Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Dave Schuler of The Glittering Eye, one of the key members of my personal " koinonia of blogdom" has initiated an important cross-blog debate to look for the critical success factors of terrorism. Conveniently, I've been having a discussion on and off with Collounsbury on Islamist terrorism where Col rejected the parallel with fascism but suggested the 19th century anarchists like the People's Will and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries who were ardent practitioners of terrorism ( for the literary types out there, think of the Peter Verkhovenskii character in Dostoyevskii's novel The Possessed ). An excerpt from Dave's post:

"So here’s what I propose: let’s see if we can come up with the critical success factors for a terrorist attack on the United States. The level of abstraction we’re seeking is something between the level that Vanderleun went after (quantities of explosives, maps of the subway, etc.) and the level that the root causes discussions have taken (poverty, human nature, the will of God). We’re only looking for real critical success factors—factors that are really necessary."

The first critical factor would be the existence of terrorists. I am not trying to be amusing in pointing out the obvious but modern terrorism is framed by a very special kind of mentality. Surprisingly, despite all the talk about unlimited numbers of jihadi terrorists, in practice most terrorist groups including Islamist ones are selective organizations. Al Qaida is highly selective, comparable to the Mafia in limiting the number of " made" men. Nor are members of most terrorist organizations delusional, most mentally ill terrorists are " lone wolves" and not part of tightly-knit secret networks.

Terrorism in various forms has existed throughout history as Walter Laqueur's recent tome on the subject indicates. At different points in American history, particularly for the Revolutionary War generation, some historical terrorists like Brutus and Cassius had a certain patriotic cachet. This attitude of backhanded admiration more or less disappeared with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln ( where John Wilkes Booth yelled " Sic Semper Tyrannis" in homage to Ceasar's murderers). It retreated still further after a series of madmen and half-educated anarchists assassinated (or attempted to) a number of American presidents, a Russian Tsar, an Austrian Empress, a few Prime Ministers and wealthy industrialists like Henry Clay Frick. Most of these terrorists had only vague ideas of what they were trying to accomplish, even the anarchists whose motivations resemble the intensity of the fanaticism seen today did not have a very well thought out program.

It would seem that the recipe for producing modern terrorists would be the combination of a certain alienated psychology with a potent, closed-system, radical ideology the acts to change the prospective terrorists value-set, deaden his natural human empathy and close his mind to empirical evidence that contradicts his new worldview. The process here is a change of an individual's worldview, something that requires a complex, persuasive and emotionally satisfying set of ideas. Something seen in both cult groups and totalitarian movements that functioned as " political religions".

Even so, you still need the right kind of person. That target demographic though is exalted by such things - they become psychologically addicted and from this comes the fanatical will to pursue ideological ends even to the point of self-destruction . Millions of people were exposed to horrible ideologies without becoming active participants in formenting violence, terror and genocide.Most Japanese, even most ultranationalist Japanese before and during WWII did not become assassins or kamikazes. Most Germans, even most Nazis did not become members of the Einsatzgruppen and SS Death Camp guards. Most Northern Irish Catholics and even Sinn Fein supporters did not join the IRA .Most Muslims, even most Salafists, do not join al Qaida. .

The difference between the latter two examples and the former is that terrorism, unlike totalitarian political movements, requires the active adherence of only very few people to be a success.

Very good post. Indeed the anarcho-Leftists of the late 19th century with their utopian dream-like program and lack of practicallity strike me as rather close to al-qaeda.
Hi Col.

Thank you. It is remarkable how high the ratio of supporters and sympathizers to active terrorists really is - very few people seem to "make the cut" with these organizations. Not unlike the ratio of prosprective recruits to a conventional military compared to those who make it into elite special forces units. Most applicants are rejected out of hand or wash out or become amateurish " wannabes" like Richard Reid.

This is one reason I don't buy the Pape " occupation" thesis for suicide bombing terrorism. Lots of countries endured occupation at some point in time but numerically very few people ever attempted this tactic. (The Kamikazes were in fact occupiers of territory, not the occupied in their heyday which Pape glosses over completely). You need another variable to explain this behavior and one part seems to be an extreme utopian ideology.
excellent post - thanks Mark.
Thanks for the post. Just a thought, but... you state, "...recipe for producing modern terrorists would be the combination of a certain alienated psychology with a potent, closed-system, radical ideology the acts to change the prospective terrorists value-set..." Isn't this upside down? Seems to me that it is the cultural invasion by the west, forcing foreign ideas on other societies that is the problem. This is due to the fact that they don't live in a "closed-system" but are exposed to western ideas in many formats.

You also state, "Most Japanese, even most ultranationalist Japanese before and during WWII did not become assassins..." I disagree with the implication of that statement. First, most don't have the opportunity to be kamikaze. More importantly,most Japanese were completely devoted to the Emperor and would have done whatever he asked. Fortunately, he decided on surrender. The German situation was similar though not as extreme.

You're welcome iwasawa !

Hi Barnabus,

No, it is not upside-down because this dynamic among the Islamists has a strong internal causation. Yes, al Qaida is unhappy with western connectivity but Ibn Wahhab was unhappy with Ottoman connectivity, the Deobandis with Shiites connectivity, Mahdists with Sufis......you get the idea. This is a mindset that tolerates no rival.

Re: the Imperial Japanese

Everything here is relative of course.

There were many in Hirohito's clique who by any measure were ultranationalist extremists but nonetheless thought the mutineers of 1936 were nuts. Likewise, Admiral Yammato was devoted to the Emperor but was not one of the ones in the government actively inciting war like the South-Strike faction.

A difference between sheep and the shepherd :o)
O.K. thanks.

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