Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’
I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.
The Directors of the GCSB (Acting) and SIS appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) to deliver their respective annual reports. Those reports include national threat assessments. I was not at the meeting but here is what I gleaned from the media coverage of the event:
Did the SIS Director focus on the hundreds of gang members who see violence as a way of life, to include sexual assaults, drug dealing, gun running, property crime and assorted acts of physical mayhem that result in death and injury and whose collective behaviour intimidate and terrorise sectors of the communities in which they inhabit? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director mention the dozens of white supremacists with track records of violence against minorities and who openly call for a race war and ethnic cleansing in NZ? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director address the infiltration of transnational organised crime into NZ and its use of business fronts, corruption, extortion, and intimidation to extend its reach in NZ and beyond? Answer: No.
Did the Director comment on the presence of foreign espionage networks in NZ seeking to obtain sensitive corporate, diplomatic, political and security information. Answer: No.
Instead, according to the media coverage, the Director focused her remarks on the handful of NZ women who are believed to have left the country in order to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Director was not sure if they left to marry or to fight (or both), and wondered about the effect the experience may have on them should they decide to return. That is interesting since few of the foreign women who have left to marry into or fight with Daesh return to their homelands, most being killed in conflict zones or while trying to escape the not-so-paradisical life of a Daesh concubine. The lucky few who have managed to get back to their homelands have not committed any acts of violence after their return.
Perhaps Director Kitteridge wanted to capitalise on the recent mass shooting in the US where one of the perpetrators was a so-called “jihadi bride” in order to focus public attention on the potential threat such women pose to NZ. But the woman in San Bernadino did not surreptitiously travel to a conflict zone, marry a Daesh fighter, then return to her homeland. Instead, she was a citizen of one US ally (Pakistan) and came from another (Saudi Arabia), who appears to have deliberately married a US citizen with the explicit intent of gaining entry to the US in order to carry out acts of politically motivated violence. Similarly, the woman who was an accomplice to the Paris mass murderers had never been to Syria and was unmarried. Neither is in any way comparable to NZ women marrying quickly and heading off to the Middle East.
That these women–again, less than a dozen by the Director’s own admission–chose to do so is certainly a tragedy for their families. It is also a small social problem in that it shows the depth of alienation and desperation of some women in NZ who see life with Daesh as a better alternative to life in Aotearoa. It can be considered to be a mental health issue because, to put it bluntly, one has to be a bit unhinged to think that life under Daesh in the killing grounds of al-Raqqa and elsewhere is an attractive proposition.
One thing is even clearer: it is not a pressing national security issue and should not have been the focus of the Director’s remarks or of the press coverage given to them.
So why so much attention given to the subject? Is this not public fear-manipulation via threat distortion? Was it the Director who was playing this game or was it the media doing so in their coverage of her remarks? Again, I was not there and only saw the coverage, but either way someone IS playing games when it comes to national threat assessments.
There is one more oddity about the mention of NZ “jihadi brides.” Western women who have travelled to join Daesh are known to be more likely than male foreign fighters to try and maintain contact with their families and/or friends back at home. They are known to be more likely than men to use social media applications as well as cell phones to communicate from Daesh-controlled territory (which speaks to the strategic, tactical and technological limitations of Daesh). This makes them a highly exploitable resource for intelligence agencies seeking to establish their locations, track their movements and those of their associates as well as get a sense of life under Daesh.
So why on earth would the Director jeopardize the ability of the SIS and GCSB to do so by publicly outing the fact that these women are being “monitored” as much as possible? This is especially perplexing given that these women are undoubtably included in the 30-40 people that the Director and PM have already said are being watched because of their Daesh sympathies, so there was no compelling reason to provide a gender breakdown of the approximately one in four who are female and who may have decided to travel in order to join Daesh.
A cynic would say that the comments by both Director Kitteridge and Acting GCSB Director Una Jagose were designed to prepare public sentiment for forthcoming security legislation allowing more intrusive powers of surveillance. The PM has now repeated his concerns about the “dark web” and spoken of the problems of decoding encrypted terrorist communications. So perhaps the stage is being set for that.
We must remember that the technologies involved in encryption and decryption, including the temporary “snapshot” encrypted communications that Western security authorities claim that terrorists are now using, all originate from military and intelligence agencies themselves. Thus the cycle of encryption/decryption, much like the previous cycles of code-making and code-breaking, has been well in progress for some time and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In this cycle it is security agencies who have the lead, not private sector application manufacturers.
In any event, jihadi brides are unlikely to be at the leading edge of this cycle so using them, however obliquely, as the foil for extending communications security legislation is a bridge too far.
Posted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo
The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.
We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.
Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.
Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above. In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.
We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?
Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?
The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.
Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.
That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.
Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”
This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.
In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are, few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.
This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.
I have spent the better part of the last few days doing assorted media interviews about the Paris terrorist attacks. Some were no more than sound bites, others were a bit more in depth. Here is a radio interview that allowed me to elaborate a bit on the broader picture behind the attacks.
Posted on 08:35, January 20th, 2015 by Pablo
The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.
Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.
There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.
As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.
The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.
The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.
After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.
In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.
Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.
Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.
The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.
What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.
Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).
There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.
It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.
Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.
One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.
For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.
Amid the flurry of media interviews I did as a result of the Sydney hostage crisis, this one may not have received the attention other outlets have received.
A few years back I wrote about the strategic utility of terrorism. One thing I did not mention in that post was the use of a tried and true guerrilla tactic as part of the terrorist arsenal: the sucker ploy.
In guerrilla warfare the sucker ploy is a tactic whereby the weaker irregular forces stage an incident in order to provoke an over-reaction from their stronger adversaries. Examples include killing a local official so as to have the security forces engage in mass repression of the people in the locality in which he worked. Another is firing at enemy aircraft or armour from inside villages in order to have them retaliate indiscriminately against the entire village. The objective is to alienate and erode support for the enemy by the victims.
For the last five years or so, the international jihadist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have evolved their tactics to suit the strategic environment they are confronted with. No longer able to carry out large scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Bali, London and Madrid bombings, would-be jihadists have been encouraged to engage in self-radicalised “lone wolf” or small-cell attacks within their respective countries using their familiarity with the local terrain and knowledge of local customs and symbology. These are low level, highly independent and autonomous operations, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings last year.
Attacks of this nature are tactically opportune but strategically insignificant. They do not present an existential challenge to any established state. By themselves they are tragic but politically inconsequential.
The motives and desired impact of the perpetrators may differ from those of the Islamicist leadership. Perpetrators may wish to strike a blow and sow localised fear while achieving martyrdom. The Islamicist leadership desires a strategic victory. The only way that it can do so is to use these types of attacks as a sucker ploy.
If governments respond to lone wolf and small cell low level terrorism with blanket increases in mass surveillance, national threat levels, expansion of security and anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on freedoms of association, movement and speech by groups associated with the perpetrators by virtue of religion, ethnicity or the like, then the strategic objectives of the Islamicist leadership are being served. That is because such measures target innocents, not only on an indiscriminate mass scale but often because of who they are rather than anything they have done. That further alienates and marginalises previously passive but increasingly disaffected sectors of society, thereby delegitimising governmental authority while breeding new recruits to the cause.
The temptation for democratic governments responding to such attacks to engage in large scale security tightening is overwhelming, which is of course what the Islamicists are banking on. The public needs reassurance, security agencies see opportunity and conservative politicians want their pound of flesh. Few opposition politicians want to appear soft on the threat of terrorism, much less by opposing moves to “tighten” security in the wake of lethal attacks in the West motivated by Islam. But that urge, even if given carte blanche by the media-fed hysteria of the moment, needs to be tempered with a broader perspective and deeper analysis of what is at play.
Of course security measures need to be in place in order to thwart such low-level attacks. In Ottawa they clearly were not. But this is no excuse to engage in a knee-jerk over-reaction that results in the type of divisive measures that serve the purposes of the Islamicists more than the population at large. To do so is to fall into the trap set by the Islamicst leadership when they ordered the shift in tactics towards decentralised low level operations conducted by “home-grown” jihadis.
A couple of points worth mentioning: The Canadian threat environment and exposure to Islamic terrorism is different and greater than that of New Zealand and has been for some time. IS had directly threatened Canada before the attacks because Canada has actively joined the conflict by sending ground attack aircraft and special forces troops to the fray.
The perpetrators responsible for this week’s crimes were not returning from the killing fields of Syria or Iraq. They were native born Quebecois, evidencing mental halt issues, with prior criminal records who were known to the Canadian authorities. They were recent converts to Islam, one of whom had been placed on a so-called “watch list” and had his passport revoked because of his overt Islamicist sympathies. The other, a recovering drug addict, was waiting for a passport application to be processed, was living in a half way house, and was frustrated by the delays in securing the passport. Unable to leave Canada, both turned their murderous gaze inwards.
This should serve as a lesson on several levels. But the foremost one is simple: beware the sucker ploy.
I was interviewed about the al-Shabaab attack in Nairobi. I have a slightly different take than the usual mainstream narrative.
Coverage of the murder of a British soldier in London and a subsequent stabbing of a French soldier in Paris by presumably Muslim extremists demonstrates how governments and some media outlets misuse the term “terrorism.”
After 9/11 “terrorism,” and its subset “Islamic terrorism,” became the favoured terms used to describe most types of politically motivated violence. That serves the purposes of government security agencies, many of which have expanded their powers of arrest and detention without charge, warrantless search and surveillance and legal scope of authority under the rubric of anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of 9/11. New Zealand is no exception in this regard, and the current proposal to amend the GCSB ACT 2003 is a continuation of that trend.
Branding political violence as terrorism allows the state to ignore standard notions of civil liberties and rights under the law because of the “special” nature of the terrorist threat. It justifies the profiling of entire communities of people who share basic traits or affinities with terrorist suspects. It fuels the growth of private and public security agencies focused on thwarting unconventional attacks at the same time that it militarizes domestic security, expands intelligence networks and re-focuses the strategic orientation of the military itself. It plays on fear and uncertainty for purposes unrelated to the actual threat posed by terrorism.
For the uncritical media, labeling all acts of political violence as terrorism feeds on sensationalism in pursuit of profit. Some lump all political violence done by designated “others” (most recently, Muslims) as terrorist acts in order to promote specific political agendas. Thus the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which was a standard guerilla operation against a symbol of US power, is portrayed by mainstream US outlets as a terrorist assault on American existential values rather than as a low-level threat against a defended compound that was ignored prior to its materializing.
Others reproduce government narratives about terrorism without deconstructing ulterior motives. This symbiotically serves both sides but leaves the truth somewhere in between. It is therefore worth distinguishing between political violence in general, and hate crimes and terrorism in particular.
Political violence is that which is done for political or ideological reasons. It may be due to grievance, fear, opportunism, or latent tensions based on long-standing differences. It may act as a precipitant or catalyst for broader violence by igniting sectarian conflicts. There are many reasons for and many types of political violence. Not all are terrorism.
Regicide is the killing of kings (in this day and age Game of Thrones fans are the most familiar with the concept). Political fratricide is the killing of partisans by their colleagues (some of which can be done symbolically, as recent New Zealand Labour Party ructions have shown). Homicidal attacks on presidents, premiers, prime ministers and politicians of all stripes are political murders by virtue of the victim’s status as much as the perpetrator’s motives. Lethal riots and clashes between political factions are mass political violence. None of these are terrorism.
Hate crimes are crimes committed out of loathing and contempt. They are rooted in fear, ignorance and frustration or prejudice grounded in historical enmity, political conflict or cultural difference. Although they may have symbolic purpose, they are often acts of desperation and usually are highly personalized or individualistic in nature.
Terrorism is an act of symbolic violence against civilians, often in mass settings. It attempts to raise the political costs of pursuing a given policy line by undermining the will of the subject population supporting it. The objective is to impose the political will of the perpetrator by fomenting a pervasive feeling of dread and uncertainty in the subject population that renders them paralyzed in terms of response, and to reassure adherents that through such acts ideological goals can be achieved against powerful enemies.
The target is different than the subject and is chosen precisely because of the symbolism inherent in its selection. Thus the World Trade Center and Pentagon were chosen as targets by al-Qaeda because of their symbolism and the impact the attacks would have on the will of the US government and people. The attacks also sought to demonstrate to the Muslim ummah that armed resistance to Western secularism was possible. Whether or not terrorism actually accomplishes its goals (the record is mixed), the rationale of terrorism focuses on the erosion of will in a subject entity so as to undermine support for a particular stance or position on a contentious issue.
Terrorism has been used as a tactic in warfare, by States against their own people, by criminal groups, and by non-state actors. The majority of modern terrorist acts have been perpetrated by states in and out of warfare. Criminal organizations regularly terrorize individuals and communities as a form of intimidation. In this era terrorism is most often associated with non-state actors espousing anti-status quo views based upon ideological grounds.
The murder of the British soldier was a politically motivated hate crime. Two disgruntled British born Muslims (one a convert), apparently backed by a few others, committed a homicide in broad daylight because they are unhappy with British foreign policy in Muslim lands. They may also have had personal motives and grievances. Yet the Cameron government called the murder “terrorism-related,” convened an emergency meeting of its most senior anti-terrorism group, placed all security services on increased alert, and spoke of possible copycat killings.
Commentators have suggested that this represents a new phase of Islamic terrorism, whereby terrorists are home grown, grassroots, self-radicalized and decentralized small groups or “lone wolf” (individual) operators such as those involved in the Boston Marathon bombings or Fort Hood shootings.
That may be true, as the campaign against al-Qaeda has made prohibitive its ability to carry out large-scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Madrid train bombings by eliminating those who have the capability to undertake them. In response, al-Qaeda has morphed into an irregular warfare network that seeks to pursue low-level operations in the West while taking advantage of the instability in North and Sub-Saharan Africa caused by regime collapse or state failure in order to secure territorial and political gains.
The change of tactics against Western targets is a sign of desperation and futility. Such low-level acts of violence pose no existential threat to the subject populations and governments. Few have the potential to involve mass casualties in numbers that would undermine the collective will. Even if carried out repeatedly, it is arguable whether they can achieve the objective of changing the overall thrust of Western policy vis a vis Islam (less arguable is the suggestion that, in fact, al-Qaeda operations did alter the thrust of Western approaches to Islam). In other words, whether they were initially successful or not, al-Qaeda’s tactics in the West have been reduced from ideologically-based, mass-targeted terrorism to low level hate crimes.
The contrast in government approach and media coverage is remarkable when the violence is meted out against rather than by Muslims. In early May a Muslim shop keeper was hacked to death with a machete in Birmingham. CCTV caught a Caucasian suspect leaving the scene and the police labeled the murder as a hate crime. In the aftermath of the soldier’s murder there has been an upsurge in violence against British Muslims, all of which has been treated as hate crimes. Likewise, in the US targeted violence against Muslims is officially viewed as hate crimes, but Muslim violence is most often framed as terrorist-inspired.
There is certainly overlap between terrorism and politically motivated hate crimes in some instances, but the preponderance of low-level acts of politically motivated violence is the latter even if the perpetrators are Muslim. That is more so now that al-Qaeda has been decimated.
That means that such acts of political violence should be treated by the justice system as common crimes rather than as special events. Terrorism is properly understood as a criminal conspiracy to commit mass murder for ideological reasons. Hate crimes are independent acts of individual or small group violence done for ascriptive reasons. Criminal justices systems already address both.
It also means that there is no genuine justification for creating a separate body of legislation specifically designed to counter terrorism as a special sort of political violence, much less justify the intrusions on civil liberties and individual rights that such legislation entails. Whereas the large scale attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London and Bali appeared to justify in the minds of some a war-like approach by Western states to the political violence known as Islamic terrorism, that is no longer true if it ever was.
The conflation of hate crimes and terrorism serves the purposes of the perpetrators as well as the security agencies that confront them. It serves the self-interest of the corporate media, which publicizes the messages of both sides in order to generate revenue. What is not served is the common good brought about by informed consideration of the causes and effects of different types of political violence, as well as the remedies for them.
Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.
Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.
With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.
Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.
Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.
In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.
The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.
That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.
However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.
In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.
The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.
Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.
The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.