In order to talk sensibly about terrorism we have to acknowledge its rationality. Set aside the armchair psychologising and Muslim blaming that goes on after every atrocity or ISIS video. That low-grade psychobabble turns tragic events into compelling TV narratives and gets political opportunists mainstream attention. But even if it made better sense it would still be irrelevant. If we want to know why people commit terrorist acts we must ask what they are supposed to achieve. The reasons why particular individuals are recruited to terrorist groups and causes are distinct from the strategic logic of terrorism itself, the choice of technique. Terrorism is neither a psychological illness nor a goal in itself. Terrorism is the kind of warfare that the weak wage against the strong.
All terrorism is theatre, dependent on the collaboration of its audience for its effect. It is about capturing the public’s attention and manipulating our emotions – including not only fear but also indignation and even rage – in order for a small (often tiny), militarily weak group to advance some political goal.* The specific form of terrorism chosen will vary according to the group’s ambitions, inclination to violence, and strategic calculations (and of course, just because they are trying to be rational doesn’t mean they will make the smartest choices; businesses are rational but they go bankrupt all the time). There are three distinct uses to which terrorism can be put: attention-seeking, extortion, and provocation.
- Attention Seeking: Hijacking the Global Media Industry
A lot of terrorism is simply concerned with getting the attention of a democratic polity. The key trick here is to hijack a society’s news media by wrapping an irresistible spectacle around a political message that no one would otherwise pay attention to. This is the most common function of terrorism and it is compatible with a wide range of levels of violence, from the Suffragettes’ arson and bomb attacks against property to the hideous ISIS beheadings videos.
There are actually two parts to the attention-seeking function. In one, the agenda of the terrorists becomes a part of the mainstream conversation: finally their voice is heard! Arguments against religious defamation were seriously discussed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for example. Yet the conclusion of that public discussion was a pretty definitive rejection. Terrorists may fantasise that when everyone understands what they are fighting for they will be converted to the side of true justice, but terrorism tends to taint what is being sold. Even the Suffragettes, despite winning the biopic, arguably set back their political cause by undermining its moral foundation and splitting its popular support. (Gandhi and Martin Luther King wisely chose the path of non-violent civil disobedience instead: let the oppressors make the spectacle and thereby undermine their own moral authority.)
The other part of the attention seeking function works much better: winning the biopic. The English suffragist movement had been going for a century and a half before the militant suffragettes appeared, but only the headline makers are now remembered. The point can be generalised. When a terrorist organisation commits an atrocity on behalf of some cause or some demographic it is not just their cause that receives attention but they themselves. The more the media talks about them, the more they come to be seen as the true representatives of that cause or demographic, side-lining all those committed to peaceful democratic protest, or even pretty happy with how things are.
This is important to terrorists because their political goals include not only getting certain things done (like independence for Palestine) but also achieving political power over others (the Palestinians in Gaza). This competition for power is why terrorist groups spend so much time fighting other groups that are supposed to be on the same side. In general one can say that terrorism involves a calculated trade-off between political power and political justice. Terrorists give up the wider moral legitimacy that arguments for the justice of their cause might bring in return for greater influence over a narrower community that their own terrorism has left isolated. Al Qaida, for example, managed to persuade large numbers of Americans and their politicians and pundits – including, particularly shamefully, several leading New Atheists – that Al Qaida represented Islam and all 1.5 billion Muslims, with the generous exception of those Muslims prepared to publicly and repeatedly declare otherwise. What a coup!
Groups that use terrorism are weak and small, by definition. Terrorism is so attractive for these groups because it costs almost nothing and the pay offs can be huge: in Al Qaida’s case a trillion-dollar global media industry working for them. Sure, it hasn’t gotten them everything they want, but being appointed the leaders of the Ummah by America was a big promotion for a bunch of losers hiding in a cave.
Terrorism has a built in positive feedback loop. The more atrocities pay off in media attention the more appealing they become. There is also a tendency to escalation, as viewers get bored of the same old thing and other terrorist groups compete for status – consider how ISIS displaced Al Qaida with its slicker production values, social media nous, and even more exciting atrocities.
We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. (Margaret Thatcher, 1985, Speech to the American Bar Association)
The media is clearly complicit in this. They choose what to air and publish, and they choose based on how many viewers they will get (to sell to advertisers). However, though you may find the ethics of this disgusting and irresponsible, it is hard to see what could be done about it. In societies without a free media, like North Korea, terrorism is pointless. In societies with a free media, there is an unfortunate symbiosis between terrorism and journalism. In response to Northern Irish terrorism, Thatcher’s government tried appealing to journalistic conscience by imposing a ‘voluntary’ code on the British media, releasing less information about attacks, and ultimately a legal ban on broadcasting direct statements by terrorist representatives or supporters. None of it worked of course, and would be even less likely to work now, with globalisation and social media.
But it isn’t the media companies who are ultimately to blame anyway. They just give their consumers what they seem to want. If we didn’t pay so much attention to atrocities in the first place, terrorists wouldn’t bother to commit them. We are not tied to our sofas and forced to gawp at whatever new awfulness CNN shows us. We have the power and moral responsibility to direct our own attention. Targeted apathy is an underappreciated virtue and power. It’s also the rational response. Terrorism isn’t really worth worrying about. In most countries more people die slipping in the bath. Just look away!
- Extortion: Creating an Expensive Embarrassment
Of course terrorism isn’t only a cry for attention. It is also a way of threatening governments with their greatest fear: public embarrassment. A surprisingly small group of people who are sufficiently determined can deny a government full sovereignty over a large area/population. Specifically, although the group cannot take over the territory itself, it can void a government’s promise of guaranteeing protection from political violence, the fundamental promise on which its legitimacy rests (a commonplace of political philosophy since Hobbes). The asymmetry of military power again works in the terrorist group’s favour. It gets to choose when and where to attack. The government has to try to defend every possible target, which is impossible and also extremely expensive.
This use of terrorism is not a threat to the modern state, an entity that arguably evolved exactly to fight wars at a far more serious scale. But in democracies, governing parties are very conscious that they will be thrown out if they can’t maintain the confidence of the citizenry. Democratic governments fear attacks because they fear embarrassment, not because they especially care about a few civilians getting killed. This is also why they invest an inordinate amount of resources in preventing exact repeats of previous attacks, like shoe-bombers, on the principle ‘fool me twice, shame on me’.
The genius of this use of terrorism is that the very security measures brought in to reassure the public of the government’s efforts to protect them serve as omnipresent billboards advertising the terrorist threat. Every time you see a policeman with a machine gun in an airport or train station you are reminded of how powerful and dangerous the terrorists are. The British government managed to keep N. Ireland more or less under control, but only by putting it under a kind or martial law for several decades with thousands of soldiers patrolling the streets in full battledress. The inevitable mistakes and excesses of the security forces were further public relations gifts to the IRA in their campaign against the unjust British state.
All this serves to raise the price that governments pay for denying terrorist groups what they want. Sooner or later, governments always talk to the terrorists and try to cut a deal. They are unlikely to give up core values or interests – unifying Ireland was never an option – but they can be moved to accept compromises they would never have considered before. Importantly, because it was the violence that brought the government to talk, it is the groups behind the violence with whom they negotiate the peace. Peaceful groups tend to get left out. Democracy is outflanked.
The reason this kind of terrorism has to be solved diplomatically is that decisive military victory is elusive (with some exceptions, such as Sri Lanka – after 30 years). Militarisation, in fact, tends to entrench social divisions around the original sense of grievance by pushing large numbers of people who cannot sufficiently prove their loyalty to the state into the control of the terrorist group. Yet governments always resort to the military solution first and foremost and keep plugging away at it long after its limitations are clear. What should they do instead – or as well? To simplify dramatically, governments could wage a more effective war on terrorists by undercutting the justice of their cause and by raising the costs of participating in terrorism.
There is no reason to wait for terrorists to appear to address significant social injustices, such as the anti-Catholic bigotry rampant in N. Ireland institutions before the Troubles. Terrorists typically represent an extreme end on a spectrum of political discontent. Addressing more reasonable complaints about injustice as early as possible – before any terrorist group can claim credit for achieving them by force! – isolates the terrorists from their pool of sympathisers and potential recruits, constraining its capabilities and life-span.
One can also reduce terrorist recruitment and retention by raising its opportunity costs, what people have to give up to pursue that life choice. This approach, outlined by Bruno Frey and Simon Luechinger, focuses on providing better alternatives to terrorism rather than merely tougher punishments – such as better educational and employment prospects for dissolute youth in key communities (which also pull people into different, more bourgeois value systems) and golden parachutes for defectors. Other features include lowering the ‘price’ of alternative means of addressing grievances within mainstream democratic institutions. Democratic devices such as local referendums demonstrate what can be achieved via the democratic process, and also confront extremist groups with the reality of their democratic deficit.
III. Provocation: The Trap of War
The IRA and other nationalist independence movements like the PLO, Tamil Tigers, and PKK were masters of terrorism as extortion. Their unglamorous style of attritional viciousness became a fact of life in many countries (though not America), grinding away in the background of public consciousness for decades. But the millenarianism of Al Qaida seemed to usher in something new. Al Qaida and ISIS are not in the business of extorting compromise from governments. They have something bigger in mind – a new world order – and a plan to achieve it by fomenting a war of civilisations. It is astonishing how easily the West has been manipulated into furthering that plan.
ISIS is not a threat to France or Belgium, let alone Europe or the West. It is only a threat to its citizens’ subjective feelings. That’s not nothing, of course. But its main outcome is the demand we instinctively make on our governments to Do Something!
Democratic governments depend on the faith of their citizens that they are really in control of things. I already mentioned one part of that: governments must demonstrate competence in defending their people from political violence, i.e. providing freedom from fear. But many citizens expect their government to play offence as well as defense. They hold the government accountable not only for the well-being and prosperity of the people but also as the guardian of national sovereignty. Terrorism fills these people with rage and righteous indignation. (Sometimes they feel fear too, and that makes them even more angry.) Spectacular terrorist attacks like 9/11 or Mumbai or Paris are seen as direct challenges to national honour, rather like the insult that would set up a 19th-century duel. The state must prove its superiority by reacting in a yet more spectacular way and winning the duel.
And this is of course exactly what a certain kind of terrorist group most desires. They have made a calculated bet that provoking an extreme reaction by a first world state will shake up the status quo in such a way that their agenda ultimately benefits. A long shot, yes, but when you consider the weakness of their hand in relation to their extraordinary ambitions it is actually their most rational strategy. (It was also the rational choice for the anarchists of a hundred years ago; but not generally for independence movements, which tend to have more to lose from provoking a full-scale war.)
All this is extremely obvious and must be well understood by those who advise governments on national security. Nonetheless, governments routinely blunder into the terrorist trap when their sense of national dignity is insulted, sometimes with world-changing results. Austria-Hungary’s overreaction to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand launched the first world war. More recently, there was America’s overreaction to 9/11. The US spent on a scale that could have paid for mitigating climate change – an actual global threat – or ending world poverty. And their efforts gifted Al-Qaeda with an enormous bounty, albeit a bounty that its successor ISIS has churlishly taken over. That includes:
The public relations coup of an apparent war of civilisations, confirming Al Qaeda’s framing of how the world works and implicitly recognising Al Qaida as the representative of that ‘other civilisation’ of 1.5 billion people around the world, including millions of Americans;
a worldwide brand that attracts enough of the world’s discontented fools to more than makeup for any military losses;
The expansion of ungoverned stateless spaces where they and their affiliates can organise, train, and even try their hand at government;
sectarian civil wars that make the rule of an insane millenarian death cult seem the least worst option to civilians just trying to survive (cf the circumstances of the Khmer Rouge’s take-over of Cambodia).
It shouldn’t really be too difficult to persuade our governments not to give terrorists their dearest wish: a declaration of war. India didn’t after the provocation of Mumbai. For a long time, I even supposed that only America was hubristic enough to fall for the trick. But then Hollande declared war on ISIS – thus promoting it to statehood – and announced his intention to defend the national honour by changing the constitution to reduce dual citizens to 2nd class citizens (furthering the war of civilisations, us vs. them narrative).
France still has time to recover its good sense before it makes any really big mistakes, and I hope it will. But the general lesson is that national indignation and anger is as much a goal of contemporary terrorism as national fear. If we don’t want the terrorists to win we have to reject their attempts to manipulate our emotions to their ends. We have to keep things in proportion. ISIS just isn’t worth caring that much about, and is too politically, economically and socially unsustainable to survive much longer anyway. And we have to make sure our politicians know that we know this, so that they don’t feel compelled by the logic of political survival to launch any more crazy wars on terror.
- Democracy: a Vulnerability and a Strength
Even in a democracy some people and ideologies can be permanently sidelined and ignored by the wider society and government. Sometimes some members of such a permanent minority, such as Basque separatists in Spain, take matters into their own hands: when the justice of their cause isn’t recognised by the wider society they consider themselves at war with it, and assume to themselves the natural right to further their cause by violence.
There is an intimate relationship between democracy and terrorism. On the one hand, well-functioning democracies find ways to include minorities within democratic processes, protect them from outright oppression by the impartial administration of law, and accommodate reasonable requests to have their specialness recognised (such as language rights). In other words, democracies are pretty good at justice, at least in comparison to autocracies, such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, under which the majority of the population is disenfranchised and subject to gross mistreatment.
On the other hand, autocracies have a closed politics among an elite while democracies have a public politics which an aggrieved group can directly appeal to or threaten. While autocracies tightly control access to the media – they are professional manipulators of the public imagination in their own right – democracies have a foundational commitment to a free press that can be hacked and redirected by terrorists.
Thus, although Western democracies generate the fewest grievances that can give birth to violent extremism, they are also the most vulnerable to terrorism as a technique. The new problem of terrorism as a global phenomenon, which millenarian Islamism may have inaugurated but will surely not end with them, is that groups with no particular quarrel with democracies may target them just because doing so has a higher pay off. It’s not because they hate our freedoms but because they can use them against us. The theatre of terrorism now goes on tour to wherever the best audiences can be found.
Democracy’s weakness has always been that the rule of public opinion can be that of the mob, collective stupidity and ignorance. But democracies have strengths too, which explain why they have thrived and outcompeted every other regime for the past 200 years. The strengths of a democratic society lie in its capability for collective reasoning – to improve its opinions and learn from its mistakes by a public conversation; to not merely act and react but to reflect. And to have governments prepared to bet on how that public conversation will and should go rather than following it blindly. Terrorists prey on the weakness of democracy. Beating them requires that we demonstrate its strengths.