11 August 2010

Why Are Terrorist Acts Committed?

Informed Comment has an interesting "Terrorism Quiz" with well documented answers from mostly credible sources that are scholarly or are clearly not associated with "left wing" ideology.

Many, although not all, of the twenty-two points made in question and answer format go to explaining that terrorism is the product of basically normal, mostly college educated, middle class, idealistic people who are taking action for reasons that normal American are capable of understanding.

Key motives identified include a desire to exact revenge for harm to someone that they know; opposition to Israel and in particular to Israeli authoritarian policies towards Palestinians; opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq; and U.S. support for their own autocratic regimes in ways that hurt them to gain control of oil resources.

According to this Q&A: The vast "majority of the people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates . . . ardently desire the kind of political pluralism (even democracy…) that bin Ladin and his ilk have declared antithetical to Islam—at least their version of Islam.”

The Q&A also argues that terrorist methods are used by groups will all manner of agendas and that some of it has nothing to do with the U.S.

The 9-11 attacks are singled out by the Q&A as atypical and as viewed as legitimate by just 7% of people in predominantly Muslim countries. According to the Q&A:

[The 9-11 planner's] goal was to generate a major world crisis, provoking the United States…; American attacks on Muslim countries world reinvigorate and unify a splintered, war-torn jihadist movement and restore its credibility in the eyes of [Muslims]… When the United States invaded Afghanistan, however, Al Qaeda found itself on its own. … No religious authority lent his name and legitimacy to repelling the American troops. … Most jihadists were opposed to what bin Laden had done, some even within his own wing of the movement.

The Q&A frames terrorism as part blood feud, and part collective resistance to other hostile communities and unjust rulers that the resisting community lacks any other means to fight militarily in any way that produces results (i.e. as a form of military action). One of the sources argues that terrorism arises only when other circumstances are "coupled with oppressive political forces that deny the individual any hope of bettering his (or her) situation but also serve as a tangible focus of anger.”

What Responses To Terrorism Make Sense?

The big implication of this analysis is that there should be more emphasis on "soft power" and less on "hard power" in the effort to stop terrorism, and that "hard power" can often be counterproductive.

Framed as the Q&A does and as the sources that it cites put the matter, the key to stopping terrorism is to refrain from violently harming people or affiliating with those who do so, to respect the importance of self-determination, to provide meaningful non-violent redress for grievances, and to favor pluralistic political systems over authoritarian political situations.

This is not an easy or comfortable conclusion to implement. The political movements and blood feuds from which terrorism arises can themselves become violent authoritarian forces in society that become threats to other communities, in situations where force seems like the only available response.

Israel is authoritarian towards the Palestinians to a great extent because that community has launched so many violent attacks against it, and because its neighbors have repeatedly expressed the desire to militarily obliterate it and acted on those beliefs in multiple wars over the last two generations.

Meddling with the internal affairs of authoritarian regimes in the interests of pluralism can appears as Machiavellian and illegitimate as supporting those regimes, and the alternative to support for those authoritarian regimes can appear to amount to an endorsement of civil war fought with terrorist methods.

Militarily destroying armed individuals ready to commit acts of terrorism is an urgent imperative. Diplomats and aid workers can't be effective if they are blown to bits by hostile gunmen and bombers. Creating a just society in the places where terrorism thrives can look like a long term project that may be none of our business.

But, like it or not, we are part of the situation. Just as anything you wear (or the decision not to wear anything) makes some kind of symbolic statement, anything that the United States does (or refrains from doing) in the world is a form of action that speaks louder than words. True neutrality is not an option, because even that is a statement of policy. The oil trade, diplomatic relations, deals with American businesses, anti-terrorism cooperation, and military support of one kind or another with many nation-states, to give just a few example, weave a complex web of relationships that can't simply be severed across the board and produce a positive result.

Contrary to the beliefs of many who fear that local authoritarian regimes are simply puppets whose strings the United States holds, the U.S. does not have control of the situation in any of the countries, other than the U.S., where it faces terrorist threats. But, that doesn't mean that the U.S. lacks any influence at all. The U.S. is a major player on the world scene and has an influence on policy in other countries, even if it is not a straightforward command and control influence.

Our military leaders in Afghanistan have articulated a counterinsurgency doctrine that makes clear that they understand these facts. Our generals have imposed an unpopular set of strict rules of engagement to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible. They know that ending an insurgency requires nation building, and that they have no choice but to engage in it unless and until someone else more suited to doing so, who is trained properly to do that comes along. So, we kill and capture people we believe to be combatants, and try to not kill and materially support those who we believe can build a just nation.

The trouble is that the military simply isn't designed to do this kind of work. Our soldiers were trained to operate weapons and vehicles and build bases and eliminate enemies with the use of force. With a small handful of exceptions, they don't speak the local language, don't understand the local culture and economy, have no formal training in economic development or developing political institutions, don't have enough information to adjudicate grievances presented to them fairly, and are operating without a coherent plan at the top for addressing the violent threats, authoritarian regimes, unrighted wrongs, and distrust of foreign influence that drive the terrorist acts that do take place. It is little wonder that much of the war is being conducted by the somewhat more relevantly trained CIA.

It is as if we were sending a legion of plumbers to set up an electrical system for all of Chicago. There might be groups of people less apt for the task, but they have a daunting task that any ability they may have to solve is largely a matter of happenstance.

We aren't even terribly clear about our own objectives as a nation. The United States isn't particularly interested in stepping into the role of Britain as a global colonial power. The articulated goal of the current war (apart from the almost over Iraq War) is to shut down the terrorist forces that caused 9-11 and to prevent them from ever rising up again, by means of military force. But, that is easier said than done. It is hard enough to shut down an insurgency. It is harder still to do it when you have no direct control over any of the regimes where terrorists are believe to operate.

Yet, until we solve the underlying problems that are driving terrorism and cool the blood feuds that it has spawned on all sides, the war on terrorism never ends and we ourselves are stuck in an interminable, costly, bloody war without end.

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