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    13 November 2006

    Terrorism: Definitions and Causes

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    Sorry no links, you'll have to look these up in the library or some other database. A bibliography is available upon request.

    Welcome Northampton visitors

    After, five years, the memory of 11 September 2001 (9/11) is still present in the American -- and indeed the world -- conscience, although somewhat warped by various ideological lenses. In America, the events of 9/11 still emerge in political debate. It is used as a justification for the war in Iraq and covert and possibly illegal actions as often as it is used as a symbol of government failure. On the five year anniversary, left of center political pundit Jonathan Alter dreamed up an alternative world, parallel to reality, that charts the journey of President George W. Bush from 9/11 to today (Alter, p. 35). He envisioned a world where the US government was functioning in a bipartisan fashion and US popularity abroad was still high. Usama bin Laden (UBL) was killed and his top aides were captured, tried, and executed in a fair and timely fashion. There was a countrywide effort to use less oil -- which was then paid for with the once promised tax cuts. After evidence of torture surfaced, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was forced to resign and was replaced with a Democrat. In this fictional period, the events of 9/11 remained outside of politics. Finally, the push to attack Iraq -- after the non-imminence of its threat is realized and the cost of the occupation is calculated -- is never realized. In the final paragraph, Alter asks his readers to imagine if the opposite of this fictitious scenario was reality, which in Alter's opinion it is.

    The unfortunate reality is that we are currently in a fierce but unconventional war against a devout, clever, and plentiful enemy. Our current approach -- the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (or NSCT) -- has made progress, but it has been determined inefficient by many experts. Alternative methods to enhance our nation's counterterrorism strategy are numerous, and improvements or additions are being called for more and more as time goes by. The remainder of this essay will analyze the "War on Terror" and offer selected additions or alternatives to the current strategy beginning with an operational definition of terrorism, a look at its various causes and followed by an overview of our present counterterrorism strategy. Using an array of indices, the next section will identify destructive counterterrorism methods and damaging policies or actions and their effects. Finally, selected alternatives to current methods will be discussed as ways to enhance our overall counterterrorism capabilities in the future. [note: This excerpt is the first half of a larger paper. The portion suggesting prescriptions or alternatives to current policy are not contained below, only the definitions and causes. ~GM]


    For the purpose of this paper, terrorism will be considered in a limited form. While the goal is basically to eliminate the threat of terrorism altogether, from the Globe, once and for all; the reality is that our current counterterrorism strategy only seeks to limit the capabilities and range of terrorist entities to a tolerable level. It is the foremost responsibility of government to protect its citizens; therefore, this strategy and subsequent additions must consider the greatest threats to the nation as its foremost concern. In this spirit, this paper will deal with a precise definition of terrorism. These days there are multiple definitions of terrorism and everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion of the proper definition, "either ill or well informed" (Kegley, p. 7).

    An expert from the 1970s classified terrorism in four categories: international (state supported), transnational (achieved by non-state actors), domestic (involving nationals of one state), and state (involving state actions within its borders) terrorism. This is a useful tool or beginning point, but as Kegley notes, the group of four has been morphing into two, or at most three, ever since the 70s (Kegley, p. 9). The globalizing world offers many advantages to an aspiring terrorist such as access to communications, information, and funding on the Internet. This, in response, often makes events of terrorism a global event. In fact, today acts of terrorism that would, under the 1970 model, be categorized in the domestic territory are "statistically rare" (Kegley, p. 9). Therefore, the counterterrorism critique and proposals outlined in this report concentrate on terrorist organizations operating worldwide with aspirations to attack the United States. The threat of domestic terrorism (such as abortion clinic bombings) will be ignored. It should be pointed out that terrorist cells working within the borders of the United States, owning citizenship or not, for foreign agents is not considered domestic. Furthermore, foreign domestic and state terrorism (such as 'narcoterrorism' in Central and South America or oppression from brutal states Iran or like pre-March 2003 Iraq) will be ignored if those events do not affect the United States directly (as 'narcoterrorism' likely does).

    Henceforth, terrorism will be generically identified as a global phenomenon that crosses national boundaries and targets civilians and/or symbols in an effort to coerce or influence the politics of a government or similar institution and/or to instill a sense of fear in a given population (Kegley, p. 10). Brian Jenkins finalizes the identification of terrorism for the context of this paper as
    ...violence or the threat of violence ... frequently directed against civilian targets. The purposes are political. The actions are often carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity. The perpetrators are usually members of an organized group. There organizations are ... clandestine, but ... often claim credit for their attacks. ...the acts are intended to produce psychological effects beyond the immediate physical damage. (p. 17-18)

    This approach is similar to the stated definition presented in the 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism which labeled the enemy as "...terrorism -- premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents" (p. 1). One noticeable difference from the proposed definition is its function as a protector of the citizens of the US and their interests which is not explicitly stated in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. This distinction is pointed out here because the author is one of many that believe our actions, internationally and in defense of assets not meeting the criteria highlighted above, in many cases have made us less safe and/or made our allies less safe.


    An unfortunate reality of politics in the United States is that the underlying issues that cause terror are of little consequence. By claiming the moral high ground and demonizing the terrorist, little time or study has been devoted to the cause of this type of violence (Badey, p. 17). This mentality, similar to the label of 'moral clarity' affixed to many conservatives by Peter Beinart (p. 121), robs us of important tools that are of great importance when fighting an enemy such as terrorism, especially when these determined causes are a reaction to unnecessary actions easily addressed by government or a historical error that can be corrected and/or avoided in the future. Anne-Marie Slaughter observes that one reason that we are losing the war on terror is that "...we are treating the symptoms and not the cause" of terrorism ("Terror," p. 51).

    Historian Karen Armstrong looks to the past for causes of terrorism resulting from historical events (Armstrong, p. 18-21). In the context of the Middle East, as recently as a hundred years ago, leading Muslim intellectuals, in large numbers, held respect and admiration for the West. This changed in the 1900s in the wake of numerous events such as the broken promises regarding the British and French rule of Syria and Palestine, the creation of the Israeli state, and the extraordinary backing it receives from the US. Formal or tacit support for tyrants such as Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran in the mid 1900s, Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 80s, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the Saudi royal family today. These actions resonate in the Muslim world differently than they do in the average American conscience. Generations of Muslims feel as if they are of no importance to or that Islam is threatened by the West (in forms including secularism and religion). They, in turn, look towards Islam. There a few find a militant interpretation of Islam and become terrorists.

    Moving ahead, Chalmers Johnson convincingly warns of "blowback" from events similar to those listed previously. "Blowback", put plainly by Johnson in his post-9/11 introduction added to his 2000 work Blowback, "...is another way of saying a nation reaps what it sows." A straightforward manifestation of this is: "[t]he unintended consequences of American policies and acts in country X leads to a bomb at an American embassy in country Y or a dead American in country Z" (p. xi). The historical realities of American foreign policy net a lengthy list of potentially hostile states that have been on the receiving end of US policy. The theory of blowback was confirmed when one of al-Qaeda's primary rationales and recruitment tools was the presence of US forces in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, all of which are referred to as the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed) during the 1991 Gulf War and thereafter (Scheuer, p.13). Johnson observes that in 2003 the US did remove most of its forces from Saudi Arabia; however, the same troops were relocated in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Republics making the gesture as meaningless as it was late (Johnson, p. xv). It should be said that not all blowback is terrorism. For the intents and purposes of this report it can be said that most terrorism is blowback.

    Michael Scheuer uses his considerable credentials and builds on the blowback theory in his analysis of the cause of terrorism. Speaking from a position concerned only with UBL and al-Qaeda as a senior US Intelligence official, Scheuer concludes that a combination of four issues fuel UBL and al-Qaeda (Scheuer, p. x-xi). First, the US military is our only face in the Muslim world, and it will remain so as long as current policies are maintained. Second, these policies and other actions involving Muslims fuel al-Qaeda, not our American values, liberty, or democracy or the Muslim world's failure at modernization. UBL uses this in his messages to justify his and al-Qaeda's actions to the Muslim world. Third, the US addiction to oil -- therefore part of US foreign policy -- causes Washington to support unpopular leaders in many oil producing Muslim countries that Islamic militants like UBL and al-Qaeda seek to destroy. Lack of any progress in finding alternatives to this addiction ensure that this process will persist indefinitely. Finally, the combination of current policies, past events and other real-world realities make the notion that Islam is under attack popular, and perhaps valid. This then makes a call for defensive jihad popular among affected Muslims (Scheuer, p. 17). Scheuer concludes that UBL and most Islamic militants are motivated by "...their love for Allah and their hatred for a few, specific U.S. policies and actions they believe are damaging -- and threatening to destroy -- the things they love."

    On a more mental note, Dr. Paul B. Davis projects that the mentality that is present in members of extremists groups has two consistent qualities (p. 22-23). First, a high level of resentment and self-righteousness is present in terrorists It is argued that contemporary terrorists often feel victimized by outside forces and therefore feel justified in victimizing others. Second, the incorporation of fundamentalist/extremist religious doctrine inspires, motivates, and justifies terrorist acts.

    There are many causes of terrorism. However two traits exist in most interpretations present above. Those traits are extremist religious teachings and beliefs and foreign policy decision emanating from the West. While one is largely out of our control, the other can easily be addressed and then altered or eliminated.

    Posted by Geoff


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