Fifteen years after 9/11, the world is now facing the threat of systemic terrorism. Apparently mindless, random attacks are in fact part of a strategy developed over a number of years, whose origins can be traced back to three major turning points, one ideological, one political, one military, that occurred at the end of the 1970s.
Traditionally, terrorism was the work of relatively small groups with clearly identifiable political or ideological goals, ranging from national liberation to animal rights. It was used as a bargaining counter to attain a clearly defined objective such as the freeing of prisoners or the withdrawal of the army from an occupied zone, or for vengeance. Of course, there were campaigns designed simply to destabilise the political climate, but these were the minority. The terrorism of Al-Qaeda represented a radical break from this, in that its aim was sustained opposition to the entire “Western” economic, cultural, and belief system, with no negotiable end to their campaigns, and whole populations seen as legitimate targets. Attacks, and the possibility of attacks, are supposed to change enemy policy by means other than the traditional method of battlefield superiority. One of their aims is to convince public opinion that the price for supporting a particular policy is too high, as well attracting support from potential sympathisers following retaliation for the initial attack.
Conflicts are fought worldwide in a complex arena across the whole spectrum of political, social, economic, and military networks, and involve a mix of national, international, transnational, and subnational actors, motivated not only by politics or ideology, but also profit. This grey area, combining aspects of traditional warfare with organised crime, is a major aspect of 21st century terrorism. But the major way in which terrorism has evolved beyond the Al-Qaida model is the strategy of Daesh to create a state by conquering and holding territory, using traditional military confrontation in some cases, and isolated attacks far from its main bases in others. The roots of this strategy can be found in the combination of the three events mentioned in the introduction.
In November 1977, Egypt’s President Sadat travelled to Jerusalem to prove his willingness to sign a peace deal with Israel. This marked the end of pan-Arabism as a viable ideology. Sadat also broke with the USSR and encouraged the rise of the Muslim brotherhood to counter the influence of the left, especially in the universities. Shortly afterwards, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a popular uprising that the Islamists came to dominate, eventually creating an Islamic State. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, but were defeated by a Western-backed coalition that the Taliban came to dominate.
Pan-Arabism was promoted by Nasser, and the intellectual origins of today’s Islamist terrorism can be traced back to the writings of one of his opponents, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual jailed by the regime, although his books were not banned. For Qutb, the world is living in a state of ignorance and idolatry, Jahiliyyah, a term normally reserved for pre-Islam Arabia. This includes even those who claim to be Muslims, but who are in fact apostates and thus legitimate targets: “this is not Islam and they are not Muslims”. The evil is due to the fact that men have denied God one of his attributes, Hakemeyya, divine sovereignty. Muslim scholars are scandalised by the claim that man can deprive God of anything, but Qutb’s position is echoed by Daesh’s sinister black flag, where the “Mohammed-Messenger-Allah” you would expect is replaced by “Allah-Messenger-Mohammed”, if read in the usual top-to-bottom order.
Daesh are also influenced by Qutb’s idea that divine sovereignty will be restored by a self-proclaimed elite, and that the declaration of faith is not enough to define someone as Muslim, and must be completed by jihad. The practical manual for bringing about this new, truly Islamic state, was written by Daesh in the mid-2000s. The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass sets out the thinking behind the terrorist campaigns we’re seeing just now. The idea is to create such chaos, by whatever means necessary, that the jihadi are seen as the only group capable of restoring and maintaining order, similar to the initial support for the Taliban regime from Afghanis exhausted by the corruption and incompetence of the warlords.
Terrorism is one part of this strategy and Daesh have learned at least one lesson from the totalitarian regimes in Europe before and after the Second World War, namely that terror succeeds best when it is accepted on its own terms by its enemies. It’s not possible to physically terrorise everybody, but if everybody thinks they could be the next random victim, that is just as efficient.
Another major strand of Daesh’s approach is finance. The recommendations of The Management of Savagery for winning people over emphasize: “Uniting the hearts of the world’s people by means of money”. The financial power of Daesh is another significant difference with previous terrorist organisations, with some estimates putting its annual turnover at around USD 2 billion. It obtains its income through extortion, theft, and the black market – the same means described in a 2010 Rand Corporation report into Al-Qaida’s finances for the US Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Black market sales of oil probably remain Daesh’s main source of income, but as this dries up due to the success of the military forces opposing them, they will turn to other means. (Al Shabab in Somalia for instance controlled the sugar trade). Whatever it is, corruption will still be the “enabling technology” that enables the terrorists to operate. Two of the 9/11 hijackers allegedly obtained fraudulent driver’s licences from a branch of Virginia’s Division of Motor Vehicles which they used as identity cards to board the aircraft. The same branch had also sold licenses to illegal immigrants in exchange for bribes. “Nigerian troops were denied weapons to fight Boko Haram and thousands of lives were lost because of rampant fraud in the procurement process”, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared when a corrupt multi-billion dollar deal for weapons and equipment was revealed in the press in November 2015. The deal has not materialised, leaving troops without proper equipment to fight terrorist groups.
The OECD published work on the economic consequences of terrorism as long ago as 2002, and since then has examined regional, sectoral and broader aspects of the issues, for example terrorism and conflict over resources in West Africa, the implications for the transport industry, and how to help fragile states. In an analysis published earlier this year, Terrorism, corruption and the criminal exploitation of natural resources, the OECD argues that since terrorism is a multidimensional challenge, tackling it efficiently requires integrating social, economic, and political factors into the security analysis and response. Speaking personally, I would add that since the aims of Daesh include destroying democracy and dividing society along religious grounds, we should not do this for them in the name of the “war against terror”.
When asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans, Jesus is said to have answered that you should give God what belongs to God, and Cesar what belongs to Cesar. That can be seen as a reasonable separation of the material and the spiritual, but some members of the audience would have interpreted it as support from the Prince of Peace for their uncompromising hostility to the occupying army. For the Zealots, nothing in Israel belonged to Cesar, and they were prepared to free the country by any means necessary, including what we now call terrorist attacks. They failed, and it would be a thousand years before another terrorist sect left its mark on history, again in the Middle East, when the Assassins started to carry out attacks in full public view to reinforce their fearsome, fearless reputation. The Zealots and Assassins targeted individuals and the military. The politically-motivated killing of large groups of civilians was a French invention, when the revolutionary government used “la Terreur” to eliminate or intimidate opponents in the early 1790s.
Since then, this kind of state terrorism has killed millions, but when we talk about terrorists, it’s usually to refer to violent, politically-motivated non-state groups. In fact there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism, although various attempts have been made since the League of Nations first tried and failed in 1937. Even so, it’s clear that some terrorist acts of recent years represent a new kind of terrorism judging by their aims, targets, agents, and means.
Traditionally, terrorism was the work of organised groups with identifiable political goals, and was used to attain a clearly defined objective, such as freeing prisoners. The new terrorism has declared open-ended war on the “Western system” and its values, citizens, organisations and institutions. Its targets are no longer the military or symbols of the state. Large numbers of civilians may be targeted.
Unlike traditional, nation-based terrorists, modern terrorists are difficult to localise. They do not need to rely upon permanent structures for financial, technical or logistical assistance. Networks such as al-Qaeda can link together numerous highly-autonomous units of varying size and composition. They may still enjoy the backing of states for which encouraging, using and sometimes even organising terrorism is seen as a way to gain diplomatic influence, or a low-cost, low-risk alternative to war.
The vast majority of terrorist acts are committed with conventional means, but critical infrastructures that rely on information and communication technologies offer a new kind of target. Last week, the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta warned against “the potential for malicious disruptions to the payments system in the form of broadly targeted cyberattacks”. Cyberattacks offer a number of advantages: expertise is readily available; the benefits of a successful attack, in terms of damage inflicted, can be very substantial; the costs, in terms of terrorist lives, risk of capture and even funding, are limited; and a successful attack would gain worldwide publicity whereas failure would go unreported (unless governments and corporations develop a specific communication strategy based on reporting attack failures).
Terrorism in different forms will remain a key feature of conflicts in the coming decades and better understanding and assessment of the threat it poses is imperative. However, terrorism differs from most other types of risk in two ways that make its assessment difficult. First, its risks cannot be quantified using historical data, not least because of the deep changes they have undergone in the past years. Second, they are generated by human behaviour. In other words, the context of terrorism risk is one where damage is not caused by an outside event such as an earthquake or even an accidental human error, but by the deliberate action of persons resolved to exploit every breach in security, and who may be ready to sacrifice their lives doing so.
One of the characteristics of terrorism is that its objectives can be attained while leaving most potential victims untouched and even if most attacks fail. As one IRA member put it, “We only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time”. All forms of terrorism are similar in this respect. States that use terror against their own citizens can’t arrest everybody, but everybody must feel that they might be arrested, so arbitrary imprisonment is a common weapon against dissent. Islamic terrorism has mostly killed Muslims in Muslim countries, but the Eisenhower Research Project calculates that it has cost the US alone $3.2 to $4 trillion for the War on Terror, while according to a report by the International Commission of Jurists’ Eminent Jurists Panel some countries resort to secret detention, imprisoning children and other actions that “undermine cherished values as well as the international legal framework carefully developed since the Second World War”.
Because of terrorists’ ability to continually change their tactics according to the opportunities and obstacles they face, the risk of attacks and the effectiveness of security systems built against them are continuously reassessed. The Second International Meeting on Terrorism Risk Insurance at the OECD on Wednesday will look at how the terrorism threat is evolving, whether organisations are anticipating this risk, and asking if current insurance solutions are adequate. We’ll report on the discussions later in the week.