Reader Dan – Mulling Over the Definition of Terrorism

Reader Dan continues mulling over what Bob Hormats wrote…


Rather than define terrorism itself, which appears to have many forms, goals and objectives, and methods, I have found several responses to the ‘war on terror’ to be more manageable and in line with our recent experience with Mr. Hormats and current media coverage.

Several proposals emerged that subsumed different assumptions about the nature of terrorism.

An increasingly sophisticated enemy and wmd oriented against the US, and possibly state sponsored at least indirectly. Beef up US Special Forces etc.
Not an increasing threat but scattered and few relative to massive responses so wait and see.
An increasingly decentralized and well-funded groups using ultra modern communications and organized to disrupt centralized states. Changed from more traditional terrorists in occupying territory. One response is to decentralize our infrastructure instead of bigger forces.
Creation of counter forces like Blackwater to be nimble enough to counter threats and avoids the limitations of national forces.

Number one is the Rand Corporation PAF briefing report which states that the global jihadist movement is the biggest challenge:

Although the U.S.-led global war on terrorism has had some notable successes — such as the destruction of al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, the elimination of many of the group’s leaders, and the growing resolve of many countries to take action against al-Qaeda and its associates — no informed observers believe that al-Qaeda will be eradicated any time soon. Indeed, in some respects, al-Qaeda has metastasized into an even more formidable adversary, dispersed across the world, largely self-sustaining, and constantly adopting new and innovative tactics. The United States itself continues to be threatened by large-scale attacks. Thus, countering al-Qaeda is likely to preoccupy U.S. national security institutions for at least the remainder of this decade, and probably longer.

Number two is
this point of view, posited by John Mueller:

On the first page of its founding manifesto, the massively funded Department of Homeland Security intones, “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.

Given the monumental imperfection of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and the debacle of FBI and National Security Agency programs to upgrade their computers to better coordinate intelligence information, that explanation seems far-fetched. Moreover, Israel still experiences terrorism even with a far more extensive security apparatus

It was in 2003 that al Qaeda’s top leaders promised attacks in Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Yemen. Three years later, some bombs had gone off in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan (as well as in the unlisted Turkey) but not in any other of the explicitly threatened countries. Those attacks were tragic, but their sparseness could be taken as evidence that it is not only American alarmists who are given to extravagant huffing and puffing.

Number three… John Robb has a different point of view in his article and subsequent book Brave New War, which suggests terrorism has evolved into sort of open source, loosely networked and de-centralized groups of people who learn from each other and are organized to disrupt centralized economies and governments…

that the insurgency isn’t a fragile hierarchical organization but rather a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups. This means that the insurgency is virtually immune to attrition and decapitation. It will combine and recombine to form a viable network despite high rates of attrition. Body counts – and the military should already know this – aren’t a good predictor of success.

David Brooks remarks on Robb:

Superempowered global guerrillas — whether it’s Al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Nigerian oil fighters or the Brazilian gang P.C.C. — specialize in what Robb calls systems disruption. They attack the networks that support modern life. In one case, Iraqi insurgents spent roughly $2,000 to blow up an oil pipeline in Southeast Iraq. It cost the Iraqi government $500 million in lost revenue. For the insurgents, that was a return on investment of 25 million percent.

The 9/11 attacks, the Madrid bombings, the Niger Delta oil well attacks and even the Samarra mosque bombing were all attempts to disrupt the economic and social systems of target nations.

Number four, from Tech Central Station, positing stateless fighting forces for hire, good and bad guys:

Stateless warfighting organizations are all the rage these days. From Al Qaeda to Blackwater, they come in all shapes and sizes and pursue all varieties of ends. Consider: Al Qaeda is an organization funded by a Saudi tycoon’s heir, and exists to pursue strategies that are wholly outside the realm of policies of any given state. Indeed, it seeks to topple the governments of many states in the Middle East, from which it draws many of its recruits and funding.

(Other names in describing terrorism Zakaria, Huntington, Fukuyama, Barnet are useful for older forms of terrorism that we are used to thinking about)

I also note that this description has no punch and would not be useful for marketing or framing the ‘war on terror’.