Foreign Policy

Understanding Terrorism

George W. Bush
George W. Bush
9/11/2001, 9:06 a.m.: After brief introductions to the elementary school students, President Bush is about to begin reading with the children when Chief of Staff Andrew Card interrupts to whisper to the president, "A second plane hit the other tower, and America’s under attack." | Photo: Win McNamee | George W. Bush, President, 9-11, School, Terrorism, Republican,

The clever terrorist knows the attractiveness of revenge

In any current discussion of terrorism it should first be noted that the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" are among the most misused words in the English language today, catchall descriptions applied according to one's own agenda or to which political orientation or "side" one is on. Indeed, one man's terrorist may be another man's freedom fighter. Add to that the era of the news sound bite where sensationalism, "if it bleeds it leads" stories attract viewers and listeners hence ratings, hence more advertising revenue and 'terrorism' becomes a useful marketing tool. Once a purely political and tactical strategy of a weaker group to overcome a stronger one to win by fear and attrition it is now also applied to events that would better be described is criminal acts by a deranged person out for personal revenge. To understand the nature of terrorism one must separate these events and define a terrorist act properly.

Any student of terrorism should start with a knowledge that the fundamental purpose of real terrorism is to undermine the opposing side either by negating his strength or using his own strength against him, a sort of Judo technique. This is accomplished in two ways. First, by causing an over-reaction to an attack on the part of the attacked with a revenge strike at the "terrorists" which would cause collateral damage to the local population along the way. The intention would be to exacerbate the animosity or divisions within sections of the local population driving them to become more and more sympathetic to the cause of the "terrorists".

Second, by wearing down by pin prick after pin prick the opposing side, this would undermine at the home of the attacked the support for a war, a political objective, a political doctrine or a group in power the "terrorists' want to overthrow.

What is most interesting to me, fancying myself a dispassionate student of history and real politique, is that in the first instance it is the "right" who are most prone to push for such an over-reaction by getting angry with rah rah patriotic rhetoric and fear mongering. In the second instance it is the "left" who most likely succumb the tactic of attrition with the idea that "let's get out", war is bad etc. The well thought out terrorist plot goes for both the right AND left and both can be useful to advance their agenda.

The Vietnam War was a perfect example of this strategy working on both fronts. Meanwhile, I think if Ben Laden were alive he could present quite an argument to say that the 9/11 attack set in motion actions by the US that constituted serious over reactions that have been much to the detriment of our interests in the region, our allies in the region, our economy and indeed our principles. From his political perspective the 9/11 attack may turn out to be the most successful terrorist attack of all time. And who were his allies in this? Unwittingly George Bush, Dick Chaney the Neo Cons, Fox News, Congress on both sides of the isle and the media generally where ratings today are far more important than long term consequences years from now. Politicians get elected for what they do today that affects their voters in the near future NOT what will affect the voters decades from now.

Stolen Passport
Stolen Passport

Pouri Nour Mohammadi, 19, pictured here, and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29, boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with stolen passports. | Photo: EPA |
The clever terrorist with a long term agenda knows these facts and the attractiveness of revenge and how they can be used to advantage. The good news is that terrorists, even ones with a clear long term agenda are also human and also perfectly capable of miscalculating or acting stupidly and they often do just that.

So looking at the most recent "terrorist" act in Paris I ask myself first was it really a terrorist attack thought out with a purpose from a group with genuine tactical or strategic plot or was it simply a cowboy, wannabe operation with perceived sympathies to what is going on in France or the Middle East? Second what was "achieved" if anything for the perpetrators?

Immediate French reaction that espoused coming together of ALL France including Muslims and Christians in support of the principles of free speech etc. would be an example of the attack having been counter-productive. Many even unexpected Muslim groups condemned the attacks. However, if in the next elections the "right" of Le Pen gains significant ground and hostility grows against the Muslim population generally further alienating that population then the attack would have proved affective if that was the intent. Time will tell.

One thing for sure, if it was a genuine terrorist attack it had nothing to do with being against free speech per say as was often quoted by politicians and pundits after the attack. On the surface there may have been a genuine revenge element to it but from the "terrorist" perspective the real purpose would be to further encourage the alienation of the Muslim population in France by feeding the idea that they are not welcome and indeed "not really French".

It is interesting to note that the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Paris shortly after the attack on the Jewish market espousing the view that Israel is the true home and protector of Jews (even if you are a French Jew). Such an attack serves his purpose in two ways. It works back at home in Israel to reinforce the glue of unity of a quite disparate Jewish population AND it keeps funds flowing to Israel from Jewish supporters from around the world. It was a useful example that anti-Semitism is alive and well and all the more reason to support Israel as a Jewish state. From the terrorist perspective it further entrenches the Israelis against concessions to Palestinians and emboldens the settlers to keep taking more land which further guarantees hostility between the two sides. From that perspective it can only be viewed as a win for the terrorists long term vision.

Along the same lines it was used by Fox News among others here in the US to criticize the US government of President Obama and push for more action even though no action was mentioned other than "bomb the bastards". In other words, the attack served the agenda of a number of groups for completely different reasons. In the case of Fox, the views coming from their pundits would lead one to believe that if they were not actually being paid by Al Qaida they should be. The constant inference of US weakness and mistakes by the President serves to undermine faith in our government generally and the "call to arms" with no vision of what that actually means combined with a not so subtle vision of "Islam is the problem" are the perfect cocktail to work to the terrorist benefit.

An alienated population is the major seed for political unrest and it is that population that the real political terrorist seeks to gain. Religion, race and creed are tools in the arsenal that can be used to breed separation of one group from another. In any response to a terrorist attack we should always look for the real purpose of an attack as well as the potential long term effects of a response so we do not fall into the trap of giving the terrorists what they actually want. Unthinking revenge is normally the worst response which is probably why Jesus himself adopted the technique of "turn the other cheek". In my interpretation of this it is not the idea of doing nothing in response to an attack but to being smart about it. As my father, Miles Copeland Jr., one of the founders of the CIA used to say so many times, 'a doctor does not get angry at a diphtheria germ for making someone sick, the germ does what it does because that is what it does so no use getting angry about it. So learn how it works, why it works and then you have a chance to come up with a cure'.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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