Published on April 27, 2017
Generally speaking, ideas are like plants and animals. Over time, they evolve, things change – we keep what works and throw away what doesn’t. Humans don’t have tails. Dolphins don’t have feet. Moths without camouflage get eaten. Methods and techniques are perfected, and accepted as “the way things are done”.
If you want to move something efficiently, you need wheels. If you want to lift something heavy, you use levers and pulleys. We make knives out of steel because it’s hard and can take an edge. We make clothes out of wool because its warm. Nobody makes teapots out of chocolate.
…and yet terrorists routinely use tools that are not fit for purpose.
As part of examination of the terrorist narrative, it’s time we asked ourselves – what exactly is the goal of “terrorism”?
WHAT DO TERRORISTS WANT?
We’ve all lived with the concept of terrorism for so long now, we have perhaps forgotten what it means. It has become, as all words repeated ad nauseam , a collection of nonsense syllables. It has a cultural and social fog of ephemeral “meaning”, removed from solid language or the idea of definition in the true sense of the word.
For a generation or more a terrorist has simply been a man with a broken ideology, a black balaclava and a homemade bomb. We never give any thought to their ideals or greater plans, because they never have any. They are, in the specific, always insane. Always lone lunatics, depraved beyond reason. And yet, in the collective, they make up a great black-clad mass of “enemy”. A cloud of terrifying “them”, hell-bent on destroying “us”.
In this way terrorism, as a concept, is removed from reality. Inept idiots stuffing their y-fronts with C4 and their shoes with homemade napalm will never coalesce into an army, no matter how many of them there are. And yet somehow we are able to marry these oxymoronic ideas.
The fact that the aims of the movement are never successfully pursued by the individual apparent devotees should give us all pause. We should ask ourselves, as terrorist X kills Y number of people in city Z, what was he trying to achieve?
Terrorism is defined as:
The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”
But what are these “political aims”? Historically speaking, there are two categories of goal pursued by behaviours that are traditionally branded “terrorism”. Legislative policy change, and military victory – or “Activism” and “warfare”. Let us compare “terrorism” with each in turn.
TERRORISM VS ACTIVISM: MORAL WORTHINESS AND GOOD PR
The 20th century was marked with regular domestic political movements of varying size, and varying results. Generally speaking they were concerned with civil rights. Equality. Suffrage. Taxation. Workers’ rights. Religion. Sexuality. The basic ability of a human individual to exist in what is notionally a fair world.
It is commonly recognised that the most effective, and powerful, modus operandi for achieving these domestic political changes is through peaceful protest, industrial action, and non-violent resistance.
Workers, generations past, have simply denied their labour to their employers. In this way, you both make life more difficult for the people in authority and demonstrate the value of your work: “Look,” you say, “your country needs us to run it. Respect our sweat, as it makes the world turn.”
Martin Luther King championed black rights, and civil rights for all, through peaceful marches and eloquent speeches. Make the legal, social, and moral case for change and allow logic and justice to stand up for themselves. There is undeniable power in that. The same can be said for Gandhi.
Movements abstaining from violence retain the moral high ground, win over public support and – most importantly – prevent the state from branding them dangerous criminals, without revealing authoritarian hypocrisy. All of these movements were, eventually, met with state-backed violence and repression. Violent repression of non-violent protest is the greatest argument in favour of change, as it perfectly encapsulates the inherent contempt that power has for justice.
Even the more martial political activists and movements, those who believed in some restricted forms of violence – such as the Malcolm X or the Suffragettes – tended to turn their anger on property and authority…never on civilians.
It is the most basic common sense to realise that political change in the Western world can only be achieved through generating public support. Even unionised industrial action is often criticised in the media for “alienating the public”. You will never generate said support through acts of random, indiscriminate violence.
Further, if the desired “political aims” of terrorist attacks are legislative changes, why do they never articulate these demands? Where, as Bashar al-Assad has asked before, are the leaders, thinkers and ideas? Do ISIS or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram have a political wing, waiting to make laws in a parliament?
No. They exist only as formless threat. They demand our attention, and yet ask no concessions. They have no policies except being the embodiment of “evil”, and take up no position except “anti-West”. Their great goal, their “caliphate”? Nothing but a Mordor-like nightmare world of fiction. A dark dream built on tabloid headlines and fictional currencies and shocking YouTube videos. No diplomats make alliances in ISIS’ name. No lawyers make legal arguments for the state’s existence. No history serves as precedent for this “nation”.
It seems logical, then, to assume that domestic policy changes aren’t the true agenda of most modern “terrorism”. You don’t change systemic Islamophobia, for example, by stabbing a policeman outside the Houses of Parliament.
TERRORISM VS WARFARE – VICTORY CONDITIONS AND CHOICE OF TARGETS
Non-state actors, rebels, partisans, revolutionaries, insurgents and guerillas can all fall under the wide umbrella of “terrorists”. However, unlike modern terrorists, these groups have a definitive purpose. Clear-cut victory conditions, and a pragmatic approach to achieving them.
It’s a simple strategic truth, passed down from time immemorial, that a small partisan force cannot face a large occupying force in open battle. Insurgents and guerillas learn to pick their targets with care. Use the landscape to their advantage. Sabotage infrastructure. Assassinate key leaders.
Scottish and Welsh armies ambushed occupying English forces in 14th century. In the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army performed hit-and-run raids on British foraging parties. French Resistance fighters and Czech partisans used sabotage and targeted key Nazi leaders for assassination during WWII. The North Vietnamese and Afghan soldiers used territorial knowledge to constantly undermine and confound American and Soviet forces trained for more prolonged pitched battles. The list is endless, up to and including Iraq and Afghanistan in America’s perpetual “war on terror”.
If your objective is to drain the resources of an occupying force, you target supply lines and commanding officers. If your aim is to inflict a big impact with limited resources, you target key infrastructure.
The Ukrainian government and associated right-wing militias deliberately cut-off water and power to Crimea and other former-Ukrainian territories in the east of the country. Israel regularly punitively cut-off Gaza’s access to water and power.
These are the basic, horrible, pragmatic facts of warfare.
We are constantly told we are “under threat”, that we are at war with people who “hate our freedoms”. The war on terror has been going on for 16 years, and though we haven’t won…we’re certainly not losing. And that’s almost entirely because the terrorists don’t seem to be trying very hard.
So why don’t terrorists follow these guidelines? Where are the acts of high impact political or industrial sabotage? What efforts have been
If you consider America (along with NATO) as, essentially, one giant Imperial force occupying the majority of the world, what good does blowing up a bus or driving through a crowd really do? It might “terrorise” people, but it doesn’t achieve anything militarily significant. Even if your goal is simply to kill as many people, and do as much damage, as possible.
Take 9/11, for example, as a military attack it was pointless and ineffective. Yes, one could argue that taking out 3 buildings with two planes is unprecedented as far as efficiency goes, but what did it achieve? 3000 dead civilians of no strategic importance. A big hole in the side of the Pentagon where the receipts were kept, and levelling the only 3 buildings in Manhattan that were more valuable as rubble than office space.
Why not fly those planes into nuclear power stations? Imagine 4 different airliners hitting four different nuclear reactors up and down the eastern United States? There are plenty to choose from, and if just 1/4 of them were successful there would have been destruction unmatched in the whole long history of sabotage. Power outages, civilian casualties, mass panic and long-term consequences of incalculable danger. Think Fukushima, only deliberate, and worse, and with a decent helping of American hysteria thrown in.
So why didn’t it happen?
Well, it wasn’t because it didn’t occur to them. In 2002, The Guardian reported on an Al-Jazeera interview with secret al-Qaeda sources inside Pakistan who claimed that nuclear reactors were the “original targets” for 9/11. So why didn’t they hit them? Well, because:
al-Qaeda feared that such an attack “might get out of hand””
Yes, seriously. You see, they are all for death to Americaand destroying heretics…but only within reason.
In fact, despite the noted vulnerability of nuclear power stations to potential attack, and despite the CFR’s warnings that US forces had “found diagrams of American nuclear power plants” in al-Qaeda materials in Afghanistan” in 2002, it’s been 15 years and there has never been even a successful terrorist attack on any nuclear power station in the Western world.
Likewise dams, airports, television channels, factories and military bases. Western infrastructure has been virtually untouched during this “war”. Arabic and Middle Eastern infrastructure? Markedly less so.
ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra etc seem to have another “key leader” droned to death every other week. Have there been any terrorist assassination attempts on Western leaders lives? None at all.
ISIS et al aren’t unaware of these tactics. They use them all the time…just only against the Syrian government.
The argument that modern terrorists would rather target Western “emblems” for “symbolic attacks” is absurd. Firstly the only “emblem” ever really attacked was the World Trade Center, which was never an emblem until after it was on fire. The Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty are both much bigger symbols to the American psyche. Secondly, nobody ever won a war with symbolic attacks.
No, the only rational analysis is that “terrorists” are either completely incapable of doing any real strategic damage to the West, or some how judge it to be not in their interests to do so.
It’s easy to see the arguments that modern “terrorism” consistently uses tools and approaches proven to hinder the political progress of any movement, whilst engaging in impotent and pointless “military” tactics that offer no real threat to the Western way of life, or national security.
This kind of “Terrorism” is a relatively recent invention – no rational ideologue truly believes he furthers his minority cause by blowing up buildings or hurting civilians. There is a not a single case, in the whole of human history, of these tactics working to secure their stated goal.
Let us revisit the above stated definition of terrorism:
The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”