Thursday, September 09, 2004

The new style of terrorism

Fighting Talk talks about how Beslan symbolises a new style of terrorism:

Remember before September 2001, when hijacked planes always landed and were met by negotiators? When the whole purpose of hostages was that they were bargaining chips, and gave the dissidents a rare upper hand so long as they played their cards right? Remember how on the first three 9/11 planes no-one thought to fight back, because the automatic assumption was that the whole point of being a hijacked passenger was to shut up, hope that you weren't one of the token killings "to prove we're serious", and wait for your eventual release? Boy, has that theory ever gone out the window and down the inflatable slides. In Russia it was evident that the captured people weren’t really that important to the terrorists. No food or water, and no access to first aid, equals no value placed on keeping people alive. And this equals a brand new way of trying to get what you want.

Over the past thirty years the international community has responded to terrorism by playing hardarse. The rule was "do not negotiate with terrorists". Governments were shamed and strongarmed into this policy of sacrificing their citizens for the benefit of others, on the basis that giving in to one group of terrorists would simply encourage more. As a result, hostage takings generally became a waiting game for the inevitable bloody "rescue" by special forces.

The aim of the policy was to reduce terrorism by lowering the incentives. Terrorists would realise that they would gain nothing by terror, and therefore give up. Simon Pound likens this to training a dog not to beg at the table.

Unfortunately, the terrorists have taken a different lesson from it: they're cutting out the middle man. Governments won't negotiate, but in most countries governments are answerable to their people. The new tactic therefore seems to be spreading random mayhem while sending a clear message that it will not stop until there is policy change, then sitting back and letting public opinion take its course. While governments are sanguine about sacrificing the lives of their citizens "for the greater good", ordinary people are understandably less keen to have their friends and loved ones killed and maimed for the sake of others; to the extent that the government has the power to prevent this, it will attract blame and be pressured to give in. If it doesn't, it may eventually be de-elected and replaced with someone who will.

It's a long-term and uncertain strategy, and can only be used for broad goals rather than specific ones (freeing a country rather than a single person), but there is no real way of disincentivising it, except by governments becoming less responsive to their people - and that causes problems of its own. And other tactics - censoring media coverage, using propaganda campaigns to sow hate and manipulate public opinion, responding with savagery and brutality against the terrorist's perceived supporters - are themselves problematic and undermine a government's own legitimacy (and in the latter case may simply promote more terrorism to boot).

The only long-term strategy for truly defeating terrorism is justice. Terrorists do not come from nowhere. They have grievances, some of which are legitimate, and have resorted to force because other tactics to resolve those grievances have failed. Addressing those grievances (or preventing them from happening in the first place) will at the minimum deprive the terrorists of the public support they need to function, and rob them of their cause.