Saturday, January 10, 2015

Modern Terrorism

Terrorism has always existed, wherever there have been powerful rulers and empires, but tactics have changed.

In Jesus time, the zealots attacked the Roman army. They usually suffered massive defeats by the superior Roman forces.

In the 11th century, a group called the assassins attacked a Turkish Sunni dynasty that controlled Persia. They introduced a change in tactic by attempting to assassinate powerful political leaders. This was the method used by an anarchist group in 1914 against the Austro-Hungarian empire, when they killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the emperor.

Modern terrorism emerged in the middle of the twentieth century. The big change in tactic was to use the power of the emerging mass media to generate fear and gain attention. Modern terrorists attack targets that will get them maximum publicity. Their aim is to make themselves seem more powerful than they really are. They also try to undermine the confidence of their rulers and shake the confidence of the population in their leaders, in an attempt to get up and go away.

Modern terrorism tactics were first used successfully by Jewish terrorists fighting against the British powers in Palestine. They bombed the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 91 people and injuring 46 more. Only 28 of those killed were British and most the dead were clerks, typists and messengers, hotel staff and canteen workers.

Nevertheless, the bombing had a huge impact, because the hotel housed the British military and administrative headquarters for Palestine. It gained huge publicity all over the world, but especially in Britain. The government claims that it had the situation in Palestine under control were undermined. Public support for British involvement in Palestine collapsed. The incident showed that an attack on a target with symbolic power could have bring big changes in political power.

Radical groups all over the world learned the lesson. Direct attacks on military forces are pointless, because the costs are high and the benefits are low. With the King David Hotel model, the costs were low, (for the attacking group) and the benefits were high. Many radical groups have applied this model. They look for symbolic targets, which will gain maximum publicity through the international media, while greater great fear and anxiety in the ruling nation, while making their political leaders look impotent.

Another example of the modern tactic was the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England in 1984 by Irish independence groups. Only five people were killed, but the incident had huge impact, because Margret Thatcher and many senior members of the Conservative Party were staying in the hotel prior in readiness for a Conservative Party. The event involved the same combination of symbolic target and maximum media publicity. A number of similar types of attack eventually lead to the British government changing its goal and negotiating a peace in Northern Island.

The attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo follows the same pattern. Unfortnately, the frenetic political and media response plays into the hands of the perpetrators. It is sad that people died, but the significance of the event has been blown out of proportion by political leaders and news media. What they do not seem to understand is that this is exactly the response that the attacking group wants.

  • Political and media leaders are claiming that the incident is a threat to press freedom and freedom of speech. That is nonsense. Magazines and newspapers open and close all the time. Dozens could disappear without freedom of information being compromised. In the overall scheme, Charlie Hebdo was a fairly trivial contributor to the information system. I presume it was engaging in attention-getting activities, because its circulation was declining. Government censorship if a far greater threat to freedom of speech, than the demise of an obscure French magazine.
  • President Hollande of France declared that the incident was an attack on Freedom. However, the French have always had a fairly ambivalent approach to freedom. France conquered Algeria back in the 1830s. This brutal war resulted in the deaths of up to a third of the Algerian population. More than a century later, the Algerians rose up in revolt, winning their independence from Paris in 1962. As many as 1.5 million Algerians perished in this war. The French have never worried about the freedom of Algerians.
  • Political leaders have declared that the incident was an attack on Western civilisation. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Britain, said, “We stand absolutely united against this threat to our values – free speech, the rule of law, democracy. It's absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day." This is nonsense, too. The British government supports political dictators in many places provided they support British interests.

    An attack on a French newspaper, that most Britons had never heard of, is not a threat to British values and system. Many British values are not that great anyway. Far greater threats to good British values come from within the culture. British civilisation has been in decline for more than a century. These are the real changes that the British should be concerned about.
  • Political leaders have made grand statements about being united with the French. David Cameron said, “We stand absolutely united with the French people”. This is nonsense too. Britain and France have always competed with each other for power, and that has not changed. More seriously, this grandstanding together just amplifies the power and influence of the group that undertook the attack.
  • Describing the incident as a terrorist group is just what the perpetrators want. They are an incredibly weak group, not capable of anything more than an attack on few defenceless people. Treating them as a military organisation makes them seem more powerful than they really are.
Political leaders are not stupid. They understand that giving publicity to the perpetrators of politically-motivated violence is exactly what they want, but politicians cannot be silent, because they also know that political violence also increase the power of political leaders, especially those on those on the conservative side of the spectrum. The Brighton bombing brought a massive increase the popularity for Margaret Thatcher, and politicians have learned the lesson.

All political leaders are insecure and fear a loss of popularity. That is why political leaders all over the world have jumped on the bandwagon of events in France. They all want their people to be glad that a person who hates political violence controls their nation.

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