Why Won’t the BBC Call Charlie Hebdo Attackers Terrorists?

The head of the BBC Arabic Service refused to use the term terrorist to describe the Al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen responsible for the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead.

Tarik Kalafa told The Independent, “We try to avoid describing anyone as a terrorist, or an act as being terrorist. Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to.”

He claims that his refusal to use the term is due to fears the people will think the BBC is placing a value-judgment on the incident and on the perpetrators. The BBC’s official guidelines read, “The value judgments frequently implicit in the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist group’ can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality.  It may be better to talk about an apparent act of terror or terrorism than label individuals or a group.”

There may be cases in which there is a difference of opinion as to whether or not to term any given incident a terrorist attack. Yet with these attacks there is no ambiguity whatsoever.

Whether one enjoys Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of satire or not, gunning down 12 civilians cannot be regarded as an act of war. Nor was it a random act of violence. By Kalafa’s own admission, when reporting the various statements made by others,“Clearly, all the officials and commentators [in Paris] are using the word ‘terrorist,’ so obviously we do broadcast that.”

The guidelines behind this decision state, “There are ways of conveying the full horror and human consequences of acts of terror without using the word ‘terrorist’ to describe the perpetrators.”

Seemingly, this is an attempt to draw a moral distinction between the action and the perpetrator – one can commit an “act of terror” without becoming “a terrorist.”

Yet the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were perpetrated by the Koachi brothers, who had the backing of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to both the terrorists themselves and AQAP. According to U.S. officials, AQAP furnished the brothers with $20,000 to carry out the attack.

Here we have two full members of a group universally regarded as a terrorist group acting on behalf of that group to attack a civilian target in the West. The attack was reportedly years in the planning with the perpetrators demonstrating a long-term commitment to jihadism as a way of life.

One must therefore ask the question, why exactly is it that Tarik Kalafa and the BBC are so loath to term the Koachi brothers as terrorists?

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.