Walter Laqueur

Source:‘Postmodern terrorism’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 75, no. 5, September/October 1996, pp. 24–37.

New rules for an old game

[…] TERRORISM HAS BEEN defined as the substate application of vio- lence or threatened violence intended to sow panic in a society, to weaken or even overthrow the incumbents, and to bring about political change. It shades on occasion into guerrilla warfare (although unlike guerrillas, terrorists are unable or unwilling to take or hold territory) and even a substitute for war between states. In its long history terrorism has appeared in many guises; today society faces not one terrorism but many terrorisms.

Since 1900, terrorists’ motivation, strategy, and weapons have changed to some extent. The anarchists and the left-wing terrorist groups that succeeded them, down through the Red Armies that operated in Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1970s, have vanished; if anything, the initiative has passed to the extreme right. Most international and domestic terrorism these days, however, is neither left nor right, but ethnic-sep- aratist in inspiration. Ethnic terrorists have more staying power than ideologically motivated ones, since they draw on a larger reservoir of public support.

The greatest change in recent decades is that terrorism is by no means militants’ only strategy. The many-branched Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Kurdish extremists in Turkey and Iraq, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) movement in Spain, and many other groups that have sprung up in this century have had political as well as terrorist wings from the beginning. The political arm provides social services and education, runs businesses, and contests elections, while the “military wing” engages in ambushes and assassinations. Such division of labor has advantages: the political leadership can publicly disassociate itself when the terrorists commit a particularly outrageous act or something goes wrong.The claimed lack of control can be quite real because the armed wing tends to become independent; the men and women with the guns and bombs often lose sight of the movement’s wider aims and may end up doing more harm than good.

Terrorist operations have also changed somewhat. Airline hijackings have become rare, since hijacked planes cannot stay in the air forever and few countries today are willing to let them land, thereby incurring the stigma of openly supporting terrorism. Terrorists, too, saw diminishing returns on hijackings. The trend now seems to be away from attacking specific targets like the other side’s officials and toward more indiscriminate killing. Furthermore, the dividing line between urban terrorism and other tactics has become less distinct, while the line between politically motivated terrorism and the operation of national and international crime syndicates is often impossible for outsiders to discern […]. But there is one fundamental difference between international crime and terrorism: mafias have no interest in overthrowing the government and decisively weakening society; in fact, they have a vested interest in a prosperous economy.

Misapprehensions, not only semantic, surround the various forms of political violence. A terrorist is not a guerrilla, strictly speaking.There are no longer any guer- rillas, engaging in Maoist-style liberation of territories that become the base of a counter-society and a regular army fighting the central government – except perhaps in remote places like Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.The term “guerrilla” has had a long life partly because terrorists prefer the label, for its more positive con- notations. It also persists because governments and media in other countries do not wish to offend terrorists by calling them terrorists. […]

The belief has gained ground that terrorist missions by volunteers bent on com- mitting suicide constitute a radical new departure, dangerous because they are impos- sible to prevent. But that is a myth, like the many others in which terrorism has always been shrouded.The bomber willing and indeed eager to blow himself up has appeared in all eras and cultural traditions, espousing politics ranging from the leftism of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1970s Germany to rightist extremism. When the Japanese military wanted kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II, thousands of volunteers rushed to offer themselves. The young Arab bombers on Jerusalem buses looking to be rewarded by the virgins in Paradise are a link in an old chain.

State-sponsored terrorism has not disappeared.Terrorists can no longer count on the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, but some Middle Eastern and North African countries still provide support.Tehran and Tripoli, however, are less eager to argue that they have a divine right to engage in terrorist operations outside their bor- ders […]. No government today boasts about surrogate warfare it instigates and backs.

On the other hand, Sudan, without fanfare, has become for terrorists what the Barbary Coast was for pirates of another age: a safe haven. Politically isolated and presiding over a disastrous economy, the military government in Khartoum, backed by Muslim leaders, believes that no one wants to become involved in Sudan and thus it can get away with lending support to terrorists from many nations. Such confidence is justified so long as terrorism is only a nuisance. But if it becomes more than that, the rules of the game change, and both terrorists and their protectors come under great pressure. […]

The greatest change is that terrorism is not militants’ only strategy

Some argue that terrorism must be effective because certain terrorist leaders have become president or prime minister of their country. In those cases, however, the terrorists had first forsworn violence and adjusted to the political process. Finally, the common wisdom holds that terrorism can spark a war or, at least, prevent peace.That is true, but only where there is much inflammable material: as in Sarajevo in 1914, so in the Middle East and elsewhere today. Nor can one ever say with certainty that the conflagration would not have occurred sooner or later in any case.

Nevertheless, terrorism’s prospects, often overrated by the media, the public, and some politicians, are improving as its destructive potential increases. This has to do both with the rise of groups and individuals that practice or might take up terror- ism and with the weapons available to them.The past few decades have witnessed the birth of dozens of aggressive movements espousing varieties of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, and apocalyptic millenarianism. […] [Also] [n]ow, mail- order catalogs tempt militants with readily available, far cheaper, unconventional as well as conventional weapons […].

In addition to nuclear arms, the weapons of mass destruction include biological agents and man-made chemical compounds that attack the nervous system, skin, or blood. Governments have engaged in the production of chemical weapons for almost a century and in the production of nuclear and biological weapons for many decades, during which time proliferation has been continuous and access ever easier.1 The means of delivery – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aerosols – have also become far more effective. While in the past missiles were deployed only in wars between states, recently they have played a role in civil wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. Use by terrorist groups would be but one step further.

Until the 1970s most observers believed that stolen nuclear material constituted the greatest threat in the escalation of terrorist weapons, but many now think the danger could lie elsewhere. An April 1996 Defense Department report says that “most terrorist groups do not have the financial and technical resources to acquire nuclear weapons but could gather materials to make radiological dispersion devices and some biological and chemical agents.” Some groups have state sponsors that pos- sess or can obtain weapons of the latter three types. […]

To use or not to use?

If terrorists have used chemical weapons only once and nuclear material never, to some extent the reasons are technical. The scientific literature is replete with the technical problems inherent in the production, manufacture, storage, and delivery of each of the three classes of unconventional weapons.

The manufacture of nuclear weapons is not that simple, nor is delivery to their target. […]

Chemical agents are much easier to produce or obtain but not so easy to keep safely in stable condition, and their dispersal depends largely on climatic factors. […] The biological agents are far and away the most dangerous: they could kill hundreds of thousands where chemicals might kill only thousands. They are relatively easy to procure, but storage and dispersal are even trickier than for nerve gases. The risk of contamination for the people handling them is high, and many of the most lethal bacteria and spores do not survive well outside the laboratory. […]

Given the technical difficulties, terrorists are probably less likely to use nuclear devices than chemical weapons, and least likely to attempt to use biological weapons. But difficulties could be overcome, and the choice of unconventional weapons will in the end come down to the specialties of the terrorists and their access to deadly substances.

Terrorists can order the poor man’s nuclear bomb from a catalog

The political arguments for shunning unconventional weapons are equally weighty. The risk of detection and subsequent severe retaliation or punishment is great, and while this may not deter terrorists it may put off their sponsors and suppliers. Terrorists eager to use weapons of mass destruction may alienate at least some sup- porters, not so much because the dissenters hate the enemy less or have greater moral qualms but because they think the use of such violence counter-productive. Unconventional weapon strikes could render whole regions uninhabitable for long periods. Use of biological arms poses the additional risk of an uncontrollable epi- demic. And while terrorism seems to be tending toward more indiscriminate killing and mayhem, terrorists may draw the line at weapons of super-violence likely to harm both foes and large numbers of relatives and friends – say, Kurds in Turkey, Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Arabs in Israel.

Furthermore, traditional terrorism rests on the heroic gesture, on the willing- ness to sacrifice one’s own life as proof of one’s idealism. Obviously there is not much heroism in spreading botulism or anthrax. Since most terrorist groups are as inter- ested in publicity as in violence, and as publicity for a mass poisoning or nuclear bombing would be far more unfavorable than for a focused conventional attack, only terrorists who do not care about publicity will even consider the applications of unconventional weapons.

Broadly speaking, terrorists will not engage in overkill if their traditional weap- ons – the submachine gun and the conventional bomb – are sufficient to continue the struggle and achieve their aims. But the decision to use terrorist violence is not always a rational one; if it were, there would be much less terrorism, since terrorist activity seldom achieves its aims. […]

Future shock

Scanning the contemporary scene, one encounters a bewildering multiplicity of ter- rorist and potentially terrorist groups and sects. […]

In the past, terrorism was almost always the province of groups of militants that had the backing of political forces like the Irish and Russian social revolutionary movements of 1900. In the future, terrorists will be individuals or like-minded people working in very small groups […]. An individual may possess the technical competence to steal, buy, or manufacture the weapons he or she needs for a terrorist purpose; he or she may or may not require help from one or two others in delivering these weap- ons to the designated target.The ideologies such individuals and mini-groups espouse are likely to be even more aberrant than those of larger groups. And terrorists work- ing alone or in very small groups will be more difficult to detect unless they make a major mistake or are discovered by accident.

Thus at one end of the scale, the lone terrorist has appeared, and at the other, state-sponsored terrorism is quietly flourishing in these days when wars of aggression have become too expensive and too risky. As the century draws to a close, terrorism is becoming the substitute for the great wars of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction does not mean that most terror- ist groups are likely to use them in the foreseeable future, but some almost certainly will, in spite of all the reasons militating against it. Governments, however ruthless, ambitious, and ideologically extreme, will be reluctant to pass on unconventional weapons to terrorist groups over which they cannot have full control; the govern- ments may be tempted to use such arms themselves in a first strike, but it is more probable that they would employ them in blackmail than in actual warfare. Individuals and small groups, however, will not be bound by the constraints that hold back even the most reckless government.

Society has also become vulnerable to a new kind of terrorism, in which the destructive power of both the individual terrorist and terrorism as a tactic are infinitely greater. Earlier terrorists could kill kings or high officials, but others only too eager to inherit their mantle quickly stepped in. The advanced societies of today are more dependent every day on the electronic storage, retrieval, analysis, and transmission of information. Defense, the police, banking, trade, transportation, scientific work, and a large percentage of the government’s and the private sector’s transactions are on-line. That exposes enormous vital areas of national life to mischief or sabotage by any com- puter hacker, and concerted sabotage could render a country unable to function. Hence the growing speculation about infoterrorism and cyberwarfare. […]

[…] There is little secrecy in the wired society, and protective measures have proved of limited value […].The possibilities for creating chaos are almost unlimited even now, and vulnerability will almost certainly increase. Terrorists’ targets will change:Why assassinate a politician or indiscriminately kill people when an attack on electronic switching will produce far more dramatic and lasting results? […] If the new terrorism directs its energies toward information warfare, its destructive power will be exponentially greater than any it wielded in the past – greater even than it would be with biological and chemical weapons. […]


1 Science fiction writers produced chemical weapons even earlier. In Jules Verne’s The Begum’s Fortune, a (German) scientist aims to wipe out the 250,000 inhabitants of (French) Franceville with one grenade of what he calls carbon acid gas, shot from a supergun.

Michael Howard


Source:‘What’s in a name? How to fight terrorism’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 8–14.

THEN, IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the September 11 attacks on theWorldTrade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the United States was “at war” with terrorism, he made a very natural but terrible and irrevocable error. Administration leaders have been trying to put it right ever since.

What Powell said made sense if one uses the term “war against terrorism” in the sense of a war against crime or against drug trafficking: that is, the mobilization of all available resources against a dangerous, antisocial activity, one that can never be entirely eliminated but can be reduced to, and kept at, a level that does not threaten social stability.

The British in their time have fought many such “wars” – in Palestine, in Ireland, in Cyprus, and in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), to mention only a few. But they never called them wars; they called them “emergencies.” This terminology meant that the police and intelligence services were provided with exceptional powers and were reinforced where necessary by the armed forces, but they continued to operate within a peacetime framework of civilian authority. If force had to be used, it was at a minimal level and so far as possible did not interrupt the normal tenor of civil life. The objectives were to isolate the terrorists from the rest of the community and to cut them off from external sources of supply. The terrorists were not dignified with the status of belligerents: they were criminals, to be regarded as such by the general public and treated as such by the authorities.

To declare war on terrorists or, even more illiterately, on terrorism is at once to accord terrorists a status and dignity that they seek and that they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy. Do they qualify as belligerents? If so, should they not receive the protection of the laws of war? […]

But to use, or rather to misuse, the term “war” is not simply a matter of legality or pedantic semantics. It has deeper and more dangerous consequences. To declare that one is at war is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counter-productive for the objective being sought. It arouses an immediate expecta- tion, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary, preferably a hostile state – action leading to decisive results.

The use of force is seen no longer as a last resort, to be avoided if humanly pos- sible, but as the first, and the sooner it is used the better. […] Any suggestion that the best strategy is not to use military force at all but to employ subtler if less heroic means of destroying the adversary is dismissed as “appeasement” by politicians whose knowledge of history is about on a par with their skill at political management. […]

[…] The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists – secrecy, intel- ligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience – all these are forgotten or overridden in a media-stoked frenzy for immediate results, and nagging complaints if they do not get them. […]

Battle of wits

A struggle against terrorism, as the British have discovered over the past century and particularly in Northern Ireland, is unlike a war against drugs or a war against crime in one vital respect. It is fundamentally a “battle for hearts and minds”; it is worth remembering that that phrase was first coined in the context of the most successful campaign of this kind that the British armed forces have ever fought – the Malayan emergency in the 1950s (a campaign that, incidentally, took some 15 years to bring to an end). Without hearts and minds one cannot obtain intelligence, and without intelligence terrorists can never be defeated. There is not much of a constituency for criminals or drug traffickers, and in a campaign against them the government can be reasonably certain that the mass of the public will be on its side. But it is well known that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Terrorists can be success- fully destroyed only if public opinion, both at home and abroad, supports the author- ities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes.

In the intricate game of skill played between terrorists and the authorities, as the British discovered in both Palestine and Ireland, the terrorists have already won an important battle if they can provoke the authorities into using over armed force against them.They will then be in a win-win situation: either they will escape to fight another day, or they will be defeated and celebrated as martyrs.

In the process of fighting them a lot of innocent civilians will certainly be hurt, further eroding the moral authority of the government.Who in the United Kingdom will ever forget Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, when in 1972 a few salvos of small-arms fire by the British army gave the Irish Republican Army a propaganda vic- tory from which the British government would never recover? And if so much harm can be done by rifle fire, what is one to say about bombing? It is like trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blowtorch. Whatever its military justification, the bombing of Afghanistan, with the inevitable collateral damage, has whittled away the immense moral ascendancy gained as a result of the terrorist attacks in America.

Soon for much of the world that atrocity will be, if not forgotten, then remem- bered only as history; meanwhile, every fresh picture on television of a hospital hit, or children crippled by land mines, or refugees driven from their homes by Western military action will strengthen the hatred and recruit for the ranks of the terrorists, as well as sow fresh doubts in the minds of America’s supporters.

There is no reason to doubt that the campaign in Afghanistan was undertaken only on the best available political and military advice, in full realization of the mili- tary difficulties and political dangers and in the sincere belief that there was no alter- native. […] But in compelling the allies to undertake it at all, the terrorists took the first and all-important trick.

The understandable military reasoning that drove the campaign was based on the political assumption that the terrorist network had to be destroyed as quickly as pos- sible before it could do more damage. It further assumed that the network was mas- terminded by a single evil genius, Osama bin Laden, whose elimination would demoralize if not destroy his organization. Bin Laden operated out of a country the rulers of which refused to yield him up to the forces of international justice. Those rulers had to be compelled to change their minds. The quickest way to break their will was by aerial bombardment, especially since a physical invasion of their territory presented such huge if not insoluble logistical problems. Given these assumptions, what alternative was there?

Weak foundations

But the best reasoning, and the most flawless logic, is of little value if it starts from false assumptions. I have no doubt that voices were raised both in Washington and in Whitehall questioning the need and pointing out the dangers of immediate military action, but if they were, they were at once drowned out by the thunderous political imperative: “Something must be done.”The same voices no doubt also questioned the wisdom, if not the accuracy, of identifying bin Laden as the central and indispensable figure in the terrorist network – demonizing him for some people, but for others giving him the heroic status enjoyed by “freedom fighters” throughout the ages.

The allies are now in a horrible dilemma. If they “bring him to justice” and put him on trial they will provide bin Laden with a platform for global propaganda. If, instead, he is assassinated – perhaps “shot while trying to escape” – he will become a martyr. If he escapes he will become a Robin Hood. Bin Laden cannot lose. And even if he is eliminated, it is hard to believe that his global network, apparently consisting of people as intelligent and well educated as they are dedicated and ruthless, will not continue to function effectively until they are traced and dug out by patient and long- term operations of police and intelligence forces, whose activities will not, and cer- tainly should not, make headlines. Such a process, as the British defense chief Admiral Sir Michael Boyce has rightly pointed out, may well take decades, perhaps as long as the Cold War.

Now that the operation has begun it must be pressed to a successful conclusion – successful enough for the allies to be able to disengage with honor and for the tabloid headlines to claim victory (though the very demand for victory and the sub- Churchillian rhetoric that accompanies this battle cry show how profoundly press and politicians still misunderstand the nature of the terrorist problem). Only after achiev- ing an honorable disengagement will it be possible to continue with the real struggle described above, one in which there will be no spectacular battles and no clear victory.

Boyce’s analogy with the Cold War is valuable in another respect. Not only did it go on for a very long time, but it had to be kept cold. There was a constant danger that it would be inadvertently toppled into a “hot” nuclear war, which everyone would cata- strophically lose.The danger of nuclear war, at least on a global scale, has now ebbed, if only for the moment, but it has been replaced by another threat, and one no less alarm- ing: the likelihood of an ongoing and continuous confrontation of cultures that will not only divide the world but shatter the internal cohesion of our increasingly multicultural societies. And the longer the overt war continues against terrorism, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, the greater is the danger of that confrontation happening.

There is no reason to suppose that Osama bin Laden enjoys any more sympathy in the Islamic world than, say, Northern Ireland’s Ian Paisley does in Christendom. The type is a phenomenon that has cropped up several times in British history: a char- ismatic religious leader fanatically hostile to the West leading a cult that has some- times gripped an entire nation.There was the Mahdi in the Sudan in the late nineteenth century, and the so-called Mad Mullah in Somaliland in the early twentieth.Admittedly they presented purely local problems, although a substantial proportion of the British army had to be mobilized to deal with the Mahdi and his followers.

Cultural underpinnings

The difference today is that such leaders can recruit followers from all over the world and can strike back anywhere on the globe. They are neither representative of Islam nor approved by Islam, but the roots of their appeal life in a peculiarly Islamic pre- dicament that only intensified over the last half of the twentieth century: the chal- lenge to Islamic culture and values posed by the secular and materialistic culture of the West, and the inability to come to terms with it.

This is a vast subject that must be understood if there is to be any hope, not so much of winning the new cold war as of preventing it from becoming hot. In retro- spect, it is quite astonishing how little the West has understood, or empathized with, the huge crisis that has faced that vast and populous section of the world stretching from the Maghreb through the Middle East and Central Asia into South and Southeast Asia and beyond to the Philippines: overpopulated, underdeveloped, being dragged headlong by the West into the postmodern age before their populations have come to terms with modernity.

This is not a problem of poverty as against wealth, and it is symptomatic of Western materialism to suppose that it is. It is the far more profound and intractable confrontation between a theistic, landbased, and traditional culture, in places little different from the Europe of the Middle Ages, and the secular material values of the Enlightenment. The British and the French, given their imperial experiences, ought to understand these problems. But for most Americans it must be said that Islam remains one vast terra incognita – and one, like those blank areas on medieval maps, inhabited very largely by dragons.

This is the region where the struggle for hearts and minds must be waged and won if the struggle against terrorism is to succeed.The front line in the struggle is not in Afghanistan. It is in the Islamic states where modernizing governments are threat- ened by a traditionalist backlash: Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan, to name only the most obvious. The front line also runs through the streets of the multicultural cities in the West. For Muslims in Ankara or Cairo, Paris or Berlin, the events of September 11 were terrible, but they happened a long way away and in another world. By contrast, those whose sufferings as a result of Western air raids or of Israeli incursions are nightly depicted on television are people, however geographically distant, with whom Muslims around the world can easily identify.

That is why prolonging the war is likely to be so disastrous. Even more disastrous would be its extension, as U.S. opinion seems increasingly to demand, in a long march through other “rogue states” beginning with Iraq, in order to eradicate terrorism for good so that the world can live at peace. No policy is more likely not just to indefi- nitely prolong the war but to ensure that it can never be won.