Sunday, November 11, 2007

A New Global Wave of Terror?

Another question that I was asked during my discussions here in Anchorage was whether or not a new global wave of terror might be likely in the near future.

Over the last century, terrorist waves have occurred repeatedly. Perhaps the first was Russian in the 1800s, and no doubt everyone remembers or has heard about the wave in protest by a variety of Palestinian political groups in the 1960s and 70s. Terror could of course arise from a lunatic on a rampage but is far more likely to be a tactic adopted because those who use this tactic calculate (limited rationality) that they will benefit. The purpose may be:

  • as the only military weapon a disadvantaged population has available;
  • to attract attention to a cause the opponent refuses to recognize;
  • as a means of demonstrating to internal opponents that one deserves to be acknowledged as the group leader (a concept so well explained by Ian Lustick).

The perpetrator of the terror may be an actor on the outside of the political system trying either to gain entry or overthrow the system. The perpetrator may also be a regime trying to terrify a population into submission because it calculates that this is cheaper than trying to defeat an insurgency on the battlefield, soldier vs. soldier. To summarize the varieties of terror:

I.) Actor outside the political system:
A. desires permission to participate;
B. wants to overthrow the system.

II.) State actor:
desires to maintain exclusive control by terrorizing a hostile population rather
than meeting rebels on the battlefield.

A key unresolved issue regarding Palestine today is whether Hamas falls more nearly in Category A or B. Al Qua’ida would seem to be a clear example of Category I.B., though no effort to test that proposition by offering to negotiate over its articulated demands has ever, to my knowledge, been made. Most of the insurgency in Iraq would seem to exemplify Category I.A. Examples of Category II include Israel during its 2006 invasion of Lebanon (attacking infrastructure, conducting ethnic cleansing of South Lebanon, dropping cluster bombs) and Colombia clearing peasants out of whole regions of rural Colombia, driving them into the cities.

That said by way of overview, I believe the participant’s question related to Category I – a global terrorist campaign by some unofficial, non-state group unwilling to tolerate the current global political system.

We have, I fear, little ground for optimism. First, al Qua’ida, although wounded as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was never tightly bound to any physical location, and gained valuable time to restructure itself as attention was shifted to the unrelated issue of Iraq from 2003 on. Since then, at least four issues have provided cover for al Qua’ida’s reinvention:

  • The Iraqi insurgency;
  • Failure of the effort to provide security and economic progress (aside from narcotics) in Afghanistan;
  • Socio-political conflict in Pakistan;
  • Worsening of the Palestine situation with the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah and the ensuing illegal overthrow of the democratically elected Hamas government.

Thus, it seems logical to conclude, even in the absence of evidence, that al Qua’ida continues to exist, has been busy reinventing itself, and will reemerge. I invite readers who actually have evidence one way or the other to offer it for our education.

The second reason for pessimism about the likelihood of a new global terrorist campaign is the rising pressures along—and now, most ominously, all along--the political fault line of Islamic politics from Afghanistan to Somalia. The rising tensions are a far broader issue than simply the question of whether or not widespread terrorism will occur, but it seems probable that if these tensions explode, some actor will decide to employ terrorism on a large scale. What these tensions are is no secret (threats to destabilize Iran, conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, Ethiopian military involvement in Somalia and Ethiopian-Eritrean tensions, and the danger of collapse of governance in Pakistan are among the most obvious). But the nature of the political quake we may expect in the near future along this enormous Islamic fault line from Afghanistan to Somalia is a topic for another day.

Reasoning solely on the basis of logic, without any access to facts about any non-state terrorist activity, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the evolution of the political situation in the region from Afghanistan to Somalia is so fraught with frustration, anger, short-sighted exploitation, and insensitivity to the perceptions and needs of others that a new wave of terror could hardly come to the observant as a surprise.

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