Although the war we’ve been in since September 11 is called “The War on Terror,” in truth it is not terror or terrorism with which we’re at war. Terrorism, after all, is just a tactic or a tool. It’s not a movement or an ideology per se, just the favored weapon of the movement we are truly at war with — Islamism. Saying we’re at war with “Terror” makes about as much sense as calling World War II “The War on Blitzkrieg.”
We’re stuck with “War on Terror” because the media and the administration were made queasy by the idea of declaring war on a non-Western religious movement, even after it declared war on us.
It’s unavoidable in this age off political correctness, I suppose, but to confuse the Islamist movement with the terrorism it employs as a tool is a lost opportunity. In our hatred for the movement, we can be blinded to the true (if ugly) utility of the tactic — a tactic we need to understand well.
That being said, what are terrorism’s strengths and weaknesses?
One obvious, but overrated strength, is the ability of terror to attract a disproportionate share of media attention. Under the right circumstances a single killing or an otherwise insignificant bombing can be turned into an attack of huge importance by the media. For a relatively minor expenditure of effort, and a single gullible fool, a suicide bombing of civilians at a market (for example) can allow even a nearly defeated force to maintain a “presence” in a war.
I call this advantage “overrated” because it really requires the media to be either sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause or composed largely of useful idiots, who will trumpet the attacks for their own ends, ideological or financial. In most countries at most times in history, however, the media is generally hoping for the victory of its own country. Al Qaeda is lucky enough to have gone to war with an exception to this rule, the self-loathing post-Christian West, home of the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, the big three and other assorted knee-jerk blame-America-first advocates.
The major disadvantage of terror as a tactic is that it makes the terrorists a lot of new enemies if applied too sloppily. Blowing up schools does little to woo the PTA to your side. America is lucky enough to have had Al Qaeda fall into this trap just when we needed a break in Iraq. The Sunni “awakening” is a natural reaction of a healthy culture to being slaughtered wholesale by its self-declared “friends.”
The thing that terror does better than any other tactic has received less attention than its role in a propaganda effort, however. Terror can make people leave. This is well understood by many of the forces employing terror around the world. If your goal is to get a hated group out of “your” country, civilian terror attacks can work. It doesn’t work well against armies and it must be a sustained effort to cause people to abandon their homes and leave for good, but against civilians insufficiently protected by an army or police force it can put millions on the move in just a few weeks.
We’ve seen this happen in Iraq, where Sunni and Shia have fled from neighborhoods where each is a minority to neighborhoods where their own kind have the upper hand — or to other countries altogether. One of the greatest signs that Iraq is improving has been that thousands of these refugees are returning. Sectarian terrorism pushed them out and its decline in influence is advertised clearly by their return.
Much of the violence called “mindless” in Iraq (while certainly evil) was well thought out to achieve just this end. If the police were powerless to stop it, how long would you keep your family in your current home, if the other families in your neighborhood started disappearing in the night?
Likewise, many of the massacres in places such as Darfur or Rwanda have been carried out in order to scare whole groups into leaving. For every person killed in a massacre, hundreds get the message and leave. In the breakup of Yugoslavia, rape was employed as a weapon in ethnic cleansing campaigns. The target was not the woman being raped. The true targets were all the women not yet raped, and their families. The terror of official rape gangs preying on the ethnically undesired was too much for most families to bear. They left — as was planned by the terror rapists.
Immigration of Jews to Israel is at a 20-year low. Part of the reason is that the second intifada has made Israel a less desirable place for many Jews to choose to live. The Israeli government is unlikely to yield to terror tactics on any major point. But if terror keeps the population of Israel smaller than it would otherwise be, it has had a strategic level of success in that conflict already. It is accelerating a demographic shift in favor of the Palestinians.
Misunderstanding why terror is used can encourage it. When the U.N. rushes to set up refugee camps outside of terror-torn regions, it actually amplifies the success of the terror campaign. The refugees are pushed out from within and lured out from without. The camps become permanent and the displaced accumulate there — just as is desired by their attackers. Theoretically, the correct response to such a displacement is to arm the displaced and send them home as rapidly as possible, and in a bad mood. This would make displacing large populations dangerous to the displacers. A small proof of this has been played out in Yugoslavia. Serbia’s ethnic cleansing has backfired badly on it. It is now a much smaller place. This was not the result of humanitarian aid.
Terrorism is not always mindless nihilism or an explosives-fueled temper tantrum — although it can be either of these. It need not always be followed by a claim of responsibility or a list of demands. It most effective use can be to start a stampede of those who feel defenseless against it.
The key elements which need to exist for it to work in such a situation are an absence of sufficient protective forces, a sustained effort by one population against another less powerful (preferably unarmed and disorganized) population, and a location to which the terrorized can easily flee.
When terror is used to this end, these elements need to be obstructed quickly. If this is not done, it is very likely to result in one group being permanently displaced by another.
The recent success against Al Qaeda in Iraq would seem to stem primarily from organizing an effective armed resistance to the terrorists at a local level, rather than trying to protect a vulnerable population from outside or to facilitate evacuations to “safe” areas.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter