Does terrorism work?

A new book offers a sober corrective to some recent misconceptions about terrorism, says Islamist expert Malise Ruthven

Published on Prospect, by Malise Ruthven, November 18, 2009.

Does terrorism work? For years scholars and military experts have been debating this question with a view to formulating the appropriate responses of governments. The answers are both complex and ambiguous …

… In English’s view, the most serious danger posed by terrorists is their capacity to “provoke ill-judged, extravagant, and counter-productive state responses” rather than the actual damage caused by their actions. As a tactic, in other words, terrorism’s impact is more psychological than physical.

The “propaganda of the deed”—showing people jumping from skyscrapers or bodies pulled from the Underground—creates an atmosphere of panic. It is this mood that empowers the terrorists, creating the impression that, militarily speaking, they dispose of forces beyond their own numbers or the size of any constituency they may speak for.

The tactic is fully consonant with the “vanguardism” one finds in many terroristicly inclined ideologies: the “vanguard” or terrorist hit-squad sees itself as spearheading far larger political forces that, in time, will rally to their cause. Vanguards—from the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof group) to the “knights” of al Qaeda—see themselves as “unmasking” the inherently unjust or repressive character (whether “fascist” or “infidel”) of the existing political order.

If the authorities overreact, the terrorists win. In Northern Ireland, repression of the republican-Catholic community (the 1970 Falls Road curfew, the thuggery of the B-Specials and the RUC, internment in 1971, Bloody Sunday in 1972, the use of sensory deprivation techniques, the avoidable 1981 IRA hunger strike) delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the Catholic minority, making the climb-back to constitutional government lengthier and more painful than it might otherwise have been. George W Bush’s “disastrously managed war on terror” (in English’s words), which involved a litany of horrors including rendition and waterboarding, yields an even starker conclusion. When the state “fights dirty,” it undermines its own moral basis and legitimacy in the rule of law. As English explains, virtually “all cases of terrorism involve profound problems of political legitimacy” whether caused by ethnic, religious or national dissatisfaction. In the struggle for legitimacy, a state that loses the higher moral ground may even endanger its own existence.

English concludes that the preponderance of terrorism in the Arab-Islamic world has less to do with cultural, social and economic factors (hostility to western values, high unemployment, social dislocation), however widespread these may be, than with the fundamental problem of constitutional legitimacy. The modern national state with its battle-forged frontiers, linguistic hegemony and rule by consent of the governed did not grow organically from middle-eastern soil (where different arrangements had prevailed satisfactorily for many centuries), but was largely imposed by European powers for their own convenience. Here, then, terror is the flipside of repression: the violence that shatters bodies in the street is the visible manifestation of violence occurring in the secrecy of police torture chambers.

English concludes his book with the unexceptional argument that we must learn to live with terrorism while trying to address the root problems that give rise to it. Unfortunately, in much of the Islamic world at present, it is the nature of the state itself that lies at the root of the problem. (full text).

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