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What is Terrorism?
Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, secure and inflexible.1
Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.
—George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
The best that one can say of these people is that they are morally depraved. They champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child.
—Osama bin Laden, October 7, 2001
Like pornography, we know terrorism when we see it. Or do we? We know we don’t like it. In fact, the only universally accepted attribute of the term “terrorism” is that it is pejorative. Terrorism is something the bad guys do. The term itself has been bandied about so much that it has practically lost all meaning. A casual glance at newspapers reveals currency speculation being labeled “economic terrorism,” domestic violence as “domestic terrorism”; crank telephone calls have even been labeled “telephone terrorism.” If you can pin the label “terrorist” on your opponent, you have gone a long way toward winning the public relations aspect of any conflict.
Even terrorists don’t like the label. An al-Qaeda statement put it this way: “When the victim tries to seek justice, he is described as a terrorist.”2 Many prefer to redefine the term first. In Osama bin Laden’s words, “If killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.”3 On another occasion, when asked to respond to media claims that he was a terrorist, he replied, “There is an Arabic proverb that says, she accused me of having her malady and then snuck away.”4 Other terrorist leaders have taken a similar perspective. Abimael Guzmán, the Peruvian academic turned leader of the Maoist Shining Path, declared, “They claim we’re terrorists. I would like to give the following answer so that everyone can think about it: has it or has it not been Yankee imperialism and particularly Reagan who has branded all revolutionary movements as terrorists, yes or no? This is how they attempt to discredit and isolate us in order to crush us.”5 Shamil Basayev, the Chechen leader responsible for the Beslan school siege, among other exploits, declared, “Okay. So, I’m a terrorist. But what would you call them? If they are keepers of constitutional order, if they are anti-terrorists, then I spit on all these agreements and nice words.”6
Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes. It has seven crucial characteristics. First, a terrorist act is politically inspired. If not, then it is simply a crime. After the May 13, 2003, Riyadh bombings, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, “We should not try to cloak their . . . criminal activity, their murderous activity, in any trappings of political purpose. They are terrorists.”7 In point of fact, it is precisely because they did have a political purpose that they were, indeed, terrorists.
Second, if an act does not involve violence or the threat of violence, it is not terrorism. The term “cyberterrorism” is not a useful one. The English lexicon is broad enough to provide a term for the sabotage of our IT facilities without reverting to such language.
Third, the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message. Writing of the September 11 attacks, an al-Qaeda spokesman declared, “It rang the bells of restoring Arab and Islamic glory.”8
Fourth, the act and the victim usually have symbolic significance. Bin Laden referred to the Twin Towers as “icons” of America’s “military and economic power.”9 The shock value of the act is enormously enhanced by the symbolism of the target. The whole point is for the psychological impact to be greater than the actual physical act. Terrorism is indeed a weapon of the weak. Terrorist movements are invariably both outmanned and outgunned by their opponents, so they employ such tactics in an effort to gain more attention than any objective assessment of their capabilities would suggest that they warrant.
Fifth—and this is a controversial point—terrorism is the act of substate groups, not states. This is not to argue that states do not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. We know they do. Many states, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have sponsored terrorism abroad because they did not want to incur the risk of overtly attacking more powerful countries. Great powers have supported terrorist groups abroad as a way of engaging in proxy warfare or covertly bringing about internal change in difficult countries without openly displaying their strength. Nor do I wish to argue that states refrain from action that is the moral equivalent of terrorism. We know they don’t. The Allied bombing campaign in World War II, culminating in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a deliberate effort to target civilian populations in order to force the hand of their government. The policy of collective punishment visited on communities that produce terrorists is another example of targeting civilians to achieve a political purpose. Nevertheless, if we want to have any analytical clarity in understanding the behavior of terrorist groups, we must understand them as substate actors rather than states.
A sixth characteristic of terrorism is that the victim of the violence and the audience the terrorists are trying to reach are not the same. Victims are used as a means of altering the behavior of a larger audience, usually a government. Victims are chosen either at random or as representative of some larger group. Individual victims are interchangeable. The identities of the people traveling on a bus in Tel Aviv or a train in Madrid, dancing in Bali or bond trading in New York, were of no consequence to those who killed them. They were being used to influence others. This is different from most other forms of political violence, in which security forces or state representatives are targeted in an effort to reduce the strength of an opponent.
The final and most important defining characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians. This is what sets terrorism apart from other forms of political violence, even the most proximate form, guerrilla warfare. Terrorists have elevated practices that are normally seen as the excesses of warfare to routine practice, striking noncombatants not as an unintended side effect but as deliberate strategy. They insist that those who pay taxes to a government are responsible for their actions whether they are Russians or Americans. Basayev declared all Russians fair game because “They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible.”10 Bin Laden similarly said of Americans, “He is the enemy of ours whether he fights us directly or merely pays his taxes.”11
Terrorists, Guerrillas, and Freedom Fighters
It goes without saying that in the very messy worlds of violence and politics actions don’t always fit neatly into categories. Guerrillas occasionally target civilians, and terrorists occasionally target security forces. But if the primary tactic of an organization is deliberately to target civilians, it deserves to be called a terrorist group, irrespective of the political context in which it operates or the legitimacy of the goals it seeks to achieve. There are, of course, other differences between guerillas and terrorists. Guerrillas are an irregular army fighting the regular forces of the state. They conduct themselves along military lines and generally have large numbers of adherents, which permit them to launch quasi-military operations. Their goal is the military defeat of the enemy. Terrorists, by contrast, rarely have illusions about their ability to inflict military defeat on the enemy. Rather, they seek either to cause the enemy to overreact and thereby permit them to recruit large numbers of followers so that they can launch a guerrilla campaign, or to have such a psychological or economic impact on the enemy that it will withdraw of its own accord. Bin Laden called this the “bleed-until-bankruptcy plan.”12
It is the means employed and not the ends pursued, nor the political context in which a group operates, that determines whether or not a group is a terrorist group.
In his famous 1974 speech to the United Nations renouncing terrorism, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and founder of its militant wing, al-Fatah, declared, “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land . . . cannot possibly be called terrorist.”13 A great many people, including several U.S. presidents, have shared this view. Indeed, the main reason international cooperation against terrorism has been so anemic over the past thirty-odd years is precisely because the pejorative power of the term is such that nobody has wanted to pin the label on a group fighting for what are considered legitimate goals. President Ronald Reagan shared the goal of the Nicaraguan Contras to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government, so he called them “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”14 Our European allies saw the Contras as a violent and unrepresentative group attempting to subvert a popular government and considered them terrorists. In fact, the legitimacy of the goals being sought is irrelevant. Many terrorist groups, and especially those that have lasted the longest, the ethnonationalist groups, have been fighting for goals that many share and that may even be just. But if they deliberately kill civilians to achieve that goal, they are terrorists.
Bin Laden has only a slightly different perspective. He thinks that there is good terrorism and bad terrorism:
Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible. Terrifying an innocent person and terrorizing them is objectionable and unjust, also unjustly terrorizing people is not right. Whereas terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necessary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property. . . . The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah, the tyrants, the traitors who commit acts of treason against their own countries and their own faith and their own prophet and their own nation. Terrorizing those and punishing them are necessary measures to straighten things and to make them right.15
Bin Laden evidently believes that terrorism is justified if it is used against those who are unjust, whereas it is unjustified if used against the innocent. His concept of innocent as seen above, however, is an idiosyncratic one. This is a variant on the widely held position that the ends being sought determine whether or not an act is a terrorist act.
Another popular perspective is that an action is terrorist only if it takes place in a democratic state that permits peaceful forms of opposition. Liberal intellectuals made this distinction in reaction to the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Conor Cruise O’Brien and others wanted to argue that members of the Irish Re- publican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland were terrorists when they planted bombs in trash cans in Belfast in the 1970s, as they had a democratic alternative to voice their opposition to the state. But the ANC, when it planted bombs in trash cans in Johannesburg in the 1980s, was not a terrorist group because it had no means of political opposition available. This perspective implies that members of the Basque nationalist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) were not terrorists when they planted bombs and murdered tourists under the Franco regime but became terrorists when they planted bombs and murdered tourists under the democratic government of Spain. This argument is hardly compelling. The political context in which an act takes place can affect our normative evaluation of the act—the degree to which we might think it morally justified or morally reprehensible—but it does not alter the fact that it is a terrorist act.
Perhaps the most difficult case to make is that of the ANC in South Africa. If ever a group could legitimately claim to have resorted to force only as a last resort, it is the ANC. Founded in 1912, for the first fifty years the movement treated nonviolence as a core principle. In 1961, however, with all forms of political organization closed to it, Nelson Mandela was authorized to create a separate military organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In his autobiography Mandela describes the strategy session as the movement examined the options available to them:
We considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.16
These fine distinctions were lost on the court in Rivonia that convicted Mandela and most of the ANC leadership in 1964 and sentenced them to life imprisonment. For the next twenty years an increasingly repressive white minority state denied the most basic political rights to the majority black population.
An uprising in Soweto was defeated, as was an MK guerrilla campaign launched from surrounding states. In 1985, the government declared a state of emergency, which was followed within three weeks by thirteen terrorist bombings in major downtown areas. Reasonable people can differ on whether or not the terrorism of the ANC was justified, given the legitimacy of the goals it sought and the reprehensible nature of the government it faced. The violent campaign of the ANC in the early and mid-1980s, however, was indisputably a terrorist campaign. Unless and until we are willing to label a group whose ends we believe to be just a terrorist group, if it deliberately targets civilians in order to achieve those ends, we are never going to be able to forge effective international cooperation against terrorism.
This same confusion between ends and means is what has given the rather silly adage that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” such a long life. Most terrorists consider themselves freedom fighters. Bin Laden told the American people, “We fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation.”17 Shamil Basayev said something quite similar: “For me, it’s first and foremost a struggle for freedom. If I’m not a free man, I can’t live in my faith. I need to be a free man. Freedom is primary.”18 The freedom for which they fight, however, is often an abstract concept. It means political freedom rather than conceding to others the right of freedom from fear, or freedom from random violence, as terrorists exploit civilians’ fear to further their ends. Whether they are fighting for freedom from repression or freedom to impose a repressive theocracy, to suggest that a freedom fighter cannot be a terrorist is to confuse ends and means. The fact that terrorists may claim to be freedom fighters does not mean that we should concede the point to them, just as we should not concede the point that all citizens of a democracy are legitimate targets because they have the option of changing their government and have not done so and are therefore responsible for their government’s actions.
It is often claimed, and not without reason, that history is written by the winners, so that a victorious terrorist becomes a statesman and a failed terrorist remains a terrorist. Terrorists with whom I have spoken invariably invoke Nelson Mandela and Menachem Begin as evidence that someone considered a terrorist today can be considered a statesman tomorrow. (In the past they also used to invoke Robert Mugabe, but less so now.) Nelson Mandela was for a long time described as a terrorist not only by the South African government but also by our own, as well as by many academics. In fact, Mandela led a campaign of sabotage, not terrorism. Menachem Begin, however, is a different story. Begin led the Irgun from 1943 until its dissolution in 1948. The Irgun was an illegal Jewish right-wing movement made up of revisionist Zionists. They attacked both Arabs and British in an effort to establish a Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan. In 1938, the Irgun exploded land mines in an Arab fruit market in Haifa, killing 74 people. More famously, in 1946, it blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. In 1948, the Irgun and its offshoot the Stern Gang attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin and killed 254 of the inhabitants. Both the Irgun and the Stern Gang were soon absorbed into the fledgling Israeli Army on the expiration of the British mandate in 1948. Notwithstanding this past, Menachem Begin served as prime minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983 and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat in 1978. In truth, Begin was a terrorist in the 1940s and a statesman in the 1970s.
So a terrorist is neither a freedom fighter nor a guerrilla. A terrorist is a terrorist, no matter whether or not you like the goal s/he is trying to achieve, no matter whether or not you like the government s/he is trying to change.
Types of terrorism
Today the term “terrorist” connotes the image of a radical Islamic fundamentalist from the Middle East. Thirty years ago, the term conjured up images of atheistic young European Communists. At that time terrorists from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland were also fighting for traditional goals, such as territorial control over a homeland. Aside from their willingness to visit violence on civilians to achieve their objectives, all these groups shared one characteristic: they were the weaker party in an asymmetrical conflict. Terrorism is the weapon of those who want to effect change, and to do so quickly, but lack the numbers either to prevail in a democratic system or to launch a viable military campaign.
Terrorism has been practiced by the Right as well as by the Left, by atheists, agnostics, and religious millenarians, by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and members of most other religions. It has taken place in rich countries and poor, under authoritarian regimes and democratic governments. Terrorists’ objectives range from Maoist revolution in Peru and Nepal to bringing about the apocalypse in Japan; from the destruction of capitalism in Europe to the destruction of the state of Israel; from the expulsion of U.S. influence from the Middle East to the return of the caliphate; from the expulsion of Russia from Chechnya and Britain from Northern Ireland to creating homelands for Kurds, Tamils, Sikhs, and Basques. Any attempt to reduce all of them to one simplified notion of terrorism will only cloud our understanding.
Social revolutionary movements, such as the Italian Red Brigades, the German Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army, and the French Action Directe, and millenarian movements, such as the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, have arisen primarily in advanced industrialized countries. Maoist movements (such as the Peruvian Shining Path, the Nepalese Communist Party, and the New People’s Army in the Philippines) have emerged in the developing world. Radical religious movements have so far emerged primarily in the Middle East and East Asia (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines), while ethnonationalist movements have occurred all over the world from India to Ireland.
In spite of the dizzying array of terrorist movements, the two key variables for understanding all terrorist groups are the nature of the goals they seek and their relationship to the community they claim to represent (see Figure 1). This simple matrix enables us to organize the ever-growing and quite disparate set of terrorist movements, but it will also prove essential later in understanding how terrorist groups terminate their campaigns and how they can most effectively be countered.
Goals of Terrorist Groups
The goals of all terrorist groups fall into one of two categories: temporal and transformational. By temporal I mean political goals that can be met without overthrowing the political system. An independent homeland for Sikhs, Tamils, Chechens, and Basques qualifies, as do the secession of Kashmir from India and of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. This is not to trivialize these aspirations nor to underestimate the difficulty of conceding them. The United States fought a bitter and bloody civil war at a cost of 600,000 lives on the issue of secession. Nevertheless, these goals could be won or lost without overthrowing the fundamental balance of power. They are also issues on which compromise could be negotiated, substituting local autonomy for complete independence, for example.
On the other hand, a transformational goal, by its nature, is not subject to negotiation, and its satisfaction would require the complete destruction of the regional state system. The social revolutionary movements in Europe in the 1970s sought the destruction of capitalism. The desire to replace the states of the contemporary Middle East with the caliphate, the era of Islam’s ascendancy from the death of Muhammad until the thirteenth century, is similar in scale. Of course, the declared policy of these movements, much like the stated policy of many governments, should not always be taken at face value. It is essential to understand their degree of commitment to declared goals and whether or not they might actually be motivated by more traditional political aspirations.
The second variable is the relationship of a movement to the community it claims to represent. Some movements are quite isolated from their communities. Those that are have been easiest to defeat. Lacking financial support, they have often been forced to engage in criminal activity to fund their operations, and this in turn exposes them to capture. They have been most vulnerable to defections and internal splits and have proven easiest to counter with traditional security measures. Groups in this category, such as the left-wing extremists 17 November in Greece and GRAPO in Spain, have been able to inflict only limited damage on their enemies.
Far more dangerous are the groups that have close ties in the community they claim to represent. This is the sea in which Mao’s fish swim. In a great many instances the broader communities share the aspirations of the terrorist groups even if they don’t always approve of their means of achieving these objectives. A terrorist group can survive and thrive in this kind of complicit society. Though the broader population will not themselves engage in terrorism or even openly approve of it, they will not turn the terrorists in. They will look the other way and provide crucial, albeit often passive, support. When the authorities come looking, these terrorists are simply absorbed into the community. When the authorities respond harshly to terrorist acts, willing new recruits emerge. These kinds of groups can last indefinitely, but, handled properly, the community can serve as a source of restraint. Terrorist groups with community support can also turn into broad-based insurrectionist movements or, given the right conditions, into political movements.
the Rationality of Terrorism
We often think of terrorists as crazies. How can killing tourists at a shrine in Luxor or airline passengers in the United States possibly help the cause of Islamic fundamentalism? How can killing children in Beslan, shoppers in London, or tourists in Spain advance the cause of Chechen, Irish, or Basque nationalism? Terrorists must be deranged psychopaths. Their actions seem to make no sense.
But terrorists, by and large, are not insane at all. Their primary shared characteristic is their normalcy, insofar as we understand the term. Psychological studies of terrorists are virtually unanimous on this point.20 The British journalist Peter Taylor remembers asking a young prisoner from Derry, who was serving a life sentence for murder, what an IRA man was doing reading Tolstoy and Hardy. The prisoner replied, “Because an IRA man’s normal like everyone else.” When Taylor pointed out that normal people did not go around killing people, the prisoner replied that normal people elsewhere did not live in Northern Ireland.21 There are, of course, psychopaths to be found in many terrorist groups, as in many organizations in which violence is sanctioned. But there are not nearly as many psychopaths in terrorist groups as one might imagine. Most organizations consider them a liability and quite deliberately try to select them out.22 This holds true across different types of groups, from ethnonationalists to religious fundamentalists.
Historically, terrorists have been very conservative in their choice of tactics. The most common terrorist act is a bombing, and it is not hard to see why. It is cheap. It is easy to get away from the scene of the attack. Moreover, it is dramatic and often indiscriminate. The notion that terrorists are mad has been advanced by the increasing use of suicide terrorism. But from an organizational point of view, suicide attacks are very rational, indeed economical. In the words of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command, “The method of martyrdom operation is the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and least costly to the mujahedin in terms of casualties.”23 It is also, of course, more effective.24
Even if suicide terrorism makes sense from an organizational point of view, it seems insane from an individual point of view. But the organizations that employ the tactic have more volunteers than they need. They deliberately do not accept volunteers they consider depressed or suicidal. In the words of the Palestinian Fayez Jaber, an al-Aqsa commander who trained suicide bombers, “There are certain criteria that we observe. People with mental or psychological problems or personal family problems—I cannot allow myself to send such people. . . . A person has to be a fully mature person, an adult, a sane person, and of course, not less than 18 years of age and fully aware of what he is about to carry out.”25 Those who become martyrs appear to do so out of a combination of motives: anger, humiliation, a desire for revenge, commitment to their comrades and their cause, and a desire to attain glory—in other words, for reasons no more irrational than those of anyone prepared to give his life for a cause.26
Terrorists’ behavior has long seemed senseless to onlookers. The actions of the famous medieval sect the Assassins seemed so incomprehensible to others that for centuries it was believed that they were high on hashish when they undertook their suicide operations. It now appears that they were intoxicated only by their own ideology.27