The Fallacies and the Facts about Terrorism

Introduction: Getting a grasp on terror

Terrorism, like so many other human activities, can be a complicated subject – so complicated that nobody has yet managed to come up with a concise and accurate definition for it.

We understand that terrorism is usually politically motivated and involves the threat or use of violence against targets chosen more for symbolic value than a practical one. Beyond that, it is a realm of activity whose boundaries intersect with those of crime, protest, warfare (especially of the low-intensity varieties), and with unsavory forms of governance. Special pleadings – especially for “freedom fighters”, “protestors”, “insurgents” and so on — have always interfered with recognizing terrorism.

However, it is the simpler aspects of terrorism that need to be constantly explained. Never mind variations of tri-acetone tri-peroxide explosives; summarizing the growing casualty rate to the old al Qaeda command council; or speculating about possible British extra-legal homicide in Whitehall’s ‘management’ of the old Provos in Ulster; there are more basic aspects of terrorism which many people just never seem to grasp.

Rudyard Kipling, who was sometimes one of the more astute observers of the human condition, wrote one of his bleaker poems in 1919: “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. The poem could be an anthem for conservatives, and is always worth reading for its description of the lessons we keep learning the hard way whenever we forget some fundamental truths about ourselves. Yet we keep hoping for prosperity without working by robbing ‘selected Peter to pay for collective Paul’; we keep imagining that we can have peace by giving up our arms, or that the day of universal free love has finally dawned. Each time, reality painfully reminds us that everything has a price.

There are fallacies about terrorism that show up no matter how many times they are refuted by hard cold reality. The fundamental verities – truths – of terrorism are atrocity and violence, and the main purpose is never the stated cause, but the gratification of the terrorists’ own psychological needs. Yet we always forget these facts in attempting to cope with terrorism, and then wonder why we make such slow headway against it.

The First Fallacy: “Root Causes”

“Root Causes” is the strange notion that terrorism is inevitably the result of poverty or injustice, and that somehow, if we recognize this and work to resolve such problems, then the terrorist will cease to attack us. As a general rule, when hearing such stock phrases as “we must find the root causes of terrorism”, one is safe to disregard the speaker thereafter… except that this is uttered far too often in television studios, diplomatic chancelleries, and on the floors of legislatures.

The usual “root cause” opinion betrays an ignorance of the realities of terrorism. Throughout history, the terrorist and the revolutionary (righteous or otherwise) tend to be drawn from the Middle Class, and seldom from the ragged and hungry poor.

It is always useful to remember the careers and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. They all rejected violence (although Mandela had originally been jailed for terrorist activities) and chose to use moral strength and principle to challenge some powerful foes. Mandela brought down the apartheid system in South Africa, Walesa tackled Soviet Communism in Poland, Gandhi accelerated the end of the British Raj, and Martin Luther King vanquished institutionalized segregation in the American south. They took on real injustices and triumphed without resort to violence.

The lesson for us is that if one’s cause is truly just, violence may well be unnecessary and even counterproductive. One could suppose that the first corollary is then that if a cause isn’t just, then violence is inevitable or welcome to its perpetrators.

It is true that some terrorist movements have arisen out of frustrated protest campaigns; the occasional exercise of violence against abortion providers has been a case in point. But the violence in this cause seems almost trivial compared to many other terrorist episodes, and it seems safer to argue that issue can attract violent people who are prepared to move past mere protest. The early literature of the Animal Liberation Front and the Field Guide to Monkeywrenching are laced with contempt for those who merely content themselves with leaflets and placards. More conventional terrorists regard protests as a recruiting tool, or an activity for their political arm.

It is also useful to compare and contrast Mandela, Walensa, Gandhi and King with Ilyich Rameriz Sanchez (aka ‘Carlos the Jackal’), Osama Bin Laden, Yasser Arafat and Ayman al Zawahiri. These latter four were well-educated men and the sons of wealthy fathers. Arafat and Bin Laden were engineers and Zawahiri is a pediatrician. All of them had many opportunities for an affluent and peaceful life, but they all chose to become terrorists. Hunger and poverty didn’t enter the picture.

Arafat, Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Sanchez all adopted the ideologies that supposedly motivated them and rejected other avenues that could have advanced the causes they embraced. For example, where might the Palestinian Arabs be now if they found a leader like Martin Luther King or Gandhi instead of Arafat?

For these four figures, the violence of terrorism wasn’t a necessity out of a stalled protest movement, but a deliberate choice – probably to answer their own psychological requirements. They all adopted ideologies that endorsed violence and assumed grievances that really weren’t theirs to begin with. Terrorism isn’t a political or a social problem; although terrorists will quickly wrap themselves around a political or social cause to give shape and direction to their violence.

Psychologists and criminologists can have better insights into the cause of terrorism than any other discipline does. Terrorism seems to be an inverted version of old Abraham Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ tier of need. It seems to have more to do with individual cravings for a heroic self-image, for status and prestige, or a desire to insert oneself violently into history as the agent of sudden change. There is a desire for drama, to be the one who storms the gates of heaven and throws down the high towers. When considering the source of terrorism, always look first at the psychological interior of the terrorist himself.[1]

Fallacy Number Two: Political Solutions

The notion that there is a political solution that will resolve the issues that motivate a terrorist group is perhaps one of the most expensive and time-wasting errors we make. This mistake is particularly compounded when diplomats and advisors fail to differentiate between the effects of the passage of time and political “progress” in ending a particular conflict. One thinks of the 1994 Oslo Agreement (privately disparaged by so many Palestinians and Israelis alike); the vain attempts to negotiate a peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; or the glacial peace process in Ulster.

Terrorist groups have life-spans: They eventually grow corrupt because of their dependence on organized criminal activities like narcotics, extortion rackets, smuggling and black-marketeering. Indeed, many groups have eventually transformed into organized criminal societies. Alternatively, if dependent on a sponsor, they wither away when the money is cut off. Another limitation on their existence is the limited attraction of an old ideology for a younger generation of misfits. Also, if the issue that the terrorists used as an excuse to justify their behaviours has become old history, then the next generation of would-be terrorists will look elsewhere for inspiration.

Negotiation hasn’t worked for the ‘Marxist’ group FARC, active in Colombia since the early 1960s; they have battened on to the cocaine industry and now only wrap themselves in the old cause to justify their organized criminal activities. FARC is sliding down a well worn path of transition from insurgent movement to organized criminal society – perhaps the oldest existing entity that took that path are the anti-Manchu rebels of Imperial China who eventually morphed into the traditional Chinese Triads.

The main delay in Ulster in the course of 14 years of peace talks wasn’t so much any particular issue as it was a failure to recognize the fundamental dilemmas of old terrorists: When every atrocity that you have committed in the last 25 years has been assigned to a ‘cause’ to justify your behaviours to yourself, can you afford to put that cause aside even when negotiators have handed you everything you once claimed that you wanted? Moreover, when your job skills revolve around slanted political history, basic thuggery and bomb-making, and your income is derived from ‘War Taxes’ and smuggling; what does peace really have to offer you?

In the end, in Ulster, Sinn Fein had to divorce itself from the Provisional Wing of the IRA to get what it wanted; while the latest indications from Ulster suggest that the ‘die-hards’ are wrapping themselves around the old cause once more to justify keeping their sundry criminal enterprises going.

A politician or diplomat who cannot recognize the realities of motivation for a terrorist, or how they derive their incomes, cannot hope to actually achieve much in negotiations. Rather, they probably impede the development of other solutions.

Fallacy Number Three: Cause and Effect

A terrorist is seldom being truthful when he says he attacked target ‘X’ because of provocation ‘Y’. The terrorist is already predisposed to attack for emotional and psychological reasons. If one target isn’t selected for one reason or another, then some other target will be singled out.

This is a point that one wishes the news media would remember. Most groups have always made their ultimate agendas perfectly clear before launching any particular attacks. Al Qaeda, for instance, proposes the return of the Caliphate (as an initial step) before imposing their ideology on the entire world. Why should we accept a lesser excuse as the reason for any particular outrage?

There is much more to launching a terrorist attack than, for example, setting off a series of bombs on a Madrid railway station because Spain had troops in Iraq. The larger motive to attack Spain already existed; the ideology that the terrorists embraced gave them a further motive; the means were within their reach; and the majority of plotters already lived in Spain. If the Spanish military hadn’t been in Iraq, some other excuse for launching a murderous attack would have been found. No terrorist has ever run out of excuses to justify his behavior.

However, it is always useful for terrorists to find some rationalization, blame it, and see if we react. It lets them feel powerful and influential, and only guarantees the next attack. Moreover, if they have some lingering traces of self-doubt that let them feel troubled by their deeds, blaming the victim for ‘forcing’ the attack is a useful coping mechanism.

One is reminded of Zohair Youssif Ackache, one of the four hijackers of a Lufthansa jet in 1977, who explained his murder of the plane’s pilot in the main passenger cabin – “He forced me to do it”. The communiqué that followed a mail bomb sent to this author in 1996 concluded, after a couple of pages of hysterical (in both senses of the word) polemics, that the unknown bomber had been forced to act. There had been no previous communications from the bomber whatsoever.

Fallacy Number Four: The Terrorist as Leader

Many terrorists, or their political fronts, claim to speak for an entire community of people. Yasser Arafat claimed to represent all of the Palestinians, the mouthpieces for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) let us assume they speak for all Sri Lankan Tamils, and the Babbar Khalsa hold themselves as the true leaders of all Sikhs. Nobody should ever accept that the terrorist actually represents anybody but himself.

Indeed, when talking to Palestinians in the West Bank during the Second Intifada, it was interesting to find out how many of them (privately) expressed their utter contempt for Arafat.[2] Some of the greatest heroes of Sri Lanka are Tamil parents and teachers who try to keep the Tigers from recruiting more children; and Sikh police officers in the Punjab were the hard and aggressive front-line that quelled the Babbar Khalsa movement.

It is one of the oldest stories in mankind that the murderous tyrant who claims to be championing a particular people ends up killing more of them than any outside enemy can. Victor Davis Hanson, the popular classical historian, points out that Alexander the Great killed more Greeks while claiming to avenge the earlier wrongs done by the Persians than the armies of Cyrus and Darius ever managed. Stalin killed far more Soviet citizens than Hitler did, and Mao let Chinese die in the tens of millions. If we were to tally the body counts of the killers of Muslims in Afghanistan, Algeria and Iraq lately, we would find that the single most deadly party in those countries are Islamic fundamentalists – killing tens of thousands of fellow Muslims in the name of Islam.

The course of the 20th century has given ample evidence of just how murderous ideologues can be once they achieve political power. If the Jihadis are killing Muslims in such numbers now, imagine the death toll that would accrue if they actually seized political power.

The terrorist is someone who emphatically rejects the hard road of peace and principle, and wishes to revel in violence instead. Invariably, especially if the terrorist has embraced a ‘national liberation’ type of conflict, the preferred initial victims of the terrorist are all the would-be Gandhis, Walesas, Kings, and Mandelas who might propose an alternative to violence and offer a rival vision based on rights, consensual politics and the rule of law.

Typically, the first victim slain by the leader of the emerging LTTE was a federalist Tamil politician; and many more have died at the hands of the Tigers since then. When we wonder where the moderate Palestinians are, they learned as far back as the 1940s, not to raise their heads lest they be murdered by the militants. Lenin’s first victims were his putative allies during the Russian Revolution; the Mullahs of Iran also decimated their partners in the overthrow of the Shah. ETA in Spain has killed many Basques who questioned their motives.

Whenever any Terrorist claims to be speaking for the ‘People’ of some kind or another, be certain that if he hasn’t yet made sure he is their sole spokesperson; this will be an early item on his agenda.

The current American field manual on Counter-Insurgency points out that the main emphasis in fighting insurgents would be to protect the population from them.[3] This was the same starting point for the British successes in the 1950s with the insurgencies in Malaya and Kenya. It is a sound principle in counter-terror strategies, provided that police and intelligence agencies know exactly who and what they are dealing with, because so often they don’t.

Fallacy Number Five: One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

The idea that the worthiness of a particular cause might excuse terrorism done in its name is particularly insidious. To misquote the film character of Forrest Gump, “Terrorism is as terrorism does.” No matter how worthy the cause the terrorist has embraced, his actions sully it. Those who support a particular cause and who excuse terrorism done on its behalf do that cause no favours.

Terrorism is founded on deception (self-deception most of all), and atrocity is the deliberate goal of its violence, not the unwanted collateral effect that it is for more disciplined combatants. A cause that might have been worthy is not graced by these practices.

A “freedom fighter” who employs the techniques of terrorism in his struggle builds everything that follows on a flawed foundation, and bloody-handed liars make lousy founding fathers for new countries. While atrocity attends most revolutions and civil wars, leaders like William of Orange or George Washington normally eschewed it. Ireland and Israel, democratic nations that had the taint of terrorism in their foundation, have probably survived only because the terrorists were publically repudiated and even then the price has been high.

The normal worth of a terrorist as a nation- builder can be easily assayed, look at what a hash Arafat made of the Palestinian state; poisoned as it began. Contrast Mugabe’s Zimbabwe with the South Africa that emerged under Mandela’s tutelage.

In some immigrant communities in the Western World, we have seen the poisonous effects that can be created by adulation for the romance of the ‘Freedom Fighters” back home. Sometimes, the effect can persist for decades. The FBI campaign in the 1970s only had a partial success in teaching Boston’s Irish community that the Provisional IRA’s favorite hero was that great Irishman Leon O’Trotsky. Emigré Tamil communities around the world are finding that their children have been unduly influenced by Tiger propaganda and, lacking a guerrilla war to fight, have been turning to violent organized crime instead.

It is true that terrorism is a realm with grey boundaries, and even such legitimate combatants as resistance movements in war-time Europe employed terrorism against the Nazis. But then, the Nazis were demonstrably more evil than most of their opponents. Moreover, much of the violence of various war-time resistance forces was ineffectual and of little consequence. Their more useful contributions to the war effort lay with gathering intelligence for the Allies, sabotage of machinery and railroads, and smuggling out downed fliers. Assassinations and the use of time bombs against the Nazis invariably brought ruthless reprisals like the Lidice massacre, and probably made no real contribution to the Allied victory anyway.

Essentially, the terrorist should never, ever, be seen as a true representative of the people he claims to lead. Nor, for that matter, is it wise to recognize a political front that excuses his violence. The so-called protestor, insurgent, or – worse – “freedom fighter” is a liability to whatever cause he or she alleges she represents when they employ terror.

However, in a society without the rule of law, consensual politics or human rights (which is not the case for the United States, Israel, and a host of other favorite target nations), the use of violence against by the truly oppressed against the symbols and servants of the regime could be legitimate. However, this almost always plays into the hands of the regime they oppose, and is less useful than peaceful protest.

Unfortunately, Rudyard Kipling’s poem concludes by pointing out that the “fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.” The fallacies of terrorism have enjoyed a long life, and will probably continue so long as some prefer to imagine that the terrorist is a romantic or heroic figure. As Abraham Lincoln would have put it; “You can fool some of the people all of the time …”

[1] One of the better papers on terrorist motivation is Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why; a 1999 report prepared by Rex Hudson of the Federal Research Service for the Library of Congress; but Eric Hoffer’s old 1951 book The True Believer is also valuable.

[2] This was one finding of the Author’s interviews in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jericho in 2004; usually with shop-keepers, taxi drivers, waiters and literally the ‘man in the street’. While collectively, they would all pronounce that Arafat was their leader and much admired, opinions in private conversations were quite different and it was no secret that he was dying of AIDS.

[3] US Army Field Manual No. 3-24; Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 – also published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. It is a good read, the fruits of many lessons learned the hard way (again) in Iraq and

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