat that has been magnified by the rising immigration from the Middle East and the presence of an expanding Muslim population in the West, has triggered the rise of what can only be described as a white nationalist/supremacist movement. It poses a violent threat nationwide and globally that makes it necessary for the US and other Western governments to come up with a counter strategy.

President Donald Trump was therefore clearly wrong when, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, he dismissed the threat of white nationalism.

If anything, the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue; the letter bombs sent by a Florida man to Democratic Party politicians and officials; as well as liberal mainstream media figures; and the arrest of a Coast Guard officer who was apparently stockpiling weapons with the intent of killing lots of liberal political figures and journalists, all suggest that white nationalists (very much like the Middle Eastern jihadists) have been developing a general programme of action and that they are building an international network from which they could draw strength and inspiration.

These white nationalists are driven by anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments and by a determination to stop what they view as an effort by the globalist political and economic elites to supposedly replace their countriEs' historically white populations of European descent with Muslims and other foreign non-whites.

In that context, this notion of a "Great Replacement" also justifies anti-Semitic violence since the Jews are seen as the masterminds of the transnational conspiracy to dissolve bonds between members of the white national population and to establish a tyrannical world government.

And very much like radical Islamists who perpetrate terrorism against both Christians and Jews, white nationalists have been using social media to chat with one another, share their bigoted views, and mobilise their members to launch violence against Muslims and Jews.

It may be true, as President Trump has suggested, that white nationalists are indeed "a small group of people that have very, very serious problems". Their numbers are clearly smaller compared to those of the radical Islamists, and unlike the jihadists they do not have the resources to control a territorial base and the capability to carry out 9/11-like mega terrorist acts.

But if that is true, the United States and its allies should take advantage of this reality in which the white nationalist movement is still relatively small, as it tries to recruit members and expand its presence and ensure that it does not turn into a major global threat.