What if all the reasons commonly given for the onset of the current age of terror are wrong? If violence against the innocent is not the product of religious fanaticism, reaction to corrupt governance, or a manifestation of the sheer hopelessness and rage that come with perpetual poverty, then what are the real causes? If the received wisdom about terrorism can be challenged, then there is an obligation to look more deeply into its origins.
In the matter of faith-based zealotry, psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of jihadis affiliated with the al Qaeda movement, finding that religion is a lesser included factor in their recruitment. Indeed, a significant percentage of these militants undertook graduate studies — such study itself a seeming contradiction of fundamentalism — many outside the Muslim world. For example, 9/11 attack team leader Mohammed Atta studied architecture in Germany. Al Qaeda’s deepest strategic thinker, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri is an engineer. Osama bin Laden had a business education and came from a very wealthy family of industrialists — again giving the lie to the notion of terrorists as unthinking religious fanatics. As Sageman notes in his Understanding Terror Networks, these sorts of secular backgrounds are commonly found. We have misjudged the jihad.
As to terror arising in reaction to government oppression, the Arab Spring provides much evidence — as do the many “color revolutions” that have come before — that social uprisings can take the form of, and succeed with, peaceful demonstrations. And on those occasions when armed revolts have erupted, as in Libya and Syria, they have aimed largely at the tyrants and their militaries, not the innocent. If anything, insurrections in the Muslim world seem less prone to the kind of anti-government terrorism that has surfaced from time to time in Europe with such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and in the United States in the form of far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh.
With regard to the belief that poverty and hopelessness spark terrorism, one can only say that many, many countries see endless years of travail of this sort without ever a terrorist group rising up. Why is it that the vast majority of those who suffer in such settings fail to take up arms and commit terrorist acts? The philosopher John Stuart Mill once articulated what he called a “method of difference” by which he held that factors — such as poverty and hopelessness — common to many areas, but leading to a particular outcome (in this case, terrorism) in only a few, should not be seen as the true causes of the phenomenon. Thus, persistent economic suffering should not be seen as a prime catalyst for terrorism.
But if the foregoing, widely accepted troika of causes of our current age of terror are all false, then what is this violent plague’s true origin? In discussions over the past decade, my colleague Robert O’Connell and I have observed that the desire to prey upon the innocent is rooted deeply in human nature. From the earliest times, bush and mountain tribes, horse archers, and sea peoples all perpetrated acts of symbolic violence against hapless victims in order to shock their families, and their protectors, into states of temporary inaction during plunder raids. This violence also served to intimidate the victims into paying tribute, in the hope of being left in peace later on. In one form or another over the centuries, from piracy on the high seas to steppe raiders, and on to the “business model” of numerous modern terrorist factions, the pattern persists: Symbolic violence or the threat of it, aimed at the innocent, has been used to pursue gains — material and otherwise.
To be sure, there have been terrorist organizations driven primarily by religious zeal, the Cult of the Assassins in the 13th century being the best example of the use of murder to further belief-based interests. But in the long history of violence against the innocent, the Assassins are far more the exception than the rule. No, it seems instead that terror has flourished when external conditions have allowed, not when ideas have inspired or suffering has impelled. Ideas without opportunity have always withered.
Just what are the conditions that allow ages of terror to emerge or re-emerge? O’Connell and I think there are three: favorable technologies, mobility, and lack of international order.
Perhaps the greatest early technological enabler of terror was the swift, shallow-draft ship. The Vikings perfected this kind of vessel, which gave them great mobility — and the lack of international order of any sort during the Dark Ages gave them plenty of opportunities. That they used violence to cow their victims into submission all around the European littorals, and even deep into Russia, is best reflected in the common prayer of the time: “Lord spare us the fury of the Norsemen.” Pirates ever since have done their best to emulate the Viking model, and have waxed or waned in tandem with technological advances or international developments that affected their relative mobility and the resolve of their opponents.
Two centuries ago, for example, as the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the age of steam was beginning, pirates from Barbary to the Far East suffered from lack of access to the emerging propulsion technology and, once the Royal Navy and its allies were free to police the “ocean commons,” had to face formidable opposition from the new world order of its day. Piracy went into eclipse, and has since only flared up occasionally — the resurgence of Somalian sea predators (whose takings have declined by 90 percent this past year) being in part a function of the disorder in their homeland.
The astounding increase in acts of terrorism since the turn of the millennium — from ten in 2000 to over 10,000 in 2006, according to State Department and National Counterterrorism Center figures — can be best understood in terms O’Connell and I suggest. At the technological level, the disruptive and destructive power of small groups has grown considerably — see how much damage the 19 attackers did on 9/11 by riding the rails of a key transportation technology of our time to turn civilian airliners into missiles. Further, cyberspace has proved a virtual haven for terrorists, who can recruit, raise funds, and plan operations on a global scale with a few secure clicks.
And the kind of international order that President George H.W. Bush spoke of so hopefully in 1991 — in the wake of Desert Storm — has never emerged. Instead, it is a world that Zbigniew Brzezinski once presciently described as “out of control.” The membership of the United Nations has nearly quadrupled since its inception at the end of World War II, but the number or nations that are failing to sustain basic state functions is high, and even growing. Indeed, this magazine’s 2012 “Failed States Index” notes only a few areas of stability — North America, Western Europe, and Australia — while all other regions teeter on the brink of disaster. This means that significant swaths of the world lie beyond notions of order, making them fertile ground for the seeds of terror.
If O’Connell and I are right, the implications for policy are to: 1) disengage from religious disputations about exactly who has “hijacked Islam”; 2) prioritize the establishment of societal order first in troubled areas, rather than government-in-a-box democracy; and 3) focus on improving the ability to detect and track terrorists in cyberspace. These three straightforward steps are unlikely to be taken, though, absent a willingness to consider the possibility that the true lineage of terror is radically different from the prevailing beliefs that shape the global discourse today.
Given the return of al Qaeda to Iraq, its involvement in Syria and Yemen, and its new franchises in Africa and other parts of the world — along with increasing signs that other terrorist movements are now getting underway — perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm.