At Large

Theory and Practice of Terrorism

Tactics may change, but has terrorism changed?

By 4.26.13

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When an individual or group sets out to perform violent acts that have a high social impact, they do not necessarily characterize themselves as terrorists or what they intend to do as terrorism. In most instances people who consciously plan and execute terrorist acts do so under the self-created perception of being warriors or even soldiers. Theirs is an act of war and they are honored to be participating in it. Oddly enough such committed individuals rarely associate themselves with the actual killing and maiming of fellow humans, even when actions are religious-based. The human casualties are simply a device or by-product of the act that for whatever reason is justified and honorable. That the victims may be unbelievers may be simply further justification for the act.

It is at this point that rationality is ignored. The further the perpetrator can separate himself from the act -- and this is a manifestation of irrational behavior -- the more capable the individual is in dispassionately planning and executing the actions required. Such separation of self from the act does not make the actor insane. On the contrary, such an act is psychologically self-protective. Insanity would be a convenient excuse. One of the better examples of such carefully planned and executed acts of terrorism was the Nazi use of inhuman conditions and treatment in their concentration camps. This was as organized “terrorism” as can be constructed.

The conscious effort to terrorize these innocent civilians had the ultimate purpose of annihilating entire demographic groups. This was accomplished in a convenient form of mass killing through hunger, exhaustion, and finally gas chambers. Conspicuously the guards and administrators accepted the cruelty involved as simply appropriate to the orders issued. The environment was completely one of organized terror, yet it has never been formally characterized as such even during subsequent trials of the Nazis in charge.

The camps were a massive terrorist act. Its size and disciplined promulgation appears to have placed crimes against humanity in an entirely different category, though Stalin proved the Nazis were not the only ones capable of such atrocity.

The preponderance of terror-committed movements -- though certainly not all -- include a religious or pseudo-religious component either as a driving force or a bonding factor. Even purely secular ideologies seek to develop a religious-like fervor in order to provide solidarity and initiative within their group. An integral part of terrorist associations is the willingness, in fact need, to hold their belief system in a deeply covert manner as an essential protective element within a society against which they are working. In this manner some of the most unlikely appearing individuals, often coming from seemingly advantaged sectors of the target society, are attracted to a belief system that is diametrically opposed to the individuals’ own origins -- or even current welcoming environment.

The growth of terrorism is confused with a seeming increase in political violence and large scale criminal acts such as drug cartel wars that have produced ghastly torture and murders that are used to petrify opposition, criminal and governmental, into surrender or inaction. These are among the many facets of terrorism as a device that attracts followers and ultimately the practice of calculated violent acts. Terrorism without a primary political objective, however, simply becomes a criminal act. Terror as a tactic is used variously, but intent defines it as an act of war or strict criminality. For the innocent on the receiving end of the action the distinction is irrelevant and essentially without a difference.

Modern terrorists, especially the relatively recent Islamic variety, vie with each other for political status. This is as much an outgrowth of global television news hyperbole as it is actual competition between terrorist groups. The days of anonymous bomb throwers has given way to publicity-hungry terrorist organizations seeking to evolve into serious political instruments. “Who will be the next bin Laden?” does not take into consideration that Osama bin Laden was unique even among his closest associates in terms of his spirituality and commitment to regain Islam’s self-perception of its right of political domination. Groups led separately and not with the same identity will follow. Gone is the individual charismatic leader for modern-day Islam.

There has been a sharp generational shift in terrorism since the late 1980s and the demise of the Soviet Union. Qaddafi is gone as a terrorist benefactor and Cuba’s leaders are more interested in entertaining sports and musical stars than organizing international cells. The Russians have had their hands full of Northern Caucasus terror plots and now seem to spend more time trying to get the FBI to follow up on good intelligence the FSB passes on through liaison. The incubator of terrorism remains Middle Eastern in derivation, though the linkage is shared anti-Crusader rhetoric -- the oldest of terrorist political themes.

Anarchism continues to be pointed to as a principal motivating factor in terrorist ambitions, but the reality is that the only thing being sought by today’s “anarchists” is a coup d’état in which they become the new dictators. Frustration, ambition, and excitement along with bloodthirstiness remain the underpinning of contemporary terrorism. How much different is that from the past?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.