Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel,--
Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
- The Prince, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, William Shakespeare
Al Qaeda vs. Peanuts
There are several arguments made about terrorism and the threat from terrorism that I’d like to address in the post. But, starting with definitions: terrorism is the deliberate use of violence against non-combatants so that they are stopped from that which they have a right to do, for political ends. In a way, people have the right to life and therefore all terrorist activity that leads to death is self-evidently terrorism – but it also applies to other things: the right to speak freely, the right to vote for one’s own government. It’s not limited to religious people or even non-religious people. It might seem that this is limited to a technique but I think there is a persuasive argument to be made that it is also an end for groups like Al Qaeda.
But I first want to address another argument: those that compare the threat to terrorism and compare it with things like lightning strikes and peanut allergies. What this misses is that terrorism affects our relationship with state and society. The best way to illustrate this is through a hypothetical: there is an administration which supports a controversial war and terrorists target civilian infrastructure inside that country. Three days later, when there are elections, despite what people think about the government’s economic, social and domestic policy, they are more likely to vote against that administration. Despite that person having the right to vote on those grounds, the threat of violence – of terrorism – has meant that the citizen can no longer exercise that right.
This isn’t my argument, Phillip Bobbit made the argument about the Spanish elections after the Madrid bombings in his book ‘Terror and Consent: Wars for the Twentieth Century’ stating
A vast majority of Spaniards opposed the [Iraq] intervention but a clear majority nevertheless supported the party in power... None of the other political issues – the economy, education, health, etc. – could be allowed to be decisive after the bombing. It was a sickening day for democracy... (p.395)
And the reason I’m not using his example is that there seems to be evidence which shows that voters were driven by ‘their anger at the government's handling of the terrorist attacks.’ Nonetheless, terrorism clearly has the effect of changing the constitutional relationship of consent. Lawrence Wright notes that such withdrawal of consent has been used in the ‘Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua.’ More importantly, in the Middle East and South Asia it is apparent that such tactics are used: attacking girls going to school, killing people as they cast their vote – these not only affect the actions of those who directly suffer them but those who take steps away from doing what they have a right to do.
This is why terror is an end for Al Qaeda as well: they seek, both in Europe and the Middle East a ‘state of terror’ – that is exactly what their dogmatic ideals lead to: stopping girls from going to school, stopping self-determination, killing those who they disagree with – all backed up with the threat of violence. In Europe, it means crippling not only choices but our decision to act in self-defence or for the good of the people in the Middle East.
Just as a further case study which was suggested by a good friend of mine: Israel. The effects of terrorism can be seen in several respects: firstly, those in the area of terrorism such as those who are affected by the rockets. Schools have had to remain closed because children would be exposed to rocket fire, 20% of citizens have moved, and a medical factory had to be closed because of rocket fire and people lose employment as a result. Peanuts do not have these effects and neither do homicides.
Secondly, in terms of a state response, there is usually a back lash that calls for action. Looking at it from a libertarian or selective left-wing position: these attacks are followed by a curb of consent by governments. Peanut and lightning related deaths do not lead to having to get a petition to protest outside KP or the overarching power to wiretap the clouds. Laws in Britain such as the heinous detention of foreign nationals, while struck down by the House of Lords, show that the threat from the state remains. There is empirical support for this view as well; using data from 111 countries, Dreher et al (2007) find terror 'diminishes governments’ respect for basic humanrights such as absence of extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, and torture' and 'civil rights are also restricted as a consequence of terrorism.'
It is only with the hard work of our security services and military that such attacks are thwarted at home and abroad. And while we have not suffered such attacks, it is clear that the threat exists and thus must be avoided; to say it again: 12 attacks were thwarted between 2000-2009 on British soil and the threat remains substantial. Peanuts and lighting strikes do not pose such a threat to an open society where we can exercise our rights - and while it is fortunate that we have ‘only’ lost 4,873 people that does not change this fact. Indeed, Bruce Hoffman includes this in his definition of terrorism:
Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instil fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider “target audience”... Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.
Al Qaeda vs. Other Terrorists
There are also misconceptions about the threat of different terrorist groups. Terrorism is by no means limited to one religious, social, political or national group but there is no doubt that for the United Kingdom, the threat comes primarily from Al Qaeda and its allies, i.e., Islamist terrorists.
It is often quoted that the vast majority of terrorist incidents in Europe comes from separatists but for as Andrew Gilligan of The Telegraph notes this is only really true for ‘two small regions of Europe (the Basque country and Corsica).’ And even then, in terms of deaths, 91% of the deaths are caused by Islamist terrorists across Europe. In the UK, there have been 138 convictions of Islamist terrorists, there have been 12 thwarted attacks including a plot to down 10 commercial airlines. According to MI5, ‘over 2,000 people in the UK pose a terrorist threat and in March 2005 it was estimated that there were up to 200 al-Qaeda trained operatives in the UK.’ In 2006, MI5 stated that they knew of 30 UK plots. And in case thats too much for you, just read this tweet from the Foreign Office.
This is not to say that we are all about to die from Islamist terrorism – when we all go out tomorrow, we are unlikely to die from a terrorist attack. But the threat remains and because of the effects of that threat it is something that requires resources and a place as one of the main facets of government.
There is also a further argument to be made – across Europe and United States – that a comparison cannot be made with Al Qaeda and its allies because they represent a new type of terrorism. Phillip Bobbit refers to this as ‘market state terrorism.’ The former foreign secretary David Miliband on Question Time stated that
Its not the IRA. This is a bigger and more different threat... They did not propagate a global vision, they did not have a global reach and the theological that Al Qaeda tried to engage with. Be wary of words like 'hype.' This was different.
There is simply no denying this: Al Qaeda has subsidiaries: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al-Shabab – and thats not to mention their allies in Europe. The substance of what Bobbitt says is important: they are global, decentralised and they cause a lot more deaths – and they intend to. As Brian Jenkins notes:
The worst incidents of terrorism in the 1970s caused fatalities in the tens. In the 1980s, fatalities were measured in the 100s. On September 11th, fatalities ascended to the thousands – and the toll could easily be as higher. (Bobbitt, p.49)
Tony Blair was undoubtedly right when he said ‘Over 3,000 were killed, a horrific event. If these people could have killed 30,000, they would have done.’ Its really no surprise that Al Qaeda is actively going after a nuclear dirty bomb. And as crude as it is to suggest, larger or more frequent death tolls and attacks enhance the response to society in terms of consent. This is precisely why Islamist terrorism is such a threat: because of the intended fearful response it seeks.