There has been much debate the past couple of days about whether the bomb attacks that have killed at least three Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010 qualify as terrorism. Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum on the left and Andrew Sullivan on the right say “yes”; many of their readers (see Greenwald here) and the editor of Technology Review say “no.” Those in the “no” camp insist that the attacks were legitimate targeted killings and thus cannot qualify as terrorism.
I have no definitive position on who is responsible for the killings, although the available evidence seems to point to Israel and not, as widely suspected, to the United States. This Der Spiegel article, for example, says that Israeli intelligence sources have confirmed that the Mossad were responsible for the killing of Darioush Rezaei. Moreover, Mark Perry published a blockbuster article in Foreign Policy yesterday that claims, based on a series of classified CIA memos, that Mossad agents posed as CIA officers in order to recruit members of the Iranian terrorist group Jundallah, whom Israel believed would be useful in its covert war against the Iranian government.
Let’s assume for sake of argument — and only for the sake of argument — that the killings were carried out solely by the Mossad. Do those killings qualify as terrorism?
The first thing that needs to be said is that it is impossible to answer that question in the abstract. Despite decades of efforts — and contrary to the rightly-maligned recent decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon — the international community has yet to agree on a general definition of terrorism. The best we can do, then, is determine whether the killings qualify as terrorism under one or more of the specific anti-terrorism conventions that states have negotiated. The most relevant one is obvious: the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (“Terrorist Bombing Convention”), which currently has 164 States Parties, including both Israel and the United States. Here is how Article 2 of the Terrorist Bombing Convention defines an act of terrorism:
1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:
(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or
(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.
There is little question that the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientists satisfies this definition of terrorism…