Terrorism in the 21st century is very different than terrorism in the 20th century. In the past, acts of terrorism, which can be defined as attacks on civilian targets rather than military targets, were often committed as part of a campaign of independence or to achieve a nationalist goal. They were often geographically limited and did not cause large-scale civilian casualties. Today, terrorism is a global threat motivated by a very different ideology and is much more deadly. It truly is a scourge—one that haunts leaders and policymakers around the world. In the course of this essay I will examine three aspects of terrorism then and now by looking at different groups with different aims. In the course of these examinations or comparisons, many of the salient differences between old terrorism and new terrorism will become evident. In the first case I will examine the Algerian-French conflict in the middle of the 20th century. In this conflict, the French fought an urban guerrilla war against Algerian nationalists who wished to liberate their country from French colonialism. The brutal reprisals of the French were responded to by acts of terrorism such as blowing up mailboxes in Paris. While the conflict elicited a cri du Coeur from other colonial subjects around the world and inspired a great many anti-colonialist thinkers, it did not, for example, draw in foreign fighters or radicalize a generation of extremists. Furthermore, terrorism was to some extent a last resort for Algerians who were consistently refused real political influence or power over their country. Their aim was clear and their methods—while highly objectionable—were coherent and connected to their aim. The Algerian terrorists of the time, while ruthless, could and did negotiate with the French. Indeed, the terrorist/freedom fighters were able to secure the independence of Algeria in 1962.
In the second case I will examine the conflict in Afghanistan from 1979, what many analysts believe is the genesis of the new terrorism. While issues raised by this very long conflict began with the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, which provoked a somewhat traditional form of terrorism in the form of freedom fighters and guerrillas, as in the Algerian in the 1950s, the form of resistance morphed dramatically by the 1990s and into the 2000s. These years saw the rise of a new form of terrorism, funded and inspired in part by Saudi Wahhabism, and an ideology of global jihad (Coll 2004, 87). These new terrorists did not have clear or rational aims but instead a hodgepodge of grievances against Western states, and foremost against American. Where the Algerian conflict had been limited to Algeria and to French urban centres, the new terrorists sought to expand their war to the entire world. They thought nothing of killing huge numbers of civilians and of engaging in suicide bombing. A political and moral nihilism lay at the heart of their terrorist credo.
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The Algerian War
The French conquered Algeria in the 1830s and began to teach their language and culture. The exported their citizens to Algeria and these people settled there and became known as the pied-noir who by the 1950s numbered around one million people.
The Algerians were a subject people. As the great political theorist and critic Edward Said wrote, “human identity is not natural and stable, but constructed and occasionally even invented outright” (Said 1979, 211). Through colonialism the French tried to create a new subservient Algeria. As another writer, Al Azm, says, “it is hard to understand another culture without resorting to categorization, classifications and misinterpretation. It is usually represented in terms of the already familiar, and then such distortions and misinterpretations become inevitable” (Al Azm 1983). The Algerian were oppressed and colonized and had little to no say over their future. Much of this domination was obvious and tangible, such as the French domination of the Algerian economy, other forms were cultural and less tangible. As Edward Said explained in Orientalism, The first explorers of the Orient brought to the West the first stories and images of the people of the East. In that respect they are responsible for setting the tone of the relationship between the two cultures. These first early images seemed in some way, Said argues, to occasion what came after them—political and administrative control of the East as a vast colony (Said 1979). No effort was made to understand the cultural divide between East and West; this lack of understanding led Westerners to believe their own way of life was simply better and should be taught to Easterners. Indeed, as many Eastern nations became colonies of the West, this idea increased. As section one of the film explains, Said believes early artists such as Ingres and Flaubert unfairly characterized the Orient. Edward Said believes that many current Orientalists maintain these views.
Oppressed, the Algerians decided to strike back. The founded their ideology of resistance in orientalist ideas (though they didn’t call them such at the time) and in Marxism. There was a Marxist element to the liberation struggle as there were too many similar struggles of the era. As was written by one of the most famous Algerians of the period, Frantz Fanon:
And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization a simply a question of relative strength (1961, 45).
Organizing themselves in various groups, the Algerians attacked French soldiers, French civilians, and Algerian who they believed were collaborating. They sought to disrupt French activity and make it too painful and costly for the French and the French settlers to stay in Algeria. Their goals were limited: they wanted independence and they wanted the French out of Algeria. They used rudimentary means to try and accomplish these goals.
While there were conventional aspects to the way the Algerian independence fighters organized themselves, including command structure and the way they often sought to attack French military installations and soldiers, they also engaged in brutal intimidating acts of torture against civilians they suspects of colluding with the French and against French people (Aussaresses 2006, 121). They killed women and children. These acts by any definition would be considered terrorist. However, when looking at the old terrorism it is important to see that these acts by the Algerian nationalists were only one part of their operations. Terrorism was not their overall modus operandi. They did not wish to maximize French civilian casualties, and while they may have occasionally hid out in Tunisia and Morocco and received arms from Communist countries, they were not part of a global syndicate.
The Algerians made French involvement in Algeria extremely costly. Their terrorism through limited means was enough to eventually convince the French to withdraw. For a long time the French debated amongst themselves. Algerian terorrism was forcing them the act more brutally towards Algerians, they felt that in many respects they were betraying their own values (Aussaresses 2006, 82). While there are many differences between old and new terrorism, there is also one constant. Those who engage with terrorism and try to defeat often have to get their hands dirty. Because terrorism can be so costly, Western countries with certain moral and legal standards often have to pay a terrible price in terms of human rights in order to try to defeat it. In the case of the Algerian War of Independence, the French paid this price and eventually felt it was simply too high.
Afghanistan then and now
Afghanistan today is an important fulcrum of world politics. Much depends on the success or failure of Nato forces engaged there in a combined peacebuilding-combat role and the democratically elected government. But world attention is not something new to this forlorn country. Thirty years ago it was the subject of an invasion by the Soviet Union, a military action that’s results are a primer in realist international relations theory, and showed how powerful a motive self-interest can be in political and military affairs. Much can be gleaned from the behaviour of the freedom fighter/terrorists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and how they morphed into the Taliban/Al Qaeda elements or new terrorists there now, organizations that today continue to commit terrorist acts.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979 and the subsequent war that took plance there is significant because it can be described in terms of realism. Each group involved acted out of what they perceived was their self-interest at the time. Why is realism important to this discussion about terrorism? Because it is absent from the calculation of new terrorists. They are not interested in self-interest. They dream of wreaking death and destruction on their enemies all for a fantasy: the return of the caliphate. Nato may well be fighting some of the same characters that the Soviet’s fought 30 years ago, but the have morphed from nationalists into something far more dangerous: new terrorists. As the Western casualties mount in Afghanistan more pressure is bought to bear on Nato governments to capitulate to this new terrorism. Not enough government understand the real danger represented by the organizations that are fighting in Afghanistan. They are not seeking independence for their country; their goals are not rational. What they want is the subjugation of the West and a new Caliphate to rule over the world. They will kill anyone and everyone to create this situation. They are fanatics, not patriots. This—as well as their reliance on new technology and foreign money—is the main distinction between this new breed of terrorism and the old one.
One tactic used by Al Qaeda and the Talbian, as examples of new terrorist organization, is provocation. By provoking the American and coalition forces into using violence or launching a large-scale aerial attack, the Taliban can claim to the international community that international law is being violated, they are being abused, and they desperately need help. This makes Nato look bad and brings in donations from abroad. In this case, huge damage will be done in terms of death and destruction in exchange for bringing attention to the cause. It is debatable whether provoking the enemy in this way can lead to a strategic victory.
The Taliban have gained very little for the Afghan people through their tactics. By maintaining impossible ideals, both groups will kneecap themselves. No matter what happens in the future they cannot change their geography. They will have to be living next to Israel and if they want to be economically prosperous they are going to have to come to some sort of economic arrangement with their neighbours. War involves vilifying your opponent, but in order to survive after a war it is important to find some common ground with your enemy, much like France and Germany did after the Second World War, paving the way for the success of the European Union. It is important for all parties to the conflicts in the Middle East to remember that in the future they are going to have to depend on one another in one way or another. Therefore, the Palestinian tactics, which have so poisoned relations between Israel and the Palestinian people, and which are so marked by ideology and idealism over practical political considerations are very unlikely to bear any fruit.
Will terrorism of this sort succeed? Only if we let it do so. Many political models and examples show that rigid ideology and the pursuit of violence against civilians leads nowhere. The truth is that the Al-Qaeda and Taliban of the world will always be destined to have a hardcore of followers who can cause trouble, but with a vigilant West never more than this. What many models show is that a recognition of differences and an effort to acknowledge past wrongdoing and pursue political reconciliation has a better track record of bringing achievable goals to fruition.
The new terrorism is very unlikely to achieve any true political change. These people have no home in the world and never will.
The world has changed a great deal over the last century. Empires have come and gone, and political movements have changed the face of the world. One of the greatest changes has been the kind of terrorism that Western governments face today. In the past terrorist activity was usually nationalistic and rational. Terrorists could be more closely related to freedom fighters. They were usually small groups who fought insurgent or guerrilla warfare. Often they were members of liberation organizations and based in a single country. The freedom fighter/terrorists of Algeria are a perfect example of this. They had limited aims—independence for Algeria—and limited means to accomplish this goal. They may have been influenced by Marxism and resentment against the West but this were, in the final analysis, ancillary motives for their actions. They were nationalists with rational goals. Today, in Algeria, they are celebrated as heros for standing up and defending their country.
But the terrorism of today is very different. In its most virulent form—represented for example by Al Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah—it is transnational and very difficult to deal with. It uses modern technology, has sleeper cells in Western countries, and closely resembles a death cult. It got its start in Afghanistan in the 1980s and into the 1990s, climaxing with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. This form of terrorism can’t be negotiated with or rationalized with. Its promoters and supporters are people with a skewed moral compass. Any idea of self-interest is non-existent or alien to them. Indeed, they have no problem killing innocent fellow Muslims to achieve their aims. They have warped the peaceful teachings of the Koran to create a monstrous ideology of hated. In the past, terrorism was a political phenomenon—now it has become a religious or fantastical one.
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