Towards a Theory of Terrorism
Although the media has been 'covering terrorism' extensively, especially during the past year, it has mainly focused on how to respond, how people did respond, and how to 'fix terrorism', thereby largely ignoring the fact that terrorism has been around for many more years and, more importantly, ignoring the vast amount of (research) publications dealing with theories of terrorism, which I think could have been, and still can be, very helpful in dealing with such acts of violence in a constructive manner.
First, I will address the basic theory of terrorism, then map the involved parties in order to place terrorist actions and their demands in that framework. Last, I comment on the prevailing responses to and 'fixes' for terrorism.
2. Basic aspects of the theory of terrorism
Terrorism is the weapon of those people who are prepared to use violence, but who also believe that they would lose a real power struggle, thus one can say that terrorism is a tool of the weak1: they do not have the resources (people, money, political power) to wage a real war. Secondly, and in contrast with standard warfare tactics, the used violence is a means, not a goal in itself, as the main goal is to disturb, expose and highlight the weaknesses and incompetence of the government and civil apparatus. A secondary aspect is achieving their direct political objectives (see also §3.1).1, 2, 3, 4, 5
An important notion is that its effectiveness depends on the reaction of the opponent, because the terrorist is trying to achieve goals through the reaction on their actions. This is also its Achilles heel: the opponent may act in another way than anticipated, thus having the option to break a vicious circle or downward spiral.1, 2
Terrorist themselves tend to judge the success of an action based on the amount of media coverage (+ propaganda) and the psychological 'warfare' resulting from it; i.e. the instilled fear and sense of insecurity, the idea of 'invisible enemies', not knowing where they are or with how many, etc.1, 2, 3, 4, 5
From a political philosophy point of perspective, terrorism is an indirect strategy.1
3. Characterization of actors
There are various ways to map involved organizations when looking at a specific conflict (most notably the 'classical method', a top-down approach involving a few groups, and a wider approach as advocated by Transcend), but I'm taking a very basic viewpoint here (thus still allowing the option that it can be elaborated on when focusing in on a real-life situation): terrorists and state(s).
3.1 Aggrieved groups
Having referred to 'organized groups using violence as a means to achieve their goals' as terrorists, I will correct myself here. Some call these organized groups terrorists; others would say freedom fighters, or fighters for a just cause. To avoid this subjective branding, I will use the more neutral term "aggrieved group".
These aggrieved groups have specific political objectives and believe that violence is an inevitable means to achieve their political ends. Objectives vary widely, from defending/wanting regions, religions, nationalities or ideologies. 2, 4, 5 Roughly, this can be divided as having a basis in ideological or refugee-based disorders. Ideological disorders encompass liberation struggles, right-wing (e.g. racist) and left-wing (e.g. Marxist) ideologies 1, 4, 5 whereas for refugee-based disorders the aim is to get 'their own' country or region back, most often being fought from a refugee area outside the borders of the country they are targetting.5
The minimum amount of involved states in any 'terrorist conflict' is one. However, it is only rarely that an aggrieved group has sufficient means to maintain violence on its own without support from other states. Khan5 divided the involved states up into supportive and suppressive states. A further sub-division can be made into both principle and accessory supportive/suppressive states.
Accessory supportive states provide moral support to the aggrieved group, which might sound little distinct from being neutral, but effective moral support form states that promote the political objectives, officially positioned as being outside of the problem, does provide extended legitimacy of the actions of the aggrieved group. A principal supportive not only provides moral support, but also resources (finance, military, active training etc.)2, 5, though sometimes the vocal moral support may not be voiced loud and clear for international political reasons.
The distinction between principal or accessory suppressive states largely depends on perception of the aggrieved group of the particular state and the consistency in opposing the aggrieved group.5
Things get more complicated in real life than the nice distinctions made in the previous two paragraphs, as it is common practice for a state to be categorized as more than one type of state not only over time, but especially at the same time with regards to different conflicts. This conflicting characterization is part of the wider problem as the dual approach of measuring with two standards towards violence and terrorism impairs the orderly functioning of the international system: labels become weapons to influence, and even to manipulate, domestic and international public opinion. 5
4. Terrorist activities
Bearing in mind the basic theory of terrorism and the classification of the aggrieved groups as well as the involved state(s), actions carried out by the aggrieved groups can be categorized as follows (see Marighella6 for a more detailed categorization):
- "Frivolous actions": for example Peru's electricity poles in Lima Metropolitana being blown up during the countdown on new year's eve in 4 consecutive years (despite 'improved state security') in the '80s, or FARC's Y2K-ready press release instantly after the Colombian government admitted they themselves would most likely face serious problems of not being Y2K-ready, thereby indicating the 'incompetence' of the state.
- Indiscriminate bombings and killings, which are not targeted at specific people, but the act of disruption and creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity (i.e. 'the state cannot protect its own citizens'). Depending on the situation, aggrieved groups tend to lose support and credibility with such activities, especially when the opponent has banned the death penalty itself1.
- High-profile hijacking of planes and hostage taking, thus pushing the problems into the international scene5. Though not quantitatively documented, in most cases the hostages do survive physically unharmed.
Some actions as described in §4.1 are solely intended to defame the state, but other situations demanded money, freeing prisoners, (more) schools, a (better) health system, meeting the advocated ideology or land1, 2, 5; essentially, that the basic needs of people need to be provided for, as well as communal recognition and distributive justice9.
5. Responses to terror
5.1 Responses to actions
The possible responses to a terrorist action are only limited by the opponent's imagination and willingness to do something. Roughly, documented responses fit one, or more, of this list:
- Kill the terrorists quickly as the best deterrence10, where additional 'proof' is given by Game Theory (computer simulation prediction models).
- "FBI/CIA/Europol of the world", meaning a worldwide intelligence-gathering agency, including a standby armed response unit12. From the opponent's side, the perceived cause of the violence is lack of coordination between intelligence organizations and slow response.
- Demonise, dehumanize, terrorists5, 11. A good, or should I say sad, example is a paper published by researchers form the George Mason University11 about 9/11 referring to the plane hijackers and Al-Qaida members as
"illiterate, simpleminded ... Of course, not all terrorists are sufficiently stupid. Many are coerced ... mentally unstable individuals ... ignorant, religiously indoctrinated fanatics"
and more dehumanizing qualifications alike, not only about people, but also against Islam.
- Fuel the fear and curb liberties and human rights like privacy2, 11.
This paragraph looks at suggestions being made, occasionally tried out as well, that can be considered as a more constructive approach than outlined in §5.1 to deal with aggrieved groups, supportive and suppressive states and their acts of violence.
- Tap into the limitless resources of your inner alpha consciousness; the perceived cause is that the modern society too stressful, uncreative1, thus taking at least some of the blame of the problems on yourself.
- Islam, or any "true interpretation" of a monotheistic religion (where the perceived cause is Darwinism and materialism)14, 15. This is based on the idea that 'no religion really wants people to suffer and die'.
- Negotiate and give in to some (or all) demands2, which leads to a situation where principal suppressive states definitely condemn this strategy as being too soft and particularly wrong to give in to any demand made by an aggrieved group, but where, depending on the type of action and "propaganda of the deed"8, accessory suppressive and/or supportive states may change position.
- Include moderate terrorists in the solution5, going one step further than the previous one. However, a situation may occur that moderates of an aggrieved group are incorporated in 'the solution' (for example the peace process in Northern Ireland), but that extremes are excluded and might form even more violent splinter groups8.
6. Concluding remarks
While reading up on theories of terrorism, I found it striking it was the older literature of the late '70s and '80s that did attempt to provide an analysis and theoretical framework of violent acts of aggrieved groups, which did not appear in the more recent scientific literature. On the contrary, recent literature on the web tended to be focused on how to deal with terrorists (mainly Game Theory, with similar outcomes to kill10, 16) and using computational modeling (other neural networks)8 in trying to predict terrorist's behaviour for risk assessment analysis of potential target sites.
Comparing the older scientific literature (Chapter 2) with the responses most prevalent at the time of writing (§5.1), I can't withdraw my attention form the idea that either people didn't learn much from the outlined theory or don't (want to) know about its existenceb. Moreover, the recipients of the (violent) acts carried out by an aggrieved group have the option to break the vicious circle/downwards spiral. In other words:
1. Fromkin, D. Die Strategie des Terrorismus. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 83-99.
2. Laqueur, W. Terrorism. London: Weinfeld and Nicolson. 1997. 277p
3. Kreis, K.M. Der internationale Terrorismus. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 158-172.
4. Allemann, F.R. Terrorismus in Lateinamerika - Motive und Erscheinungsformen. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 173-197.
5. Khan, A. A legal theory of international terrorism. 19 Connecticut Law Review. 1987. pp 945-972. This website contains much more interesting theory than addressed in this write-up.
6. Marighella, C. Mini-manual of the Urban Guerilla. 1969.
7. Johns, M. and Silverman, B.G. How emotions and personality effect the utility of alternative decisions: a terrorist target selection case study. University of Pennsylvania. 10p.
8. Bueno de Mesquita, E. An adverse selection model of terrorism: theory and evidence. Dept. of Government, Harvard University. 45p.
9. Azar, E.E. The management of protracted social conflict. Hampshire: Dartmouth. 1990. pp 2-3.
10. Tay Kok Siong, D., Yong Wee, F. and Kien Meng, W. Terrorism And Game Theory. July 2001.
11. Anne Rathbone and Charles K. Rowley. George Mason University. 15p
12. Schiller, D. From a national to an international response. In: Combating the terrorists. Tucker, H.H. (ed.). New York: Facts on file. 1988. pp 185-202.
13. Anon. Preventing Terrorism: Invincible Defense Technology: Scientific Foundation. Permanent Peace.
14. Yahya, H. The Real Ideological Root of Terrorism: Darwinism and materialism.
15. Yahya, H. Islam Is Not The Source Of Terrorism, But Its Solution.
16. Anon. RMS Unveils Game Theory-Based Terrorism Risk Model. Insurance Journal, Sept 2002.
This is a write-up of a presentation held at 25-11-'02, part of the course IL5052 - Origins, development and resolution of conflict, Department of Government & Society, University of Limerick, Ireland.