Attempting to Think Rationally About Terror

Like everyone else, I want to express my solidarity with the people of Paris after the atrocious attacks of the weekend. It’s a solidarity I feel at a very visceral level, but not because I have been or am likely to be a victim of such an attack – I realise that we who live in the democracies of the North remain very safe. Rather, I find that reading about the nihilistic cruelty involved in such mass casualty attacks and the gloating that accompanies the slaughter leaves me physically stressed. As tenuous as my own connection to the events actually is, the reports of the Utøya massacre, the Suruç massacre, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, sectarian atrocities in the Syrian civil war and accounts of the massive sexual violence perpetrated by Daesh all left me feeling angry, shocked and disgusted. I find it quite hard, therefore, to think about terror attacks in a cool and rational manner in their immediate aftermath. This can’t be too unusual, if one key aim of terror attacks is to generate irrational emotions for political purposes then it’s not surprising that thinking clearly about them is difficult.

What’s especially aggravating is that so much of what is written online and in social media in the aftermath of such attacks disrespects the dead through callous indifference, self-indulgent weaving of conspiracy theories, or cheap political point-scoring. The bombings always mean we should support my politics. Every horror buttresses preconceived worldviews and generates ugly cries of ‘I told you so!’ by commentators with diametrically opposed views. In particular, those peddling two different versions of the clash of civilizations narrative can always find evidence that confirms their prejudices. I say two, because the ideologies held by the crank left and the wingnut right have come to mirror each other. The standard, original brand Huntington clash of civilizations thesis suggests that civilizations are clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable and destined to come into conflict with each other. According to this narrative the Muslim world is a monolith, any violence done in its name is the result of primordial features of Islam and only reveals the true and essential features. So far, so Breivik.

The other variety of the clash of civilizations has come to dominate far left debates on contemporary international relations. It sees civilizations as being clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable just like the classic version. Only in this version, the West is the intrinsically malign, monolithic culture – persecuting Muslims because they are Muslims due to its deep and ineradicable racism and intolerance. This perspective resembles the most crass, manichean vulgarisation of postcolonial theory – but sadly it seems to have some purchase. This is what happens when people are only able to think about power relations, inequality and insecurity in terms of identity, and when culture is taken at face value rather than placed in its social, economic and political context.

A variant of this perspective has greater influence, owing to the fact that it contains an element of truth. This variant, the Chomskyite perspective on world affairs, sees Islamist terror attacks as a mechanical response to Western actions. The international system is a simple environment in which action leads to an equal and opposite reaction in a quasi-automatic fashion. Only the West has any agency, the criminal acts of Western states call forth terrorist attacks on Western citizens as a sort of misdirected but inexorable karmic force.

‘Blowback’ is very real: dangerous proxies do bite the hand that feeds. Western foreign policy does generate grievances that provide some of the impetus for terror attacks – which is not to say that those actions or even those grievances are legitimate. What those perspectives completely miss, however, is that many of the factors that generate Islamist terrorism are internal to the Middle East and the political struggles within and between the states of the region. Halliday argues in The Middle East and International Relations, that such crass perspectives overstate the role of outside powers and underplay the significance of the different strategies pursued by actors engaged in struggles over the state and the political order within the region. So contextualising the Paris terror attacks requires an analysis of Daesh as an organisation, the structural pressures and opportunities it faces, the crisis and collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states (and yes, the US-UK invasion was central here) and the wider regional sectarian conflict.

The other pitfall to avoid is to assume that we know what the purpose of the terror attacks was. Many people leapt to the conclusion that the goal was to provoke deeper involvement on the part of France and the West. But provocation is only one strategy that may motivate terror. Attacks can also be used as a form of attrition or deterrence, imposing costs and generating fear in order to dissuade an actor from pursuing a particular policy. If this was the goal, then for France to withdraw from the coalition against Daesh would be ‘giving the terrorists what they want’. Indeed given how frequently actors rationalise events due to cognitive dissonance, it’s possible that any change in policy can be claimed as a victory for the perpetrators – after all it demonstrates that they have exercised the power to overcome the will of their enemies and alter their behaviour. Terror attacks may also be used for reputational purposes, as a credible display of strength, resolve and commitment to a cause. The recipients of the message sent through terror are potential recruits or allies in this case, not the enemy themselves. Alternatively, they might not be instrumentally rational in a strategic sense but rather motivated by deeply-felt moral commitments that mandate inflicting harm on a hated enemy – as suggested by Gilbert Ramsay.

In any case, it makes little sense to base one’s reaction to a terror attack on what the perpetrators intended. If the attackers desired to provoke further attacks this does not mean that this should refrain from stepping up its air campaign, as Daesh may have miscalculated as many other violent groups have done in the past when they have provoked their own destruction (Adam Elkus expressed this point very well). Similarly, if the goal of a terror attack is to force a change in policy, then recommitting to that policy does not make sense if the costs really are too great to bear – no matter how painful it may be to admit this. ‘Doing the opposite of what terrorists want’ has a psychological appeal, but is not the basis for sound decision-making.

An assessment should be made based on an unvarnished assessment of the actor’s own goals, the costs of various alternative policies and the likely effects on the overall strategic environment – bearing in mind risk that comes with any compromise of fundamental values. Terror is not the automatic, mechanical result of Western foreign policy and nor should it determine Western foreign policy in an automatic, mechanical fashion.

Edit: An interesting interview with John Berger, who favours the provocation interpretation, focusing on the lack of good options for dealing with Daesh.

More edits: Best comments from the Crooked Timber thread herehere and here, drawing heavily on the Spiegal article. Follow up interview with Haykel after the Atlantic article. Another overview.

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Posted on November 17, 2015, in foreign policy, terror and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree with most of this post.

    I don’t know what the purpose of the attacks was (or if they even had one), i.e. what if anything ISIS hoped to accomplish, but there seems to be a rough consensus among talking-heads here, at any rate, that the Beirut, Russian airliner, and Paris attacks taken together represent some modification of strategy or at least behavior on IS’s part. The reasons for the shift remain unclear, though some have suggested recent territorial setbacks in the region might have something to do with it.

    I assume your reference at the end is to an article in Der Spiegel but I apparently missed the link.

    Finally, on a side point, Chomsky wd presumably disagree w/ your description of his views. I’m not a particular fan of Chomsky’s and have read little of him, but I wonder whether his own work is not a bit more subtle than some of his followers — maybe not. George Scialabba, the essayist and book critic who comments at Crooked Timber as ‘geo’, is a big fan of Chomsky’s and I find ‘geo’s’ views on U.S. foreign policy generally quite oversimplified and monocausal, so I guess that might be a good indication that I would find a lot of Chomsky’s work to be the same.

  2. There’s a good short article by Max Abrams on the biases that lead people towards attributing certain motives to those behind terror attacks:
    https://hbr.org/2015/11/why-people-keep-saying-thats-what-the-terrorists-want

    For similar reasons, I’m cautious about imputing motives and so tried to think through the different possibilities. But I think you are right that there has been a shift in behaviour and that calls out for explanation. One possibility is that the shape of their indifference curve might have shifted: the cost of taking territory has risen due to steep resistance, but the cost of terror attacks has fallen because of the radicalised foreigners they were able to recruit during the phase of expansion. So changing incentive structure might be more important than a shift in goals. As Peter T notes, they have used violence against everyone from Norwegians to Chinese to the wrong sort of Sunni Muslim when they have had the opportunity. Another alternative is that suicide bombs against enemies could just be the SoP of the group, as established in previous rounds of internecine struggle in Syria and Iraq.

    The most plausible version of the provocation argument was made by Berger, they would prefer some kind of direct military confrontation with Western states in which Daesh could use preferred tactics such as vehicular suicide bombs.

    I am not sure about Chomsky’s own views, I respect the unflagging effort to highlight the awful things that the US, Britain and our allies have done, but he has a habit of playing down the awfulness of some of the enemies of the US as a sort of compensation. Fred Halliday was a big critic of Chomsky.

    Spiegel article is
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html

  3. Thanks for the reply and the links.

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