Thursday, 24 March 2016

What Terrorists Want - and How to Stop Them Getting It

In order to talk sensibly about terrorism we have to acknowledge its rationality. Set aside the armchair psychologising and Muslim blaming that goes on after every atrocity or ISIS video. That low grade psychobabble turns tragic events into compelling TV narratives and gets political opportunists mainstream attention. But even if it made better sense it would still be irrelevant. If we want to know why people commit terrorist acts we must ask what they are supposed to achieve. The reasons why particular individuals are recruited to terrorist groups and causes are distinct from the strategic logic of terrorism itself, the choice of technique. Terrorism is neither a psychological illness nor a goal in itself. Terrorism is the kind of warfare that the weak wage against the strong.

All terrorism is theatre, dependent on the collaboration of its audience for its effect. It is about capturing the public's attention and manipulating our emotions - including not only fear but also indignation and even rage - in order for a small (often tiny), militarily weak group to advance some political goal.* The specific form of terrorism chosen will vary according to the group's ambitions, inclination to violence, and strategic calculations (and of course, just because they are trying to be rational doesn't mean they will make the smartest choices; businesses are rational but they go bankrupt all the time). There are three distinct uses to which terrorism can be put: attention-seeking, extortion, and provocation.

I. Attention Seeking: Hijacking the Global Media Industry

A lot of terrorism is simply concerned with getting the attention of a democratic polity. The key trick here is to hijack a society's news media by wrapping an irresistible spectacle around a political message that no one would otherwise pay attention to. This is the most common function of terrorism and it is compatible with a wide range of levels of violence, from the Suffragettes' arson and bomb attacks against property to the hideous ISIS beheadings videos.

There are actually two parts to the attention-seeking function. In one, the agenda of the terrorists becomes a part of the mainstream conversation: finally their voice is heard! Arguments against religious defamation were seriously discussed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for example. Yet the conclusion of that public discussion was a pretty definitive rejection. Terrorists may fantasise that when everyone understands what they are fighting for they will be converted to the side of true justice, but terrorism tends to taint what is being sold. Even the Suffragettes, despite winning the biopic, arguably set back their political cause by undermining its moral foundation and splitting its popular support. (Gandhi and Martin Luther King wisely chose the path of non-violent civil disobedience instead: let the oppressors make the spectacle and thereby undermine their own moral authority.)

The other part of the attention seeking function works much better: winning the biopic. The English suffragist movement had been going for a century and a half before the militant suffragettes appeared, but only the headline makers are now remembered. The point can be generalised. When a terrorist organisation commits an atrocity on behalf of some cause or some demographic it is not just their cause that receives attention but they themselves. The more the media talks about them, the more they come to be seen as the true representatives of that cause or demographic, side-lining all those committed to peaceful democratic protest, or even pretty happy with how things are.

This is important to terrorists because their political goals include not only getting certain things done (like independence for Palestine) but also achieving political power over others (the Palestinians in Gaza). This competition for power is why terrorist groups spend so much time fighting other groups that are supposed to be on the same side. In general one can say that terrorism involves a calculated trade-off between political power and political justice. Terrorists give up the wider moral legitimacy that arguments for the justice of their cause might bring in return for greater influence over a narrower community that their own terrorism has left isolated. Al Qaida, for example, managed to persuade large numbers of Americans and their politicians and pundits - including, particularly shamefully, several leading New Atheists - that Al Qaida represented Islam and all 1.5 billion Muslims, with the generous exception of those Muslims prepared to publicly and repeatedly declare otherwise. What a coup!

Groups that use terrorism are weak and small, by definition. Terrorism is so attractive for these groups because it costs almost nothing and the pay offs can be huge: in Al Qaida's case a trillion-dollar global media industry working for them. Sure, it hasn't gotten them everything they want, but being appointed the leaders of the Ummah by America was a big promotion for a bunch of losers hiding in a cave.

Terrorism has a built in positive feedback loop. The more atrocities pay off in media attention the more appealing they become. There is also a tendency to escalation, as viewers get bored of the same old thing and other terrorist groups compete for status - consider how ISIS displaced Al Qaida with its slicker production values, social media nous, and even more exciting atrocities.

We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. (Margaret Thatcher, 1985, Speech to the American Bar Association)

The media is clearly complicit in this. They choose what to air and publish, and they choose based on how many viewers they will get (to sell to advertisers). However, though you may find the ethics of this disgusting and irresponsible, it is hard to see what could be done about it. In societies without a free media, like North Korea, terrorism is pointless. In societies with a free media, there is an unfortunate symbiosis between terrorism and journalism. In response to Northern Irish terrorism, Thatcher's government tried appealing to journalistic conscience by imposing a 'voluntary' code on the British media, releasing less information about attacks, and ultimately a legal ban on broadcasting direct statements by terrorist representatives or supporters. None of it worked of course, and would be even less likely to work now, with globalisation and social media.

But it isn't the media companies who are ultimately to blame anyway. They just give their consumers what they seem to want. If we didn't pay so much attention to atrocities in the first place, terrorists wouldn't bother to commit them. We are not tied to our sofas and forced to gawp at whatever new awfulness CNN shows us. We have the power and moral responsibility to direct our own attention. Targeted apathy is an underappreciated virtue and power. It's also the rational response. Terrorism isn't really worth worrying about. In most countries more people die slipping in the bath. Just look away!

II. Extortion: Creating an Expensive Embarrassment

Of course terrorism isn't only a cry for attention. It is also a way of threatening governments with their greatest fear: public embarrassment. A surprisingly small group of people who are sufficiently determined can deny a government full sovereignty over a large area/population. Specifically, although the group cannot take over the territory itself, it can void a government's promise of guaranteeing protection from political violence, the fundamental promise on which its legitimacy rests (a commonplace of political philosophy since Hobbes). The asymmetry of military power again works in the terrorist group's favour. It gets to choose when and where to attack. The government has to try to defend every possible target, which is impossible and also extremely expensive.

This use of terrorism is not a threat to the modern state, an entity that arguably evolved exactly to fight wars at a far more serious scale. But in democracies, governing parties are very conscious that they will be thrown out if they can't maintain the confidence of the citizenry. Democratic governments fear attacks because they fear embarrassment, not because they especially care about a few civilians getting killed. This is also why they invest an inordinate amount of resources in preventing exact repeats of previous attacks, like shoe-bombers, on the principle 'fool me twice, shame on me'.

The genius of this use of terrorism is that the very security measures brought in to reassure the public of the government's efforts to protect them serve as omnipresent billboards advertising the terrorist threat. Every time you see a policeman with a machine gun in an airport or train station you are reminded of how powerful and dangerous the terrorists are. The British government managed to keep N. Ireland more or less under control, but only by putting it under a kind or martial law for several decades with thousands of soldiers patrolling the streets in full battledress. The inevitable mistakes and excesses of the security forces were further public relations gifts to the IRA in their campaign against the unjust British state.

All this serves to raise the price that governments pay for denying terrorist groups what they want. Sooner or later, governments always talk to the terrorists and try to cut a deal. They are unlikely to give up core values or interests - unifying Ireland was never an option - but they can be moved to accept compromises they would never have considered before. Importantly, because it was the violence that brought the government to talk, it is the groups behind the violence with whom they negotiate the peace. Peaceful groups tend to get left out. Democracy is outflanked.

The reason this kind of terrorism has to be solved diplomatically is that decisive military victory is elusive (with some exceptions, such as Sri Lanka - after 30 years). Militarisation in fact tends to entrench social divisions around the original sense of grievance by pushing large numbers of people who cannot sufficiently prove their loyalty to the state into the control of the terrorist group. Yet governments always resort to the military solution first and foremost and keep plugging away at it long after its limitations are clear. What should they do instead - or as well? To simplify dramatically, governments could wage a more effective war on terrorists by undercutting the justice of their cause and by raising the costs of participating in terrorism.

There is no reason to wait for terrorists to appear to address significant social injustices, such as the anti-Catholic bigotry rampant in N. Ireland institutions before the Troubles. Terrorists typically represent an extreme end on a spectrum of political discontent. Addressing more reasonable complaints about injustice as early as possible - before any terrorist group can claim credit for achieving them by force! - isolates the terrorists from their pool of sympathisers and potential recruits, constraining its capabilities and life-span.

One can also reduce terrorist recruitment and retention by raising its opportunity costs, what people have to give up to pursue that life choice. This approach, outlined by Bruno Frey and Simon Luechinger, focuses on providing better alternatives to terrorism rather than merely tougher punishments - such as better educational and employment prospects for dissolute youth in key communities (which also pull people into different, more bourgeois value systems) and golden parachutes for defectors. Other features include lowering the 'price' of alternative means of addressing grievances within mainstream democratic institutions. Democratic devices such as local referendums demonstrate what can be achieved via the democratic process, and also confront extremist groups with the reality of their democratic deficit.

III. Provocation: The Trap of War

The IRA and other nationalist independence movements like the PLO, Tamil Tigers, and PKK were masters of terrorism as extortion. Their unglamorous style of attritional viciousness became a fact of life in many countries (though not America), grinding away in the background of public consciousness for decades. But the millenarianism of Al Qaida seemed to usher in something new. Al Qaida and ISIS are not in the business of extorting compromise from governments. They have something bigger in mind - a new world order - and a plan to achieve it by fomenting a war of civilisations. It is astonishing how easily the West has been manipulated into furthering that plan.

ISIS is not a threat to France or Belgium, let alone Europe or the West. It is only a threat to its citizens' subjective feelings. That's not nothing, of course. But its main outcome is the demand we instinctively make on our governments to Do Something!

Democratic governments depend on the faith of their citizens that they are really in control of things. I already mentioned one part of that: governments must demonstrate competence in defending their people from political violence, i.e. providing freedom from fear. But many citizens expect their government to play offense as well as defense. They hold the government accountable not only for the well-being and prosperity of the people but also as the guardian of national sovereignty. Terrorism fills these people with rage and righteous indignation. (Sometimes they feel fear too, and that makes them even more angry.) Spectacular terrorist attacks like 9/11 or Mumbai or Paris are seen as direct challenges to national honour, rather like the insult that would set up a 19th century duel. The state must prove its superiority by reacting in a yet more spectacular way and winning the duel.

And this is of course exactly what a certain kind of terrorist group most desires. They have made a calculated bet that provoking an extreme reaction by a first world state will shake up the status quo in such a way that their agenda ultimately benefits. A long shot, yes, but when you consider the weakness of their hand in relation to their extraordinary ambitions it is actually their most rational strategy. (It was also the rational choice for the anarchists of a hundred years ago; but not generally for independence movements, which tend to have more to lose from provoking a full scale war.)

All this is extremely obvious and must be well understood by those who advise governments on national security. Nonetheless, governments routinely blunder into the terrorist trap when their sense of national dignity is insulted, sometimes with world changing results. Austria-Hungary's overreaction to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand launched the first world war. More recently, there was America's overreaction to 9/11. The US spent on a scale that could have paid for mitigating climate change - an actual global threat - or ending world poverty. And their efforts gifted Al Qaida with an enormous bounty, albeit a bounty that its successor ISIS has churlishly taken over. That includes:
  • the public relations coup of an apparent war of civilisations, confirming Al Qaeda's framing of how the world works and implicitly recognising Al Qaida as the representative of that 'other civilisation' of 1.5 billion people around the world, including millions of Americans;
  • a worldwide brand that attracts enough of the world's discontented fools to more than make up for any military losses;
  • the expansion of ungoverned stateless spaces where they and their affiliates can organise, train, and even try their hand at government;
  • sectarian civil wars that make the rule of an insane millenarian death cult seem the least worst option to civilians just trying to survive (cf the circumstances of the Khmer Rouge's take-over of Cambodia).
It shouldn't really be too difficult to persuade our governments not to give terrorists their dearest wish: a declaration of war. India didn't after the provocation of Mumbai. For a long time I even supposed that only America was hubristic enough to fall for the trick. But then Hollande declared war on ISIS - thus promoting it to statehood - and announced his intention to defend the national honour by changing the constitution to reduce dual citizens to 2nd class citizens (furthering the war of civilisations, us vs. them narrative).

France still has time to recover its good sense before it makes any really big mistakes, and I hope it will. But the general lesson is that national indignation and anger is as much a goal of contemporary terrorism as national fear. If we don't want the terrorists to win we have to reject their attempts to manipulate our emotions to their ends. We have to keep things in proportion. ISIS just isn't worth caring that much about, and is too politically, economically and socially unsustainable to survive much longer anyway. And we have to make sure our politicians know that we know this, so that they don't feel compelled by the logic of political survival to launch any more crazy wars on terror.

IV. Democracy: a Vulnerability and a Strength

Even in a democracy some people and ideologies can be permanently sidelined and ignored by the wider society and government. Sometimes some members of such a permanent minority, such as Basque separatists in Spain, take matters into their own hands: when the justice of their cause isn't recognised by the wider society they consider themselves at war with it, and assume to themselves the natural right to further their cause by violence.

There is an intimate relationship between democracy and terrorism. On the one hand, well-functioning democracies find ways to include minorities within democratic processes, protect them from outright oppression by the impartial administration of law, and accommodate reasonable requests to have their specialness recognised (such as language rights). In other words, democracies are pretty good at justice, at least in comparison to autocracies, such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, under which the majority of the population is disenfranchised and subject to gross mistreatment.

On the other hand, autocracies have a closed politics among an elite while democracies have a public politics which an aggrieved group can directly appeal to or threaten. While autocracies tightly control access to the media - they are professional manipulators of the public imagination in their own right - democracies have a foundational commitment to a free press that can be hacked and redirected by terrorists.

Thus, although Western democracies generate the fewest grievances that can give birth to violent extremism, they are also the most vulnerable to terrorism as a technique. The new problem of terrorism as a global phenomenon, which millenarian Islamism may have inaugurated but will surely not end with them, is that groups with no particular quarrel with democracies may target them just because doing so has a higher pay off. It's not because they hate our freedoms but because they can use them against us. The theatre of terrorism now goes on tour to wherever the best audiences can be found.

Democracy's weakness has always been that the rule of public opinion can be that of the mob, collective stupidity and ignorance. But democracies have strengths too, which explain why they have thrived and outcompeted every other regime for the past 200 years. The strengths of a democratic society lie in its capability for collective reasoning - to improve its opinions and learn from its mistakes by a public conversation; to not merely act and react but to reflect. And to have governments prepared to bet on how that public conversation will and should go rather than following it blindly. Terrorists prey on the weakness of democracy. Beating them requires that we demonstrate its strengths.

*I acknowledge that there is another kind of terrorism perpetrated by the strong upon the weak, such as by governments upon their peoples by means of secret police and torture chambers. But though similarly condemnable from a moral perspective, analytically state terrorism works quite differently and falls outside this essay.

Further Critical Reading
Max Abrahms has an excellent critique of the 'strategic' analysis of terrorism - the approach of my essay - and proposes a sociological account instead in which terrorists are motivated mainly by social solidarity: 'What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy' in International Security, Vol. 32: 78-105 (Spring 2008).


  1. Everyone in the world should be given this essay to read. It should be posted in every public place, and if possible, sky written.

  2. Is it really not possible to defeat terrorists militarily? Is that not exactly what Argentina, Chile and Peru did? I'm not suggesting that it is the right course--we still stand horrified at the atrocities committed by those regimes in their war against the terrorists. But in the end, the terrorists were defeated.

    1. Thanks - you're right. I was too quick.

      It is possible to defeat terrorists militarily (e.g. Sri Lanka) but it is difficult (30 years in Sri Lanka). In Peru the breakthrough was police work; the military response was a farrago of incompetence and indiscriminate torture and massacre. (Not sure which cases in Chile and Argentina you're talking about.)

      The reason it is so hard is that the military is a poor tool for this task. A military is designed to force other governments to accede to your demands by threatening things they care about more; directly taking what you want; or else directly killing or capturing their leaders. Terrorist groups have relatively little to threaten (their weakness becomes a strength) and their leadership is usually rather secretive, and often decentralised - so hard to target directly. Furthermore, military force generates a backlash. A military is a killing machine organised around the application of ruthless and devastating force against the people who stand in the way of its government’s will. Using it domestically tends to make your citizens feel like you just declared war on them (as e.g. Ukraine recently discovered).

    2. I'll give you Malaya and Kenya as successful anti-terrorist miltary actions; but these were well-thought out operations against groups with limited appeal, not undertaken with the full glare of international attention.

  3. This is great. Razib Khan wrote an interesting essay on terrorism a while ago, in which he made the interesting point that the key recruiting tool of ISIS or AQ is that they can provide a ready-made heroic story for disaffected young men to step into if they are unsatisfied by their mundane reality. Is there an analogous effect that convinces Western voters to react to terrorism in the counterproductive ways that you identify? In other words, does the average Western citizen find a comparable kind of satisfaction in enlisting as a foot soldier in clash of civilizations on the side of the West? (Psychologically comparable that is; obviously fighting against murdering civilians is morally preferable to fighting for it.) That might also explain why overreactions to terrorism are more prevalent on the right, which doesn't have heroic narratives about social justice to offer.

    1. Interesting thesis.

      But besides the political psychology of terrorism (voters) there is its political logic (the iron law of competition that dominates politicians' thinking). Rightist politicians may be the most enthusiastic in overreacting to the national insult of terrorism, but leftist parties often adopt the same line - at least initially - rather than challenging it and explaining its flaws to the voters. President Hollande is supposed to be a social democrat after all.

  4. Don't you think that a positive side-effect of paying excessive attention to terrorist acts is that it deincentivates an escalation?. If terrorists wouldn't get global attention by killing 30 people in an airport, that could be an incentive to commit bigger terrorist attacks. Even if they are comparatively weak with respect to countries, modern technology allows killing many with relatively little power

    1. Nice point. I think that might be truer of the attritional style of terrorism, as practised by the IRA and Hamas, than the deliberately extravagant efforts of millenarian groups like Al Qaida.

  5. Great essay! I agree with everything you said about fighting the PR war against terrorism. However, you didn't provide an explanation for what gave rise to Islamic terrorism in the first place - not that this was the aim of your article. And here the New Atheists do provide an explanation - and I have yet to find a better alternative - which is that the toxicity of some of the dogmas in Islam are responsible for the jihadism and islamism.

    That being said, I totally agree with you that we shouldn't let the jihadists establish a narrative in which the plot is a war between the West vs. Islam - but in a way, it IS a war: of civilization against Islamism and jihadism. And in this war, we need to get normal muslims on the on the side of civilization - and this is where your points about having a smart strategy against terrorism are useful.

    1. Thanks! But I'm still going to argue with you. The trouble with the New Atheist account is not only that it makes little sense. (Apart from anything else, many ISIS/AQ recruits seem to know almost nothing about Islamic theology.) By demanding that Muslims prove their loyalty it also buys directly into the framing that these millenarian terrorists have proposed.

      You asked for a better explanation of terrorism. Though I tried not to dabble too deeply into the psychology of terrorists in this essay (we don't ask why Russians join its army when thinking about how to contain the Kremlin's new hybrid warfare strategies), I do think that recruitment has much to do with a overpowering sense of injustice. The tiny minority who adopt the extreme measures of committing terrorist violence and even suicide bombing may well be mistaken about the injustice itself, and they are certainly mistaken that it justifies the murder of civilians. But anything that increases the sense of injustice among a population can only drive more people to believe that a terrorist group's ideology makes sense (cf N. Ireland, southern Thailand, etc). The way America and Europe have turned against Muslims since 9/11 has been appalling to watch, and also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The New Atheists aren't the only ones responsible for it (just look at the Republican nominees), but they have been particularly influential on the left.

    2. "Thanks! But I'm still going to argue with you. The trouble with the New Atheist account is not only that it makes little sense. (Apart from anything else, many ISIS/AQ recruits seem to know almost nothing about Islamic theology.)"

      I think a pertinent question would be (and one that for obvious reasons can never really be answered) what is the prime motivation of the most fervent (I would imagine)of the ISIS/AQ recruits, the suicide bombers and those actually perpetrating the atrocities? I think a distinction needs to be made, if we are ever going to understand what drives an individual to commit such acts of barbarism against their fellow human beings? What is it that sets them apart from their comrades, in terms of their strength of motivation and deliberation in carrying out their obscene acts? Disaffection/alienation from society, or social injustice would not appear (to me) to be enough of a motivation to detonate oneself, point a gun at a group of people and unleash a hail of bullets, or to take a knife to a human being and hack off their head? We have only the evidence of their (final in some cases) words and the second-hand accounts from those who knew them. In other words, can we analyze the mind of the successful terrorist? Can we isolate a root cause, i.e. the prime mover for their actions? Without that basic analysis we cannot begin to look at remedial actions. I do understand that the motivation could be different in every case (all is possible), but there do appear to be common factors at play and those come from the words of the terrorists themselves. I would be interested in your thoughts.

    3. @Anon 18:32

      As it happens I recently waded through a number of academic papers in the psychology of terrorism in search of suitable examples for a philosophy of social science class. I had somehow assumed that those advising our governments on deradicalisation and so on knew what they were talking about so the level of bullshit was really a surprise. Much was at best schlock science and at worst pure snake oil. (Charitably, this is a new field - almost entirely developed from scratch since 9/11; and there are exceptions, such as John Horgan.)

      So the individual psychology of terrorism is still up in the air. About all that is agreed is that they aren't mentally ill or psychopaths (unfortunately - that would be very convenient!).

      My own, perhaps overly philosophical, view is that violence is very often motivated by moral codes (as argued here by Tage Rai. That doesn't mean that it is actually morally justified, but that familiar moral emotions are behind it. As for how they justify gruesome attacks on civilians, soldiers have always found ways to obey horrible orders. (Al Assad's forces have killed far more civilians than ISIS, and quite deliberately.)

    4. Thank you for your considered and, not overly, philosophical view. I also agree with your assessment of the proliferation of "schlock science" in certain fields. It is indeed astonishing to see the lack of critical thinking skills exhibited on a regular basis in public forums by those who (one would assume)should know better. Anyway, may I say your considered writings are very refreshing in their clarity of thought and what is also appreciated is your willingness to engage with your readers. I agree that not all terrorists suffer from psychopathy or some other mental illness, though I would tend to think that given the number of terrorists some would fall into that category in line with the general population. I am reminded of something I was told once by a WWII veteran, that is, how valuable those troops were that came from violent and criminal environments, exactly the kind of chaps that you wanted to have on the front lines - they were "madmen" and had no fear for themselves once their blood was up, as the phrase goes "would slit your throat as soon as look at you". I suppose my original enquiry was to the mindset particularly of the suicide bomber, by all appearances, careful and methodical in their preparation,and calm in their execution. In the case of the San Bernardino shootings, the mother dropping off her infant with her mother-in-law, before accompanying her husband to his work celebrations to calmly and methodically mow down his colleagues in a hail of bullets. By all accounts it was she that targeted her husband, coming over on a fiancee visa, settling into the community as a young wife and mother and all the time planning with him to commit mass murder, not of unknown strangers but colleagues and acquaintances. The footage of the suicide bombers entering the airport in Brussels also seem to display a casual coolness. Astonishing and horrifically disturbing, what mindset is this? Sadly, we may never know. Thank you again.

    5. Thanks, Anon. I do try.

      Scott Atran has a short overview piece on the Genesis of Suicide Terrorism that you might find interesting.

    6. A few weeks back, the BBC published a great article on the history of Islamic terrorism:

  6. I think there are a couple ways to subscribe to new posts to your blog but I don't see any that will allow me to get email updates. Can you help me with that please?

    1. I added an email subscription widget to the sidebar

  7. You do know that ISIS is seeking nuclear weapons and would not hesitate to use them, killing 100s of thousands in a blink of the eye. There is higher probability that you and I will be killed by a missing Pakistani nuke than any flood due to climate change. You also make the classic mistake of underestimating a revolution. If you look throughout history, revolutions are never predicted, always underestimated. Otherwise they wouldn't be revolutions. Did anyone see that a newspaper editor/writer would lead to a socialistic and communistic revolution that enslaved billions of people and killed 100s of millions? History is a history of battles over values. Sometimes the battles are violent, sometimes peaceful. But make no mistake, we are in the midst of a battle over value systems. Neither value system is right or wrong, good or evil. Just depends on which side you want to be on.

    1. I pretty much agree up to the last paragraph. The value system of ISIS is wrong. There is no right or good when they are killing so many innocent people (not to mention the purposeful destruction of history) for some strange value system where it is okay to murder others. They are on the wrong side and I believe they must be destroyed because there is no way they will stop the hurt and destruction.

    2. @shift I wouldn't go as far as to accept moral relativism. There is a line between right and wrong, but if western society responds to terrorism by stupid, clumsy war and more terror, then this line gets blurry.
      I wouldn't agree the stance taken by Thomas is underestimating the terrorists, I refrain from calling them revolutionary. He is not proposing no action - he is telling us to consider effective, strategic action - even if such action might be no action at all. A much bigger underestimate of terrorism is to play into their hand, which is to use the same old method of throwing money, blood and power at a problem until it stops. It doesn't work. The way they are structured is designed for this approach not to work.
      As far as being killed by missiles instead of floods, I think you're mixing up the contexts. Missiles might kill you personally, and the threat of them is meant to frighten you personally, and so on... refer to what Thomas said. Floods, on the other hand, will end all. No matter the values they hold dear. If correct response to climate change isn't taken globally, billions will die. Due to panic, due to shortages, due to all out war. What severe climate change can, and possibly will, do to us in 50 or so years is much worse than what ISIS or any other group can ever do, even if they got their hands on a nuclear bomb. Bombs might kill millions, but having no drinking water or breathable air will end human race. Mutually assured destruction would keeps these numbers in millions, instead of ushering a nuclear winter.
      @ellen You cant destroy them, you can strategically dismantle them. Trying to destroy them is like trying to dismantle a bomb by shooting it. The analogy is obviously lacking, but I think it gets my point across.

  8. I predict a new blockbuster movie coming out soon : "What Terrorists Want". Hope they put Mel Gibson in the lead role.

  9. Very interesting article. The one form of terrorism that would be interesting to discuss is the bombing of soft targets (shopping centres etc.) that was carried out by the ANC (African National Congress) whose leader Nelson Mandela advocated violence as a means for regime change. One that on his release, he ended up being supported by most Western governments and one that made him out to be a saint even though his victims would have been black as well. See eg: Church Street bombing Pretoria

    1. What about the ANC's path from terrorism to mainstream politics is so interesting? Seems run of the mill to me.

    2. Yes, agreed, run of the mill tactics by terrorist organizations with political (social justice) agendas. The IRA bombings of mainline Britain were generally of "soft" targets. Pubs, shopping areas etc. Example Warrington on the Saturday before Mothers' Day in 1993. "Three-year-old Johnathan Ball died at the scene. He had been in town with his babysitter, they had been shopping for a Mother's Day card. The second victim, 12-year-old Tim Parry, received the full force of the blast and was gravely wounded. He died on 25 March 1993 when doctors switched his life support machine off, having asked permission to do so from his family, after tests had found minimal brain activity. Fifty-four other people were injured, four of them seriously."

  10. I believe that all the PR and news casting of ISIS and other terrorist regimes are providing fuel to the fire and gives the terrorist recognition, fame, notoriety, what ever you want to call it. I think producing less info, pictures, and videos on the media would stop some of the horrors we see and learn about daily. I also think governments need to look at all the disenfranchised people and provide them with direction in a positive or hopeful ways to live by offering them services and the feeling of inclusion in a more positive group that accepts each other. So many people swarm to these hate groups because they are looking for a place to belong!

  11. "acknowledge that there is another kind of terrorism perpetrated by the strong upon the weak, such as by governments upon their peoples by means of secret police and torture chambers. But though similarly condemnable from a moral perspective, analytically state terrorism works quite differently and falls outside this essay."

    Thanks for this article. It was interesting though there are a few points I disagree with (one of them is that businesses are rational! Businesses are not rational...they act like sociopaths. There is no moral measure or check. They sack indiscriminately and continue to pay their CEOs wages many, many times that of the lowest employee even when all evidence suggests that no one can be worth 20, 30, 50, 100 times more in terms of wages) and the main one is that you fail to include a comparison between small term terrorism such as that Daesh wages and state sponsored terrorism that the UK, USA, France and others have conducted over 150 years.

    Surely the latter has some impact upon the former? Terror usually comes from people who are brain washed or in a power vacuum. What better way to create the ingredients for hideous Daesh than the meddling in the middle east for 100+ years?

    I also think that it is worth pondering whether governments have an ulterior motive for creating the circumstances in which groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh exist. Is it too much of a tin foil hat question to ask who benefits in the long run? Governments? Well in terms of snooping charters and more laws to watch the people. Industry and business? Any information tech company and arms company will see their shares go up each time there is an atrocity. Now this is in no way an argument to state they are involved, that is nonsense. But do we really believe the governments of long standing, democratic nations are so stupid as to believe that bombing Iraq and Syria, killing innocents, invading countries with no attempt to leave a legacy of civil society amongst other horrors (support for Saudi, blind eye to Israel's crimes will eradicate terror or extremism?

    You can argue that empirical evidence that these actions can only lead to such horrifying and cruel bombings/murders that we have seen recently in Europe.

    1. I think you attribute too much agency to Western states and too little to terrorists.

      1. Terrorist groups are responsible for their own choices to do evil. Many millions of people are politically discontented, including as a result of America's recent military interventions; only a tiny number take up terrorism.

      2. The world is messy and governments, democratic or otherwise, make mistakes. That doesn't mean our governments have ulterior motives by which even the failure of the Iraq invasion somehow makes sense as part of a deeper hidden plan.

  12. This a great article to possibly end terrorism and hopefully achieve peace on earth. No where in the article did I see united or well organized countries that have a government in place invading much smaller countries to over throw those governments or leaders, that don't want to be involved with us. Whether, it be because of their beliefs systems in religion or governing. Or not using our banking and monetary policies. That is the biggest reason I have noticed and why terrorism groups come to light and stop creating orphans who eventually join these groups.

    1. I can't follow your point. Would you please revise and repost your comment.

  13. To get even, to provide hope that their compatriots will not always miss out. Why, because through daily contact - work (the menial kind), travel, satellite TV and internet they can see others have much more. These channels shows quite clearly that Westerners are nothing special - lazy and morally bankrupt like humans everywhere. A few decades ago today's terrorists would have been local insurgents - of no interest to the West, now they are among us and we created the means for them to see us and to fuel resentment.

    But there seems a contradiction, by adopting Western attitudes and modes of life the austere terrorists become just like Westerners and if they don't adopt Western attitudes and modes of life they will always be kept down through force of arms. As the world's wealth flattens out so the swamps that produce today's terrorists may dry up - but new swamps ,probably within the West, will develop as newly poor people start to miss out.

  14. I'm intrigued by your article. The basic premise is we give terrorists the power desire by responding to them and giving them attention. I felt this way post 9-11 as our society was overcome by fear. I do think part of the answer is we must continue to live with courage by getting on a plane, going to work, and enjoying our lives. Let us try to spread love in the wake of terror.

    But, I can only see that as part of the answer. Modern society is built on justice and security. If we didn't believe our government would seek justice on our behalf, we would be compelled to seek justice by my own hands. This would erode our faith in our governments. I see this happening in the US shown with the uptick of gun ownership and the popularity of Trump.

    Is it not the duty of democratic nations to seek justice against evil crimes against humanity? These terrorist overpower the weak. They victimize the people that cannot seek justice against them. And they desire to grow in strength at the expense of the innocent. How can we allow this?

    I agreed with your comment on military action: "A military is a killing machine organised around the application of ruthless and devastating force against the people who stand in the way of its government’s will. Using it domestically tends to make your citizens feel like you just declared war on them (as e.g. Ukraine recently discovered)." I agree the military is a lethal and efficient meat grinder. It must be so to be effective and thus cannot be used against its own citizenry. But, what do we do in the case of ISIS? They have created their own nation-state and is projecting its violence upon their own people and abroad like we have never seen before. Isn't it the duty of democratic nations to crush ISIS with the full power of it's force? To do otherwise would be to allow an evil force to victimize innocents and to gain power and territory. Do we think ISIS will throw down their arms because we stop paying attention to them? That doesn't pass the sniff test for me. I understand military intervention is used for recruitment in ISIS. By intervening we create more fighters. But what happens in our absence? ISIS will spread more and more because it has the POWER to do so. It crushes opposition with devastating violence. Only a more powerful force can defeat ISIS. Who is that going to be?

    Its seems to me the democratic nations have no choice if they are going to live up to their principals of justice that they bring the full weight of their military power, ground and air to fully remove ISIS and bring security to the innocent. I wish I saw an alternative as I'm tired of the blood and treasure spent in such pursuits.

    1. Thanks, Derek, for your thoughtful comment.

      Nevertheless I think you are concerned with a different kind of terrorism, the kind that governments do to their peoples. I agree that regimes such as N. Korea, Bashar al-Assad's rump state and ISIS are morally intolerable and a just cause for military intervention (although, note, that the other conditions for just war must be met, such as a reasonable chance of success.) I even wrote a piece recently arguing that Only Human Rights Are Worth Killing For

      Now you may say it makes no difference whether we attack ISIS because of Nice/Orlando/Brussels/Paris or because of the evils it commits upon the several million people under its power, just so long as we do. But I think the motivation behind a military intervention makes a great deal of difference to how it is likely to turn out, especially whether we succeed in bringing 'security to the innocent' or merely satisfying our sense of grievance.

  15. Tom
    Your argument as far as I can tell is convincing.
    Would ignoring the terrorists as a policy succeed?
    Would they simply cease, not having their behavior reinforced?
    Such a policy, which you indirectly advocate, would demand discipline from leaders and people.
    Or would the aggrieved 'terrorists' just lash out again and again, winning symbolic victories
    Would western governments and people's conceivably accept such a new normal. They are not philosophers, at least not all of them, and if democracy is not a truth machine, maybe people don't have it in them
    I'm not presenting this necessarily as my position- but it is a possible objection

  16. Sad thing is that people are being radicalized easily nowadays. I think that education and job opportunities to youth are playing less and less role in order to make them think rationally. Even educated and learned persons are joining the terror groups. Some people even quit their jobs to join militants. If even education can't help, then I don't know what will.

    1. My essay doesn't address the question of why particular individuals become terrorists. This requires an independent, psychological rather than political analysis. This is not my area of competence so I only outline how I would begin to look at it if I were to make a proper study of it.

      In an earlier comment I mentioned a sense of injustice as a motivation. But I now want to emphasise two other mechanisms.

      1. There is the feeling of excitement, belonging and meaningfulness that comes from joining an underground violent group. Here there seems to be a continuity with membership of criminal gangs. Perhaps what has been learned about dissuading young people from joining criminal gangs can be extended to places like Northern Ireland and Pakistan. (For example, providing other, better options for a successful, meaningful life.)

      2. However, what the west is most afraid of at present is not terrorist groups but 'lone wolves' - people who recruit themselves to a terrorist group's political cause and then plan and carry out their own attacks. This seems to have at least something in common with the psychology of mass-shooters, who fantasise about destroying the social institutions that they hate (such as schools/workplaces). The problem is that so few people go down this route that it is hard to see what policies a government could apply to reduce them further (or how we could know if they work). But we could also look again at the media's responsibility. As with mass-shootings, the extraordinary attention lavished on every lone wolf attack seems to inspire other troubled individuals to make their fantasies of destruction a reality.