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Has a New Form of Terrorism Emerged since 9/11?

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Critically assess the following statement: a new form of terrorism has emerged post 9/11.

Introduction

Although the term “new terrorism” had been used in the 1990s, it did not become mainstream until the 9/11 attack. The extreme attack opened up the idea of new terrorism in policy circles and became a part of the “popular conventional wisdom” (Gofas, 2012). Post 9/11 there have been continuous debates between “old” and “new” terrorism. It has been argued that there has been a big shift in the structure of terrorist group which has moved on from a hierarchical system to loose networks. Their reach has changed from national to transnational and their goals are shaped not by political ideologies but by religious fanaticism. The aim of new terrorism is to cause maximum destruction. Kiras (2008) highlights that although the definitions of terrorism vary widely, their commonality stems from the use of violence, spreading fear and targeting the population indiscriminately. However, the disagreements about terrorism arises when discussing the purpose behind the use of the violence and not the root cause (Kiras, 2008). Overtime, terrorism has thought to have changed, especially after 9/11 causing Tucker to distinguish between old and new terrorism based on the structure and a new attitude towards violence (Tucker, 2001). In this essay, I first define terrorism as the words terror, terrorism and terrorists carry political weight. I then proceed to outline the rise of new terrorism in the post 9/11 world. Next, I touch upon the role of religion in the new era of terrorism. I then proceed to the debate between old and new terrorism. I argue that there is not enough evidence to define terrorism post 9/11 as an entirely new concept of terrorism. I conclude by agreeing with Crenshaw’s view that it is merely an evolution of terrorism rather than a fundamentally different concept.  

Defining Terrorism

One of the biggest challenges of studying terrorism is that despite it being studied and analyzed, there is no one universal definition of the term. However, the most basic definition of terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” It is common for violence to be used as a means to a political end. States, international organizations, citizen groups etc. justify it as self-defense and undertake it, justifying it as self-defense or a worthy cause that cannot be achieved by retaliation or nonviolent means. Violence is also justified when it is against corrupt, oppressive or tyrannical rulers, for social justice or against exploitation; for national self-determination and in terms of humanitarian intervention. Even with regards to public opinion, some forms of violence are more acceptable than others; for example, bombing an enemy vehicle versus bombing a school bus or violence against an abortion clinic versus resistance to foreign invasion. This goes to show that although terrorism violates the norms of acceptable engagement of political violence, terrorizing through war crimes committed by state armies are not considered the same as terrorism. However, it is important to note that states themselves may engage in terrorism by the use of unconventional warfare that cannot be linked directly back to the state. An example of state committing acts of terrorism is the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani and his niece in Beirut. It was an action that couldn’t be directly linked to the state until eventually Mossad eventually claimed responsibility. Contrary to this, the government of Israel carrying out assassinations in clearly identifiable helicopters is not considered terrorism although it may be an act that terrorizes the people in Palestine. An important distinction to recognizing terrorism is whether or not violence has been used to avoid direct confrontation with nation states.

Brown (2007), has come up with a conceptualization of terrorism which reads “unconventional political violence, or the threat of political violence meant to have an impact on both the immediate victims and the audience that is carried out by non-state actors and, or clandestine state agents. Car bombs, letter bombs, and suicide bombings are all acts of terrorism no matter whom or which organization is responsible for their use.”

Terrorism and the world post 9/11: the rise of Religious and New Terrorism

David Rapoport, in his highly influential wave theory, assessed that the fourth and current wave of terrorism is religiously motivated modern terrorists. At the time of the attack, the 9/11 was the biggest terrorist attack the world had seen, which killed approximately 3,000 people. Before the 9/11 the most destructive attack had taken the lives of around 380 people. Following the 9/11 attacks, policymakers declared transnational terrorism as the next extreme threat to international security. Cohen has gone as far to say that the world order has changed so fundamentally post 9/11 that he termed the perpetual state of conflict between the west and militant Islam as “World War IV” (World War III in this case being the Cold War). Scholars argue that just like terrorism since post Cold War transformed from leftist and nationalist ideologies, the September 2001 attacks have been seen as a shift towards religious and fundamentalist sphere.

The concept of new terrorism arose in the 1990s as an attempt to make sense of a phenomenon that didn’t fit neatly into a model of terrorism that was shaped in the 1970s and the 1980s. The model at the time was unable to explain the attacks of religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult. In the past, cults were only dangerous for individuals that may fall susceptible to its influence and didn’t pose a threat to national security, despite the emergence of cultist mass suicides. Nonetheless, there are now cults who are able to undertake mass political goals. Morgan argues that because the fundamentals of cultists are based on violent coercion, it is easier for them to shift to terrorist mentality. Cults can become a dangerous form of religious terrorism based on their ability to appear quickly without any warning and spread quickly as well. They can become hostile due to apprehension shown by society and have no rational goals. Additionally, after the sarin gas attack of 1995, scholars claimed that religious terrorists were more likely to use weapons of mass destruction. However, even as New Terrorism tried to define these new phenomenon, Aum Shinrikyo did not entirely fit the new criteria as it was a structured and centralized organization.

Post 9/11, religious terrorism has often been linked with new terrorism and that religion has become the driver of most terrorist acts (Duyvesteyn and Malkki). It is widely accepted that religious terrorists are not seeking the appeal of constituencies and are thus thought to be more violent and destructive. Hoffman (1995) highlights “whereas secular terrorists attempt to appeal to a constituency of…actual supporters or potential sympathizers…religious terrorists are at once activists and constituents engaged in what they regard as a total war. They seek to appeal to no other constituency than themselves.” Since the religious terrorists are less likely to engage in a cost benefit analysis (as everyone else are outsiders or infidels) unlike their secular counterparts; this has become the root cause for the rise of new terrorism. Furthermore, war metaphors in religion aren’t a new thing. There are detailed descriptions of war and battle in religious scriptures like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Christian crusades and the religious wars of the 16th century. Religious study can therefore be used to justify certain acts of violence. As Hoffman outlines, “For the religious terrorist, violence is a divine duty… executed in direct response to some theological demand . . . and justified by scripture.” Additionally, regardless of whether initiated by cultists or extremists from established religions; the violence ensuing from a religious attack may be more violent than that of the secular and political terrorists of the past. Religion may help legitimize, sanction and even compel large-scale violence on civilians. When there is a proffered explanation for an extremist view, political objectives and changes will be considered irrelevant and violence remains the major objective. Thus, the new terrorists seek to destroy rather than bargain because the are unconstrained by respect for the human life; neither their own not that of their victims (Crenshaw, 2009).

However, Gunning and Jackson (2011) have questioned the term ‘religious terrorism’ as the use of the term implies that there has been research to link the relationship between the two. There has been no strong empirical evidence to link the two and the problem with it is that historically the statistics are skewed by a few groups with a few lethal attacks. They point out that when groups affiliated with al-Qaeda was excluded, the relationship between Islamist groups and high casualty attacks became weak.

The Old vs New Terrorism debate

Crenshaw (2005) points out that in order to analyse the difference between Old and New terrorism, three key aspects need to be debated: organization, goals and methods. This means that old terrorism was specific, limited and comprehensible while new terrorism can be justified based solely on their religious background and ambiguous goals. Under old terrorism, violent acts were a means to an end. It was considered a strategic political weapon to create conditions more favorable to the terrorist group. Stohl (1988) argues that terrorist act was not just for destruction but as a means of being heard. Old terrorists chose their targets with care so that they achieved maximum success. A simple historical example of targeted terrorist act that had enormous impact was the assassination of Austrian archduke Ferdinand which eventually led to World War I. While the supporters of new terrorism point out that there has been a big shift in the characteristics of terrorism, skeptics of point out that its an evolving historic context and not a qualitatively new phenomenon.

Gofas, 2012 in his paper juxtaposes the “ideal types” of old and new terrorism with the five variables: organizational structure, operational range, motives, tactics and attitudes towards the Westphalian system. Paul Wilkins has been quoted describing the organizational structure of new terrorism as a diffused group of international blocks that are loosely connected to each other, unlike old terrorism that has a central command with a hierarchal system within a group based in a region or a country. However, Gofas outlines that although the talk of new terrorism was spurred by the rise of al-Qaeda, their structure too centers around Osama bin Laden. However, if their influence if looked at as an ideological umbrella that are independently inspired to act autonomously without any direct association still maintains the rigid structural form of old terrorism. It is problematic to assume that although al-Queda is a decentralized and transnational actor, it is entirely different to the secular groups of the past. 19th century ideological groups have been transnational in nature. Before the war in Afganisthan, al-Qaeda was a centralized organization. Other religious groups suchas Hamas, Hezbollah and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad were hierarchical as well. Operational Range refers to the geographical limitation of old terrorist organizations where they were limited to the home region. New terrorism is identified as having no borders with a transnational implication. Gofas explains this phenomenon with the political agenda of the terrorist groups. While old terrorists were concerned about the political situation in a specific region, new terrorist groups are concerned about the global status quo and thus have a more expansive geographical reach. To support this statement, we can draw upon the study by Kis-Katos et.al which shows that international incidents between 1970 to 2010 has remained constant despite the rise of transnational terrorism and continue to remain significantly lower than domestic terrorist incidents. The motivation of new terrorists is heavily described to be religious and derived from beliefs usually associated with Islam. This is juxtaposed against the terrorist motivation that stemmed from the likes of political ideologies and ethnic conflict of old terrorism. One of the areas where there has been a significant change between old and new terrorism is considered to be the tactics employed and the attitude towards violence. Old terrorism is considered much more restraint and specific when choosing their targets. It has been argued that old terrorists wanted “people watching not people dead”, as they were in the pursuit of legitimacy. Hoffman (1995) highlights that it is because religious terrorists don’t see themselves as a part of the system, but as “outsiders” seeking a way to fundamentally change the system itself, why they are more lethal than the traditional terrorists. However, Crenshaw points out that the level of severity of violence can differ from different groups across different times, regardless of their religious inclination. Although these arguments point out the differences in the two types of terrorism, they also serve to highlight the similarity between the two.

Hoffman argues that the new, religious terrorists are revolutionary and uniquely isolated whereas the old secular terrorists only wanted reform. However, history suggests that there have been secular groups that were outsiders who wanted a revolution. Leftist terror groups like the Italian Reg Brigades and the German Red Army Faction attempted to overthrow international imperialist order, liberal democracies and NATO. Additionally, Anarchist terrorists in the early 20thcentury strived to overthrow capitalism and all governments with it. Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Maoist, Peruvian terrorist group Sendero Luminoso claimed, “we begin the strategic offensive for world revolution. . .The people’s war will grow every day until the old order is pulled down, the world is entering a new era”.

Furthermore, data shows that the highest number of civilian casualties occurred in the years 1997, 2001 and 2006 to 2009. All of these dates have specific events linked to them. Although there were many small events in 1997, the biggest was the massacres in Algeria that claimed 4,112 civilian lives. The statistics for 2001 is explained by the 9/11 attacks and the peak in 2006-2009 was caused by the war in Afghanistan.  These statistics show that secular terrorism isn’t inherently less extreme than religious terrorism (Jackle and Baumann, 2017). Additionally, there have been accounts of earlier secular terrorists being involved in mass indiscriminate attacks. Sendero Luminoso, a Peruvian terrorist group mostly targeted civilians with only 17% of their targets being the military. Crenshaw (2008) argues that “like contemporary jihadists, the attitudes of both the Khmer Rouge and Sendero Luminoso were characterized by emotional rage, complete confidence in the rightness of their cause, and hatred for the corruption they saw around them”. It is also important to keep in mind that all extreme religious groups may not resort to terrorism; the Egyptian Islamic Group has renounced terrorism.

Conclusion

Religious terrorism is not a new kind of terrorism that has been introduced to the world and thus it cannot be categorized as one in the history of terrorism. The difference between religion and ideology has been exaggerated to a certain extent. There is no statistical corroboration exists to prove that a difference exists between how lethal and how regular religious terrorism is as compared to secular terrorism. As outlined in the essay, both religious and secular terror organizations have operated on a transnational scale, have a centralized organization but worked in a decentralized fashion. They also have presented practical as well as political goals while demonstrating their ability to engage in indiscriminate attacks. New Terrorism experienced a significant shift after the 9/11 attack which could be because the mainstream discourse expresses the interest of power. The discourse was further pushed when George W. Bush and Tony Blair spoke about new terrorism. While Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ may have been necessary to facilitate and justify the invasion of Iraq, Blairs “new global terrorism. . .driven not by a set of negotiable political demands, but by religious fanaticism” allowed the government to ignore the lessons learnt from history. The changes in terrorism are of degree rather than kind and therefore the new form of terrorism isn’t distinct from its older counterpart but merely an evolution of it.

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