Transnational Terrorism – Complex Threat or Back to Normal?
What is terrorism? Is it, as it was in the hands of 19th and early 20th century anarchists, “propaganda by the deed”? Is it an instrument of national liberation and self-determination, as it was in the hands of post-1945 anti-colonialists? Is it “an instrument of the weak,” especially when turned against foreign occupation? Is it a method of socio-political repression and control, which was prominently used by 20th century authoritarian states? More recently, has it been used as a subset of narrative warfare, where it enhances the claims of one preferred “story” at the expense of another? Finally, does it remain what it has it always been – i.e., the most extreme form of psychological warfare that exists?
We know the answers to all these questions. Terrorism is all these things and more. Most recently, the “shadow warriors” who use it have both privatized conflict and converted it into an arena of dueling narratives. Yes, these “combatants” operate in specific contexts, but perhaps more importantly they now operate in the free-floating, IT-based world of virtual reality, where they can shape and form violence-prone identities with minimal interference from the bordered, compromise-prone “real world.”
Ultimately, and regardless of the domain they operate in, today’s terrorists not only protest, undermine, and attempt to liberate, they also offer up prescriptions for living. In the last case, they want those who allegedly impede their utopian dreams to psychologically defeat themselves. It’s these hated obstructionists who should decide that they are on the wrong side of history; that their defeat is historically inevitable; and that because of their own spiritual, cultural and political poverty, they should lapse into a numb and lazy fatalism about their pending demise.
Despite the above apocalyptic posturing, the social science literature is rather clear on these matters. The problem for change-centered terrorists is that their preferred tool seldom works. Yes, surface-level change occurs, but deep-structure change does not. Such resiliency, which depends on aggressive counterterrorism and anti-terrorism efforts, accounts for the shambolic state of current transnational terrorist organizations, or so many believe. But perhaps we should pause and remember that the greatest threat posed by terrorism in any age is its enduring capacity to metastasize further.
Well, has transnational terrorism metastasized since 9/11? To answer this question fully, we begin this week by looking at how recent attempts to define terrorism have played out. On Tuesday we then ponder why terrorism still persists, to include psychological explanations for its enduring appeal. On Wednesday, we maintain this line of questioning and consider whether suicide bombers are primarily motivated by “rational” and therefore narrow political interests, or if their motives are more baroque. This meditation then dovetails into Thursday’s analysis of how transnational terrorism has broadly changed recently. Finally, we conclude the week with a pro-con debate. The question under consideration is a simple one – does transnational terrorism continue to pose a major danger to the world at large, or have we largely stuffed this scourge back into Pandora’s Box?
17 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Establishing a universally accepted definition of terrorism remains a work in progress. Headway has been made, Ben Saul confirms, but an ultimately successful definition will have to walk a fine line. It will, in other words, have to reconcile political expediency with international law. More on «Defining Terrorism – How Far Have We Come?»
17 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
STRATFOR’s Fred Burton argues that all terrorists ultimately follow a five-step attack planning cycle. By methodically working through this cycle, analysts and policymakers can identify terrorists’ capabilities and vulnerabilities, and develop strategies to prevent future attacks. More on «STRATFOR Discusses the Terrorist Attack Cycle»
18 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
9/11 prompted widespread interest in the causes and psychology that lay behind terrorist activities. And while old theoretical models cannot be easily applied to what is a continuously evolving phenomenon, history and pre- 9/11 scholarship remain invaluable tools for explaining terrorism, argues Lorenzo Vidino. More on «The Causes and Psychology of Terrorism»
19 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Robert Pape's "Dying to Win" and "Cutting the Fuse" have cast long shadows across terrorism studies. The texts' territory-centered explanations for suicide bombing remain seminal yet also provoke questions. More on «Suicide Bombing – The Argument over Motives »
20 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
The weakening of Al Qaeda over the last decade has not prevented others from drawing inspiration from its objectives and worldview. In tracing the evolution of transnational terrorism since 9/11, Alex Mackenzie describes how this inspiration has transformed into the regionalization of the Al Qaeda brand. More on «Transnational Terrorism – How Has It Evolved Since 9/11?»
21 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was a major milestone in the war on terror. But while some argue that the threat posed by the likes of Al Qaeda is now a manageable risk, others warn that we should not underestimate transnational terrorism's resilience and ability to fight back. More on «And the (Terrorist) Threat Goes On?»