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On terror

On terror

  The scope of low intensity conflict
  Terror as a tool
  A taxonomy of terror users
  Expanding some key distinctions
  Some lessons to be learned



Terrorism is a seemingly simple concept which, on investigation, appears to become bogged down in moral and historical relativism. Was the bombing of Dresden an act of terror? Are people who achieve their ends through terror, and who are now rulers in their own nation, still terrorists or now newly-minted statesmen?

Terror is a tool. It is used by four conceptually-coherent groups: by repressive states, by criminals, by revolutionaries and by "pure" terrorists. We show how these groups can be distinguished, and how each differs from the typical practices of the industrialised powers. A closing section reviews what has been learned and the implications which this has for police actions and situation management.

We draw one crucial distinction, which is between the revolutionary user of terror and the pure terrorist, whose aim is - essentially - to attack change itself. The former is limited in the extremities to which they can go, whilst the latter is not.

We characterise ethnic entrepreneurialism, in which terror is a minor tool in creating an 'tribe' for an individual to lead. Whole nation ethnic entrepreneurs - the inheritors of creators of state terror - have created some of the most repressive states in recent history.

We also characterise the traditionalist-reactionary tendency in all societies, showing how this is a driving force which enables the use of terror during period of fast change. Many if not all 'pure' terrorists are heavily influenced by reactionary tendencies.

We examine the psycho-type of the 'pure' terrorist. Whilst it is possible to say much about the personality which supports terrorist leaders (and quite distinctly, about their followers) it is hard to identify clear pre-disposing elements that makes a Bin Laden what he is, rather than a corporate manager.

The scope of low intensity conflict.

The scope of low intensity conflict.

In the order of 220 million people died through non-accidental violence in the last century. About 6-8 million died in formal military conflict between states, and some 10-12 million died in civil conflict. The remaining 200 million or so died because states attacked their own citizens.

We are concerned by terror for three primary reasons.

Power is used to seize, to influence and to defend. The wealthy word has assets which cannot usefully be seized. It would benefit no hypothetical invaded to capture (for example) the physical assets associated with the City of London's financial trading. The would not continue to work for the new owner in the way than an oil field or a rice paddy can be exploited. This fact is generally true for all activities which rely upon the complex web of self-interest, trust, tacit institutions, long-term relationships and creative enthusiasm which underpin the industrial economies.

It is, however, entirely possible to gain influence in such an environment, and to do so by threatening to damage these relationships and assets. Those who use terror in such circumstances, despite behaving in ways that lead to no direct advantage, nevertheless become 'players', people who must be taken into account.

A more potent threat, however, comes from those whose desire is solely to attack modernism - globalisation, secularism, 'the West' - and whose satisfaction comes from the destruction of an example of technical or organisational capability. Such might target individuals or firms, networks or fixed facilities, UN agencies or major conferences. They might use anything from a stock market take-over to a crude cruise missile to achieve their ends. If the aim is to destroy and disrupt, then terror finds a myriad tools by which to achieve its ends. It is impossible to defend against all of these.

Terror is a tool which is used towards many ends, but which is always oriented to gaining influence. Managing the use of the tool requires a clear view on the influence which its practitioners seek. In some cases, the use of terror may be lessened by offering other paths to influence, through engagement and inclusion. In others, the classical mechanisms of pre-emption, containment, deterrence and retribution may be more appropriate. These must be filtered through the demands of a distinctive milieu, however, and it is crucial to understand which approaches are appropriate to the situation in hand.

Terror as a tool.

Terror as a tool.

Terror is an instrument, a tool. There is no unique class of people who can be termed "terrorists." The tool is used on both sides of Max Weber's famous sociological divide: those who would defend a fixed position, and those who would like to erode it. It is used by states and those who oppose states, by criminals and by those who wish to earn a place at the top table. It is employed by authoritarian minds who wish to oppose all forms of order but the most primitive. People who hate change deploy terror on the apparent sources of it; and people who demand change may use terror against those who seem to oppose it.

Labels are often observer-dependent. Simon de Bolivar, the Libertador of Latin America, would today be called a terrorist (until, that is, he succeeded in his aims.) At least two Israeli prime ministers were involved with the terrorist campaign against the British mandate in Palestine/Transjordan. Most of the leaders who took the helm after the European colonial withdrawal were attached to or implicated in activities which were called 'terrorist'. Britain has two people occupying ministerial posts in regional government who have close connections with the IRA.

It is equally the case that organised crime often uses terror, such as assassination, extortion, beatings, bombing. Indeed, 'terrorist' groups are often closely allied to crime, such are producing and shipping narcotics, stolen intellectual property and fake goods in order to raise funds. Mature terror organisations may be little more than highly-armed gangsters, building up their individual pension funds.

Night patrols and arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment without trial by political or religious police may constitute the use of terror by the state, but they are not terrorism. Crime and non-state terrorism may look the same on the street, but they are distinguished by the personal motives of the perpetrators. State terror and civil policing may also look much the same - uniformed patrols, bureaucratic procedures and record keeping - but they are predicated on entirely different views of a society. Armed forces which open fire on civil disturbance may perform exactly the same actions in a liberal modern state and in a repressive dictatorship, but the institutional framework within which they operate is entirely different. It is this fact that makes it hard to find 'objective' criteria by which to classify the various forms of terror and force.

States are by far the greatest users of terror. Rulers of Mesopotamia were said to have a pit next to their thrones, from which howls and foul smells emerged. Courtiers and supplicants took note, and acted in ways pleasing to the mighty. It is only recently that the wealthy world stepped beyond the use of crude terror and its threat in daily management of national affairs.

Terror is still widely used by repressive states as the primary toll by which to quash opposition, to patrol the boundaries of permitted behaviour and manage expectations. When one who dares to read a foreign book is beaten in public or those who read foreign newspapers are 'disappeared', then otherwise enquiring minds are dulled. When an overly-prosperous shopkeeper from the wrong ethnic group is burnt out, then aspiration to social change is muted. Communist and Ba'athist states, for example, deploy a diffuse, omnipresent menace which forces their populations to police their own actions - to be above suspicion, to report the suspicious - for who knows what minor indiscretion might bring down the sky, or what might be a test of one's thoughts?

Non-statal terror is often used for both economic and political gain. We tend to call the first of these users of terror 'criminals', and the second group 'revolutionaries' or 'terrorists'. The primary distinction is a valid one, and we return to criminality only at the end of this paper. However, an important group of terror users, whom we term 'ethnic entrepreneurs', work for personal political gain, and can reasonably be called political criminals. Certainly, their rule is characterised by the manipulation and abrogation of law.

Is the whole concept of terror embedded in hopeless relativism, therefore, or can we separate the field into usefully different components? Is one person's criminal another's freedom fighter, and yet another's terrorist? Can we generate a useful taxonomy of terror, allowing us to identify and distinguish shades of terror?

A taxonomy of terror users.

A taxonomy of terror users.

The West wishes to alter, act upon, deter, punish or control some aspects of the use of terror. In order to act upon a complex phenomena, it is first necessary to understand it. Such understanding comes from finding variables along which it is possible to array individual users of terror in more or less objective ways. The resulting clumps and clusters give us ways of talking about kinds of terror users and the tools that are appropriate for their management.

We are going to advance three such dimensions. These are concerned with the goals with which terror is used, the targets for terror and - for practical rather than conceptual reasons - whether the terror is directed internationally or chiefly focused in one place.

We begin with the most complex dimension, which is concerned with the motives with which terror is used. At one end of this spectrum, terror is deployed in order to attack a social trend or an abstract force, such as modernity or secularism. At the other end of the spectrum, terror is used as a mechanisms to shift the situation towards explicit political ends. These goals may be mixed, both in individual minds and within a cadre of activists, but we will keep them separated for clarity.

Those who engage with abstract forces are both relatively rare and extremely intractable to management. They are not susceptible to political compromise. Their goals are almost invariably associated with regressive, repressive ideology, and often one which rejects some or all aspects of the modern world. The guiding principle is usually to impose a homogeneous, structured and centrally controlled model on the entire population. Groups which exist at this end of the spectrum are not above using the tools of modernity, secularism or whatever they hate in order to achieve its overthrow, and this is a matter of frequent ideological nail biting amongst intellectual adherents of the movement.

As already noted, actions at the other end of this dimension are aimed towards explicitly political and practical ends. There are two common ways in which this is done.

The first of these 'practical' frequently succeeds in its aims, as granting political concessions and rights is the surest way of stopping it. (At least, that is, until ideological polarisation has been achieved by ethnic entrepreneurs, which we shall meet in a moment.)

The second class of 'practical' terror cannot be mitigated by negotiation. It has to be stamped out, or it will stamp out its opponents. This brings us back to the other end of the spectrum, because exactly the same is true of terror conducted for abstract rather than for concrete political goals. It cannot be negotiated with or mitigated. It must be met in its own terms, and handled with firmness that over-rides considerations of political sensitivity. In this, it has something in common with the other end of the dimension, where terror is used towards abstract goals. These groups are not, however, much like each other. If a hybrid movement achieves power, the 'abstract' group are usually liquidated or expelled.

Groups with non-negotiable goals seldom have a vast ground-swell of support. They do they need one. They may rely on portmanteau concepts - Old Corruption, Foreign Contamination - and point to the ineffectuality of the authorities in managing these. States which do not see "foreign contamination" as a policy issue then have to respond to the unanswerable question, as in "when did you stop beating your wife?" It is not feasible to manage a debate in an atmosphere of artificial crisis, particularly around abstract generalities. This is discussed further in the closing section.

Readers will now have a clear view of this important dimension. However, we began this section by noting that there were two other approaches that need to be tabled. These were whether the terror was chiefly directed within a group, or by that group outside its membership; and whether the terror was deployed within a firm boundary, or tried to be ubiquitous.

Figure 1: Three dimensions which distinguish the various users of terror.

It has to be said that the third dimension is more one of convenience to the external observer than it is a real distinction. Figure 1 shows the two key dimensions as a plane matrix, whilst this third factor is shown as rising out of the plane.

Four groups lie in the plane. Terror which is used on the same group from which it derives its legitimacy and resources can be aimed to support a bid for political power (the "ethnic entrepreneur", explored below.) Activities of this sort fit into the upper left of the matrix. Alternatively, terror can be used to force group members into a common orthodoxy. The assorted flavours of militant fundamentalism fit into this, the upper left quadrant of the matrix.

Terror which is used outside of the group that supports it defines the two lower quadrants on Figure 1. Where the aim is political inclusion, then the activity is best described as 'revolutionary'.

However, where the aim is to destroy, erase or annihilate a force, social tendency or ethnic group, then the result is pure terror. The aims of terror are always to subvert. However, the 'pure' terrorist aims to subvert an abstract force rather than a political institution. 'Pure' terrorists set out to attack modernism, and to blunt its thrust into their world. They may find allies in traditional, religious societies amongst those who dislike change and who deplore its common bedfellow, secularism. We discuss traditionalism in a section which follows.

The third dimension, shown as rising out of the page in Figure 1, is concerned with the geographical spread of the use of terror. The examples shown are probably self-explanatory.

In the upper right, for example, we find that normative community policing can reach across political borders. This usually leads to clashes with national governments, which the users of terror either attack or attempt to replace. The problems of traditionally-liberal, educated Egypt in the wake of a wave of Islamic normative thinking is self-evident. States which give support to revolution or other forms of terror may do so through belief, or merely to trouble their neighbours. They are, however, a characteristic group of nations: autocratic, oligarchic and usually badly governed.

State terror is located in the upper left. The ethnic entrepreneur - as an individual or as an oligarchy - has acquired a nation with which to play, and polices this power in a characteristic manner. This phenomenon is discussed in more depth in the section which follows.

The lower left quadrant consists of political revolutionaries who attempt to export their brand of change management to other nations. Such was the policy of, for example, Cuba for many decades. Nations which mix the export of terror and straightforward criminality may become an increasing feature. Afghanistan has, for example, been the heart of opiate production since the Russian invasion of it. Serbia both destabilised its neighbours and took on the handling of arms and drugs, black money and prostitution for the entire former Soviet block prior to the NATO action against it.

The phenomenon which has excited much comment is that of 'international terrorism', which has always attracted media glamour and uninformed comment. It occupies the lower right quadrant. It consists of an uneasy alliance of terror groups which are as inclined to fight each other as the various enemies which each has declared for itself. There is little that extreme environmentalists who are committed to the end of industrialisation, for example, can have to say to religious fundamentalists who have the same aim, but who have utterly different reasoning and sentiments. The striking factor about these groups is less their scale or their influence than their unpredictable nature. Their aims are abstract, their specific goals are symbolic and usually comprehensible to insiders and, as they are not seeking political compromise or public support, they have nothing to lose from extreme measures.

Expanding some of the key distinctions.

Expanding some of the key distinctions.

"Armed subversion" as opposed to "terrorism".

The primary goal of those who use terror as a tool outside of their immediate groups is always to erode, damage or destroy the existing external order. The group may have secondary, positive goals: to enforce religious views, to supplant the existing Government, to win rights for an ethnic or social group. Strictly revolutionary groups may therefore use terror as a subversive tool, but they always have clear secondary goals and they will modulate their tactical use of terror with this in mind. One is unlikely to be a successful government is one alienates (or kills) many citizens in the achievement of power. By contrast, one can gain popularity and assert a political position by - for example - claiming to assassinate only strikingly corrupt officials, as with the "Maoist" insurgents in Nepal.

Terror groups which have weak secondary motives, or none, are entirely at liberty to take extreme measures. Those with a transcendental religious message - examples such as the Aum Shriki Kyo, or the Jones sect - or possessed by hatred of modernity - for example, some flavours of US survivalist, many fundamentalists of all sects - will feel no practical limits as to what they can do, save those imposed by residual feelings of empathy.

These two wings of the terrorist clans also differ in the impact which they seek to have upon a society. Revolutionary groups with strong secondary motives try to polarise the society into those who support them and those who do not, aiming to make the former group grow and the latter conspicuous targets for terror or spontaneous 'popular action', such as strikes, sabotage and theft.

The ethnic entrepreneur and state terror.

The ethnic entrepreneur (a term used by RAND and since widely copied) is a particular kind of quasi-revolutionary, who seeks to create a small tribe for himself or his immediate cronies to lead. He (for it is usually a man) emphasises the distinctiveness of a minority group or class, points up their supposed oppression or exclusion and so stirs up trouble in order to tighten the boundaries around the group. His followers then patrol the new ethnic or social orthodoxy, extort contributions and otherwise act the wing of a repressive state.

The entrepreneur indulges in florid populist rhetoric, offers bloody 'community justice' to popular enemies such a drug dealers and otherwise follows the path well-trodden by the mafia Godfathers of human history. Such actors have no interest in resolution of dispute and, indeed, personally profit from chronic alienation. They may trigger serious terror when the social temperature becomes too low and their power base is disturbed. They dislike the impact of education and external values upon the young of their community.

Ethnic entrepreneurs who have captured an entire nation are, of course, common. Many of the more lethal forms of C20th totalitarianism came in this form. Most resort to populist-nationalist-revolutionary rhetoric, using this as a cover for autocracy, centrism, the suppression of dissent and innovation. They will claim that the new order has created new rules, as former rules led to the rotten state which the revolution replaced. These rules are explained by the (invariably capitalised) Leader, and permit the state to tear up all written and tacit contracts that used to exist between them and the governed. Those who disagree are, of course, guilty of subverting the new order. They are a threat. Indeed, the need for threats (and for great collective efforts, defined and managed from the centre) always characterise such societies. Enemies and external threats are as necessary to the dictator who rules through terror as they are to the ethnic entrepreneur who takes his first steps in cutting his sheep out from the herd.

Mature state terror.

The more sophisticated states which deploy terror in fact use force sparingly. The keep the citizen in a state of alarmed uncertainty. The draw the average person into complicity: as an informer, as a part of the claque who praise the leader at school and at mass rallies, as the audience of public executions and the mass media. Those who are seen to be even passive dissenters become vulnerable to the malicious and ultimately to the machinery of the state.

States of this sort work through formal channels, maintaining comprehensive records. The Stasi of East Germany are supposed to have had 5-10 kilograms of paper records and punch cards stored on every individual in the country. It is certain that modern industrial states hold even more information on their citizens, but they are highly restricted in how this can be used and they do not set out to scrutinise individual lives against a template of orthodoxy.

A striking feature of the terror-deploying state is that whilst the records keeping, surveillance and police operations are formal and bureaucratic, the use of power is arbitrary and occult. Uncertainty as to what constitutes a thought crime is paramount. Individuals must, therefore, strive actively to be seen as supporters of the regime if they are not to be vulnerable to stray whispers, co-incidences and random events.

The results of falling on the wrong side of the balance are catastrophic. At a minimal level, careers are blighted and access to education and travel is denied both to the individual and to his or her family. Beyond these sanctions, extreme measures lie easily to hand. China is capable of executing people who repeatedly offend minor norms of conduct and dress. The Argentine anti-revolutionary movement killed people for having been seen to read a left-wing newspaper, or for their choice of beverage in a café. The Khmer Rouge killed people for having soft hands: as non-peasants, they were to be eliminated.

Extreme and arbitrary penalties for weakly-defined infringements of the orthodoxy, coupled to universal complicity and scrutiny are the norms of a terror-deploying bureaucracy. All citizens live in a state of chronic fear. All are complicit, in some way or another, with state repression. All are encouraged to hate state-defined targets of odium, and to love the leadership and the apparatus of power. Grandiose goals are offered for those who seek a purpose to life (as with Saddam Hussein's ambition to "unite all Islam", or Castro's goal of bringing all of Latin America into communist rule)

Anti-modernism and reactionary politics.

To feel that the future is arriving too soon is no crime, and it is a widely-shared sentiment. To some, modernism is the destruction of a communal way of life. To others, it is the tendency of a complex and wealthy society to submerge the individual, the natural world, simple ways of life and tranquil perspectives in ceaseless change. Not everyone goes to war over this, however, and it is necessary to pry a little into the social groups which underpin societies at various stages in its development. A paper elsewhere on this site reviews these issues in much greater depth.

People acquire values which predispose them to respond in certain ways. The range of dominant values in a society can be extracted by statistical techniques, and these allow clusters of people who share common values to be determined. A striking fact is that the variation between nations in respect of these values is almost always less than the variation between groups within nations: that Iraqi and Japanese businessmen are more like each other than they resemble their respective nations' uneducated women, for example. Nevertheless, the relative size of the key groups varies in a systematic way with the education and income of the nation in question. Three large "meta"-groups emerge, within which almost all other groups are embedded. Two of these (essentially, the educated and the consumerist groups) are small in the poor nations, whilst the traditionalist groups are large. In poor nations, the traditionalists make up around 80% of the population, a number which falls to 20-30% in the wealthy world.

Traditionalists seek precedent for their choices and actions. They value the proven over potential benefits. They are embedded into the community through reciprocal favours and relatedness, mutual dependency and helplessness. When change smashes these communities, they become uprooted and directionless, bewildered by events. This group constitutes up to half the population in the US$500-1000 annual GDP per capita group of nations (and groups within nations.) This group tends to develop certainties as incomes rise, and around half of the population in the $1000-3000 per capita nations tend to have found certainty: as class-based movements or religion, as ethnic or nationalist pride, as the pursuit of a strong leader or a drive to a consumerist future.

Traditionalists around the world are undergoing rapid change, and there is a ready marketplace for instant certainty. Certainty that works - that delivers tangible or psychic benefits - will find ready adherents. Well-funded groups which recruit the uncertain, which enrich their families and give the individuals self-worth are, therefore, guaranteed a ready supply of recruits. It is relatively easy to mould such minds. Many third world nations have a tradition of absolute, unquestioning commitment to the leader who continues to win.

What makes a 'pure' terrorist leader?

Terrorist-followers are often driven by revolutionary or reactionary sentiments. The nature of the much smaller cadre of 'pure' terrorist leaders is distinct. Most come from backgrounds which have above-average incomes and levels of education. Many have been exposed to the wider world and have a relatively strong educational background. They are capable people of whom it is hard to see why they are not simply enjoying their gifts through a conventional life.

Analysis suggests that all share three common features. First, each has a profoundly dominant personality. Second, an perhaps related to this, each finds it hard to support flexible human relations as between equals. Relationships which are codified by hierarchy and power relations, and by rules, obligations and tradition are greatly to be preferred. Third, they have a mind that needs an all-encompassing social model of the world in which it operates. Dominance, sociopathy and a reductionist worldview together create a personality that sets out to impose a self-defined mould upon other people. European history has surfaced (and exported) many clerics who exactly fit this model, individuals who seek stern simplicities about which they may instruct lesser beings.

The modern world, of course, provides far too complex an environment to support such rule-of-thumb, revealed-truth models adequately. Educated and liberated people will not sit still for the mould to be applied. This is intolerable for the mind-set which we have described, and so it is modernity itself that must be at fault. Society is, therefore, to be shaped away from the intrusive influences of modernism, and into a traditional mould that is susceptible to simple rules and simple guidelines. Those who do not fit into this framework are defectors, to be brought into line to be eliminated.

Marginal politics are, of course, saturated with people who fit this framework very well. Many lack innate abilities, surface charm or the background dissatisfaction on which the terrorist leader can build. However, the combination of ability, weak empathy and a strong urge to dominance may well characterise may corporate success stories. Minds which seek clear, simple models of the world are two a penny in the academic world (as is boundless aggression, another pre-requisite for the successful leader-terrorist.) Charisma and the ability to bond with the traditionalist mind is widely found amongst media successes and teachers. Exactly what it is that makes a successful terrorist leader may be as much down to chance as to innate predispositions. Once made, however, they cannot be turned, for to change would be to abandon all that gives them individual worth.

Socially-enabling force.

Societies need structure and predictability in order to function. There has been debate as to how much order is essential, and at what stage over-much order prevents evolution and adaptive change.

It is clear that simple, slowly changing societies need relatively simple systems of order, often based on tacit values and patrolled by informal social mechanisms. These fail as the community has to deal with a wider world. A painful transition over-rides them with more formal, impersonal systems of rule. A typical issue of the first stage, such as "how we plant beans around here" translates into grander issues such as "farmers must pay taxes" in the second.

Impersonal but centralised systems are themselves inadequate to the complexities and distributed choice typical of a modern industrial economy. If such societies are to make the next transition, they have to allow for pluralism of goals and motives and to set the stage for fluid, adaptive responses to changing conditions.

Typically, these provisions consist of a tool-kit of pragmatic law, concerned with - for example, in farming - land ownership, tenure and monopoly, with accounting procedures and employment law, with markets for farm produce and for capital. The state has the role of supplementing this legal structure with practical features such as transport, education and communications. The choices which individuals and companies make about farming are made within this framework, each adapting itself to relevant conditions.

The choices are not, however, referred to grand theological or political principles, but only to the factors which directly impact on their successful execution. Such schemes avoid over-complexity, react quickly to change and adapt themselves to local situations. The exact opposite is true of grand schemes that relate to dogma as to what should be true, managed under a central aegis.

Rules are needed where otherwise uncoordinated agents are to achieve their potential. In the absence of predictable rules, the society malfunctions. Studies of development suggest that investment runs at about 30% of GNP when the law of contract is stable and the judiciary are not corrupt. Weak law and corrupt judiciary reduce this to around 12% of GNP, less than replacement rates of depreciation. Sub-Saharan Africa is poorer now, on a per-capita basis, than it was in 1950. Assessments that compare it to SE Asia (which is, of course, now much richer than it was in 1950) can be unambiguously and numerically attributed to differences in governance between the two regions. Weak, inept or corrupt government creates poverty.

However, too much control, or control that is inept, also slows development. The fine balance that is needed points to the subtle aims of police actions which seek to rescue the citizens of war-torn or otherwise collapsed states. It is a relatively easy military task to capture a nation that has fallen from all grace, such as Sierra Leone. It is far harder to put the pieces back together, or into a shape which they had never formerly held, but these must be the long-term aims of all such interventions.

Lessons to be learned.

Lessons to be learned.

Terror is used by many organisational forms, each of which is profoundly different from the others. The tools which have to be deployed in managing these are equally distinct. A 'war on terror' is as meaningful as a war on traffic accidents. Each contributing factor must be managed, and each incident needs to be taken in its context so as to learn how to prevent it happening again.

The table which is shown below contrasts organised crime, what we have called 'pure' terrorism, subversion and state-mediated terror. We have omitted other classes in which terror is used, such as the ethnic entrepreneur, cross-border normative policing and 'international terrorism'.

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