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What is terrorism, really?

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I made the following post on my blog last year. I think it was one of my more interesting analyses, so I decided to repost here. While I usually focus on exploring domestic crime, a connection occurred to me that was worth writing about.

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What is terrorism, really?

The word “terrorism” refers to acts of destruction used against groups to compel them to make changes in behavior or policies. Examples of terrorist groups range from the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) to Al Qaeda. The climate of terror during the aftermath of an attack, due in part to the trauma of victimization and also to the threat of future attacks, is intended to cow communities and leaders into submission.

However, the use of fear to control others is not a tactic particular to “terrorism”, making the term a somewhat inappropriate identifier. Fear and intimidation are also used in acts such as kidnapping, ransoming, and rape. This fear might be used to extort money, favors, or silence and passivity from the victim. The common denominator is not any particular form of demand - which will vary by the offender - but the desire for the power to make those demands.

When concerning rape this point is generally understood. The ultimate goal of the rapist is not sex, but the submission of the victim. According to the FBI's Crime Classification Manual, "for some rapists the need to humiliate and injure through aggression is the most salient feature of the offense, whereas for others the need to achieve sexual dominance is…" Stanton Samenow writes that,

At stake in a rape is the criminal's affirmation of his image of himself as powerful and desirable...Her attempts to ward him off only heighten his excitement. Then he tries to reduce her to a quivering, pleading speck of humanity and helps himself to what he believes was rightfully his from the start. Brute force is rarely necessary because intimidation works.

The victim's humiliation not only excites him, but serves as his protection. A humiliated and demoralized victim is less likely to report the crime or resist future attacks.

As the goal of a rapist is the subjugation of an individual to his wishes, terrorists seek to subjugate a community, business or government to theirs. This is accomplished, as it is with rape, through a combination of physical attacks and intimidation.

Understanding terrorist statements to the public

One obstacle to understanding the motives of terrorists is that even when their violent actions are almost universally condemned, the grievances and demands they present usually resonate with the mission of some peaceable activists. This clash of values creates debate and mixed sympathies. And this is not accidental, but by design. Demands are used by terrorist groups to cast themselves as victims of their target's unjust policies. It is important to view any public statement made by terrorists not as the ultimate reason for their actions, but as an attempt in itself to assert moral superiority and diminish the confidence and moral certainty of their target. Essentially they attempt, as rapists do, to "reduce [their victim] to a quivering, pleading speck of humanity". This is pursued through public statements and even flyers containing moral denouncements of the target group.

However for a moral denunciation to be effective, it must be rooted in a belief held by the victim. A rapist uses a woman’s insecurities against her. Denouncing her in the language of his own misogynistic world-view would be ineffective. Similarly, many times the grievances of terrorists are presented in a way to exploit moral controversy.

For example, in The Al Qaeda Reader, Raymond Ibrahim analyzes and compares communications by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to audiences in Muslim countries and to audiences in the West. The narratives differ completely. Al Qaeda urges Muslim audiences to kill Americans as part of their duty to religious jihad. Religious scripture is quoted extensively to justify violence in the name of compelling infidels to submit to the word of Allah. The West, and America especially, are villainized because they dare to write their own laws, defying religious commandment. The government of Saudi Arabia is denounced as corrupt for its alliance with the secular US, and for allowing American presence on its holy soil. However if this reasoning had been directly communicated to the US and to American Muslims, it would have emboldened Americans to fight against a tyrannical ideology not unlike that of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages.

Instead, bin Laden chose to confine his public rebuke to America’s military presence, its strikes against targets in the Middle East, and support for Israel - policies that have been the subject of serious controversy and public uncertainty in America for decades. While Al Qaeda certainly wishes the US to break its alliance with Israel, it was not expedient to also explain the underlying and much broader goal of spreading state Islam and subjugating or killing non-believers.

Interestingly, the picture bin Laden painted of America is one of a despotic world bully, which seems hypocritical in light of his own support for the truly barbaric and brutal rule of the Taliban. It seems hypocritical, that is, unless you consider that public statements and propaganda issued by Al Qaeda are intended to advance its goals as much as any planned attack. A victim who feels guilty, who believes he is responsible for the attacks against him, will lack the strength to resist.

Terrorists are not freedom fighters

It is sometimes said that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", suggesting that the actions of a terrorist could be viewed as monstrous or heroic depending on the side one is on. Following 9/11 the question ringing in the air was, "why do they hate us?" Perhaps projecting their own experience and morality onto our attackers, some (such as Ron Paul) believed that the attacks were retaliation for American policies violating freedoms in the Muslim world. However, terrorists do not act to advance their own freedoms, but to deny the freedoms of others. They are not fighting for the betterment of their lives, but for power over the lives of others. Certainly they represent a "side", but theirs is the side of rapists and dictators who thrill in breaking the spirit of their victims.

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terrorism is all about instilling Fear by means of violent acts. The end objective is Fear, not eliminating an enemy or achieving a virtuous state of affairs.

ruveyn

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Ruveyn - fear yes, but I think more to the point, submission. It begins with the women, gays, and nonbelievers in their own society. But that’s not enough, because the lust for control and dominance is total, extending across the globe. 

As for not wanting to eliminate their enemies, I think that depends. Remember that under Islam there are 3 paths to peace – conversion, submission, or death. They will destroy an enemy that refuses to submit.

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Bryson, I'm not sure I agree that submission is the point of terrorism which is a tactic. The immediate goal of terrorism is the death of the victims with the long range goal of instilling sufficient fear in others that they will change their immediate behavior, such as troop withdrawal from a country. Submission is an element of any totalitarian society but terrorism may or may not be the specific tactic employed.

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I don’t believe that terrorism’s goal is any specific demands in themselves, except as a means to gaining control. You mention a great example, because one way violent Muslim groups could achieve American troop withdrawal is by not staging anymore attacks against Americans. As if that’s going to happen. The demands a terrorist group makes are incidental, that’s not what they really want. They use those demands to advance a false cause, to provoke sympathy as leverage over more powerful victims. So they make every effort to appear to be crusaders against the “occupiers”, which disarms their enemies. That's what will allow them to gradually further their actual cause, to spread Shariah.

ELF works in a similar way, but they’ve recognized that for their group to get sympathy they need to stop at property damage. They’ll bomb buildings, but to prove that they are just underdogs fighting for a good cause and not really bad guys, they’ll be sure it’s empty first. Only monetary damages, so we’re good. Again, public opinion is very important if you’re trying to gain the upper hand over a foe that could crush you like an insect. They’re fighting to push us back into the caves, but they’ll do it by appearing to be conscientious defenders of the planet.

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