It is said that terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong. It’s a saying that sounds good if one is seeking to defend or justify terrorist acts. However, it is just not true – at least if one is willing to consider blowing up a peaceful civilian structure as a terrorist act. The civilians in the building are hardly strong: they are defenseless and unprepared. The real strength lies with the terrorist bombers. They have all the advantages – weapons, organization, secrecy, initiative and commitment.
Terrorism as a device is available to all. It’s just a matter of utilizing a particular form of weapon for use in spreading fear while degrading the physical image of something that is considered as playing part in the maintenance of order in an enemy’s infrastructure. This means everything from community activity and edifices to their civil and security services. In other words, destabilizing any aspect of orderly life is a target. The military is not excluded, as was well shown by the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. That was an easy target because there was no one available to shoot back as the hundreds of U.S. Marine peacekeepers and their French Army counterparts were all off-duty – most of them asleep when they were killed.
The question exists therefore as to what isn’t terrorism? The massive raids by American and British bombers on German cities during World War II clearly terrorized the German civilians. However, it didn’t stop the German military operations. Loss of productive capability and stores of equipment as well as destruction of units in the field rolled back the German army. In fact, the simple advance of Allied forces across Europe dislocated all enemy life just as the Germans had done when they attacked throughout Western and Eastern Europe. Basically, in traditional warfare the aggressor is always charged with “terrorism” in some form or other. Terrorist acts by those on defense tend to be excused or not commented on because they are the “weaker” party. The fact is that in the so-called civilized world the rules of warfare earlier defined all action by non-uniformed belligerent civilians as either “partisan” or “guerilla” activity and only more recently terrorism by terrorists. In any case the end result is the same: civilians causing destruction and spreading terror usually against other civilians and only occasionally against regular military units.
Terrorism has been the principal weapon of a wide variety of organizations with differing characteristics and targeting. The contrast between and among the PLO, IRA, Red Brigades. ISIS, al Qaeda, Hamas, al Shabaab, Hezbollah, etc. points to variations in strength, popular support, political, religious and class background and even rural or urban bases. The tactics of a given group will be tailored to achieving their selected ends in accordance with their own characteristics and ambitions. Often, a distinguishing characteristic will be assistance a given grouping will receive from international sponsors – political and religious. In turn, the recipient organization may reflect the interests of the sponsors. However, that too varies, depending on the relationship and degree of control the foreign donor/guide has over the local terrorist team.
The Iranians have utilized their commitment to Shia Islam to organize and train terrorist activities in the Middle East. For their part, the PLO has had little or no interest in other non-Palestinian groups. However, component parts of the Palestinian movement, for example PFLP, Al Fatah, etc. have acted as models and even guides for other unrelated terrorist elements. It is worthwhile to note the Russians, and even West European anarchists, have found PLO-affiliated instruments useful collaborators and support groups.
Terrorist actions, in the context of an ongoing war, are different from the covert terrorist actions perpetrated in the general environment of an otherwise peaceful national identity. Nonetheless, terrorism as a war-fighting device is of limited effectiveness despite its horrific character. If the point of using terrorist tactics is to scare the target into being compliant, history has shown it can be seriously counterproductive during an ongoing war. The other side just escalates its own deadly actions in response. Terrorist actions, in a generally peaceful environment, may produce a brief period of shock, but soon the population and its leadership react strongly.
Terrorism brings about a radical reaction among even the most peaceful of communities. If the target community already is under the control of a despotic authority, the latter’s use of terror may work in the short term, but inevitably these horrific acts encourage the development of serious – if covert – resistance. It’s definitely not an effective method of long-term population control. The World War II example of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and efforts to control their population gives a very clear example of a failed attempt at using intimidation to the point of deadly force to persuade the civilian population to accept subservient status. Torture, imprisonment and general harsh treatment brought nothing but grief to the Japanese invaders.
In the case of traditional terrorist groupings, their aim is to destabilize the existing civil structure in order to subvert the current form of governance. On average, terrorist tactics tend to place the civilian population in a fearful and insecure state. Contrary to the aim of the terrorists, the result can be far from advantageous. The target population tends to react in a contrarian manner as their fear grows. Terror is just a very poor method of encouraging support. It does, however, allow the terrorists to think they are doing something positive. The basic fallacy of this destructive methodology is obvious, but it does not appear to stop groups and individuals from thinking they are warriors for their cause. The logic of inflicting pain to instill subservience works only temporarily. That is the lesson of history.