Terrorism And Its Place As A Military Strategy Criminology Essay

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Any discussion of terrorism and its place as a military strategy has to firstly define its terms: what do we mean by terrorism and how does it manifest itself in contemporary accounts and moreover, what is the difference between legitimate military action and one based on terror? As Sederberg (1989) suggests, the answers to these are questions are complex and depend, to a very large extent, on who one is asking. A Government defence adviser would, for instance, have a markedly different notion of what constitutes terrorism than a member of a paramilitary organisation and an ordinary member of the public might have a notion based somewhere on the interaction between these two depending on their socio-cultural background (in the Northern Ireland, for instance it would be possible, we could imagine, for definitions of terrorism to vary from area to area and from street to street depending on political and cultural allegiances). As Sederberg details:

"The relative absence of a consensus on meaning leads to an indefinite number of competing ideas of terrorism. Indeed, a recent catalogue identifies over a hundren definitions. Moreover, we cannot conclude that these various definitions merely represent different ways of saying the same thing." (Sederberg, 1989: 25)

Governments, such as the American and UK administrations, have tended to stress the notion of terrorism as being based on its noncombatant victims (Sederberg, 1989: 25) and the extent that it represents the "calculated use of threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies. " (Townshend, 2002: 3). Such definitions, although useful in concretising debate, are of little use when it comes to discerning exactly what terrorist activity is, for as Sederberg suggests, much of modern state warfare consist of exactly the same activity: the spreading of fear and intimidation through governments and populations and yet would seldom be classed as acts of terrorism. The notion of terrorism, in the contemporary political media has generally come to mean any practice that is considered wrong or counter to the practices and policies of its target.

I would like to employ here, then, the definition of terrorism offered by Townshend who defines it not so much by its political aims or characteristics but as a series of interrelated practices and strategies; using this definition it is also possible to examine the efficacy of each one in a military sense and, through this, to answer the fundamental question of this paper. Firstly, asserts Townshend, terrorism attempts to seize attention (Townshend, 2002: 8) - either through media interest or through direct communication with Governments; secondly it is characterised by a distinct political mandate that is sanctioned by a large organisation (Townshend, 2002: 9) and lastly, it uses violence and the threat of violence in order to engender a sense of confusion and fear amongst its victims (Townshend, 2002: 9). I shall attempt, in the rest of this essay, to assess the efficacy of terrorism as a military strategy by examining each one of these aims in turn.

The aim of seizing attention.

Perhaps the most basic aim of terrorism is to seize the attention of either the Governments or the population of the nation it targets, as Laqueur (1999) details:

"Terrorism has been with us for centuries, and it has always attracted inordinate attention because of its dramatic character and its sudden, often wholly unexpected, occurrence." (Laqueur, 1999: 3)

Terrorism shocks not merely through the use of physical violence but through the symbolic transgression of social morality and national security. Terrorism, as many commentators have suggested (Townshend, 2000; Laqueur, 1999; Chomsky, 2001 etc) goes right to heart of what makes us safe; it forces us to pay attention to it whether we want to nor not. The recent proliferation of video taped messages from leaders of suspected terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda is a testament to the symbol over the actual act of physical violent; there is nothing violent in the images of Osama bin Laden addressing the world through the Aljazeera television networks but it has tremendous symbolic presence - in a world that is dominated by media and communication technology, as Van der Veer and Munshi (2004) suggest, one of the major successes of modern terrorist organisations is their ability to use the resources of their enemies: the Internet, satellite television, mobile phones and the mass media.

Schaffert (1992) details the complicity on the part of the Western media especially in creating the foundation for terrorism against its own people:

"History has shown that terrorist strategies and tactics have been modified over time as the benefits offered by technological advances in the media have been recognized and exploited. An early leader of the Algerian resistance, Abane Ramdane, while advocating the urbanization of the FLN campaign of violence, observed that "killing ten French people in the desert went unnoticed while the killing of one French person on a busy street in Algiers would receive coverage in the international media." (Schaffert, 1992: 69)

Even the condemnation of terrorists in the media, such as happened after the 9/11 attacks, can aid the cause of terrorist organisations; by describing physical acts of violence through the duality of good and evil or right and wrong, the Western media merely serve to elevate and obfuscate the real nature of terrorism which, as research has shown [1] , is far more fractured and complex. In this sense, much of the terrorist organisations' aim, of seizing attention, is actually carried out by the opposing media; eager for a story and for a simple answer, although as we shall see in the final section of this paper, the media's relationship to terrorism is becoming ever more complex.

We could assert then, that in seizing attention, terrorism is a relatively successful military strategy; the 9/11 attackers commanded the attention of the world not only through their own efforts but through their target's media; the American television companies, the European press and the global media conglomerates all shared in the process of captivating the public's imagination that, as Towshend details "dramatically amplifies the anxiety about security which is never far from the surface of society." (Townshend, 2000: 8)

Getting the message across

The second stage of what Townshend terms the 'terror process' is the communication of the message and the success of this is inextricably linked to the terrorist organisation itself. A paramilitary, highly ordered group with distinct political aims is likely to be more successful in delivering its message than a disparate, non-focused organisation whose aim is to spread confusion and fear. In his book IRA Man: Talking with Rebels (1997) for instance, Douglass McFerran details that many of the IRA campaigns of the 1970s and 80s had distinct short term as well as long term political aims, very often terrorist attacks on mainland Britain were specifically concerned with achieving a specific political target such as protesting over the widespread imprisonment of suspected terrorists or the treatment of those all ready in prison. In these cases, the facilitation of the message was all important and terrorist activity was very often followed by an admittance of guilt and a series of demands.

However, as Townshend details this is by no means the case in every terrorist act; the PanAm flight 103 attacks for instance that saw a plane explode over town of Lockerbie in 1988 had no prior demands or message attached to them and very little admission of guilt after (Just, Kern and Norris, 2003: 285) and the same could also be said of the 9/11 attacks that, despite American and European claims to the contrary, have still to be claimed as the work of any one terrorist group.

The nature of the attack is likely to influence the success of the communication of demands; Dobkin (1992) details that in 1970 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked three airliners in order to not only secure the attention of the world's media (in which they were undoubtedly successful) but to demand the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners in British military jails. Their demands were largely met and most of their hostages were released; however we could compare this to the near contemporary Munich terrorist kidnapping where members of the Black September group killed eleven Israeli athletes in an attempt to secure the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Hoffman (1998) details that the Munich kidnappings were not only failures in terms of communicating and achieving recognisable demands but also in media manipulation:

"The Palestinians had not only failed to obtain their principal, stated demand -- the release of terrorists imprisoned in Israel and West Germany -- but, to many observers, had irredeemably tarnished the righteousness of their cause in the eyes of the world. Indeed, international opinion was virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the terrorists' operation." (Hoffman, 1998: 72)

The actions of the terrorists in the Munich attacks were seen by the contemporary media as unreasonable and much of this had to do with the drawing up of demands and the unsuccessful communication of a political message.

More and more, this communication of the message is being overlooked by many terrorist organisations in favour of the spreading of fear and confusion. This position inevitably limits the success of terrorism as a military strategy because the key and primary objectives fail to be met. The 9/11 attacks, for instance, may have grasped the imagination of the world but to what end? The communication of a socio-political message might have better carried out via other means.

Encouraging a response

The last process that Townshend describes is the encouraging of a response from the target Government or population; this is the point at which the true success of terrorism as a military strategy can be assessed. As Townshend details however, there is a paradox to this situation in that those who are most likely to be intimidated by terrorism are very often outside of the decision-making process. Governments and large organisations are likely to adhere to agendas that are unknown to the terrorists or that are considered more important than the negative effects of non-acquiesence. This makes the outcome of any terrorist's demands uncertain and negates their efficacy as a military strategy.

However, one of the biggest failings of terrorism has to be the extent that, as we have already mentioned with reference to the Munich kidnappings, it serves to strengthen opposition against it. As William Perdue (1989) suggests, if the violence of a terrorist attack is seen to exceed their demands then it can become counterproductive, alienating the organisation rather than engendering support.

The fear that is produced by terrorist attacks is sometimes seen as the main outcome but, again, this can often have the opposite to the desired effect. Robert Singh (2003) suggest that the 9/11 attacks merely served to strengthen the socio-political position of the American people, the very group that came under attack; he also suggests that the security systems around the globe became more vigilant and aware of any gaps in their processes:

"Rather than initiating a transformation, 9/11 accelerated trends, policies and approaches that were well established. If the attacks' most immediate political effects were certainly dramatic - the Bush administration's approval ratings soared and public confidence in the federal government attained levels unseen since the early 1960s" (Singh, 2003: 52)

The recent bombings in London were an example of the ways in which the emergency services and the public have a heightened sense of terrorist activities post 9/11 negating or at least affecting any future activity. The response to terrorism has, perhaps, changed over in the last three decades, as media interest has meant that activity can be reported quickly to a large number of countries. Terrorism has become, at the same time, more and less an issue in the newspapers and on television - on the one hand being thrust into the everyday consciousness but, through this, losing some of its initial value as a means of creating shock and confusion. The more images of terror we see on screens and in our everyday lives, the less currency they have as a military strategy.

Terrorism - A Military Strategy?

The answer to the central question of this paper, then, is a complex one depending to a very large extent on the nature of the terrorist activity and the aims of the organisation. As we have seen there have been a number of successes in terms of securing specific demands in the past - not least of all the 1970 'skyjacking' operation by the PFLP. However, we have also seen how terrorism can be divisive, how it can engender the very opposite of what it sets out to do. As we saw with the London bombings, a post 9/11 society is one that treats the threat of terrorism as a consequence of modern city living. This is perhaps the ultimate irony of terrorism and the main reason why it could never be considered a reasonable military strategy: the more terrorist activity there is, the less political value it has. However, of course, terrorism is perhaps the only strategy that many disenfranchised groups have which may account for its constant presence on the global political stage.

Ultimately, the outcomes of terrorism are, we could assert, too vague and too uncertain to be of any definite use as a military strategy. As we have seen there are too many contingencies, too many areas of uncertainty and too much likelihood that activity will be self defeating rather than self promoting. Ultimately, however, terrorism is a symbolic act, an act that depends upon fear for its meaning; as the public becomes more and more exposed to images and symbols of terror they also become more and more immune. As Baudrillard suggests (2003) the violence of the terrorist is likely to become merely just another image in the media and the terrorist themselves just another face on the television screen and it is this, ironically, that provides its greatest counter measure.