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4 / III / podzim 2001 / autumn 2001Články / ArticlesTisk / PrintDownload

Macro–Terrorism, “Holy War”, and Religious Violence

Current Challenges to Conceptualisation and Typology of Terrorism

Maxmilián Strmiska

This article forms part of the output of the research project "Pluralist Democracy and Subversive Terrorism" (GA 407/00/0421)

For a number of reasons, research in terrorist violence constitutes a specific field of study. Terrorism is a politically sensitive topic marked by intense methodological disputes, as well as by problematic sources of information. Equally complex is the assessment of the dynamism of the development of terrorist phenomena and the subsequent dynamism of their study. This dynamism is from time to time influenced by certain events which play the role of milestones drawing a dividing line between the period "before" and "after". This also seems to be the case of the unprecedented terrorist attack on the USA on 11 September 2001, unprecedented in terms of the number of direct casualties, direct and indirect economic damages and – last but not least – in terms of the psychological impact it has had, not speaking about the extraordinary mass media coverage it has been given. No wonder that terms like "religious macro–terrorism," "superterrorism," "a new era of terrorism" etc., have recorded an unparalleled boom in the above context, regardless of their contents being or not always quite clear even to their most frequent users.

In this context, the question of the extent to which the currently prevailing concepts and definitions of terrorist violence and its different types should urgently be reviewed in the light of the above terrorist attack has become highly topical. It is a major challenge, which is hard to ignore. Giving an adequate response to it will certainly be a difficult task for research in terrorism today. Focusing on some selected "critical points", this short article is an attempt to explain the sources of such difficulty. At the same time, I have included several suggestions which will hopefully prove to be useful incentives for expert discussion on the necessary modifications to the concept and typology of terrorism.

Let me start with the question whether, from the heuristic point of view, the terrorist attacks on 11 September should be considered as examples of "macro–terrorism" or "superterrorism", i.e. a form of terrorism largely different from "normal" terrorism. As a matter of fact, there is no simple positive or negative answer to this question. A simple answer would require focussing on both the logic behind the different (simple) classifications and (more complex, multidimensional) typologies of terrorist violence, and the connotations of concepts like "superterrorism" or "macro–terrorism", etc.

A brief view of the most widely spread classifications and typologies of terrorism shows that the assessment of the scope and intensity of terrorist violence only plays a secondary role in them. Traditionally, there has been far more attention given to the issue of by whom and against whom terrorism was used and with what motivation. From this approach resulted the classification of "criminal," "psychotic," "political" (subversive, repressive), "religious," "ethnic" terrorism etc. Terms like "micro–terrorism" and "macro–terrorism" were also used, of course. Micro–terrorism was mostly interpreted as terrorist violence of "local scope" and/or of low intensity, while macro–terrorism was rather associated with both state terrorism ("regimes of terror") and "potential" terrorism of sub–state terrorist groups. The diversity of opinions as to the way the intensity and the impact of terrorist violence should be assessed became a major issue. For instance, it was not quite clear in the case of micro–terrorism whether its low intensity primarily resulted from the constitutive units of the violence used as such (sabotages, murders, etc.) or from their effect (in the sense of a low degree of intimidation). However, we cannot negate that in a number of cases the classification of certain acts as microterrorist was not the principal issue: it has been the "local character" of casualties of such attacks, the local character of the target public, and the local character of the psychological effect achieved rather than the question of how and to what degree such effect was achieved. The situation was different in the evaluation of macro–terrorism, though. Macro–terrorism was mostly associated both with the exceptional scope of impact of terrorist attacks and with their exceptional intensity – yet in this case the issue of the character of the primary constitutive units and means of terrorist violence failed to be considered a priority. It took quite some time for the above approach to change, initially in the context of research in nuclear terrorism (perceived as a possible and/or suitable strategy for some non–state actors) and later mainly due to the expanding discussion concerning the growing threat of terrorism using (non–nuclear) mass destruction weapons (WMD), in other words, due to the threat of "chemoterrorism" and "bioterrorism". In this context, also the concept of "superterrorism" (the type of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction or WMD–terrorism) recorded a boom in the early 1990s. This resulted in a shift in the evaluation of acts of violence representing the primary constitutive units of terrorism. Different quality of such units (due to potential use of WMD) resulted in a different assessment of the quality of their potential destructive (physical) impact and of their subsequent psychological effect on the target public.1

Viewing the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 from this point, we can say that even though the degree of their destructive impact and psychological effect has been different than that of "normal" terrorism, the means employed were not new by their nature, they were "just" used in a new way. The terrorist attack on the USA was not a case of WMD terrorism, even though its devastating potential, both direct and indirect, has been extraordinary. It was a specific non–WMD high–casualty incident, rather unexpected to American experts in terrorism. Bruce Hoffman summed it up in the following way: ”In retrospect, it was not the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that should have been the dominant influence on our counterterrorist thinking, but the December 1994 hijacking in Algiers of an Air France passenger plane by terrorists belonging to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Their plan was to crash the fuel–laden aircraft with its passengers into the heart of Paris. The lesson here is not that we need to be unrealistically omniscient, but rather that we need to consider the entire range of potential attacks and not just those at the extreme end of the technological spectrum.” (Hoffman 2001: 3).

Hoffman's subsequent rationale also deserves quoting: ”We had only recently began to question and debate the notion – that terrorists were more interested in publicity than killing and therefore had neither the need nor interest in annihilating large numbers of people.” (Hoffman 2001: 4). Until recently, many shared the above opinion whose classic wording was proposed by the American scholar Brian Jenkins: ”Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead.” (Jenkins 1975: 15); ”simply killing a lot of people has seldom been one terrorist objective…Terrorists operate on the principle of the minimum force necessary. They find it unnecessary to kill many, as long as killing a few suffices for their purposes.”1

However, Jenkins' opinion had from the very beginning one principal weak point: he underestimated the diversity of terrorism(s). He presupposed, quite correctly, that terrorism as a specific strategy of using violence is governed by one basic logic, but drew a wrong conclusion by which such logic involved the single concept of the relationships between the direct casualties, the terrorist message and the target public of an attack. Let me point out here that this has never been the case. I do not mean isolated cases which could be classified as exceptions making the rule. There is a relatively big difference between selective and non–selective or random terrorist violence that must be taken into account. This difference is not reflected just in the selection of direct casualties (and/or the target public), but in a whole complex of links between the perpetrators, direct casualties, means of attack, communicated message and the target public. Generalised conclusions concerning the above complex of links may be misleading. Yet I dare say that non–selective terrorism usually replaces the "symbolic quality" of direct human casualties by their quantity, or – if the terrorist attack is focused on buildings, i.e. symbols, the human casualties (their identity and number) are just seen as a "by–product" of such attack. In any case, we have to do with quite a new, generically different type of terrorism compared with that represented by the classic "armed propaganda" (based on the anarchic tradition of "propaganda by deed) and the different variants of subversive selective terrorism derived from it.

Evaluating the primarily subversive terrorist activities, we can conclude that non–selective terrorism has been a preferred option for extreme right and fundamentalist religious groups, while selective terrorism has been typical of extreme left groups. Such inclination is not a mere coincidence, but rather a consequence of the cultural background, military and political projects and the modus operandi of terrorist groups. It is the ultra–right variant of terrorism that is of great interest to the study of terrorist violence mainly because it displays a number of features typical of terrorism in its ”pure” form. In the case of classical neo–fascist terrorism the ”positive” educational effect, typical of ultra left agitational terrorism of ”exemplary gestures”, is usually suppressed. The desire to punish the adversaries in the course of the fight for power (not waiting until later, when victory is achieved) is limited in this case to the most primitive objective of ”teaching a lesson” to the largest target public possible, while it is not the punishment or well justified revenge what matters but the demonstration of power and cruelty. Even though neo–fascist sub–revolutionary terrorism, especially in its initial phase, displays similar characteristics to ultra–left agitational terrorism, these characteristics are integrated into a different context. Its logic and dynamism are different – and most direct in terms of maximising the terrorist effect. The approach towards the target public usually lacks specific differentiation, so that the scope and intensity of the psychological effect is underlined on account of its orientation, and even an explicit political justification may be surprisingly simple or – as has often been the case – inexistent. Terrorism of this kind is generally typical for a trend towards progressive diminishing the degree of selectivity and the corresponding trend towards diffusive communication of terror and its subsequent totalising (cf. Strmiska 1995; Strmiska 2000b).

This is highly instructive for the evaluation of the characteristic traits of contemporary terrorism motivated and justified by religious belief. The terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 falls within this category of terrorist violence. Rather than an isolated fact of religious legitimacy of terrorist acts, we have to do with a generically different act, as compared with other manifestations of terrorist violence. The psychological effect of the above attack was underlined by the fact that it was a series of coordinated suicidal acts showing extreme determination of the perpetrators, and their cruelty.2 What is the source of such self–sacrifice and cruelty? First but not only, it is the religious motivation and legitimacy. These two aspects are closely related with each other. Even though we cannot conclude that every example of religious terrorism is, under all circumstances, non–selective by definition or markedly less selective than secular–political terrorism, practice has shown that this is the case in a remarkable number of cases. Elements of rational selection of targets can occur also in religious terrorism, but they are integrated in a different context and do not play a major role in the context of terrorist strategy. Also the symbolic character of the target and of the terrorist act as such – usually brought to the foreground – is conceived of in a different way than in the case of secular violence. Satanization of the enemy and the religious imperative ("God will that") favour "the end justifies the means" approach or help to overcome obstacles related to the pragmatic, rational–secular interpretation of the above rule. The "holy war" is by definition a non–conventional war, in other words, a conflict in which adherence to warfare conventions looses sense ((cf. Juergensmeyer 1999; Alianak 1998; Alianak 2000; Rapoport 1988; Rapoport 1989).

The differences between selective and non–selective terrorist violence are huge and should be adequately reflected in counter–terrorist thinking and policy. Therefore it might be extremely counterproductive to enforce "non–differentiated" war against terrorism. As a matter of fact, there is a relatively large number of terrorisms (both actual or potential). Even though terrorism represents a type of violence or different strategies of using violence with principal traits in common, it is impossible to develope adequate counter–terrorist measures exclusively on the basis of these common traits. This generates the need of a well–thought and sophisticated typology of terrorist violence. Also in this case it naturally applies that things should be made simple if they allow for it. Drastic simplifications may be politically efficient in a short–term perspective and – from the pragmatic point of view – may serve to delegitimate terrorism, which is one of the principal objectives of counter–terrorist policy. However, we cannot pretend that all can be simplified at any cost. As we have seen, it may be counter–productive to apply conclusions related to one type of terrorism to another type of terrorist violence without prior theoretical and empirical justification. This also applies to the different variants of religious terrorism. Time will show whether and to what extent has the current counter–terrorist thinking, which is going through a phase of reconfiguration, drawn a lesson from the past errors and misunderstandings resulting from insufficient distinction between the different types of terrorism.

Poznámky / Notes

1) Citation in: Hoffman 2001: 4; originally in: Jenkins, Brian (1985): The Likelihood of Nuclear Terrorism, RAND, Santa Monica, July 1985.
2) The affinity for self–immolation and religious martyrdom, which dictates risk taking, could be considered one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes a religious from a political terrorist, second only to a religious terrorist’s unconsciousness of the maliciousness of his or her own criminal acts (Schbley 2000).

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