Terrorism 101

This is not a satirical piece, and it is in no way an apologia for terrorism.

Following certain recent incidents – one in particular having been prominently featured in both news and social media – there has been a public focus on the issue of terrorism. Reactions have been varied, but noticeable has been bewilderment and incomprehension. But terrorism is actually easy to comprehend. What I want to do today is catalogue some of terrorism’s salient features, in the hope that more people will come to understand what is happening – and to some extent what has already happened – in the current series of terrorist activities, and the reactions to them.

Firstly, despite the rhetoric, terrorists are human beings. This is almost a tragic admission, but it makes them easier to understand. They may do things that most of us wouldn’t dream of doing, but they act, in fact, within the spectrum of human behaviour.

No terrorist group exists in a vacuum. There is always a context. Often this is articulated, by observers and commentators, in terms of the root cause of the rise of any particular terrorist group is in a political situation of our own making. That is not an invalid statement, but the whole situation is often a great deal more complex. If we look at the actions of, say, the IRA in late 20c Britain, and try to analyse the underlying causes, we find something much more raveled than the simplistic “Brits out!’ (and the opposing ‘No surrender!’ for that matter). We end up having to unpick threads of history and policy that probably go back to a period when an early medieval petty chieftain in Ireland invited a bunch of Norman mercenaries over to help him wage war on a rival; they liked what they saw and stayed.

The context often makes disaffection understandable. It also makes the terrorist propaganda, delivered to their constituency and potential constituency, plausible. The context helps to create a plausible ‘cause’, becomes the fertile ground for an ideology to germinate and flourish.

Terrorist groups are, by and large, small. Thus they have to ‘punch above their weight’.

The rationale of a terrorist act is to provoke a reaction in the target society. The reaction may be tougher laws, it may be ethnic resentment, it may be a crack-down on the community where the terrorists hope to build a constituency. In turn, this potentially politicises that community, makes the propaganda more plausible, and attracts more recruits, tacit support, etc. for the terrorist group. That is how the IRA functioned in Northern Ireland in the late 20c.

More often than not the limit of the politicisation is reached, and a stalemate results, again as in Northern Ireland. The resolution of the situation there – if indeed resolution there has been, rather than simply a cessation of direct violence along with a political fudge – came when all parties to the conflict realised than none of them could win. Whatever ‘win’ meant.

What does this tell us about the most recent incidents of terrorism? I believe it shows us that it is probably futile to look at the ideology of those involved and shake our heads, that blaming religion is a blind alley – remember that people made similar rather facile judgments about religion in Northern Ireland. I think this knowledge helps us see that whenever a bomb goes off or a gun is fired, whenever something gruesome is posted on YouTube, whenever a politician gets up and speechifies after an incident, promising a crack-down, what has just happened is not as incomprehensible as we might have thought. It helps us see a terrorist act as part of an overall strategy, rather than as wanton and indiscriminate.

Friends, this isn’t the end of the issue. It has been a very brief and simplistic analysis of how terrorism functions. I have not set out to be moralistic, nor to offer any solutions, if solutions there are. I hope, however, that I have added a little to your mental toolbox, and provided you with something to extend slightly your view on what is happening in the world, and not only in the actions of the terrorists themselves but in the reactions from within our societies and of our politicians.


“But you’re an anarchist!” says someone. “Terrorism and anarchism have often gone together, surely?”

You are thinking of ‘the propaganda of the act’, a principle associated, broadly, with anarchist activity in the 19c and early 20c. The idea was to carry out an exemplary revolutionary act, such as a targeted assassination. Perhaps the most famous such act was the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, in 1892, by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, in retaliation for the shooting dead, at his instigation, of several striking workers.

The propaganda of the act as specifically an act of violence was never fruitful, however. It led to no mass action. It more often led to political suppression of anarchists and public expressions of anarchist principles. It led to dubious legal proceedings such as the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti (I do not assert that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, or guilty for that matter, of the act for which they were tried, but the legal process itself is widely acknowledged to have been a travesty). It led in France to the banning of the very word ‘anarchist’, which is why the alternative word ‘Libertarian’ exists incidentally.

The major opposition to violence as a propagandic act came from within the anarchist movement itself. Peter Kropotkin said, in 1887, “a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of dynamite”. The principle still exists within anarchism, but is much broader than the use of violence, which it now tends to exclude; rather it consists of being prepared to act and live in a way that challenges the values and brutality of the society one wants to change. In that respect it is a principle that exists well beyond anarchism, and which existed long before anarchism evolved out of 19c revolutionary thought. It is a principle which has been, for example, within Christian philosophy for two millennia.


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