On March 24, an Airbus A320 operated by Germanwings crashed in the French Alps while en route from Spain to Germany. Quite soon after, it emerged that the co-pilot of the flight had locked the captain outside the cockpit door and intentionally crashed the plane into the side of a mountain. A total of 150 people died, including the perpetrator. Immediately after the tragedy, a French prosecutor, German security officials, and even the White House rushed to make public statements that this was not an act of terrorism. Unfortunately, they appear to be wrong.

The 1999 Terrorism Financing Convention requires states to criminalize the funding of terrorism. Specifically, it outlaws the provision or collection of funds knowing that they will be used to carry out, either:

(a) An act which constitutes an offence within the scope of and as defined in one of the treaties listed in the annex; or

(b) Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

It appears the crashing of the Germanwings plane would fall under either one of these provisions and thereby constitute “terrorism” at least for purposes of the Terrorism Financing Convention. The Convention’s Annex, referred to above, lists the 1970 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft and the 1971 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation among the treaties whose breach would constitute terrorism.

The deliberate crashing of a civilian aircraft by its co-pilot during an international flight would fall under either one of these conventions. Hence, it would be an act of terrorism merely because it is listed as a crime under those conventions; neither one of which requires a specific purpose for acts to be prohibited under them. 

Article 1 of the 1970 Unlawful Seizure Convention covers acts by “any person who on board of an aircraft in flight” who unlawfully and by force seizes control of the aircraft. If this convention is understood — as is customarily done — to define acts of airborne terrorism, the co-pilot committed an act of terrorism at the moment he intentionally locked the flight’s captain outside the cockpit despite his requests to be let back in.

Similarly, under Article 1 of the 1971 Civil Aviation Convention, “any person” commits an offense if he unlawfully and intentionally destroys an aircraft in service. Therefore, a co-pilot intentionally crashing his aircraft would commit a terrorist act for purposes of Article 2(1)(a) of the Terrorist Financing Convention.

Terrorism defined by motive

Many definitions of terrorism are based not only on the categorization of the act itself (actus reus) that appears to be sufficient for Article 2(1)(a) of the Terrorist Financing Convention, but also a specific terrorist purpose, usually referred to as either creating fear (“terrorizing” or “intimidating”) amongst the general population or compelling the government (or an international organization) to do or refrain from something. In the Terrorist Financing Convention, the alternative definition of Article 2(1)(b) falls in this category of terrorism definitions. So does UN Security Council Resolution 1566, the only Chapter VII resolution that actually seeks to define terrorism:

… criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism … [Emphasis added.]

Even under these more demanding definitions of terrorism, it is plausible that the crashing of the Germanwings aircraft falls under the notion of a terrorist act. International terrorism definitions do not require that the act was committed for a political, ideological, or religious aim. Instead, they may refer to a specific terrorist purpose of compelling or intimidating, as quoted above.

Did the co-pilot of Germanwings flight 9525 crash his plane with the purpose of compelling a government to do something? Probably not. Did he commit the act with the purpose of provoking a state of fear or terror in the general public or intimidating a population? Yes, as far we can trust the press. According to multiple media sources a former girlfriend of the co-pilot has said that he had long planned “a spectacular and unforgettable event” and that “then everyone will know my name and remember it.”

This is the logic of terrorism. Terrorists often want to commit spectacular acts that will intimidate the general population and make a suicide terrorist remembered. This 15 minutes — or 15 days — of fame phenomenon is one of the forces pulling desperate individuals toward lone wolf terrorism or the arms of recruiters for terrorist organizations. While, terrorism is often driven by hatred against a specific category of people, the willingness of terrorists to sacrifice innocent bystanders shows an even more important hatred of humankind in general and disregard for the inviolable dignity of every human being. The co-pilot of Germanwings flight 9525 was a terrorist and that is how he will be remembered. But will his name be remembered? No.

There are at least two crucial lessons to be drawn from this tragedy.

First, the disproportionate political and media attention given to spectacular acts is one of the driving forces of terrorism. For a desperate individual with no empathy toward strangers, the expectation of 15 days of fame — even after one’s own death — may be the triggering cause for resorting to acts of terrorism. Some of these individuals will also have an underlying cause — such as a political ideology related to a long-lasting conflict situation. Some of them would not able to do anything spectacular without a facilitating cause (like the appearance of a recruiter). But some individuals, such as airline pilots, may be in a position where all that is needed for them to commit an act of terrorism is the triggering cause. The world — including its political leaders and the media — needs to resist the temptation to overreact to terrorism. A tragedy is a tragedy, but we only do more harm by turning it into a political platform or media spectacle. The heightened prospect of new acts of terrorism is one of the real harms in question.

Second, there is a need to counteract stereotypical assumptions about terrorism. Disproportionate amounts of money are spent on airline security under the assumption that terrorists — as we tend to imagine them — are obsessed with airplanes. In their book Terror, Security and Money, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart present a devastating critique against the cost-efficiency of a whole range of counter-terrorism measures, including in the area of airline security. Tragically, one measure that they believe is cost-efficient is the installation of hardened cockpit doors in 2003. Today it appears that the measure was partly based on stereotypical assumptions about where the threat comes from, to the detriment of a comprehensive assessment of all scenarios.

Terrorism is here to stay and it will manifest itself in many different forms. It will be impossible to protect ourselves against all of them. Therefore, it is wise to do our best to preempt potential causes of terrorism and to support victims and their families, instead of becoming obsessed by some forms of terrorism, even at the cost of increasing vulnerabilities elsewhere.