If the violent group has no clear aims, is negotiation possible?by Joanna Bourke / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fear is creeping into the public sphere in unprecedented ways. The heightened presence of armed police as well as armoured cars on our streets, in our sports stadiums and outside government buildings is just one sign of a growing alarm about a multiplicity of terrorist threats.
On the evening of 14th July, crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice discovered that terror does not always involve elaborate equipment. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice attacker, did not have to learn to pilot a plane; he did not need to purchase explosives; he certainly was not expected to know anything about the latest pathogens and toxins. His actions probably didn’t even require the sustained support of a large community of like-minded jihadists (though the French prosecutor has alleged that he had accomplices.) All that he required was a driver’s licence and a 19-tonne white lorry. When the Tunisian-born Bouhlel ploughed into the crowds on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people and injuring more than 300, the resulting carnage was representative of 21st-century terrorism. Just like the subsequent killing of a priest on 26th July in Normandy, it is the kind of event that is going to be difficult to prevent.
Nine months earlier, on the evening of 13th November, France experienced the single most deadly terrorist strike in its history. Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Stade de France in Saint-Denis (France’s national stadium), the Bataclan theatre and several bars and restaurants, including Le Comptoir Voltaire café on Boulevard Voltaire in the 11th arrondissement. One hundred and thirty people were killed and 368 injured. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, saying they had acted in retaliation for French air strikes on Syria and Iraq.
In the period between these two attacks, there had been serious terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Belgium, Cameroon, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and the United States, to name just a few. Is it any wonder that so many of us are anxious that the world is descending into another dark, frenzied and violent period of history?
For me, the attack in Paris in November was more shocking than the Charlie Hebdo shootings that took place in January that year. It was closer to home. Over the years, I have spent many hours sitting outside the Comptoir Voltaire, sipping a glass (or two) of Sancerre and talking politics and history. In the aftermath of the November attack, I was unable to stomach the endless, and often repetitive, stream of political analyses. Incapable of simply ignoring the violence, however, I chose to approach it through fiction. I discovered that the terrorist is a standard figure in modern novels, so I set myself a lengthy reading schedule that included Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist (1985), Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan (2006) and Nuruddin Farah’s Hidden in Plain Sight (2014).
When the Nice attacks took place, I was halfway through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, originally published between 1871 and 1872. The lead character in that extremely violent novel is Pyotr Verkhovensky, modelled on the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Sergey Nechaev. Like Nechaev, Verkhovensky is nihilistic, ruthless and consumed by hatred. The novel’s epigraph is taken from the biblical story of the Gadarene swine. It reads: “Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.” (Luke 8:33) For Dostoevsky, terrorists revelled in orgies of destruction, eventually driving themselves and their followers insane.
Popular commentary has tended to echo the demonic portrayal of terrorists that appear routinely in novels like Demons. Terrorist violence is so frightening that the simplest way to deal with it is to dismiss its perpetrators as crazed fanatics. They are both irrational and innately cruel. They are not “like us.”
This was why I opened Richard English’s new book with trepidation. Its provocative title—Does Terrorism Work?—worried me. If his answer is “yes,” isn’t he providing justification for acts of extra-judicial cruelty? If his answer is “no,” then there is a risk of fuelling the dismissive view of terrorists as irrational madmen, if not fiends, who should be eliminated from the face of the earth.
My anxiety was quickly dispelled. English is a brilliant political historian, with a reputation for measured yet hard-hitting analyses. He possesses a formidable range and depth of knowledge about modern terrorism. Although the book is structured around four case studies—al-Qaeda, the Provisional IRA, Hamas and ETA (the militant Basque nationalist organisation)—English draws wider conclusions from these very specific contexts. Unlike many commentators, his prose is calm; his conclusions sensible. English often reminds himself as well as his readers of the need to be respectful to protagonists on every side. Crucially, he is no polemicist. Indeed, the only sensationalist thing about the book is its title.
English’s chief contention is that in order to understand one of the most important and contentious issues of our time we must approach the subject with a clear head. He understands the passion that terrorism inspires and he repeatedly acknowledges the immeasurable suffering inflicted on millions of individuals, families and communities by terrorist atrocities. However, he insists that terrorist ideologies, practices and outcomes deserve serious analytical attention. It is the perfect counterpoint to the wild prose of Dostoevsky in Demons.
“Catolonia won regional autonomy while engaging in little violence, while ETA’s armed struggle failed”
In many ways, English succeeds because he insists on the importance of history. This is meant in a number of ways. First, he argues that the discipline of history provides the methodical skills and analytical focus that are essential in all assessments of complex phenomena. Second, his historical approach enables him to point out that violence is not inevitable in resistance movements. The relative success of Catalan nationalists compared with Basque separatists is a poignant example. Catalonia won significant regional autonomy while engaging in little violence, while ETA’s armed struggle has failed to achieve its central objectives. Furthermore, even struggles that are routinely assumed to be innately violent turn out to have a surprising past. For instance, Palestinian resistance during the First Intifada (1987-1993) was largely peaceful. Like most terrorist groups, Palestinian militants have been strategic and sensitive to changing conditions and objectives. As one of Hamas’s leaders admitted, “the scale of attacks” had to be “determined by the level of popular support.” Some resistance movements are more flexible and pragmatic than is often believed. English draws much needed attention to the fluidity of dogma and tactics, thus suggesting that some terrorists at least might not be as committed to murder and mayhem as we might fear.
The third reason historical analysis is important is because questions of success or failure can only be reliably assessed by looking at movements over an extended time frame. Terrorists have notoriously long memories. This is why English is dismissive of analysts who think that they can probe the meaning of Hamas by starting in the 1980s, when the organisation was established. He tells us that the “short-termist, even amnesiac, quality” of much political commentary on terrorism will always fail to capture the multi-layered, complex and subtle inflections in terrorist ideologies and practices.
Linked to this emphasis on history is English’s insistence that most terrorists are not like Dostoevsky’s Verkhovensky. Rather, they are as psychologically normal as most other people. They seek to attain goals that are extremely important to them but which they believe cannot be achieved in other ways. For some, armed struggle is a last resort. In the words of a Tamil Tiger leader in Sri Lanka: “The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances in parliament for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness.”
For others, violence was believed to be the only option. This was one of the main motivations of the Provisional IRA from the late 1960s. The only way they could protect Catholic communities against attacks by northern loyalists was by the use of counter-force: “you had to defend the ghettos,” explained one Provo gun-runner. Of course, there were many other reasons for the establishment and growth of the organisation, including republican self-determination, socialism and cultural nationalism, but the urgent need to respond to prior violence against their own community proved to be the biggest recruiter.
So, does terrorism work? The conclusions are mixed. Many terrorist movements succeed in drawing public attention to particular forms of injustice. Their movements may experience periods of growth. The pleasures of enacting revenge against a reviled enemy should not be underestimated. Within their tight-knit groups, a sense of purpose and comradeship can be emotionally satisfying.
But, in the longer term, permanent achievement of their aims is usually elusive. In fact, terrorist violence routinely rebounds on the terrorists themselves. This can be seen in the case of al-Qaeda whose increased disregard of distinctions between civilian and military targets have turned millions of sympathisers away from the cause. The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo is just one example where atrocity has generated global condemnation, except among al-Qaeda and IS diehards.
Many readers won’t like hearing that the establishment of the state of Israel “arguably embodies one of the most striking examples of terrorism actually managing to achieve major success,” as English puts it. To some, this may seem a provocative, even obscene statement, but no historian can seriously doubt the role played in the 1930s and 1940s by the Zionist terrorist group Irgun Zvai Leumi (the National Military Organisation) in undermining British rule in Palestine. The Irgun detonated explosives (for instance, in the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem and the King David Hotel, which was the headquarters of the British Mandate administration) and attacked Palestinian villages. This violence certainly played a part in the British decision to withdraw from the territory. This was followed by the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians. As English observes: “To the vile atrocity of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust… was added the catastrophic trauma for the Palestinians of their 1947-9 dispossession, dislocation, and dispersal.” To this day, this is known in Arabic as al-Nakba or “The Catastrophe.”
In contrast, Hamas has not succeeded in creating a Palestinian state, although their violence—including suicide bombings and rocket attacks targeting civilians—may have reduced Israeli control over Gaza and the West Bank, making Israeli leaders more accommodating. However, any political gains have been at an immense cost to people on both sides of the dispute. A more peaceful strategy might have led to greater concessions and would have probably avoided decades of conflict. Indeed, English tells us, there is evidence that “very significant numbers on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” would “prefer a negotiated settlement.” Non-violent work—such as strengthening social provisions—might be the best way for Hamas to strengthen its power base.
“The pleasures of enacting revenge against a reviled enemy should not be underestimated. Within their tight-knit groups, a sense of purpose and comradeship can be emotionally satisfying”
The picture is also mixed in the case of the IRA. This chapter is one of the best in the book, which is not surprising given that English is a notable authority on paramilitary violence in Ireland. By interviewing a number of the leading protagonists, he also adds personal nuance to his broader analysis.
Indisputably, the IRA was able to wreak appalling havoc on its enemies: it killed 638 military personnel along with nearly 300 Northern Irish police officers and members of the prison service. Over 600 civilians were also killed and many hundreds wounded. But these tactical “victories” came at an extremely high cost, not only in terms of the victims themselves and their communities, but also in strategic terms. IRA bloodshed fuelled retaliatory responses from Protestant loyalist paramilitary groups, resulting in an escalation of violence. Given that the IRA claimed that their aim was to protect their own community from attacks, they failed dismally. There was also little support for the IRA in the rest of the UK, perhaps in part because they carried out over 500 attacks in England, killing over 100 people. Indeed, Provo terrorism hardened loyalist opposition. In the words of one former IRA member: “bombs in cafés and restaurants that took civilian lives, whether accidents or not, were understandably viewed by unionists as murderous attacks on their community rather than military operations.” Indeed, the IRA failed even to win the support of most northern nationalists, who tended to support the non-violent, constitutional Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The IRA failed to achieve an independent and united Irish republic, let alone socialism.
When the protagonists in Northern Ireland edged towards a solution, however, a different dynamic began appearing. Flexibility and pragmatism seemed to win the day. The leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and the intense loyalty they inspired, were indispensable in the eventual political settlement. The ability of Sinn Féin to evolve from a subservient, political branch of the Provos to being its leading partner was also critical. In the words of Sinn Féin councillor Conor Murphy (who in 1982 was sentenced to five years in prison for IRA membership and possession of explosives), there came a time when the republican movement “recognised that they needed to grow a political body” in order to attract supporters and attain its broader goals. It was largely this non-violent republican activity that prepared the way for a political solution to the Troubles.
English warns that more harm may result from government responses to terrorism than were inflicted by the original terrorists themselves. The killing of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, which sparked the First World War, is one example, as were the disproportionate responses to the atrocities on 9/11.
English refuses to issue a point-blank denunciation of violent non-state political action. However, he argues that the evidence of history strongly suggests that—even within its own terms of reference—terrorism has wrought considerably more harm than good. The failure of terrorists to achieve their central strategic goals is notable and therefore should make state authorities more cautious about over-reacting to violence.
States need to acknowledge that they are partially responsible for the emergence and growth of terrorist organisations and that their responses to them played a significant role in the way terrorists’ ideologies, tactics and strategies evolved. However much we (and English) abhor violence, it is impossible to deny that terrorists are often responding to real injustices. American military interventions since 9/11 have been murderous; loyalist forces in Northern Ireland persecuted nationalist communities; and both the Israeli and Spanish states have treated Palestinians and Basque populations in vicious ways. This is not to justify terrorist cruelty but to point to the need of governments to respond to grievances in constructive ways.
He acknowledges that organisations such as IS present the west with formidable problems. The IRA, Hamas and ETA all have clear political goals that can be discussed. This is not the case with IS, whose chief goal is the establishment of an international caliphate. This is unrealistic. The imposition of sharia would not be popular in the Islamic world let alone outside it. The violence that IS has unleashed, not only on the “unbelievers,” but on pious Muslims worldwide has been counterproductive. Harnessing Muslim opposition to IS violence is vital, but this will require a measure of respect for those societies and the grievances that allowed IS to take root.
The greatest risk from IS might actually emerge from within western society: disillusioned and angry young men who are citizens of the very countries they attack and who find meaning in IS rhetoric. These are men like Salah Abdeslam, the French national who took part in the Paris attacks; or Omar Mateen, the American security guard who killed 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando in June. Tackling this urgent problem is not so much a question of negotiating with a movement, but of developing a society in which alienated Muslims can feel at home.
In the 21st century, Dostoevsky’s terrorist in Demons is not our chief enemy. Most terrorists are not irrational fiends. We may dispute their logic and remind them that their actions are unlikely to lead to their desired outcomes. But most terrorists are as rational as other people. English is pessimistic, but maybe our only hope is that the growth of terrorist violence can be reversed by what international relations scholar Elazar Barkan has called “the new global trend of restitution” for the original act of historical injustice. Whether this is realistic given the brutal attacks we are seeing in Europe is an open question. But in times of heated passions, English counsels a “calm, measured, patient reaction.”