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We are, so it would seem, living in times of Islamist terrorism – Paris, Brussels, Nice, Istanbul, and Berlin have all recently been the scene of Islamist attacks, for which the so-called Islamic State (IS) or “Daesh” has claimed responsibility. Not surprising, then, that Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol, warns that Europe is currently facing “the highest terrorist threat we have faced for over ten years.” 

Perhaps little wonder, but still surprising. Undeniably, the Islamist threat is omnipresent in the media and in the political debate. It is hard to find a politician who neglects to warn of the dangers of Islamist attacks; hardly a day goes by without the inevitable reference to Islam as a threat, or as having close links to terrorism. Wainwright’s assessment itself, however, is surprising, because if we look at the data on terrorist attacks in EU member states that Europol has collected since 2007 in its “EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report,” we find that only one per cent of attacks have been carried out by Islamists. 

This fact highlights the extent to which Islam­ist terrorism – to paraphrase Franz Wördemann – now occupies our thoughts and influences our perceptions. In the United States, an Italian professor of mathematics is accused of being a terrorist because he is seen writing “in Arabic” (in reality he was writing out mathematical formulas) and in Hamburg, a jogger in a weighted jacket triggers a terror alert because passers-by think it’s an explosive vest. We see terrorists where none exist and feel threatened by terrorist attacks even though we are statistically more likely to die from accidentally eating poisonous mushrooms. 

The power of perception

Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, was an act of unprecedented symbolic power. The sight of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center, before it finally crashed to the ground, signalled to the world the rise of a new, overwhelming Islamist terrorism. And yet, as the Israeli historian Tom Segev points out, the 1946 attack by the militant Zionist organization Irgun on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem essentially amounted to a comparable threat scenario. In 1977, the kidnap and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer, President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, by the extreme-left Red Army Faction (RAF), had a similar effect on the West German public and political sphere: the RAF appeared to be the gravest threat to the country’s internal security. 

But, to keep terrorism in perspective, we have to acknowledge that there is a wide gap between the perception of violence and its actual destructive force. The numbers of victims, even from such large-scale attacks as those of 9/11, do not come close to the numbers of deaths and injuries that our societies accept practically without complaint, almost as a matter of fact. The German Federal Statistical Office estimates that in 2016 alone 3,214 people were killed and 396,700 injured in road traffic accidents. 

Not to mention the unparalleled destructiveness of wars. According to the Global Terrorism Index, terrorist attacks killed 29,376 people globally in 2015. That same year, 440,000 people fell victim to non-terrorist violence including war and murder. Even in regions that suffer most from Islamist terrorism, there is a significantly higher risk of being harmed through an act of non-terrorist violence: IS/Daesh and Boko Haram killed around 11,900 people in Iraq and Nigeria in 2015. Yet between 2003 and 2011 in Iraq alone, at least 405,000 civilians were killed as a result of direct or indirect hostilities – an average of 45,000 deaths per year.

Terrorism’s power is that it takes over our thoughts and influences our perceptions, making it seem stronger and more dangerous than it really is. Media reporting and reactions by the state make for an unholy alliance. Terrorism appears so dangerous precisely because so much attention is given to it and because the response to it becomes repressive to the point of violating basic rights. And this is part of the terrorists’ plan.

What is terrorism? 

Intuitively we answer that terrorism is terribly wrong, a criminal act, and that terrorists are murderers. This is how the term “terrorism” is generally used. When we say that someone is being terrorized, we are saying these actions are fundamentally wrong. No surprise, then, that a clear view of terrorism prevails in the specialist literature, too. According to Peter Waldmann, a sociologist, almost all authors can at least agree that terrorism is characterized by a “particular inhumanity, arbitrariness, and brutality.” But when we describe terrorism as a crime and murder, as most of the more than 150 definitions do, we are not defining terrorism. We are merely judging it. Thus, it is still not clear what distinguishes terrorism from ordinary (non-terrorist) crime. And so, we are still in the dark as to what actually constitutes terrorism.

After the Riyadh bombings of May 13, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: “We should not try to cloak their [...] criminal activity, their murderous activity, in any trappings of political purpose. They are terrorists.” But it was precisely because the perpetrators were pursuing political objectives with the attacks that they were terrorists and not simply just criminals. This at any rate seems to be the smallest common denominator that people agree on amid all the other differences in definitions: terrorist violence is a form of political and anti-state violence. 

Although non-state groups and states can use the same means – i.e. both can be perpetrators of terror – there is a key difference in so far as we regard state violence as fundamentally legitimate, even if people are killed and injured. In contrast, we consider non-state violence to be fundamentally illegitimate. To talk about a just or justified war is far less problematic than talking about justified terrorism. And, as history shows, even the systematic oppression of a particular group within a state (whether on the basis of skin colour, gender, or religion) does not automatically result in condemnation of that state. Somewhat ironically, it is the state’s monopoly on violence that seems to make questioning state violence taboo. The apartheid regime in South Africa, for example, found strong allies particularly in the United States and Great Britain. On the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. blocked resolutions against South Africa on no less than 21 occasions. And the future Bavarian Minister-President Franz-Josef Strauss, during his time as German defence minister, was not the only prominent figure who refused to acknowledge that the white apartheid regime was a racist police state.

Political violence

Terrorism is violence by a non-state group aimed at achieving a political goal: the separation of a region, a change in the political or economic system, the end of a regime. Many examples can be cited: the Red Army Faction (RAF), the Pa­lestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Irish Republi­can Army (IRA), the African National Congress (ANC), al-Qaeda, the Chechnyan rebels, the mujahid­een in Afghanistan, and currently IS/Daesh. 

However how much the aims of these organizations differ – fighting for an independent state, resistance against an (allegedly or actually) unjust regime, or even the regional and global supremacy of their own religion – at their core, all of these organizations have two things in common: they are all fighting for political or public objectives (and not for a private purpose such as robbing a bank to get rich), and all of them base their objectives on ideas or ideologies which radically call into question the respective social and political order. 

Distinguishing between political and religious terrorism is therefore pointless, as it is simply a tautology: terrorism is a form of political violence aimed at achieving a particular objective. Whether this objective is founded on a political or religious belief or any other kind of belief is irrelevant with regard to what constitutes terrorism. Consequently, “Islamic terrorism” is not a special form of terrorism. It is merely one subset of terrorist violence – in a group that includes extreme left-wing and extreme right-wing terrorism.

The ANC’s goal of abolishing the apartheid system in South Africa was incompatible with racial segregation in that country, in the same way that the RAF’s goal of transforming the basic order in Germany into a communist system was and is incompatible with the German Basic Law. And, in exactly the same way, the goal of IS/Daesh of establishing an Islamist caliphate wherever possible does not mesh with notions of order in the targeted countries (currently Iraq and Syria).

Terrorist violence aims to change the prevailing political order. Achieving a political goal requires broad public support, which in turn can be voluntary or coerced. Support for terrorist violence is coerced as a social and political reaction; this may take the form of political negotiations with representatives of terrorist organizations – such as with Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA), or the PLO – or it may mean voting a particular way, for instance after the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, when opposition leader José Zapatero gained a surprise electoral victory. 

Violence in these cases is merely a strategic means of creating terror to manipulate the public and force support. While this support forms part of the plan and is one of the reasons for perpetrating terrorist violence, voluntary support is the real unit in which the strength of a terrorist organization is measured. 

The extent of voluntary support – in the form of donations, volunteers, or safe houses – is critical for a group’s or organization’s threat potential, which in turn reflects the social power that an organization acquires through support and which enables it to terrorize a society – or, if we assume that all terrorist groups who call themselves fighters for IS/Daesh are actually part of this terrorist organization, to even terrorize multiple societies concurrently. Support is so important with regard to a terrorist organization’s power and influence because it is crucially significant for the actual means of terrorism, i.e. creating terror. The more support an organization has, the more futile it must seem to fight it: for every terrorist captured or killed, new volunteers come forward; for every terrorist cell destroyed, new cells continue the struggle.

The potential threat – meaning the danger that we ascribe to a social actor – is therefore a psychological category which correlates with the public perception of terrorist violence. The more terrorism is reported on and the stronger the state’s reaction is, the more dangerous the terrorists appear. And the more we mistake mathematicians and joggers for terrorists.

Terrorist or freedom fighter?

Some of the entries on the list of terrorist orga­nizations – ranging from the ANC to IS/Daesh – may seem out of place. Surely the ANC isn’t a terrorist organization and Nelson Mandela isn’t a terrorist? Indeed, the ANC today is generally regarded as a legitimate freedom movement that fought to abolish racial segregation in South Africa. The fact that violence was used in the fight for freedom does nothing to change this view.

Nevertheless, Mandela was seen as a terrorist not only in South Africa but also in the United States and Great Britain. In the United States, Mandela – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and South Africa’s first black president – was not taken off the terror watch list until July 2008, a fact that even President George W. Bush’s conservative Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized as “embarrassing.” 

This just goes to show that the question of what constitutes terrorism and especially what constitutes a terrorist, remains highly controversial. And this is why Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Menachem Begin are viewed in some countries as terrorists, in others as freedom fighters.

Fighting fire with fire?

Hardly less controversial is the question of the right way to combat terrorism. The intuitive answer is: “With force!” What other response can there be to a terrorist threat? Force is also the answer that states usually give. And the outcome is practically always the same: force only makes terrorists stronger and spawns more instability. Experiences in Gaza, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland could teach us this: all-out repression leads to greater support for the terrorist groups and strengthens the belief that they are fighting for a just cause. 

During the 1970s, the British government deployed as many as 30,000 troops to defeat the IRA by (para)military means. They did not succeed. Israel had similar experiences during decades of confrontation with the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas. These groups could not be defeated militarily. Military measures, ranging from targeted killings to war, only increased backing and support for the individual organizations in the Palestinian territories, Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon.

The question of who is actually right in the specific case, who is using force legitimately, is of only secondary importance when it comes to perceptions and assessments of the respective actions. What matters is which side is more capable of exploiting and capitalizing on the emotions that the violence generates. Probably the most recent example of this is the Islamist Al Shabaab group, which uses Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric to gain new recruits for their armed struggle.

A catalyst for support

As they respond to terrorism with all-out repression, many states are actually playing into the terrorists’ hands. Terrorist violence in these cases acts as a catalyst. It aims to force the state into a massive counter-reaction, so that it puts itself in the wrong in the eyes of potential supporters. 

By responding with repression, the state becomes an accomplice to the terrorists, essentially advertising the terrorists’ goals and activities, and driving followers into their arms. Which is why wide-scale retaliatory measures by states are likely to have the terrorists se­cretly rubbing their hands in glee. Georgios Grivas, leader of the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), which fought for Cyprus’s in­dependence in the 1950s, recalls the re­pression carried out by the British army: “The security forces set about their work in a manner which might have been designed to drive the population into our arms. [...] The population were bound more closely to the organization and the young scorned the threat of the gallows.”

Lose to win

What does this mean for the struggle against IS/Daesh? To win in this war, IS/Daesh does not need a military victory. It needs only to lose spectacularly, in a battle that produces ugly pictures of corpses, with the deaths attributable – rightly or wrongly – to the anti-IS alliance. 

“Cast Lead,” the Israeli military operation of 2008/9, illustrates the point. It was carried out with the aim of weakening Hamas, the militant Islamist movement, to such an extent that it would be unable to launch further rocket attacks on Israel. Yet military intervention produced a surge of support for Hamas. Reports of bombs dropping on UN facilities and more than 1,300 fatalities – women and children among them – played right into the movement’s hands. Volunteers for the fight against Israel were recruited from as far away as Afghanistan and Indonesia.

The origins of the Paris or Brussels attackers could be taken as a warning sign that IS/Daesh is already able to recruit followers and potential fighters in Western societies. As historical experiences from more than half a century show, precisely this support for IS/Daesh will likely only benefit from being arrayed against a multinational military alliance and from the violence and images of war. 

The same is true for IS/Daesh as was the case for EOKA and Hamas: all-out repression and the use of military force only makes terrorists stronger, allowing their threat potential to grow.