Four forms of terrorism
by Hall Gardner
[ politics - december 05 ]
What has been called “terrorism” takes at least four different, but not necessarily exclusive, forms: (1) anti-state terrorism, (2) state-sponsored terrorism, (3) totalitarian terrorism and (4) street terrorism. Anti-state terrorism seeks to disrupt stable states and undermine governments; it thrives on black and gray market economies. State-supported terrorism seeks to disrupt the leadership and political economies of rival states or attack leaders and supporters of opposition movements. Totalitarian terrorism thrives upon fear (seeking to atomize individuals to better control them); it seeks total political, social, economic and ideological control over a society. Street terrorism is manipulated for political purposes and provides recruits for partisan causes that may involve kidnapping, drug smuggling, contract killing, or other threats to political leaders or their followers.
“Terrorism” can be defined as a primarily a psychological tool of “strategic leveraging” and a form of “propaganda by deed,” that can be utilized by both anti-state partisan revolutionary groups and state leaderships. The nature of “terrorism” and use of tools differ somewhat from epoch to epoch with changing technologies, but the perceptions of precisely what is a “terrorist” action may differ substantially among differing societies and classes. What one society/government considers to be an act of “terrorism” may be considered as a justifiable military action or else an act of just revenge by another. In general, however, in the effort to manipulate emotions and cause fear and panic, individuals, groups, or states who engage in violent acts of “terrorism” seek to demonstrate by concrete actions an iron will to use violence even if that means martyrdom and mass murder.
Anti-state and state-supported terrorism
The key goal of anti-state “partisans” - who have some form of political goal in mind and who are not engaging in ‘terror for terror’s sake’ - is not so much the conquest of territory, as has been the case in more traditional wars, but rather to destabilize governments and reduce popular support for that leadership. Such groups generally seek to impel both social and interstate conflict - and, if possible, bring new political factions into power by assassination, revolution or coup d’état. Terrorist actions may seek to purposively exacerbate the existing class and ethnic tensions within a society, as well as among differing states, in an effort to then capitalize on dissent and conflict. Attempting to impel change in the electoral process, if feasible, by means of intimidating voters, or else by threatening public officials, cannot be ruled out as a form of “terrorist” tactic (tactics utilized by both Hitler and Mussolini, who became “totalitarian terrorists”).
The nature of the political cause evidently differs from group to group, as do the nature of the tactics, which may involve varying degrees of discriminate or indiscriminate violence. Such tactics are generally intended to weaken the will of the opponent to fight or resist, or which often seek to force the overextension of the opponents’ capabilities and resources through wars of attrition. Discriminate violence may be used to pinpoint specific opponents or to gain more supporters, and may be intended to obtain a specific goal or else change a specific policy; indiscriminate violence might, by contrast, be used to display force capabilities, or else to sustain the allegiance of those who are fighting for the state, or those who belong to an anti-state organization or “cell.”
With the rise of total warfare and totalitarian terrorism in the 20th century, followed by the nature of state-supported terrorism and “balance of nuclear terror” that characterized the Cold War, there has now emerged a so-called “post-modern” terrorism in which the symbolic message and psychological effect (often obtained by effective use of the international media) of extreme and indiscriminate violence is often more important for the terrorist group than the precise role or function of the specific individuals who are actually attacked. Anti-state groups and individuals generally seek to obtain either official and/or popular recognition for their cause through the effective use of the mass media, if possible. The fact that mass communication and the internet have increasingly weakened the ability of states to control the free flow of ideas within their borders has appeared to have given anti-state propagandists an advantage; yet this does not permit state leadership from trying to manipulate the media as well.
The more shocking and theatrical the event, the better to advertise the cause; the object of such attacks is, in part, to wake the “complacent” up to the crimes, sufferings, and inequalities that are ostensibly instigated by the geopolitical-socio-economic system as a whole. Much of post-World War II, as well as post-Cold War anti-state partisan terrorism represents a more general protest and struggle against what has been regarded as systemic political-economic forces combined with structural violence of territorial divisions governed by colonial or neo-colonial regimes (or states formed following the break-up of empires).
In the process of attracting as wide support as possible for various causes, anti-state partisan movements adopt differing ideologies: The number of “terrorist” organizations with religious ideologies appears to be on the upswing, but there are still more secular-type organizations than religious ones, in quantitative terms. Goals of some anti-state partisan movements may include secessionism or national independence (ironically in an increasingly interdependent world) based upon actual or imagined political communities. Other anti-state groups may be engaged in pan-movements that seek to link groups across borders, and thus create wider regional alliances, if possible.
In regard to the latter, pan-Islamic propaganda, for example, seeks to create a hyper-utopia by awakening Moslem populations to the breadth of the Islamic world prior to Spanish reconquista and subsequent European and Russian/ Soviet imperialism. Pan-Islamic strategy has engaged in a highly mediatized warfare involving “hit but not run” - by contrast to traditional guerrilla tactics of “hit and run.”
State leaderships that most fear domestic opposition to their claims to legitimacy may engage in severe forms of repression, becoming “totalitarian terrorists.” It can be argued that officially supported “state terrorism” during the 20th century has, from a historical perspective, instigated far greater collective crimes against humanity, than did specific acts of anti-state terrorism, sponsored by either individuals or anti-state partisan groups - at least prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The burning of the Reichstag, for example, which was really more of an act of “sabotage” than of “terrorism,” was manipulated by Adolph Hitler as a pretext to galvanize a far more dangerous National Socialist political movement, and to engage in other acts of “state terrorism.” Hitler’s use of “state terror” was intended to impose a new Weltanschauung and overthrow the permissive weaknesses of liberal democracy that, in Hitler’s view, undermined the authority of the state and thus permitted “terrorism” to thrive.
It is also not surprising that partisan forces themselves not infrequently seek vengeance through terror after seizing power - and in many cases tend to exaggerate or overcompensate their retribution for “crimes” of the ancien régime - as has proved the case in the French, Soviet, Nazi German, Chinese and Khmer Rouge revolutions, among others. As was the case for both the Soviet Union (which, under Stalin, not-so-ironically sought to “nationalize” international Marxism) and for Nazi Germany, totalitarian states actually thrive on indiscriminate terror (as a means to atomize, and thus better control, their populations) as their very essence, at the same time that such continental states were very influenced by the overseas behavior and the political-ethics of “race and bureaucracy” of the European colonial powers. In addition, it should be pointed out that the Soviet Gulag and Nazi concentration camps were, in many ways, intended as preclusive: In expectation of resistance, both Stalin and Hitler sought to eliminate both actual and potential political “enemies.”
The rise of totalitarian methods of control of populations (generally during periods of violent domestic or international conflict) can be seen in the following examples: American Indian reservations; early twentieth century Cuban “re-concentration” camps (of General Weyler) and similar American camps in the Philippines as a result of the Spanish American war; British camps in South Africa (for Boer families); the Soviet Gulag (here, one can also include forced migration of numerous ethnic groups within the ex-USSR); Nazi concentration camps (modeled after Soviet camps); Japanese slave labor camps; US internment camps for Japanese-Americans; the Chinese Laogai prison camps (which detain both political dissidents and criminals); the Khmer Rouge and North Korean work camps; as well as ex-Yugoslav Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, as well as Slovenian camps in the Bosnian war (1990-1995) among many other examples.
Saddam Hussein’s centers of torture, such as the infamous Abu Ghurayb prison, which housed as many as 50,000 prisoners, can likewise be mentioned. US detention centers in Iraq, and in Guantánamo (and, as recently disclosed in November 2005, elsewhere in the world, possibly in post-Soviet eastern Europe) for presumed al-Qaida fighters, likewise fit into this general category of response, in which Washington has attempted to justify and rationalize its failure to follow the Geneva Convention in response to the irregular and illicit nature of “terrorist” warfare. Evidently, living conditions (and methods of interrogation and torture) may differ substantially from camp to camp...
The question of ‘street terrorism’
Despite the fact that “terrorism” is primarily a political-psychological phenomena, one cannot entirely overlook the more apolitical form of street terrorism, which represents the indiscriminate criminal expressions (muggings, kidnapping, rape, murder, blackmail) of the rage and jealousy of a permanent underclass. The latter can provide the recruits for gangs, pirates, mafias and drug dealers; but it is also possible for partisan elites to use “street terrorists” to manipulate leaders and their followers for political purposes through contract killing or blackmail, for example, or other “terrorist” actions.
Poverty, by itself, does not necessarily create “terrorism”; however, the precarious and uncertain nature of global market forces may lead to fears for one’s survival that is generated by job loss without a social or personal safety net. Even a plunge in personal and social status may lead certain individuals toward “terrorism” to avenge their personal or familial losses and suffering during periods of joblessness or else anxiety; certain individuals may, through sympathy or for purposes of self-identification, seek to avenge the “terror” that is ostensibly suffered by whole groups or classes who are perceived to be oppressed.
It is true that “weak states,” which are unable to effectively police their territories, often open themselves up to terrorism and paramilitary activities, but “stronger,” more effectively run, states may also tolerate a repressive secret police or else paramilitary activities if the authorities are sympathetic, or else reluctant to crack down, as has been the case for the Soviet KGB, for the Iraqi Mukhabarat and secret police of other Arab states, or for the Klu Klux Klan, for example, in the United States in the past. Rich countries that do not provide civil liberties for their citizens, or which do not appear to live up to their stated ideals, may be more likely to give birth to terrorists (as seen in the case of the Weathermen in the USA during the Vietnam war or else by the example of Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia today) than poor countries, which do protect the rights of their own citizens, and which may be less likely to produce terrorists. At the same time, individuals, whether from poor or rich backgrounds, may decide to engage themselves in specific causes that they believe to be “just” and that might involve “terrorist” tactics.
If societies cannot fully integrate the poorest members of the community by working to provide meaningful employment (or somewhat ironically by providing them with the option of military service if other employment opportunities are not available), alienated individuals of these sectors of society can provide the recruits for partisan activities involving acts of “terrorism.” Here, for example, thousands of Madrasas schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan provide food, shelter, as well as dogmatic pan-Islamic interpretations of the Koran, for impoverished young men. These alienated individuals, however, cannot be considered “terrorists” unless they use violence to achieve political goals; nor can the laws defining acts of politically-oriented “street terrorism” be equated with acts of apolitical ”street terrorism” and other violent criminal acts.
Examples of “street terrorism” include the burning of cars, and other acts of destruction, during rioting in October-November 2005 in France and major cities in Europe (or in the US in the late 1960s). In the case of the US in the late 1960s, the Black Panther movement, Malcolm X, Maoist groups, among others, may have helped fuel the outbreak of violence; yet the root cause of the conflict was largely structural and resulted from the failure to integrate Black Americans (many of which had emigrated from the South to the North and the West) into American society. In the case of France in October-November 2005, a number of “militant” Islamic groups, as well as those of differing political ideologies, may have helped fuel the outbreak of violence; yet the root cause of the conflict has largely been structural and resulted from the failure to integrate many individuals of formerly immigrant communities (primarily from North or sub-Saharan Africa), as well as poor whites, into French/European society.
The precise division between political and criminal acts of violence is not always clear; yet the increasing linkage between terrorism and criminality appears to be an integral aspect of the creation of a separate “black” and “gray” “libertarianism” that subsists in the shadows of the liberal “free trade” global market. Unable to base themselves upon truly popular support, and not able to obtain significant state financing as was often the case during the Cold War, a mix of secular and religiously-oriented anti-state terrorist groups (not to overlook state leaderships of “failed” states) have increasingly been competing for influence and routes of illicit arms and drug trade (often side by side oil pipe lines or oil routes, such as the Straits of Malacca). This is true among places as divergent as Columbia and Peru, in regard to the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, as well as the leftist Columbian FARC Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces and its rival, the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. (In this regard, the US “war on drugs” has increasingly become related to the “war on terrorism,” yet it is not clear that either “war” is succeeding.)
In sum, “terrorism,” whether utilized by states, anti-state organizations, or totalitarian regimes, or else by “street terrorists,” is generally chosen as a psychological tactic precisely because it represents a less expensive, and more deceptive, way to counter-attack armies and police, or for state authorities to eliminate political enemies. From an economic perspective, acts of terrorism represent a tactic that seeks to obtain the maximum amount of political and economic impact and damage with the minimum expenditure possible. Primary political economic goals of anti-state terrorism in the post-Cold War period are not only to disrupt or destroy key sectors of economy (or else gain control of key assets such as oil, gems, and drugs), but also to force the state (as well as private companies) to augment spending on domestic and international security, as well as on national defense - if not cause a general over-reaction and polarization of society that would bring even more political and social conflict.
Moreover, anti-state “terrorist” operations do, of course, need sources of funding and may raise funds through kidnapping, drug smuggling, theft and bank robberies, as well as through legitimate business and charities, etc. Here, Islamic charities helped to finance al-Qaida, which had, at least initially, been backed by the Saudi government in the 1980s in part as a general effort to support “freedom fighters” against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in part to deflect militant Islamic criticism away from Riyadh. (Moscow had largely been coaxed into intervention in Afghanistan by American policies. See Hall Gardner, American Global Strategy and the “War on Terrorism,” Chapters 1; 5). It was also well known that funds for the Irish Republican Army were collected by “charities,” but often from Irish pubs located within the US and elsewhere.
Seeking to cut off funding may be one of the most effective ways to eradicate some groups, but not others, depending upon exactly how they are funded. The dilemma is that in the age of globalization and weakening state financial controls, there is at least US$1 trillion laundered across states annually. Groups and states of all kinds can accordingly fund their violent political actions through both legal and illicit activities, using sophisticated methods of moving funds across borders. At the same time, the effort to control terrorist financing and funding through difficult to implement bureaucratic measures must not become exorbitantly expensive - and thus counter-productive.