Sunday, July 25, 2010

Five Myths About Terrorism

Posted by Chris at 9/14/2007 4:55 PM ...

Alan B. Krueger discusses what he calls the "Five Myths of Terrorism" in today's Washington Post:

1. Terrorism is a random act carried out by irrational people who hate our way of life.
2. Terrorists are no different than ordinary criminals.
3. Terrorists are likely to cross into the United States from Mexico.
4. Terrorism is mainly perpetrated by Muslims.
5. Terrorism never succeeds.

I think most of these are spot on, but I do have some quibbles with "Terrorism never succeeds". While Krueger is right that it's hard to determine success for a terrorist, I think he punts on this one. Yes, the bombings in Spain led the Socialists to victory, leading to Spain's withdrawal from Iraq, and maybe that's what the Islamists that perpetrated the bombing were after, but I think we need to look deeper.

One of the issues is defining what terrorists want. The other is whether we are talking tactical or strategic success?

In the old days of Marxist-Leninist terrorism in Europe or PLO/PLA terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s, goals were regime change, release of prisoners, and publicity. In my recollection they only ever accomplished the last two of those, but I never bought them as real goals. Prisoner releases and publicity were more in the nature of a means toward an end. That end being a Marxist or Maoist Revolution (or independence in the case of the IRA). I'm not aware of any cases in which classic terrorism did the trick, so historically speaking, it may be the case that terrorism was not successful on the strategic level, but was tactically.

Again, it all depends on your definition of "succeeds".

In terms of the 2005 Spanish bombings, the terrorists were successful on a tactical level, but did it accomplish the greater strategic goals of either a reconquista
of Spain or weakening of American resolve in Iraq? Not hardly. Spain had 1,300 troops in Iraq, which might be a lot for Spain, but not much against US or British troop levels. This is, at best, a public relations victory for the terrorists - they got the Spanish to leave Iraq and they showed that they could strike in Spain with a coordinated attack.

Of course, we have accomplished some of the traditional "terrorist" goals for al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups in our response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon for them. We changed our society to be more suspicious, gave up many of our traditional freedoms, weakened our democracy, tortured and imprisoned innocent people, and invaded Iraq for no real reason. All of these actions either provided new recruits for al-Qaeda, weakened our standing in the world, or otherwise performed that traditional Maoist terrorist goal of turning us into the devil the terrorists claimed we were.

Of course, al-Qaeda might have these tactical victories, but even if we leave Iraq, they still won't have achieved their strategic goals of the ending our unquestioning support for Israel, forcing us to abandon our bases in Saudi Arabia, or destroyed the State of Israel. I don't see any of that happening regardless of what al-Qaeda does. Israel and oil are corner stones of American policy and stated national interests, so al-Qaeda will have to do a bit more to win.

What this means is that while terrorists can win tactical victories, they don't win on the strategic level. Not by themselves.

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