Does it still matter that major news media continue to conflate, confuse or substitute the words “terrorist” and “militant”? The practice—the mistake—is decades old, seen especially but not solely in reporting on Arab-Islamic terrorists who attack Israelis or non-Israeli Jews.
It matters because words properly used are journalism’s primary tool. When words are used improperly, repeatedly, the result is less likely to be journalism and more likely to be confusion, obfuscation, or even propaganda.
Inaccurate descriptions tend to sanitize terrorists, suggesting they are not criminals. Failing to make the distinction also transforms, at least implicitly, their victims into something lesser as well, perhaps legitimate targets.
Terrorism ranks as a crime under international and American law. Though some still insist that “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” U.S. law summarizes terrorism as the threat or use of force against noncombatants to influence larger audiences, compel governments to change policies and advance ideological, religious, economic or other objectives. CAMERA has noted previously that former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the late Pope John Paul II both asserted that terrorism was never justified, regardless of the pretext.
Recent Washington Post reporting highlights the newspaper’s chronic inconsistency when it comes to properly using “terrorist” or “militant” in its own voice. This looseness can mislead U.S. readers because in America “militant” has applied to trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and others distinguished by aggressive promotion of their causes but who, nevertheless, did not maim and murder civilians. And “militia” retains historic associations with Revolutionary and Civil War units and states’ legally constituted National Guard formations.
In “Bombing in Kabul kills at least 15; Group claiming to be behind attack is led by former U.S. protégé” (May 17), Post foreign desk correspondents Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin begin “An Islamist militant group once allied with the United States … appeared to be behind a rush-hour suicide bombing ….” They start the first sentence of their second paragraph “It was the first major terrorist [emphases added throughout] attack in Kabul since March ….”
So, terrorists and militants are equivalent?
“Terrorist witnesses flew on U.S. airliners; Justice Dept. didn’t tell federal watch lists about new identities” (also May 17), by Greg Miller on the paper’s national desk, features “terrorist” not only in the headline but also in the lead:
“An investigation of the Justice Department’s witness-protection program uncovered glaring security problems that allowed terrorists who had been given new identities after cooperating with U.S. prosecutors to board commercial flights in the United States.”
The article also mentioned, in The Post’s own voice, terrorism suspects, terrorism organizations and terrorism cases. It did not refer to militants, militant suspects, militant organizations or militancy cases.
Do the foreign and national desks lean in different directions on style choices, or is The Post more likely to accurately describe terrorists the closer they get to home? Also in the May 17 paper, an Associated Press world news brief headlined “Egypt: 7 security personnel abducted in Sinai” referred to “suspected militants” and “a militant attack.” But an AP national brief bore the headline “Idaho: Uzbek man charged with aiding terrorists” and mentioned “a designated terrorist organization” and “a foreign terrorist organization.”
The Sinai “militants” may have been neither militants nor terrorists but guerrillas, irregular armed forces fighting not civilians but the police or military of an established government.
Terrorists threaten America
“Administration releases e-mails detailing clash over Benghazi; White House did not interfere in agencies’ debate, messages show” (May 16) by Post national desk reporters Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung: It tells readers of Republican congressional concern over identification of “an Islamic terrorist organization,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s belief that “the attack [on a U.S. facility in Libya] “included a mix of Islamist extremists from Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and angry demonstrators” and State Department “concern about naming the terrorist organization that CIA officials believed was involved in the attack.”
With an American government installation and U.S. personnel assaulted, “militant” does not appear. However, the article does say “the attacks targeted a State Department post and a CIA site where a U.S. effort to disarm Libyan militias in the area was centered.”
The Post lead editorial on May 16, “Revi
sing the terms of war; The authorization to use force against al-Qaeda should be updated, not discarded” talks confusedly about “militants outside conventional battle zones,” “pre-9/11 methods for combating international terrorism” and “the recent terrorist attacks in Benghazi and Algeria ….”
When it comes to Israel, terrorism and terrorists often disappear. In the front page article “”Syrian regime gains ground; Hezbollah Aids Assad In Combat; Activists cite fears of new sectarian conflicts,” Post correspondent Liz Sly’s lead refers to “Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement” (May 12). The story mentions Syrian government “militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers” and says they “have received training in the guerrilla tactics and urban warfare at which Hezbollah excels ….”
Three times the dispatch mentions “Hezbollah fighters” and once “Hezbollah cadres.”
Militants threaten Israel
Hezbollah has been designated as a terrorist organization by countries including the United States, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Bahrain. Until al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization. It is a principle surrogate for Iran, the leading state sponsor of international terrorism. The Post reminded readers of none of that.
The same treatment of the Iranian-founded, funded, trained and armed “Party of God” appeared two days earlier. “Hezbollah chief vows to get more arms in wake of airstrikes in Syria; Militant group refrains from threatening Israel, said to be behind attacks” (May 10) by Post foreign correspondents Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan, says “Hezbollah plays a commanding role in Lebanon’s government and sustains a private army for the chief purpose of confronting Israel.”
As in The Post’s May 12 coverage, Hezbollah gets a whitewash. That its “private army” violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, adoption of which supported the cease-fire ending the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, goes unsaid. “Confronting Israel” avoids mentioning that the United Nations certified Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000. It does not report that Hezbollah officials—who call for Israel’s destruction—contradict the United Nations and claim a significant portion of northern Israel belongs to Lebanon.
In “Officials: Facts on Benghazi withheld; New Details on Libya Attack; Diplomats challenge administration review” (May 9) Post reporters Ernesto Londono and Karen DeYoung
refer to “premeditated terrorist acts” and “a terrorist assault ….” DeYoung’s sidebar, “State Dept. disputes diplomat charges,” includes the phrase “during and after the September terrorist attack in Benghazi.” Neither uses the word militant.
Another article the same day appropriately uses “terror” in the headline but confuses “terrorist” and “militant” in the text. In “Investigation has yet to link Tsarnaevs to a foreign terror group, officials say; Probe also seeks origin of gun that older brother allegedly used,” reporters Sari Horwitz and Greg Miller write that investigators “have not been able to connect them [the Boston Marathon bombing suspects] to a foreign terrorist organization ….” But in the next sentence The Post staffers say “some reports have suggested that one of the alleged bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, met with militants in the strife-torn region of Dagestan …..”
Why the inconsistency?
The Post’s inconsistency on this key usage was evident in “Officials fear ‘shadow war’ after strikes on Syria” (May 8), a page one article by reporter Joby Warrick. The lead accurately reported “the weekend airstrikes near the Syrian capital reportedly carried out by Israel have heightened concerns about terrorist attacks on Israeli tourists and other civilian targets in the coming weeks, U.S. officials and experts say ….”
But later, the article refers to “Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group closely allied with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad.” It adds, “officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide intelligence assessments, said a terrorist attack would almost certainly be seen [by Syria] as preferable to a direct assault, which would risk an escalating conflict with Israel.”
“Officials fear ‘shadow war’ …” also said “Hezbollah, a longtime foe of Israel with a vast international network and the patronage of Iran, has long been linked to assassinations and terrorist bombings on foreign soil, including a suicide attack last year on a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian resort city of Burgas.” It then quoted an Arab newspaper as reporting that “Assad had authorized terrorist operations inside Israel by Syrian-backed Palestinian militants.”
Again, for The Post, are terrorists and militants synonymous?
“U.S., Russia plan Syria effort; Both nations to push for transitiona
l government in a bid to end conflict” (May 8), by staff writers Anne Gearan and Scott Wilson, referred to “Iran and the armed Lebanese movement Hezbollah.” The words “terrorist” or “terrorism” weren’t used. Neither was “militant.”
The Post’s front page article “Israel tries to ease Syria tensions after strikes,” by Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth (May 7), includes several references to and some background about Hezbollah:
“Israeli officials … said Monday that their fight was not against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the rebels fighting his regime but against the Lebanese political and militant organization Hezbollah ….”;
“Hezbollah grew from a small militia that sought to confront Israel during its occupation of Lebanon into a powerful organization that holds seats in the Lebanese parliament and commands its own armed forces. With the patronage of Syria and Iran, the group has amassed about 60,000 rockets and missiles since the 2006 war with Israel, according to Israeli assessments.”
As usual with Post references to Hezbollah, especially in context of its battle against Israel, “terrorist” does not appear as an equivalent of “militant.”
In “Israel targets arms shipment with second airstrike; Meanwhile, accounts of sectarian violence rattle Sunnis in north,” by Post correspondents Liz Sly and Suzan Haidamous (May 5) includes a rare Post mention of Hezbollah’s terrorist designation: “Hezbollah, the political and military organization that dominates Lebanon’s government and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.” But in mentioning “Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the newspaper describes it as “the Shiite militia that threatens its [Israel’s] northern border.”
Confusion and conflation of terrorist and militant is not confined to The Post’s foreign and national desks. The editorial “Tactics under fire; Nigeria’s military is creating new enemies as it battles terrorists” (May 8) displays them in full.
The subhead speaks of terrorists. The lead sentence refers to “Islamic militants.” Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful” or, formally, the Congregation and People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), the Nigerian group in question, is referred to as a “militant group” and “terrorist group that has committed many atrocities of its own.” The editorial also notes that Boko Haram “is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda …” which, of course, is a terrorist organization.
CAMERA has asked before: If The Washington Post considers terrorist and militant synonymous, why use the latter—vague and generalized in meaning—when the former, specific and legally as well as morally defined, clearly applies? In the case of Hezbollah in particular, especially in coverage of Hezbollah and Israel, why downplay to near invisibility information basic for American readers—that the U.S. government considers Hezbollah, which has killed hundreds of Americans, a terrorist organization?
What applies to accurately describing Hezbollah also applies to coverage of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Movement. What is true of the slippery terrorist/militant usage at The Post could be said of many major news outlets.
A keystroke can end these chronic conflations and vagaries that misinform readers: reporters and editors need only hit “delete” whenever they see the word “militant.” If it is a matter of potential reprisals by Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations over accurate descriptions, add a disclaimer to each dispatch, along the lines of “this article came from Lebanon [or Syria, or the Gaza Strip, etc.] in which reporters are not permitted to work freely.” Above all, use words to help readers understand.