As the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001 demonstrated, the carefully coordinated terrorist act can be extremely effective in throwing a superpower off balance. The increased interconnectedness, but limited integration, of the post–Cold War order has facilitated the globalization of the asymmetric threat that terrorism poses to developed, as well as developing, states and their economies.
The term terrorism refers to the creation of a psychological condition of extreme fear in a population by the unpredictable use of violence to achieve political or political-theological ends. It is usually, but by no means always, the provenance of non-state actors. In the course of the Cold War, Western governments revived the term to denote an illegitimate use of violence by substate groups increasingly with transnational connections. Observing this development in the 1980s, George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, considered terrorism as “the matrix” of different kinds of challenges varying in scope and scale: “If they have a single feature in common it is their ambiguity—they can throw us off balance” (quoted in Hitchens, 1986, p. 66).
The modern political character of terrorism and its proponents or “terrorists” dates from the French Revolution and the revolutionary imposition of a régime de la terreur between March 1793 and July 1794 aimed at purging the new order of its anachronistic feudal and monarchical remnant. In other words, the term’s political usage coincides with the emergence of modern revolutionary or ideological politics that justifies violence in order to emancipate a putatively oppressed people. As Louis Saint Just, the radical Jacobin leader, observed at the height of the French Terror, “Nothing resembles virtue like a great crime.” However, whereas the classically educated Jacobins considered terrorism essentially purgative, their conservative opponents, like the Irish Whig Edmund Burke, denounced the new revolutionary style. The soubriquet “terrorist” subsequently acquired a pejorative connotation. Nonetheless, following Saint Just, it is possible to distinguish between criminal and political terror and between terrorist acts politically driven by state or non-state actors and more commonplace acts of violence.
For Paul Wilkinson, terror represents a kind of tyranny in which the potential victims are unable to do anything to avoid their destruction because terrorism functions according to its own idiosyncratic code. Both state and non-state actors can conduct themselves in this arbitrary manner. Indeed, the 19th- and 20th-century record demonstrates that the terror of the state often historically precedes the revolutionary terror of substate actors. State terror occurs when those state actors who have acquired a preponderant use of force violate the norms of existing law with impunity.
Somewhat differently, strategic theorists maintain that terrorism does not exist as an independent phenomenon. It is, after all, an abstract noun. Terrorism is, from this perspective, a method or tactic employed by any social actor, state or non-state, that uses fear to achieve an end. Any moral judgment applied to the act is entirely separate. Therefore, to combine the two, as some commentators do, is to commit a category mistake. From a strategic perspective, moreover, all violence is instrumental and any strategic actor may practice forms of warfare. Strategic theory thus recognizes that actions on the part of state or non-state actors that create a condition of fear (such as the allied aerial bombing of Germany in World War II or the nuclear deterrent posture of mutually assured destruction [MAD] during the Cold War) is terrorist in nature. That is why theorists routinely referred to the concept of MAD during the Cold War as the balance of terror.
In this context, the French thinker Raymond Aron identified a structural configuration relating to the organization of violence and its global consequences. What Aron observed was the binary character of modern warfare: on the one hand, a superpower “balance of terror” based on MAD, and on the other, low-tech, irregular warfare that proliferated initially at the globe’s periphery and continued at a low level of intensity for decades. Here the guerilla/terrorist merged with the local population, capturing hearts and minds, and swam like a fish in the sea of the wider society, as Mao Zedong described the practice in his theory of protracted warfare. This strategy Aron termed Page 1639 | Top of Articlepolymorphous violence rather than terrorism, and its conduct privileged the terrorist’s will to overcome rather than access to sophisticated military technology.
At the same time, it should be observed that these irregular methods merely intensified patterns of resistance to state sovereignty that have been a feature of world history since the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. Terrorism then is not new to the international system. Through the course of the 19th century, anarchists, Marxists, and nationalists, at various times, justified terrorist violence and the blood sacrifice to advance the revolutionary cause.
Terrorism and the Cold War
This strategy of polymorphous violence mutated and evolved during the Cold War in the context of the ideological, but territorially limited, forms practiced inter alia by Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) in Peru, the Red Army Faction (RAF) in West Germany, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hezbollah in the Middle East, and the Japanese Red Army in East Asia. Indeed, by the late 1970s, extremist political violence had become a notable feature of the international system. The doctrine of the armed struggle flourished from Ireland through Italy and Germany to the Middle East; East, South, and Southeast Asia; and South America. Its protagonists ranged from South American and Chinese guerrilla fighters like Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Mao Zedong to French intellectual urban terror theorists like Régis Debray. Terrorism in this liberationist, anticolonialist, and Marxist mode sought to deploy limited violence. In the 1970s, the effectiveness of tactics pioneered by the Palestinian revolutionary groups located around Fatah (e.g., hostage taking, aircraft hijacking, and assassination) facilitated these new left ideologies of violence.
Although most modern terrorism was and remains subcommunal and affects primarily the state’s internal security, its impact on the international global order grew in significance both during and after the Cold War. Its proliferation destabilizes an international order in which states assume a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. During the Cold War, developing transnational linkages between terror groups with a shared Marxist or emancipatory nationalist ideology (e.g., the PIRA, the PLO, the RAF, and the Japanese Red Army) and access to training camps in southern Lebanon further facilitated terrorism.
At the same time, terrorism developed a new, and increasingly symbiotic, relationship with the modern electronic media, TV, and the Internet in order to transmit and reinforce the symbolism of their violent acts. In the 1970s, a terrorist hijacking or hostage taking that involved Western victims guaranteed a Western audience. The terror that the Palestinian group Black September evoked at the Munich Olympics in September 1972 played out not in the Olympic Village but on prime-time TV globally. In the global era, after 1990, this media relationship intensified. Terrorism is only effective to the extent it generates international media coverage. In the 21st century, the media terrorism nexus necessitates attacks of escalating violence on Western “soft” targets, whether located in New York, London, or nightclubs catering to Western tourists in Bali, Indonesia.
“New Terror” and the End of the Cold War
The application of these asymmetrical methods (asymmetry assumes an inequality of power between adversaries) is on the rise and rapidly became a defining feature of the post–Cold War. Between 1968 and 1989, 35,150 acts of international and domestic terrorism were recorded in the world; this represents an incident rate of 1,673 attacks per year. By comparison, for the period 1990 to 1996, the RAND–St. Andrews Chronology of International Terrorism noted 30,725 attacks equating to an average of 4,389 attacks per year; this represents a 162% increase since the Cold War period. The increase would now be closer to 200% given the escalating scale of conflicts between 1996 and 2007 in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, southeastern Europe, and the low-intensity wars of succession in the former Soviet Union. Significantly, this asymmetric style of warfare, where substate actors avoid direct confrontation with conventional military forces, is conducted at the expense of the civilian population rather than by battlefield engagement. At the Page 1640 | Top of Articleturn of the century, the ratio of military to civilian casualties in war was 8 to 1. Today, this has been almost exactly reversed. In the irregular wars of the 1990s, where the asymmetric terror strategy prevails, the ratio of military to civilian casualties is approximately 1 to 8.
Alongside the growth in number of attacks on civilians is their increasing lethality. According to RAND Corporation, 50,000 people died in terror attacks between 1990 and 1996. This doubled the number of casualties that occurred in the previous 14 years. Moreover, terrorist groups no longer distinguish between limited and restricted uses of violence. Instead, terrorist acts have become more extreme, with indiscriminate killing becoming the rule rather than the exception.
This contrasts with the terrorism of the 1970s, where hostage taking and hijackings were deemed effective to the extent that they generated international coverage rather than massive loss of life. This contrast reflects what a number of analysts see as the growing religious and fundamentalist impetus behind the recourse to terrorism. In 1980, the U.S. State Department list of proscribed international terrorist groups contained few religious organizations. By 1998, however, the U.S. State Department considered more than half the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations religiously motivated.
The new, catastrophic terror that has come to shape the post–Cold War democratic state order is, some analysts argue, the price paid for the way the Cold War ended. The terror strategy of polymorphous violence mutated into a globalization-friendly form facilitated by the end of Cold War balance and the spread of low-intensity ethno-religious conflicts in failing states and states of concern. The new interconnectedness brought about by the revolution in communication facilitated trade, population flows, economic growth, and anxiety. It also facilitated transnational crime and the globalization of terrorism—facilitated by diasporic communities, interconnectivity, and the emerging “borderless world” that some commentators in the 1990s, somewhat naively, claimed as announcing a new era of international, liberal democratic, convergence.
Initially, the evolving, irregular wars where terrorism proliferated were confined to states or areas of concern—Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East—but circumstances and technology afforded the opportunity for the failed state world and substate groups informed by myths of ethno-religious purity to strike at the developed, cosmopolitan world with hyper-megalomaniacal violence, without a signature, aimed at catastrophic impact rather than limited civilian casualties. This anonymous strategy pioneered by Shining Path in Peru and cults like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan was projected onto a global canvas by al Qaeda whose origins may be traced to a loose association of Arab militants initially resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1988.
A number of factors facilitated this proliferation of global terrorism in the wake of the Cold War. First, the post–Cold War order gave rise to a global hegemon: the United States. Outside an American sphere of influence, yet, at the same time, and often in conflict with it, civilizational issues of an ethnic or religious provenance increasingly characterized international relations between states and between states and substate actors. Moreover, these irregular “new wars” were localized within weak or failing states, but they required a variety of transnational connections. Consequently, distinctions between internal and external, between aggression (from abroad) and repression (attacks from inside a country), or even between local and global became difficult to sustain. The globalization of the 1990s constituted a qualitatively new phenomenon of interconnectedness. Its consequences were unstable and contradictory, involving both integration and fragmentation, homogenization and diversification. In this milieu, terrorism thrived.
The irregular warfare of the post–Cold War era can be contrasted with Cold War terrorism in terms of goals, methods, and finance. The goals of what some analysts call “new” terrorism concern identity rather than ideology. Global terrorist groups conduct their campaigns both locally and globally, for the desired identity relies for support and international pressure on a sympathetic diasporic community and requires, for communication and organization, the new technologies of the Internet and the mobile phone. Methods also differ. Unlike the terrorist techniques promulgated by Page 1641 | Top of ArticleMao or Che, which, theoretically at least, aimed to capture hearts and minds, the new strategy targets the civilian population indiscriminately, either through mass killing, like the World Trade Center attack; expulsion; or forcible resettlement using a range of intimidatory techniques.
This violence reflects what some commentators see as the intensification of subcommunal conflict grounded in the resurgence of primordial identity and a dramatic rise in the range and extent of militant Islamist attacks on the United States and the West generally since the end of the Cold War. The activities of al Qaeda and its 1996 declaration of war against the United States represented the latest manifestation of an escalating Muslim radicalism that had been responsible for the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center in New York (1993), the Luxor massacre in Egypt (1997), and the African embassy bombings (1998).
The actors promoting this Islamist terrorism are threefold (and are listed here in order of decreasing importance): (1) sponsorship by sympathetic states such as Sudan, Syria, or Iran; (2) the legacy of the Afghan war waged by the mujahideen against Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1992; and (3) the fallout from the periodically stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. In this context, when they achieved power in Khartoum or Kabul in the 1990s, fundamentalist regimes conducted their external and internal relations in terms of jihad (violent struggle).
They also facilitated transnational terror organizations like Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which after 1990, is often regarded to have functioned as a franchising agency for jihadist activity on a global basis. These groups represent a new style of terror, which promotes an identity politics that operates both globally and locally. This new terror neither relies on the support of sovereign states nor is constrained by the limits on violence that state sponsors have observed themselves or placed on their proxies. The significant feature of this often religiously motivated politics is its non negotiable quality. The new radicalism functions through religious, internationalist, and nomadic networks. The Islamist proponents of the new terror wage jihad in order to reconstitute the Muslim community beyond national or ethnic divides. Paradoxically, to draw attention to their local plight, the new terrorists require global interconnectedness.
Indeed, they recruit among uprooted, cosmopolite, deterritorialized militants, themselves a sociological product of globalization. In their use of English, computers, satellite phones, and other technology, they are an authentic aspect of the global era. Such groups operate across national boundaries and mobilize for purposes of communication and support via the Internet.
Moreover, as terrorism has become more unpredictable and asymmetric, it also has become amorphous and protean. The jihadi movement associated with al Qaeda, for instance, is the most significantly evolved proponent of this demassified, polymorphous, Internetted strategy of irregular warfare, and has operated as a deterritorialized arrangement found in states of concern but situates elements of its command and control in multicultural global cities like London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, or New York. Indeed, the assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan in May 2011 served to reinforce the networked and franchised character of al Qaeda. Despite the decapitation of its emir, al Qaeda continued through franchises like the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular, al Shabab in Somalia, and al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
In fact, in its most interesting post-9/11 post–Iraq War manifestation, the congeniality of global cities for the support networks of transnational ethno-religious struggle, over time promoted a sui generis militancy in the diasporic communities characterized by groups like al Muhajiroun (the migrants) in London—further facilitated by the tendency of the commentariat to write them off as a minority inhabiting a mad fantasy world.
In this evolution, al Qaeda and its offshoots are influenced not only by modern business theory of franchising but also by the tactics evolved by groups or individuals similarly opposed to secular liberal modernity, for example, Aum Shinrikyo, the Unabomber, or racial purists like Aryan Nation and its affiliates. Ironically, the seminal theorist of leaderless resistance, which shapes current post-9/11 al Qaeda practice, devised random acts of violence in the name of a liberationary struggle for the U.S. fatherland. Aryan Nation’s Louis Beam based his strategy of leaderless resistance on the assumption that all members of what Beam called “phantom cells” would react to objective events in the same way. Given this propensity, previous Page 1642 | Top of Articlemodes of revolutionary organization based on a Fordist-era pyramid structure of management were inefficient.
Instead, the polymorphous strategy organizes itself via information hubs and networks—the revolution in information technology, notably the Internet, makes possible a protean resistance via an informal link with operations carried out in the name of the ideology (a strategy also favored by militant misanthropes like the Earth Liberation Front), quite possibly by actors who have only a virtual affiliation with the ideology or its leadership—a problem recognized by the United Kingdom’s MI5 in the wake of attacks on the London underground in July 2005.
This globalization-friendly version of terrorism has thus adapted to post-Fordist economic organization and the post–nation-state networked world order. Its post-state manifestation in London, Hamburg, or New York is more, not less, effective than the locally or nationally focused variety. The increased anomie and anxiety characteristic of the postnational container state enhances its strategic appeal. It is particularly attracted to the postnational global cosmopolis—Londonistan most obviously—whose diversity and multiculturalism it defines itself against, but whose tolerance and openness it finds highly congenial for organizational purposes.
David Martin Jones
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