Magazine

Do terrorists really think they're going to win?

Bullet hole from the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 Image copyright Getty Images

With Europe enduring a major security alert after the Paris attacks, there is much discussion about what drives this current generation of radicals. The history of terrorism contains many lessons, writes Benedict Wilkinson.

At 5ft tall, with a jutting jaw, a misshapen face and a large ginger beard, Johann Most was not a particularly attractive man. Born in the mid-1840s, he contracted frostbite on his left cheek as a child. The wound became infected, suppurated, and when a surgeon eventually removed a portion of his jaw, it left a deformed face and an angry, short-tempered man.

The surgery made him something of an outcast throughout his youth, but Most eventually found work as a bookbinder, and travelled around Europe, spending his spare time writing prolifically on communism and on politics. By the early 1870s, he had made a name for himself in communist circles not least for his summary of Marx's Das Kapital.

Image caption The German-American anarchist Johann Most 1846-1906

Over the next few years, however, Most's radicalism exceeded even that of Marx. He moved away from communism and became an ardent, impassioned and fiery anarchist. He began to argue that words and speeches might have their role, but that the success of revolutionary socialism rested on the use of violence. For Most, what was needed was a revolution fuelled by dynamite and revolvers.

Throughout his writings, Most, like other anarchists in the late 19th Century, recognised and grappled with a fundamental problem faced by those who sought to use violence in pursuit of political change. And the basic problem, as Most saw it, was that the state was simply too strong - it was nearly always resilient enough to cope with acts of violence committed against it.

One of Most's anarchist contemporaries, Peter Kropotkin, put the problem succinctly: "A political structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of dynamite."

Most's key point was that because the state was so overwhelmingly strong, violence in and of itself could not bring about the kind of political change that the anarchists so desired. A few state officials murdered here, a few policemen there - this might irritate, anger, even upset the state, but it would not, could not, pull down the entire edifice.

So he argued that rather than using violence to overthrow the state directly, violence must be used to convey ideas about political change and, in so doing, to kindle, fan and fuel a popular revolution.

For Most, violence was a spectacle, a piece of theatre, a language for spreading ideas about political change to the masses. It was a kind of image - and just as a picture paints a thousand words, dynamite was more effective than a thousand anarchist speeches. Violence was pure propaganda.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption 19th Century news illustration showing Most being arrested

Scroll forward 125 years or so to a very different world, a very different man, and a very different set of political ambitions. Abu Musab al-Suri was born in Aleppo in 1958 with striking blue eyes and ginger hair. Not a great deal is known about his youth with certainty, but it seems that he joined the armed wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in about 1980. At some point, he travelled to Afghanistan, that great melting pot of modern violent Islamism, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of al-Qaeda, and Abdullah Azzam, one of its original architects.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri

Al-Suri eventually became one of al-Qaeda's most influential strategic thinkers. And he has more in common with Johann Most than a ginger beard and a penchant for travel.

Like Most, al-Suri recognised a core problem with the use of terrorist violence as a strategy for achieving long-term major political objectives. Terrorism, he argued, might well irk nations and governments, but it was not enough to threaten them existentially. Governments are just too strong, political structures just too resilient. Terrorism might cause horrific destruction and terrible loss of life, but for al-Suri this was not enough to bring down a government or force it to change policies it held close to its heart.

Al-Suri therefore devised a different plan. He envisaged a global movement underpinned by an all-encompassing ideology, with violence at its very heart. Violence has two purposes. In the first instance, he argued, terrorism acts as a form of propaganda, drawing in supporters and advocates, just as Most had seen it.

This leads to stage two, when the movement, swollen with recruits, wannabes and supporters, can engage in repeated acts of violence. While these acts of violence might well be uncoordinated and small scale, in al-Suri's vision this campaign of seemingly random violence would create mass panic and widespread popular fear. It would wear down a government until their resolve is eroded and they give in to the terrorists' demands.

Both these stories illustrate the great problem at the heart of terrorism - what I call the Terrorists' Dilemma. And the basic problem is that terrorists tend to desire major political change, but have very little in the way of resources to achieve that change. There is a yawning gap between what they have and what they want.

Image copyright Getty Images

Over the history of terrorism, this core fundamental dilemma has generated numerous tactics. Groups in the Middle East and South America tried to assassinate leaders in the belief that the state would slide into disarray. Others attempted to provoke regimes to overreact, or ally themselves with organised criminals, while even less successful groups threw caution to the wind and went for massive showdowns with their regimes.

The self-styled Islamic State has tried with some - deeply troubling - success to take and occupy territory militarily. More recently, with the horrific attacks in Paris and the threats of violence in Europe, they have shown a new strategic vision that involves global ambitions. Al-Suri and Most, by contrast, tried to approach the terrorists' dilemma in other ways - the former through an attritional war, the latter through mobilising the masses.

Underpinning all these variants of strategic terrorism is an attempt by terrorists to address a core fundamental problem - that terrorism is basically a strategy of the weak deployed against the strong. To put it another way, terrorists have very little in the way of resources, but they have massive, grandiose political objectives and desires. There is less a gap between what terrorists have and what they want, more a vast, yawning virtually unbridgeable crevasse. In trying to cross this, terrorists look not to the immediate effects of violence, but beyond to the second and third and fourth-order effects.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption CCTV footage of the 2005 London tube bombers just before their attack

And this is precisely why terrorism rarely works. In a complex world, the knock-on effects of violence are not just harder to predict, but they are harder to generate and far harder to control. Terrorism is an improbable political strategy - it is not just that the odds are stacked against the terrorist, but they tower over them to the point of tumbling down.

A government attacked might overreact and legitimise the terrorist, but then again, they might not. A population witnessing violence might take up the political ideas that violence advertises and launch a full-blown popular revolution, but then again they might not. A social movement might coagulate around an ideology, and perpetrate acts of violence in its name, but then again they might not. And in truth they often don't. When faced with the choice, a population that is not already radicalised tends to abhor terrorist violence and recoil from the terrorists.

If it is so rarely successful, why do terrorists perpetrate acts of terror? For this, we need to go back to our ginger-bearded terrorists.

One way to think about their strategic visions is as stories told about the future or as narratives predicting how events will unfold. Most tells a story in which violence sparks a revolution. Al-Suri, by contrast, describes how terrorist violence will create mass panic and erode an enemy's resolve. At their simplest their stories say: "If we do X, then someone will do Y, and our political desires and dreams will come about."

Both stories might sound ridiculous when distilled to their very bare bones, but the point is that both of these stories, ridiculous though they might sound, were also incredibly powerful. Both stories persuaded people to join their causes. They bound groups together, they spurred them into action. Both stories convinced and drove people to commit horrific acts. More recently, so-called Islamic State has convinced all too many to buy into its narrative, and travel to Syria and Iraq, or even to take up arms at home.

These then are powerful and, ultimately, terrifying stories that can compel people into terrible acts.

But by thinking about them as stories, we also get a glimpse into how we might go about stopping terrorists. Because there is absolutely no reason that we cannot create stories that are every bit as powerful and compelling - that convince would-be terrorists to seek other, less violent, political strategies, and persuade actual terrorists that they will not be successful.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Munich 1972: A massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games was designed to shock the world

If we look at countering terrorism in this way, the key battleground for the future is not the drone in the sky or fragile regions in the Middle East and beyond, but in the war of words, in the conflict of arguments, in the clash of stories.

And if we are to win this battleground, if we are to convince and persuade, we need credible stories. They need to fit with everyday experience, they need to be clear about the nature of violence and its effects. They need to articulate the benefits of our political system and costs of losing it. They must demonstrate and advocate the possibilities and power of peaceful choice without resort to dynamite and revolvers.

If our stories are to convince and persuade terrorists to find peaceful ways to pursue politics, then these stories must puncture the strategic logic of terrorism - but to do this, they must show that terrorism is bad strategy. They must show that violence is the worst form of propaganda.


More from the Magazine

Image copyright IS image

The so-called Islamic State is known for its brutality. But it's also hooking people in far subtler ways.

Fishing and ultraviolence: The Islamic State propaganda machine (October 2015)


This is based on an edited transcript of Benedict Wilkinson's Four Thought, Stories of Terrorism, which will be broadcast at 20:45 GMT, 25 November on BBC Radio 4 or listen on BBC iPlayer Radio

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics