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Terrorism As Politics By Other Means

Fall 2010 Features

Terrorism As Politics By Other Means

Understanding the Ottawa arrests, the Tamil boat and the Air India report in order to tackle terrorism in its various formsUnderstanding the Ottawa arrests, the Tamil boat and the Air India report in order to tackle terrorism in its various forms

Terrorism, like war, is the continuation of politics by other means. Indeed, terrorism has been an integral and normal part of politics or the spectrum of ‘political’ activity for almost as long as organized polities have existed. Dealing with terrorism is therefore not a new challenge, despite the various claims to such effect by opportunistic political leaders or those in the modern fear industry.

Studies and practical experience have shown that the majority of terrorists are normal people. On average, they are well-educated and come from secular educational institutes, with academic training frequently in the sciences or in technology. Most terrorists come from stable, middle-class or privileged families. They do not typically suffer from mental disease or defects. Nor are they drug addicts or the victims of poverty. They are terrifyingly normal.

However, the requirement to confront transnational terrorism suggests that a shared view or conception of terrorism should exist across national boundaries – a shared view encompassing terrorist objectives, ideology, strategy and tactics. From there, a coherent and common response to terrorism (properly understood) is required, especially from democratic states; that is, from those states that, by virtue of their openness and cross-integration, are perhaps most vulnerable to attack and more susceptible to the fear of terrorism. In the absence of such a shared view and common response, international efforts to address terrorism will continue to conflict with each other, while allowing terrorism to gain greater traction among potentially sympathetic populations.

Several recent important events or ‘moments’ in Canada have underlined the challenges that are common to many other governments. In 2010 alone, Canada has seen the arrest of several individuals linked to global jihadism, the arrival of some 490 Tamils by ship off of Canada’s west coast, and the fallout from the newly released Air India Royal Commission of Inquiry.

While seemingly disparate, each of the arrests, the Tamil ship and the Air India report directly or indirectly demonstrate how an essential lack of contextual knowledge hampers the responses to the particular challenges posed by terrorism. As with terrorist activity in many countries, the root causes or drivers might be ‘over there,’ but many of the people and the potential attacks are located ‘over here.’ There is therefore no distinction in these cases between the ‘foreign intelligence’ and the ‘domestic intelligence’ required for action. The problems and solutions are both transnational.

In late August 2010, three individuals were arrested in Ottawa and London (Ontario) on terrorism charges. They were apparently inspired by the ideology of global jihad. The charges laid referred to the facilitation of terrorist activity. The police specifically noted that the individuals were in possession of “schematics, videos, drawings, instructions, books and electronic components designed specifically for the construction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).” The IEDs, according to the police, may have been intended for use in both Canada and Afghanistan.

Earlier in the same month of August, a well-provisioned ship carrying some 490 Tamil refugees docked at Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Suspicion continues to exist that at least some of the refugees may be former members of, or otherwise linked to, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), a group proscribed as a terrorist entity in Canada and many other countries. The ship’s arrival presents the Canadian government with a conflicting series of problems as it tries to balance valid national security concerns about transnational terrorism against human rights considerations and the imperatives of Canada’s relatively open refugee system.

In early June 2010, the long-awaited Royal Commission of Inquiry report into the 1985 Air India bombing was released. The report examined past issues concerning the 1985 murder of 331 people by Sikh terrorists in Canada – many of them naturalized Canadian citizens – who put bombs on two Air India flights. (Until the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Air India had been considered the world’s largest modern terrorist attack.) The Commission also conducted an extensive examination of current policy issues relating to aviation security, intelligence sharing, terrorism financing and the general culture of intelligence.

In the report, retired Canadian Supreme Court judge John Major noted that, in spite of all of the past events and efforts, it is clear that “Canada has a great deal to learn about terrorism – why it exists and how it operates.” International experience suggests that this is not just a Canadian problem.

All terrorism is political. Many types of terrorism exist, but each of these has the same objective of effecting change within, or in respect of, a political system through the threat or use of violence. Among the various species of terrorism frequently indentified are ethno-national, political-religious, extreme left-right, single-issue and state-sponsored terrorism.

Terrorism is, as a rule, a violent methodology of politics, pursued by the weaker party. It normally fails to meet its objectives. If a terrorist group actually had widespread influence, it would not need to resort to the high-risk status of becoming a terrorist group. Evidence and opinions vary, but it appears that ‘conventional’ terrorist campaigns can meet or partially meet their objectives some 10 to 30 percent of the time, while sustained suicide terrorist campaigns may have a slightly higher success rate.

The primary weapon of terrorism is fear – not the bomb or the gun. Terrorists need to instill fear in order to control minds and to gain advancements from those they are attacking. This methodology cannot normally be defeated by firepower or coercion. It can only be confronted by knowledge, experience and organization.

Terrorism is also an asymmetric threat in that the perpetrators of a terrorist attack avoid attacking the strongest points of their adversaries, while seeking to exploit vulnerabilities at the weakest points. Terrorist attacks (and goals) depend on surprise – not just in the timing of the attack, but also in its methods and means. Victory for the terrorist cannot come from battlefield success, but it might be derived from a gradual wearing down of the will to resist of the targeted power.

Terrorism is driven by politics even when the justifications given for the killing of innocents and the recruiting tools of terrorist groups are cast in religious, ethnic, linguistic or moral terms. The core goals of such terrorism, however, are common, and this commonality must be universally understood among those nations that might be targeted. Terrorism, for instance, is not fundamentally caused or driven by the theological differences between religions, or by the differences in legal precepts between a religion and a state system. Al Qaeda, along with its affiliated groups, does not attack the West over theological differences between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The grievances expressed by Al Qaeda are broadly political in nature, and address, explicitly and implicitly, such issues as economic oppression, colonialism and political corruption. While public documents and communiqués put forth by Al Qaeda or its followers normally start with statements invoking religious themes, the grievances expressed (real or imagined) and the objectives are always political in nature.

It should follow, on this logic, that terrorism (as a political act or campaign) cannot be eradicated, despite claims to the contrary by political leaders. As long as oppression or the perception of oppression remains, and as long as there is non-parity in the strength of the parties on the various sides of the political argument, there will be those who choose violence as a means of advancing their aims. Given current world conditions, it is safe to presume that terrorism will remain an integral part of the political process for the foreseeable future in much the same way that car accident deaths are part of civil life.

Terrorism needs to be confronted by a state’s political will – not by its physical power. This will of the state must be expressed primarily through its various intelligence and enforcement organizations. If the state’s intelligence and enforcement agencies are to be effective, they need to occupy and maintain the moral high ground. This high ground is required in order to attract the human sources that are required for the ‘tip,’ and to obtain the concomitant investigative intelligence required to disrupt terrorist plots and convict those involved. (Note Justice Major’s observation in the Air India report – an observation that, again, has general application for many democratic states fighting terrorism: “There is a need for greater specialization and a more concentrated focus on the means for investigating and supporting the prosecution of national security offences.”) The high ground is also necessary to maintain the confidence of the citizenry of the affected or targeted state.

Effective intelligence services require effective knowledge that is also shared among nations. Currently, most knowledge (for example, about the said objectives, ideology, strategy and tactics of terrorist groups) exists outside of government. Even in areas of presumed government competence, such as defence, intelligence and security, the reality is that most pertinent knowledge exists outside of government ownership or control. Intelligence agencies should be seeking to collect and coherently analyze as much information as possible in order to give insightful advice to their respective governments. The focus needs to be on open source intelligence, where most of the information lies and is, for a price and some effort, readily obtainable. Unfortunately, many intelligence agencies still think that their role is to ‘steal secrets’ from that steadily decreasing pool of material held in secret by other governments and groups.

As noted in the Air India report, intelligence agencies still have a lot to learn about terrorism. If a greater emphasis were placed on knowledge and open source intelligence, agencies and governments would also find themselves in a better position to share and discuss how to form a common understanding and response.

The military approach, for its part, has limited utility in that only some seven percent of terrorist campaigns have to date been ended by military action, while other factors were involved in the other 93 percent of cases (according to the RAND Corporation). In order to arrive at these figures, RAND, known for its close relationship to the US military, studied the outcome of hundreds of terrorist campaigns. The idea that the application of military power can solve political problems, however, remains a powerful illusion, and continues to dominate counter-terrorism policy in many countries.

Of all the common obstacles to an effective counter-terrorism programme in any country, the most severe and long-running impediment is the confusion between secrecy and security. The problem is most peculiar to intelligence agencies, but it has manifestations throughout almost all government agencies and departments. Secrecy remains a necessary and valid concept in democratic governments. It is required for a variety of valid reasons, such as the general shielding of current investigations or operations, or the specific protection of the names of sources and agents who provide critical information. Unfortunately, intelligence agencies (more than all other organs of government) tend to believe that, in order to maintain ‘security,’ it is necessary to classify or over-classify almost all information. The result is the creation of an internal series of security walls that ensure the creation of information silos. The critical information flows required to find and analyze the ‘fine grains’ of intelligence are stopped.

A useful example of openness and effectiveness can be found in Singapore – a country not known for being ‘soft on security.’ Previously, Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) was a highly secretive government agency. Its employees were forbidden from identifying themselves as members of the agency; there were no signs on their buildings. However, senior figures in Singapore came to the conclusion that if the citizens of Singapore were to trust the agency, and if the agency was going to be able to obtain critical information from the populace, then the agency would have to start being a visible and normalized presence in Singapore. Today, ISD employees freely identify themselves, attend regular conferences on security, and do not attempt to hide behind false identifications by saying that they work for ‘the government.’

Intelligence agencies in many countries often forget that their role is a supporting one. Intelligence is a support function designed to enhance the decision-making role of others. It was not designed to become a function unto itself. All too often, intelligence agencies adopt a culture of independence, forgetting that they are not there to serve themselves, but rather to provide inputs for policy-makers, the police and other interested parts of government. Tragedy and scandal usually follow this inability to remember the core role of intelligence. When intelligence agencies become policy-makers and political actors in their own right, and seek to subvert both their intended roles and laws, terrorism gains more recruits. The fallout from Guantanamo Bay, for instance, will feed the strength of multiple terrorists and political opponents of democracy for years after it is (eventually) closed.

It is not an event that shapes the future. It is the response to the event that shapes future outcomes. So it is with terrorism as well. The response to terrorism must be common – at least across the developed democratic countries. If one country, or one group of countries, is pursuing a militarized ‘war on terror’ approach, while its neighbours and allies are pursuing largely political approaches, potential weaknesses will exist based on these divisions. Terrorist groups have demonstrated an ability to study and learn the various strengths and weaknesses of host countries, and to ruthlessly exploit (or ‘arbitrage’) the differences between them.

In order to have this common approach, a basic transnational understanding of the nature of terrorism must be reached. If a terrorist group operates across national boundaries, then all of the countries involved must also have a common picture of that particular group’s objectives, ideology, strategy and tactics.

Terrorism, as noted above, is the methodology of the weaker power as it attempts to change the policies of the stronger power. If a terrorist group has attacked a country, then that country is, by implication, the stronger power, and it behooves it to act as such. Leaders of secure and confident nations do not resort to creating a climate of fear, while busily undercutting their own principles and strengths. They respond, rather, by maintaining their moral high ground, and using their natural strengths and advantages, and a strong sense of proportionality, to undercut the narrative of violence and fear put forth by terrorist groups.

Terrorism is not the ‘greatest threat of the 21st century.’ This wild claim quite simply aids terrorism by plugging an amplifier into the propaganda machine of terrorist actors. The burning of Korans – threatened or actual – simply adds to the problems, doing nothing to solve them. Multiple challenges are confronting democratic states at this time, and terrorism is just one of the more visible problems.

Terrorism need not be the fear-inspiring and divisive phenomenon that it has become. A shared understanding of terrorism among like-minded democratic states can lead to a common response that makes the most of our highest principles and values. Terrorists and their supporters would sooner see democracies fear-ridden, divided and sliding down to their level, where they can exploit the climate of fear. The attempt to ‘combat’ terrorism in a war-like manner by circumventing laws and undermining principles has resulted, so far, only in the further securitization and juridification of our societies. If we further submit to the politics of fear, terrorism steadily gains the upper hand.


Tom Quiggin, of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, is a member of the European Experts Network on Terrorism and a Canadian court expert on terrorism.

(Photo: Greg Semendinger / NYPD)

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