In an era where unconventional warfare is the norm and where terrorism constitutes the primary concern of many major military powers, it seems fitting to deconstruct the word. This will entail a consideration of how our current-day understanding of terrorism fits in the term’s chronology, as well as whether or not it actually works.
The earliest recorded use of the tactic dates back to the first century. A splinter cell of the Jewish Zealots, called the Sicarii, attempted to expel the Romans from the province of Judea by making public spectacles of slitting the throats of Romans or Roman sympathisers with concealed daggers called sicae. Key to our understanding of terrorism is the effort put in to making the assassinations a public spectacle, the idea being to publicise the brutal killings as much as possible, and reach as large an audience as possible.
In spite of how long terrorism has been around, to suggest that it submits itself to any tradition or rule would be a fallacy. While the word has come to be a household one, it is perhaps as far from definable as a term can be. Endless debates have taken place – and continue to do so – over what actually constitutes terrorism. The only existing consensus is about its nature as a tactic, a means to an end. Otherwise, its definition can vary from one with an emphasis on targeting innocent civilians, to one where the key word is ‘terror’, highlighting the attempt to draw attention to the cause through acts which are bound to make the intended audience stand up and take notice. For the Sicarii, this was by slitting Romans’ throats. Nowadays it would be through the use of bombs.
A comparison of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) practices with today’s acts of terror carried out by the Islamic State (IS) serves to underline just how volatile the definition of terrorism truly is. The IRA sought to attain political concessions by striking fear in the lives of everyday British citizens. The group believed that any truly democratic government is accountable for its citizens and would therefore be obliged to protect them from an aggressor; in this case by theoretically giving in to political demands. However, it also understood that an excessively wanton and barbaric attack would effectively close the door on the possibility of any negotiations, which would have counteracted its purpose and efforts to achieve its political goals.
It may seem contradictory to suggest that a group willing to employ terror tactics knew that there was a line it needed to avoid crossing, but the fact is that the IRA’s attacks were aimed at scaremongering, not slaughtering civilians. This is demonstrated by the fact that an anonymous caller (from the IRA) would phone the police and alert them to the presence of a bomb, which would leave sufficient time for anyone in the vicinity to be evacuated, but not enough time to diffuse the bomb.
As for IS, the group is one of many exemplifying what has come to be known as new terrorism, which has an extensively religious component to it. It goes without saying that sectarianism was integral to the IRA’s campaign against the Irish Protestants and the British. However, the main goal was independence, not the establishment of a Roman Catholic state. As for IS and Al-Qaeda, religious and political goals are completely intertwined, since their goal is an Islamic State ruled by Islamic traditions and law, uncontaminated by Western influences. This is clear from demands and concessions sought. Along with a number of extravagant dictates, Al-Qaeda demanded the removal of all American personnel from the Middle East in a list made publicly available shortly after the 9/11 attacks. This was never going to happen, in no small part because terrorism rarely works, let alone when the demands made are outlandish.
Acts of terror are mostly carried out against countries whose accountability to their population is limited, or against states who refuse to be intimidated. The latter inevitably double up their efforts to eradicate the terrorist problem when hit by an attack the calibre of the 7/7 London bombings, or 9/11 US attack which led the US to announce a “war on terror”, for example.
Even the Madrid train bombings cannot be seen as an example of giving in to terrorism. It is true that after the attacks Spain proceeded to withdraw troops from Iraq, but in actual fact Spain’s removal of troops from Iraq was almost incidental. Although the Madrid bombings had something to do with it, they were not the immediate cause. The attacks occurred in the midst of the prime-ministerial election period. In a disastrous public relations stunt, José Maria Aznar, the incumbent Prime Minister, knowingly misdirected the blame for the attacks towards ETA, the Basque separatist movement. When it became clear that Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic extremists were behind the attacks, the electorate was unforgiving and gravitated towards his main opponent, José Luis Zapatero, who happened to promise a removal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Zapatero won and Spain promptly disengaged its military forces from the Middle East.
It would appear that the Spaniards did not vote for Zapatero on the basis of his promise to leave Iraq, because unofficial polls running up to March 11, 2004, pointed towards a technical tie between Zapatero and Aznar. Aznar’s misdirection proved to be the turning point in the campaign.
To conclude, terrorism is rarely as effective as its continued and extensive use would suggest. However as we shall see in the next article, this has very little bearing on those with the potential to employ such underhanded tactics.