The Nature of Terrorism

This is an article I [Ken] submitted to the Express-News more than two weeks ago. I understand it got buried in an avalanche of mail - it's not clear to me that it ever got classified as an article. It has now gone in twice, at the Editorials Editor's request. It is based on an understanding of terrorism that I built up in 20 years of teaching a class about political violence. It says that terrorism is basically a political act, aimed at inspiring support among the population and relying heavily on over-reaction by the authorities which alienates the population (in this case Muslims across the world.) Currently, this is Osama's big moment, the one he has been waiting for.

[Editor's note: This came as an e-mail and was judged to be of general interest.]

The Nature of Terrorism

“Private” terrorists, that is, not part of governmental organizations, are usually weak, militarily, economically, and politically. They have no tax revenues, no police or prisons, no way of traveling openly. They have to strike unexpectedly, often at symbolic targets but sometimes randomly, and disappear, to reappear somewhere else. To attack openly would produce quick defeat. In the past they have operated mainly within single countries against those countries’ governments.

Political, rather than criminal, terrorists believe fervently that their cause is just, defending good over evil on behalf of the people with whom they identify and whom they hold to be oppressed or corrupted. They do not use terror tactics only to instil fear in their opponents. In fact, this may be a minor factor. They are often “running for office” by different means, campaigning for their “constituency.” (Osama seems to be vying for leadership of an uprising of the Muslim underclasses.) They believe that their fellow countrymen, or members of their ethnic or religious group, are being oppressed by a dominant group, usually in control of the government. But these oppressed people are passive, resigned to their fate or even unconscious of it. The terrorist leaders tend to be more educated, but marginal, people, more politically conscious and relatively well off. But they share the stigma of the poor and are angry at the condition of their people. They seek to mobilize them to protest their situation and they find an ideology they interpret to justify their beliefs and actions..

Like candidates for office, they need to awaken the passive masses by public campaigns. But direct access to the media is dangerous and denied them. They must attack the government symbolically and physically, not just by words, in ways which cannot be concealed and which define it as the enemy. Assassination, sabotage, ambush, and bombings are the usual means. Unlike most murderers, they often claim “credit” for their attacks. This sometimes produces the ludicrous effect of two or three competing groups claiming credit for the same attack.

Going beyond mere publicity, terrorists hope to make governments over-react by harsh measures which irritate or hurt innocent members of the public, often in discriminatory ways. Repetition makes things worse, making the government appear to be ineffective at best and oppressive at worst. This can then anger much of the population, alienating them from the government. The terrorists hope then to become objects of romantic myth to their constituency and to induce young men to develop ambitions to join them.

The terrorists try to drive a wedge between government and people, representing themselves as the people’s true representatives. If they are successful, the battle develops into guerrilla war, increasing the troubles for the people. But people will lay the blame on the government if they have become convinced that it rules unjustly or immorally, rather than on the terrorists. Even when their own members are killed in terrorist attacks, they will excuse the terrorists. This enables the terrorists to select targets seemingly at random, making it more difficult for the government to predict and protect. But the terrorists must also be careful not to anger the population when they are not sure of this support.

When support for them has developed, the terrorists are free to move among the population because people will not betray them to the police. Even people who oppose them are unable to say so because of claims of loyalty to their own kind, (as opposed to the ruling elite,) or because of public opinion around them, or of fear. Mao used the metaphor that the people were the sea and guerrillas (or terrorists) the fish that swim in it; if the sea dries up the fish will die. Government and terrorists compete for the loyalty of the population. The situation is capable of going completely out of governmental control unless it is able to dry up the sea, to bring the people onto its side by persuading them of its benevolence and integrity. Military action may produce the opposite of the desired effect, especially if it makes life difficult for the people. The choice for government between military or political/social action is hard when the population is split, with demands for retribution strong among the government’s supporters.

The European empires faced numerous terrorist campaigns in their colonies. Most were won, militarily, by the European regimes, e.g., in Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus. But, politically, the regimes lost; they could not continue to rule awakened populations particularly when they might face campaigns in several colonies at once. Having lost any legitimacy they may once have had, they had to withdraw from their colonies.

What does all this mean for terrorist attacks across borders and half a world away? If the terrorists are radical Muslims, what does it mean for the U.S. government to attempt to dry up that supportive sea of which Mao spoke? How can the U.S.A. compete for the support of ordinary Muslims across the world? What role do the intervening native governments play? Islamic nations are in a ferment similar to that which pervaded England at the time of the English Civil War. All issues, political, economic, and social, have religious undertones. During the 19th and 20th centuries almost all Islamic nations came under the control of Western Christians - a shameful fall from the proud and distinguished history of Islam. Now, with the end of the empires, the United States, as the richest and most powerful nation, is involved economically, politically, and militarily in many of these ex-colonies. To the radicals, this country has become the newest antithesis and threat to Islamic purity. The most important effect of the destruction of the World Trade Center may not be either the pain and fear inflicted on the United States or the campaign to seize Osama but the effects on the minds and hearts of the people across the Muslim world whom he is striving to impress.