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Paul Buchanan: The Strategic Utility of Terrorism

A Word From Afar: The Strategic Utility of Terrorism (and why jihadism is losing)

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan

One of the axioms of counter-terrorism is that the nastiness of the atrocity is inversely proportional to the terrorist’s chances of success. That is to say, the worse the act, then less likely that terrorist strategic objectives will be achieved. This applies as much to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange as it did to Marxist-Leninist movements in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s. But the issue is a bit more complicated than that. Given the recent upsurge in terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Iraq and the recent uncovering of plots in the US, UK, Norway and Denmark (among others), the strategic utility of terrorism is worth considering.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, nor is it a form of warfare, but instead is a tactical means employed to a strategic end as part of a larger warfare approach. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive tactic. The objective is to get the adversarial subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the (potential) terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military.

Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. It does so by promoting pervasive an ongoing fear and dread amongst the adversarial population while giving supportive groups reason to encourage continued violent resistance. Terrorism can be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel’s “hardening“ under repeated terrorist attack is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it the PLO paramilitary campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) played a significant role in eventually bringing Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence in part to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as Irgun and the Stern gang).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism as a form of warfare is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths. Since wars are ultimately political events, terrorism is a political tool.

Terrorism during war is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to weaken the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the adversarial subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. Moral and ethical considerations aside, for the military planners involved the ends justified the means (specifically, the “lesser evil/greater good” criteria).

That brings up an important point. Generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people in peacetime, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. During wartime, that ensures defeat of the subject population. During peacetime that allows dictatorial regimes to implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base rather than its military forces or leadership. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-Jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Pakistani support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and reported Venezuelan support for FARC rebels in Colombia are other examples of state-sponsorship of terrorist organizations engaged in insurrectionary struggles. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

It should be noted that the utility of state-sponsored terrorism has diminished since 9-11 because states are now more inclined to fix blame directly on the sponsor as well as the perpetrators, which has diplomatic as well as military implications. The prospect of a “return to sender” response has consequently kept surrogate or proxy terrorism at the lower end of conflict in terms of numbers and intensity, even if concerns are raised about North Korean or Iranian facilitation of weapons of mass destruction to irregular groups. To date this has not happened and the real focus remains on state-to-state WMD technology transfers rather than on transfers to non-state actors. Even so, state-sponsored terrorism remains a strategic option, as the 2008 Mumbai attacks demonstrate.

Contemporary non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary or nationalist groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes or foreign occupation). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite and/or its foreign allies. Terrorism committed by non al-Qaeda allied Taliban, or the activities of Hamas and Hezzbollah can be seen in this light; 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions).

Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the Janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play). Both types of non-state terrorism also use the “sucker ploy” approach in their operations. This is a maneuver whereby a terrorist provocation is staged that elicits an adversarial response that is out of proportion to the initial act (say, an air strike called in on an entire village because a guerrilla ambush or suicide bombing was staged in it), thereby swaying popular sentiment towards the terrorist cause. Some analysts claim that 9-11 was a sucker ploy played out on a grand scale, and that it worked.

Yet non-state terrorists are not the ultimate determiners of their own fortunes. Their chances of strategic success rest less on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is another (the issue of who authoritarian regimes define as “terrorists” is another matter entirely). Strong democracies have similar strengths. For all its excesses and political flaws, Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign and India’s response to LET provocations are also illustrative. For their part, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised and ideologically committed terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to insurrectionary or grievance terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of internal support and will. Not surprisingly, several of these states employ state terrorism as part of “counter-terrorism” campaigns against dissident groups (be they armed or not).

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak quasi-democratic regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser degree, immature democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are vulnerable to destabilisation by well-organised terrorist campaigns. Conversely, virtually all of East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. The US may still be the ultimate jihadist target, but it is also extremely difficult to penetrate on anything but a small scale. Mexico, on the other hand, is currently engaged in a vicious internal war between the federal government and drug cartel paramilitary fronts that use terrorism as a matter of course. Although funded and armed by criminal organizations its has a political element in that lower class resentment of the Calderon government’s right-wing policies provides ideological and physical cover for criminal terrorists in several Mexican states.

Broadly speaking however, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. For example, rather than gaining traction and a larger foothold in international affairs, Islamic internationalists are losing ground. The transnational jihadist movement has found itself increasingly forced to retrench in failed states such as the Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan, where they can be encircled and cut off from sources of re-supply and financing (although is a matter of will and cooperation by the anti-Islamicist coalition). Improved intelligence cooperation and development of professional counter-terrorism forces has greatly disrupted Islamicist funding and resource networks as well led to the arrest or killing of numerous cadres. That might explain the move away from “hub and spoke” operations (modeled roughly along Che Guervara’s “wildfire” guerrilla strategy) to highly decentralised and often individual, “Lone Wolf” attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as growing international success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is as much a function of government-supportive local communities as it is of good intelligence).

That raises the question of US counter-terrorism efforts under the Obama administration. It is clear that the W. Bush administration’s heavy-handed approach led to mixed results at great cost to US prestige and reputation. So a change in strategy was necessary, and is one that is still in the process of being crafted. Yet, given the culture wars, economic and social woes, and ideological polarisation that divide the US, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. That in turn impinges on its allies’ commitment to the cause. This is the variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, and it is not only Islamicists who may see opportunity in perceived US weakness.

That is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in failed states is as much an issue of contextual understanding by foreign forces as it is of their will and capability in the face of uncooperative local regimes. So far, the US has struggled to adequately deal with the non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism operations. It specifically has moved more slowly than other nations in developing a “behavioral clue” approach to early detection of terrorist plots, one that focuses more on patterns of behavior rather than on ethnicity or religious affiliation when triangulating on suspects. It should be noted that counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, although often overlapped, are not synonymous and hence are not reducible to one general response. Thus, the “ink blot” (secure and expand) counter-insurgency strategy used in Iraq and being implemented in Afghanistan is not specifically focused on counter-terrorism operations, and as of yet does not have the focused behavioral clue component that allows for early detection of discrete terrorist plots (which is a function of reliable intelligence flows).

The bigger picture is thus: Even if in global retreat and no longer an existential threat to Western and Eastern interests, the Islamicist campaign still has not seen the full crest of its wave. In other words, although the Jihadist defensive war against globalised modernization has been lost, episodic atrocities will continue so long as there is residual ideological support for it, weak states that provide safe haven to it, and a lack of unified will to address its underlying causes on the part of the “civilised” world.

Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, Paul G. Buchanan studies issues of international politics and security. An earlier version of this essay was posted at collective.


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