Thursday, July 21, 2005

Terrorism – a theory

A friend of mine who happens to be writing her doctoral thesis on terrorism at the University of Illinois is visiting this week. Given global events from Afghanistan and Iraq to today’s horrible events in London, we’ve had a lot to discuss.

The basic theory (this is a brief summary) that she is putting forward in her dissertation, one with which I agree, is that terrorism is a tactic. It is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. In other words, terrorism is tactic used to gain a larger victory and cannot be understood outside of the larger conflict in which it is being used.

She also contends that those who commit terrorist acts believe that they are engaged in a war. They have been brought up in a culture or influenced by a culture that holds a strongly felt resentment against another party for an event, either real or perceived. However, their ability to fight in "traditional ways" is not available. Thus, they turn to terror.

In such a theory, there can be no victory or cessation of hostilities until the factors underlying the terrorists’ grievances are solved. Unfortunately, the cycle of terrorism is often self-perpetuating. A country that is attacked often reacts with force against the terrorists giving them new grievances (perceived or real).

Unfortunately, I believe this theory is accurate. We are facing a long, sustained fight that will last until we address the reasons that people are attacking us rather than trying to eliminate those who are carrying out the attacks.


At 2:40 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I would have to add that the problem is, how do we address their grievances? You can’t reward terror, I don’t think. Nor do they have many grievances that can be realistically accommodated. Most of the Islamic terrorists seek to impose an oppressive “Caliphate” over the entire Middle East and eventually the world. Let’s not forget that one of Osama bin Laden’s original complaints was that the Spanish kicked out the Muslims—in 1492. Accommodating these groups would not be a successful path to take.

Thus I think “addressing their grievances” really means “changing their minds and culture.” When the Ku Klux Klan was rampant in the South, no good person throught the solution should be to remove all the black people. The only solution was to change the minds and culture of the violent racists. That struggle is still going on but it has proven itself to be very successful.

It is of course a whole different story when we’re dealing with people in another nation. Our methods must be different, but the goal has to be the same. Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of changing another peoples’ culture—so let me be clear that I am referring only to the violent, fascist variety of Islam. We should support all non-oppressive varieties of Islam. In fact, one of our best hopes, I think, is by helping the many peaceful Muslims take more and more control of their religion.

Anyway, that’s really a whole other thesis. I think Joe’s friend is dead on. Terrorism is a tactic. You can’t fight a tactic effectively. But you can fight the ideology that embraces that tactic.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger AubreyJ said...

Good points you and your friend have made Joe but I would like to add this…
Read “Jihad knocks on House of Saud's door” By Rabbi Moshe Reis at Asia Times
This is one of the better reads I’ve seen on this topic so far…

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Joe Weedon said...

AubreyJ -
it's the type of culture the article points to that must be addressed and changed. The US and our allies have supported the governments of many of the countries that the "terrorists" are now coming from. That doens't mean our government policies were wrong in the past. It simply means that we must address the cultural grievances that have lead to feelings of oppression, hatred and violence within those societies.

It won't be easy to overcome this culture, but it can be done. The British have done a remarkable job of rising above the violence inflicted by the IRA in past generations.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger AubreyJ said...

Good points Alan and thanks Joe, your views hold many truths…
As our President has said over and over again- "We're in it for the long haul." and I think that sums it up very well… It’s going to take major efforts on all fronts, as you two have stated if we’re ever going to get a handle on this thing, this ideology called Terror… We have to win the hearts and minds before this will ever be over but I’m afraid a lot of blood will still have to be shed before that can ever take place. It’s just the Beast of War and none of us, no matter how hard we might try, can ever change that terrible fact...

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Charles Amico said...

I have been thinking a lot about whether terrorism is a tactic and I think differently than your visiting friend. I think it is an end in itself. Assume I am correct for the moment. If this is an end in itself, how would one stop it? I would think it would be impossible to stop it. However, if one believes it is a tactic, it allows one to engage in a belief that somehow it could be stopped. Reasoning in this manner allows for some hope that a solution could be found and therefore we are not helpless.

I have spent some time trying to get others to think of some creative solutions to stopping or eliminating the reasons for people to engage in terrorism. I have had few creative ideas. Most of the discussion has centered on why either "we" are right or "they" are wrong. We look for old tools from our Judea/Christian backgrounds to deal with the problem. So far what governments have come up with is "punishing" those that commit these terrorist acts. When eventually we realize that this doesn't work, we will try the opposite side of the same coin and look to negotiating some rewards for good behaviors, or look at ourselves and stop actions that incite people.

But I am sorry to say, I believe terrorism is here to stay as a means to getting attention and satisfaction. Just like we aren't going back to the days of TV with Lawrence Welk, Howdy Doody, and other 50's shows. We are just going to have to learn to accept and live with terrorism in the world and that is not a comforting feeling, I'm sad to say. It may be difficult to believe this but I am a very positive person and I want to contribute to solutions on this problem. But to solve any problem you must define it correctly, and though I truly want to believe what your friend suggests, I am pragmatic and must also consider it an end in itself. Comments?

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I'm not sure I get your point entirely. I would agree that terrorism is here to stay, but mainly because it is a tactic used by all manners of radicals. The only thing that links Timothy McVeigh, the IRA and al Qaeda is their use of terror. Are you saying that, because they resort to terror, they are essentially the same?

I would disagree. I don't think any of those groups are killing people as an end in-and-of-itself. They hope to get something out of their use of terror--more than just the thrill of striking a blow to their enemy. And they use it not just because their evil little bastards, but because it works. Terrorized people have, throughout history, given the terrorists what they wanted.

Thus, step #1 is to never appease terrorists. It convinces them their tactics work. After that, we have to find ways to confront them. I agree that we need more options than blowing them up or appeasing them. But I think it's essential to understand they're not just sadistic murders. Some are, but most are more than just murderers. They see themselves as warriors fighting for a noble cause. It's that ideology we need to confront. The terrorism flows from the ideology. Cut off the ideology you cut off the terror.

At 7:51 AM, Anonymous Charles Amico said...

In response specifically to the following:
"I would disagree. I don't think any of those groups are killing people as an end in-and-of-itself. They hope to get something out of their use of terror--more than just the thrill of striking a blow to their enemy."

My point is that this is the end in itself. These terrorists just want to terrorize us, period. They want nothing more than to terrorize us. Many expect to die in trhis effort. For them, it is not just a tactic but an end to their lives, so they can go to their heaven, as promised by their clerics.

On the other hand, a distinction needs to be made between the terrorist and radical clerics. Many clerics use terrorism as a tactic for their ends. I would seperate the clerics from the terrorist that is a suicide bomber. Clerics use it as a tactic and the terrorist as an end in itself. I hope my point is clearer. The key is the radical clerics who send others to their death. But there needs to be more separation in thinking of solutions we might make regarding clerics and the solutions we use with terrorists. Most discussions on Blogs and the media in general, do not make this distinction.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Joe Weedon said...

Charles -
Alan and I are on the same page here. I think we both get your point, but when you say for individual terrorists terror "is not just a tactic but an end to their lives, so they can go to their heaven, as promised by their clerics." I think you're missing the bigger picture.

Individuals resort to terror because they believe it will bring a greater good to their people or their cause. They are willing to sacrifice their life to obtain something even more profound. Individual terrorists see their own life here on earth as insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I see your point but it seems more directed at suicide terrorists rather than terrorists in general. Not all terrorists kill themselves. Take the Madrid bombings for instance.

Those that do kill themselves may or may not want more than just their death and the death of others. From what I know, most are doing it because they believe that their "cause" is greater than themselves. The promise of paradise is certainly inticing, but the only reason paradise is promised is because they are going to die fighting for a cause. And that cause is not terror--it's defeating Israel, or establishing a Caliphate or other nefarious ends.

Thus, I do not think it's so easy to separate the actual terrorists from the clerics. That's like saying American soldiers have different ends than American generals. They have the same ends, just different duties.

So, I think it's important to see the clerics and the terrorists as part of the same ideology. Yes, it might be useful to deply different tactics against the foot soldiers than we do against their leaders, but, in the end, we're fighting one ideology with the same ends for all adherrents.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Charles Amico said...

Great comments from you both. Thanks. I will continually think more about it.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

It's a very interesting topic you've raised, and I need to consider it more. Initially, I think both views are right, or rather, the answer is a mix of the two. There is certainly some element of wanting to change the world, and using terrorism as a tactic. The IRA did this consistently, and the fact that they could, to some degree, be reasoned with shows that terrorism was largely a means to a end.

But I think the point Charles has made is a valid one, and this aspect of terrorism is decidedly more worrisome. If suicide bombers are killing innocents not to change things here on earth, but rather to punish the wicked (kill the infidels), then bringing them to peace will be exceedingly difficult. It seems that their dogma doesn't allow for compromise, and their taking the 'long' view - i.e., the reward is in heaven - doesn't give any incentive to even consider compromise here on earth.

What everyone seems to agree on is that paramount in fighting "the war on terror" is, as Aubrey said, changing the hearts and minds of the extremists. The radical clerics and their views must be undermined somehow, either by force or persuasion, or some mix of the two. But I think it is a mistake to minimize the degree to which terrorists see themselves as instruments of just punishment.

And viewing terrorism as a tactic rather than an end itself also minimizes the desire to punish for - as Joe said - "strongly felt resentment against another party for an event, either real or perceived."

In fact, now that I read that, I'm afraid I've lost what the original point of the thesis was. I certainly agree that terror is a tactic that is used when the "traditional ways" are not available. But - as a tactic - it is used to punish and to influence change. OSB may have a Middle Eastern "Caliphate" as his goal, but he also uses past grievances to rally support.

I also believe, as I've said before, that "changing the hearts and minds" relies, to a large degree, of addressing the reasons suicide bombings are seen as the only available method of fighting. It is often for want of having a stake in this world that many are led to fight in a way that will bring them 'glory' in the next. Whether it is to change things here or punish for past events is actually secondary to the situation that they find themselves in, that which makes them susceptible to the influence of radicals. They need, in effect, a reason to live, rather than a reason to die.

Sorry if that seemed to go a bit all over the place.


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