On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

27 Responses to “On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.”

  1. Tom Semmens on November 13th, 2009 at 22:28

    Area bombing was NOT terrorism. To claim it was is to cast an appalling insult to the 55,573 who died in Bomber Command in WW2.

  2. Pablo on November 13th, 2009 at 22:51

    TomS:

    In a 2000 word essay that is the point you choose to disagree with? Geez.

    Plus I beg to differ. Whatever the sacrifice of the air crews and their specific read of the motives for the (fire- as opposed to percussive-) bombing of (wood structure) civilian population centres, the strategic rationale was to psychologically demoralize the enemy support base. That is the objective of terrorism and rather than ponder the fate of aircrews you would be wise to reflect on the views of the survivors of the above-mentioned bombings.

    Dresden and Tokyo had limited military utility, the other targets had none to speak of. So what was the point of these raids if not to terrorise the populations involved?

  3. Hugh on November 14th, 2009 at 09:16

    Pablo – I don’t know about Tokyo, but my understanding of Dresden is that the goal was to (further) screw up German infrastructure by creating a huge surge in internal refugees. So the goal was terror, but the terror had a concrete military benefit.

    Not sure about Tokyo, however.

  4. Andrew W on November 14th, 2009 at 09:50

    Terrorism is the use or threat of use of violence to create terror in the pursuit of a political agenda.

    But why use 20 words when you can use 2000?

    ;-)

    But it is nice to see “terrorism” defined in more objective terms.

    That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

    Are you referring again to the “disloyal opposition” you see happening in the US?

    Obama is going to be a one term president, so if that is what you’re alluding to you needn’t worry, terrorism arises when hope of peaceful change is lost.

  5. Andrew W on November 14th, 2009 at 10:20

    Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan).

    This bit I disagree with, eroding the moral of the enemy has always been a military strategy. Are you prepared to argue that the broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw and Tokyo Rose?
    The Kamikaze were military attacks on US military forces, I don’t think that the suicide aspect makes them acts of terrorism.
    Perhaps a better argument for an example of terrorism is states controlling their own people (including Kamikaze pilots?) by creating a fear that defeat would lead to barbaric retributions by the victorious enemy against the domestic population.

  6. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 10:24

    Terrorism, I would argue, has little strategic utility because the terrorist will eventually turn on his immediate neighbours, whatever the initial target group.

    I think it’s important not to confuse terrorist and military action. The bombing of Dresden was a military action (and possibly also a war crime). “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West” – Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff.

  7. Pablo on November 14th, 2009 at 12:21

    As I said before, even if there is coincident military utility to an attack, targeting of civilian population centres in an effort to break their collective morale is an act of state terrorism in wartime. That is different than trying to break the morale of fighting forces, and is why the topic of war crimes gets mentioned in reference to such episodes. My point is not to debate the morality of the tactic, but to note its strategic utility regardless of who does it.

    Andrew W: Simple as it is, your definition is a tautology. And even if it were useful, your second comment contradicts it by claiming that “perhaps a better argument for an example of terrorism is states controlling their own people…by creating a fear of that defeat…”. What happened to threat or use of violence as per your definition?

    As for your remark about disloyal opposition and Obama’s electoral chances, you are reading way too much into my post. Try to stay on topic.

    Matt: I have no clue what you mean by “the terrorist will eventually turn on his immediate neighbours, whatever the initial target group.” Feel free to explain that one because, quite frankly, I have never heard or read of that claim before.

  8. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 14:59

    I make a distinction between ‘State terrorism’ and the home-grown variety. I’m not sure that ‘State terrorism’ qualifies as terrorism, but it certainly involves turning on one’s neighbour.

    At the ‘home grown’ level, terrorists hope to inspire the general population to their cause. This attempt inevitably fails, and then the terrorists turn upon the people they were hoping to ‘save’, seeing emnity in their lack of support. It’s also possible that they just become more comfortable with savagery.

  9. Pablo on November 14th, 2009 at 15:08

    Ok Matt, I see your point on terrorists turning on their support base but am still not sure that it is universally true.

    As for state versus non-state terrorism, I make distinctions between several types of terrorism in the post (to include state sponsored as well as the above), so can only refer you back to it. I will say, having lived under two state terrorist regimes (Argentina and Chile), that states are quite effective at terrorising their populations, and do not always enter into conflict with their neighbours. In fact, as “Operation Condor” in the 1970s shows, state terrorist regimes can cooperate quite well when it comes to destroying their mutual political enemies.

  10. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 15:17

    It’s semantics, but I think you’re describing tyranny, not terrorism. To some extent all these actions can be described as ’4th generation conflict’, and in that sense Tzun Tzu probably still has the last word from a strategic perspective.

    When I said state terrorism – or tyranny – ‘involves turning on your neighbours’ I didn’t mean neighbouring countries, though it often involves that too. But I think you probably understand that better than I do.

  11. Pablo on November 14th, 2009 at 15:29

    Matt: I disagree that the distinction is just semantic. Tyranny is an (extreme) authoritarian regime type; terrorism in an instrument tyrants and authoritarians (often) use to enforce their rule. Not all despots use terrorism, and not all despots are tyrants (think so called benevolent authoritarians such as national populists or the PAP regime in Singapore).

    In a way, discussions of 4th generation warfare are of the “back to the future” type, since it returns to the 1st generation concepts of fluidity, deception and misdirection that Tsun Tsu so aptly described (and I agree that he is the father of asymmetric warfare).

  12. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 15:51

    Thankyou for the discussion.

    My contention is that the motivating factors behind state repression and individual terrorist acts are completely different. One is an act perpetrated by an established order – the knock on the door at 2am for example. The other is an act, purportedly against the established order, which often in fact has far more to do with the psychology of a few teenage males (that’s the short version). Certainly these individuals can be manipulated by external forces, but their influences are unpredictable at best. The ‘Terrorist State’ is far better compared with a large criminal organisation than a terrorist cell. Certainly both will commit atrocities, but if the result defines the purpose, then all violence is terrorism, and the definition becomes meaningless.

  13. Pablo on November 14th, 2009 at 16:45

    Excellent points Matt.

    I would simply note that, with the exception of criminal terrorism, in all cases the justification for terrorism is ideological, which in turn defines the strategic goals that terrorism, as a tactic, wishes to advance.

    This discussion has a natural follow up in the debate about trying the Guantanamo 4 (9/11 conspirators) in US federal court in NYC. Although it may seem contradictory in light of the discussion above, I am all for it, but it seems that many (mostly right-conservative) commentators do not have the same faith in the US justice system that I do and want them to be tried in those special military tribunals.

    I believe that political motivated violence can be handled by criminal law frameworks in democracies and do not have to be awarded a special status that requires separate forms of adjudication. That only reifies the terrorist cause.

    It would be also interesting to hear what readers feel about the Urewera 17 in light of this discussion.

  14. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 17:02

    I believe that political motivated violence can be handled by criminal law frameworks in democracies and do not have to be awarded a special status that requires separate forms of adjudication. That only reifies the terrorist cause.

    So then the distinction is between military action and criminal terrorism. Good point, but doesn’t that render the strategic utility question moot, if terrorism is by definition a criminal act?

  15. Pablo on November 14th, 2009 at 18:05

    Strategic utility derives from objectives being achieved (ideological or not). Criminal terrorism in, say, Sicily has strategic utility if it enforces “omerta” amongst the citizenry which precludes police from disrupting the extortion rackets and and Mafia control of important industries (rubbish collection, for instance). Jihadist terrorism has strategic utility if it sways Muslim opinion against pro-Western governments in the Islamic world, thereby destabilising them in favour of a fundamentalist alternative, or forces a rethink and retreat of Western interests from the Muslim world. That, again, is more a function of the strength or weakness of the subject regime rather than the terrorist’s ideological appeal,

    In that measure I would say that the jihadists are losing, which is what prompted me to open the post with the quote from a veteran SOLIC professional. However, when it comes to the likes of Pakistan, the Sudan or Afghanistan, then the issue remains very much open.

    In all cases terrorism is by definition a criminal act, but its strategic utility varies according to prospects of its objective(s) being achieved.

    Allied fire and nuclear bombing of civilian population centres could well have been criminal, but it had strategic utility. Japanese massacres of Chinese, Filipino, and Korean populations did not, not because they were criminal but because they did not achieve the desired objective. In that sense, to the victors go the spoils (and the writing of history).

  16. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 19:51

    If terrorism is the last desperate act of a dying man, it can be of little use to criminals, even though it qualifies as a criminal act. However, if it can efficiently enforce ‘omerta’, then it has strategic value but can hardly be described as ‘last gasp’.

    I think there’s a distinction to be made between terrorism as a tool and terrorism as a goal in itself. The terrorism practised by Al Quaeda, for example, masquerades as strategy (insofar as it has a philosophy), and has allied itself with criminal elements in Afghanistan etc, but its source is (among other places) in Egyptian torture chambers (terrorist structures themselves), and its goal is revenge. The terrorism practised by the Taliban on the other hand is about money, power and land.

  17. SPC on November 14th, 2009 at 20:30

    I would add that “criminal” terrorism is not just a resort to a desperate act, but a deliberate choice to provoke a response.

    A case in point of much relevance.

    The Afghanistan mujahideen could have been seen by some (their Arab allies) as being engaged in a war with a declining (secular) Soviet superpower, and that this engagement was the noblest act of their lives.

    Thus Arabs looking for a continuing alliance to engage in a struggle with another secular (or at least non Moslem) superpower. In this being the champions of Islam confronting the non Moslem world.

    The regional purpose of which is to mobilise (at least) sentiment in the Islamic world in common cause against the non Moslem “secular world” and to promote resistance to regimes seen as secularising or suppressing Islamic political movements.

    Combine that with observing the way the Cold War divided the world between “us and them”, and that then successfully provoking the Americans (after the Cold war ended) would divide the world between those on the side of the Americans or the Islamists – the concept of which would appeal to their religious sense of the militant jihad and their chauvinism in being men of destiny.

    To suggest that the resort to terrorism is simply a desperate act is hubris. If the use of terrorism is sufficient to deny victory and peace to the superior conventional force and the superior force is unable to maintain conventional supremay indefinitely, then the ultimate result is unknown. And if the intent of the terrorist is to initially gain in status by denying the superpower conclusive victory, that of itself achieves its goal. The secondary goal then is to either outlast the superpower and or build up support for Islamic resistance to secularism.

    A second case in point would be that esablishment power (abuse of power terrorism) is often exercised to provoke dissent – which is then used to identify those who who would dare resist increasing authoritarianism. I would suggest that those who oppose increasing security powers etc (say surveillance) are the first to be so categorised.

    PS a quibble – I doubt Irgun or Stern’s existence was required for the state of Israel to establish.

  18. Matt on November 14th, 2009 at 20:41

    It’s easier to understand terrorism as a strategy when there is a strategic force behind it, but it’s nihilism that truly terrifies. By its nature, however, nihilism is immune to study, and too often gets put in the hard basket. What is the strategic utiliy of nihilism?

  19. Andrew W on November 14th, 2009 at 21:46

    “Simple as it is, your definition is a tautology.”

    Well that was sorta the aim, to summarise the core of what I read as your argument in a few words, your labelling it a tautology presumably means I was correct.

    My use of the word “perhaps” was not accidental, I’m aware of the apparent contradiction.

    “perhaps a better argument for an example of terrorism is states controlling their own people…by creating a fear of that defeat…”. What happened to threat or use of violence as per your definition?

    That was put as a suggestion for another perspective, not a conclusion, the threat of violence is advanced by the State, with the enemy as the agent of that violence.

    It may not fly as a form of terrorism, but I think it’s interesting in that states do sometimes create fear in their populations by using exaggeration of an external threat as a means of controlling that population.
    So the threat of violence to create fear to advance a political ends is there.

    As for your remark about disloyal opposition and Obama’s electoral chances, you are reading way too much into my post. Try to stay on topic.

    It was a question Pablo, I take it your answer is no.

    “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.”

    I’m surprised you give such importance to this quote, given that it obviously is contradicted by many of the examples of terrorism you give, as you illustrate, terrorism has been part of many successful campaigns.

    In all cases terrorism is by definition a criminal act, but its strategic utility varies according to prospects of its objective(s) being achieved.

    I don’t buy that, I assume by “criminal act” you mean that acts of terrorism contravene international law, I think that’s putting the cart in front of the horse. if the law were changed to allow terrorism by some nations, as it appears to already – by the definition I used above – would you then argue that “the use or threat of use of violence to create terror in the pursuit of a political agenda” was no longer terrorism, because it was no longer a criminal act?

  20. Phil Sage on November 15th, 2009 at 00:15

    In that measure I would say that the jihadists are losing, which is what prompted me to open the post with the quote from a veteran SOLIC professional. However, when it comes to the likes of Pakistan, the Sudan or Afghanistan, then the issue remains very much open.

    A fascinating post and discussion as usual. I wish I had more time to consider and post more appropriate and well thought responses.

    I disagree with the last gasp of a dying man quote but understand why you included it. Gavrip Principio, Eire, Israel, the Boer and any number of other examples during the retreat of the British empire are sufficient to demonstrate the effectiveness of terrorism as a weapon. The point is well made by the Tamils & Al Qaeda in Iraq that when the terrorists turn on their own population rather than the ruling class they are losing.

    Andrew W makes a good point that politically weak governments are prone to manipulate the spectre of terrorism for their own ends.

    And weak politicians simply choose appeasement over hard decisions. That is what we are seeing with Obama.

    I am interested in your views on the Clash of Civilisations. This post is an interesting contextual first chapter but it must be leading somewhere. Personally I see jihadist terrorism as being a multi generational conflict. Until those Islamic nations have developed and educated and prosperous middle class living reasonably democratically there will be no sustained peace. Iraq represented a country much further along that path than Afghanistan which is why it was chosen. Oil and Bush unfinished business with Saddam were not sufficient reasons in and of themselves to justify war. The possibility of WMD being provided to and used by terrorists and the opportunity to provide an example democracy to the rest of the Arab world were the reasons for going into Iraq.

    Leaving Afghanistan as the sole front in the war against Jihadist terrorism would mean inevitable defeat due to the nature and backwardness of the country.

    imho the jihadists are trying to overthrow our Western democracy and it is legitimate for us to take the fight into countries that are not ruled democratically or at least with popular support.

    So I look forward to your next chapter where you develop the clash of civilisations theme, either agreeing or disagreeing or in a different direction.

  21. Matt on November 15th, 2009 at 09:22

    imho the jihadists are trying to overthrow our Western democracy and it is legitimate for us to take the fight into countries that are not ruled democratically or at least with popular support.

    ‘We’ were already doing that, and more besides, up to and including taking the fight into countries ruled with popular support. Not to mention providing support for tyrants when it suits us. So we’ve sown dragons’ teeth.

    Having said that maybe ‘jihad’ was inevitable anyway. I can’t see a viable military solution, primarily because the soldiers on one side can self-recruit, train themselves (or even get training from their enemy) and act autonomously. Which inevitably brings us back to good policework on the one hand, and looking for better diplomatic and domestic solutions on the other. By all means we can disrupt their support base in the meantime if possible, but we have to bear in mind the collateral damage.

  22. Pablo on November 15th, 2009 at 16:22

    Thanks all for the informed responses. There is much to reflect on but I shall limit myself to a few points. Let me start with the specifics:

    SPC: You are right about Irgun/Stern. I should have said that they played a role “in part” in the creation of Israel.

    Matt: Although a few perpetrators may be nihilists I do not believe that politically-motivated terrorism is at its core nihilistic.

    Andrew W: With due respect, saying that “terrorism is political violence that causes terror” is a tautology that is useless, not correct. Parsimony in definition is one thing; crude over-simplification is another. I do agree with the your comment about states manipulating fear to their advantage.

    PhilS: I disagree with your opinion that the jihadist objective is to overthrow Western democracies. To the contrary, I believe that is not only an impossible, even ridiculous objective even if it were true, but that in fact the jihadist campaign is overtly defensive in nature. They want to preserve what they see is a cultural belief system under siege, even if they encourage “third column” seditious activity in places ike the UK, France and the Netherlands. (Incidentally, much thanks for the link over at NM)

    That brings me to the general point, one that you all have noted: the quote about the last gasp of the dying man is wrong. I guess I should have clarified better in the post why I believe it to be true. Here goes my explanation:

    The jihadist cause is doomed to fail because its ideological appeal is waning even in the Muslim world and only finds succor and refuge in failed states that are resource poor and rendered by gross poverty and ignorance, elite corruption, and persistent pre-modern ethno-religious conflicts precisely because they have not been touched by globalisation (due to their unimportance as economic entities). Some of the jihadists may come from elite classes, but the only place they have appeal is amongst the Muslim downtrodden and disaffected minorities in Western states.

    Hard core Islamicists are being forced to retreat into these desperate safe havens, where they are being encircled with the purpose of choking their resource flows and re-supply lines. The job of killing them off has a ways to go when in comes to places like Somalia, the Sudan and Pakistan (and Gaza), but the writing is on the wall. In fact, it is only when Islamicists can cloak their objectives in nationalist or tribalist garb (such as in Palestine or in the Hindu Kush) that they continue to maintain some type of popular appeal. But the Wahhabist/Salafist brand of Sunni internationalism is clearly being rolled back along the lines I describe above. Western adherents may be locally dangerous but cannot broaden their appeal. Shiia extremism is mitigated by the fact that it clashes with Sunni interests and has a “return to sender” stamp on it called Iran (which promotes caution in Iranian decision-making when its core state values come into play).

    It may not be publicly discussed and is overshadowed by the overt military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (and the Philippines), but transnational intelligence sharing and joint covert counter-terrorism operations have increased exponentially in the last five years and have consequently been increasingly successful in early detection and neutralisation of Islamicist cells. This includes intelligence sharing by traditional rivals on matters of mutual counter-terrorism interest, a process that crosses ideological divides and which includes identifying and disrupting Islamicist funding and support networks as well as terrorist cells

    As I mention in the post, that in turn has forced the Islamicists to atomise their operations, to the point of using “Lone Wolf” agents that are hard to detect but who generally have much more limited impact in the conduct of their operations (Major Hassan being a case in point).

    All of which is to say that even though the struggle is far from over and there will be plenty more terrorist attacks in the near future (as their desperation increases), and that the outcome in failed states (especially Afghanistan and Pakistan) is far from certain, I nevertheless believe that the jihadists have seen the crest of their wave. Their best bet is to revert to localised “reminder” operations that serve notice that they are still capable of inflicting tactical damage in contested spaces. But as a strategic actor projecting influence on the global playing field, they are all but done.

  23. SPC on November 15th, 2009 at 18:32

    While it is clear that popular support for terrorism is waning, it would be premature to presume from this that support for the causes in which terrorism has been used will also fall.

    Terrorism can be supplanted by ownership of WMD or resort to conventional force (if the western forces left Afghanistan the Taleban would prevail just as the North did when entering Saigon) – unilaterally or multi-laterally.

    Terrorism is a declaration of resistance, resistance can continue in rejection of secularism and election of Islamic parties after violent overthrown of established regimes and installation of Islamic republics.

    The irony is that it is a supposed fear of this violent overthrow of established regimes or the popularity of Islamist parties which is cited as a security interest (by regimes) in the prevention of democratic reform. And thus fear of the “resistance” prevents democratic secularisation. Maybe the terrorists, Islamists and established regimes need each other to prevent the change which they all fear?

  24. SPC on November 15th, 2009 at 18:40

    Which appears to be the factor in common amongst those who resort to terrorism against each other – an inclusive tolerant society where rule is by consent is at odds with their own authoritarianism – and justification for it.

  25. Phil Sage on November 16th, 2009 at 08:34

    There are over 1.2 billion muslims who have a stranglehold on the worlds current source of transportable energy. They only need to acquiese in the battles of a small minority, for the consequence to be a protracted war. Communism lasted from 1916 until 1989. I am not a pessimist that the West will lose as I agree that self determination will overcome corrupt elites.

    Communism was fated to fail from the start but it took more than 70 years or 3 generations. The tactics of appeasement and complacency have been shown not to work. The first attack in the world trade centre was 1993. 8 years later the jihadists achieved success. Now is the time to double down and follow McChrystals strategy rather than withdraw.

    The world will be a much less safe place over coming decades if the jihadist terrorists are able to claim any defeat of the West.

    Obama needs to confront Netanyahu and bring peace to that region or the spectre of terrorism will continue.

  26. SPC on November 16th, 2009 at 21:52

    I wonder whether there is not some attempt to manage “transition to economic and political globalisation” via resort to intimidation of domestic populations. This being the establishment form of terrorism (and I do include holy war end time religion at war on secular society in this). This would also explain why “security powers” and “surveillance” tends to drift towards focus on all of those seen as problematic dissidents questioning globalisation, rather than simply terrorists and associates.

    Is globalisation the emergence of the cause or the cause of the counter-terrorism emergence?

  27. Matt on November 23rd, 2009 at 10:01

    http://johannhari.com/2009/11/16/meet-the-ex-jihadis

    Hardly a robust statistical survey, but makes very interesting reading.

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