Friday, July 15, 2005


Terrorist Motivation

In my essay on the Structure of Terrorist Movements, I examined different participants in a terroist movement and their roles and motivations.

Looking at the information that is coming out about the London bombings, there are striking hypotheses that immediately emerge.

Firstly, there is no coherent visible political leadership to the movement. When dealing with the IRA, or even Hamas, there is an obvious political movement controlling the violence. The leadership may be open, anonymous or pseudonymous, but it clearly exists and makes political statements.

Second, the soldiers did not operate from out of a mass of sympathisers. I might be being naive here, but I think that if a rumour of terrorist activity was going up and down Bury Park road, it would reach the police pretty quickly. What sympathisers there are are probably small groups around particular radical mosques or other organisations. There are of course large areas of sympathy overseas (e.g. the madrassas in Pakistan which the bombers may have visited), but they are remote from the soldiers.

The operation last week looks to me to have been almost entirely the work of five to ten individuals, including the bombers and the bomb-maker. The assistance that may have come from outside organisation would be:

It seems quite conceivable that no organisation supplied any of these things. The individuals may well have all the knowledge required to make the bombs, the operation was not expensive, and it might not have been part of any wider strategy. The participants may have met each other and carried the whole operation out on their own. That would put it more in the category of the Columbine shootings than the Manhattan attacks or the bombing campaign against Israel.

At the other extreme, it is possible that there was a "chain of command" extending up through several layers to a political strategy group in some James Bond style hideout somewhere, possibly including bin Laden and/or al-Zarqawi.

The motivation of the suicide bombers is likely to be not so much related to the political consequences of their actions, as might be the case for more "conventional" terrorist soldiers, as by their own feelings about the past and about how they expect other people (and God) to feel about them. In other words, it is about self-expression rather than strategy.

Assuming their operation was part of a wider strategy, the nature of that strategy is far from clear. It may mirror, on a larger scale, the inward-looking expressive motivation of the individual bombers. This is the Lee Harris "Fantasy Ideology" theory. Under this theory, the bombings are primarily an expression of the organisers' feelings about the growth of Western power and the occupation by westerners of traditionally Muslim lands, rather than a practical attempt to stop or change those things.

Another possible strategic aim, which I have not seen suggested, is distraction. The organisers may be primarily concerned with the war against the "near enemy": moderates or secularists in Muslim lands (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq etc.) Striking against the "far enemy" may be done in order to make the movement seem stronger and more powerful, to attract support in the day-to-day local wars. This form of strategy has been put forward by commentators to explain violent acts by successive US presidents, but it should make at least as much sense for Zarqawi or bin Laden as for Clinton or Bush.

These both seem more probable than the "straightforward" strategy - to effect a change in British policy, primarily towards Iraq but also to Israel and other foreign policy areas of interest. Such a strategy seems destined to fail, and likely to backfire. Indeed, it is more likely that the strategy is to deliberately escalate the conflict (as they see it) between Britain and Islam. If that is the strategy, it has had mixed results so far - the Islamists have lost ground in Afghanistan, but have strengthened their position in Iraq.

Do these speculations lead to any ideas about countermeasures? If Britain is a symbolic target rather than a real enemy, attacks could perhaps be avoided simply by keeping a lower profile, thereby being a less attractive symbol. On the other hand, the symbolic value of appearing to cause a change in policy, as in Spain, is greater than merely causing destruction, so the appearance of weakness should be avoided.

However, a counterstrike might increase the symbolic impact of the original attacks. The way to minimise the impact is to do nothing, neither to hit back abroad, nor make a big fuss, nor show any sign of caving in.

It is slightly suspicious that this is pretty much what I identified as the instinctive British reaction - passive defiance. Am I guilty of going to great lengths to rationalise what I would want to do anyway? Perhaps.

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