Understanding Terrorism


There is a lot of rhetoric in Pakistan, as indeed in the world, about the need to fight terrorism, yet how much do we understand how terrorism germinates in society, how it is incubated and then proliferates? There is a dire need to study the root causes, and effects, of terrorism. Without a clear understanding of these, one can put out small fires here and there, but can we stop the conflagration from spreading? For several centuries muslims have not only been oppressed but since the 19th century they have been increasingly brutalized. People living in terror eventually react in kind because in the recent past most terrorism is perceived to have emanated from muslim causes, it is important that we analyze these dispassionately.

We cannot confine our study to understanding terrorism as sponsored and practiced by extremist muslims, unfortunately all muslims have been labelled by a motivated broad brush that links them to modern terrorism. Sometimes one gets the feeling that Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” is being deliberately made a self-evident truth. The great silent majority of muslims have got this reputation of collaboration, by default. Haim Harari, a former President of the Weizman Institute of Science has expressed it best, to quote “the vast silent majority of millions of decent, honest, good people are either very devout Moslems or are not very religious. These Moslems are not part of the terror and of the incitement but by not standing up against it, they become accomplices by omission. This includes political leaders, intellectuals, business people, etc who can tell right from wrong but are afraid to express their views” unquote.

The latest weapon increasingly employed by terrorists, “suicide bombing”, is far removed from our religious beliefs. Suicide is against Islamic beliefs, it is given clearly so in the Quran. One could be wrong but has any relation of anyone religiously influential become a suicide bomber? What is stopping religious leaders from carrying out suicide bombing themselves if this indeed is a supreme act of religious devotion and fervour? Or for that matter why don’t they send their near and dear ones to carry out this heinous act? Suicide bombing is a vicious weapon that takes the lives of innocent non-combatants, it is cruel, inhuman, cynical and sadistic. It has nothing to do with Islam.

Only a cursory look at the profiles of the 9/11 perpetrators will show that, contrary to popular belief terrorism has also very little to do with poverty and despair. It is an accident of history that the 9/11 terrorists were mostly Saudi nationals, well educated and from middle class families, they could have been from any other muslim nation. While desperation is a factor, terrorism is not born purely out of desperation. Desperate people are in abundance in the world and they exist in different cultures and countries, desperation does not provide anyone with explosives, reconnaissance and transportation. Modern terrorists rely on well-funded mentors and have no regard for human life. “Offence is the best defence” is a military maxim, terrorism can only be fought the way one fights organized crime, by going on the offensive. One cannot eliminate terrorism by eliminating the terrorists in the field, the objective would be to get to those who fund terrorist activity and plan it. This in line with the anti-terrorist strategy formulated by the Musharraf government. How well the government translates theory into practice will be the measure of our success against terrorism.

Huge amounts of money are being channeled into three concentric spheres supporting terrorism, the consequences of this funding are death and murder. Money provides terrorism necessary logistics e.g. explosives, hideouts, travel and the search and observation of soft vulnerable targets, etc. Within the inner-most circle are the terrorists themselves, they are in turn surrounded by a second wider circle of direct supporters, planners, commanders, religious personalities, etc, who serve as the terrorism infrastructure. The third circle is of religious, educational and welfare organizations. They spout a litany of hatred, lies and ignorance, operating mostly through mosques, madrasas and other religious establishments. The primary target must be the second circle, not only to get to the source but that is the only way to break this evil chain. Hatred is generally vicious propagated through incitement in the electronic and printed media. The actual perpetrators of terrorism are associated with only a few such institutions, because of their own rhetoric most of the others become inadvertently part of it by association. In their tunnel vision democracy is unthinkable and they enforce minimum exposure to the outside world, isolation (and ignorance) is where most of their strength is derived from. This is the circle from where the lead is taken to blaming anyone and everyone within and outside the Moslem world for their miseries. Acting as guardians of the people they make sure that rather than listen to the world outside, the people look and listen inwards to the vicious propaganda of terror and incitement being dished out by the inner circle. Those fighting terrorism must ensure that the public has unrestricted access to independent media.

The civilized world believes in democracy, the rule of law, including international law, human rights, free speech and free press, among other liberties. It also believes in what many take to be naïve and old-fashioned habits such as respecting religious sites and symbols, refraining from the use of ambulances and hospitals for acts of war, avoiding the mutilation of dead bodies and shunning the use of children as human shields or humans bombs.

In his dissertation Haim Harrari put forward some interesting questions. There is no doubt that civilized society can be strait-jacketed with limitations, but in the questioning these limitations, one can always find likely answers, viz (1) can a government listen to phone conversations of terrorist and drug dealers? In a country where the intelligence agencies normally listen to private conversations, why not? (2) Can one raid a church, mosque or synagogue, which serves as a terrorist hideout or ammunition storage? If someone has already compromised the sanctity of these religious place of worship, the site can hardly be called sacred (3) If attacked from a hospital do you return fire? Why not as long as you can apply the golden rule of taking great care that civilians (in this case patients and medical staff) do not come into the line of fire? (4) Do you storm a mosque taken over by terrorists who has taken hostages? The mosque cannot remain sacred once it is put such use (5) Do you strip every woman because one pretended to be pregnant and carried a suicide bomb on her belly? One may not strip every pregnant woman, but she can be searched by female security personnel to prevent other innocents, including children, from being murdered (6) Do you shoot back at someone trying to kill you while standing deliberately behind a group of children? You exercise the same care as you would for any non-combatant in the line of fire (7) Do you raid terrorist headquarters hidden in a mental hospital? One applies the same rule of keeping care that non-combatants do not come into the line of fire, this is also true for those terrorists who deliberately use children as a human shields.

The civilized world still has illusions that it is possible to enforce the rule of law in a totally lawless environment. No country has a law against cannibals eating citizens because such an act would be unthinkable, but it is time the world evaluated options of bringing the unthinkable into the statute books. Does International law address killers shooting from hospitals, mosques and society? The punishment for “suicide bombings” should be death or arrest before they commit the actual act of murder, how do you prosecute the “suicide bomber” afterwards? The same punishment must apply to those who incite and/or abet “suicide bombing”. Terrorism can only be fought on a broad front, targetting all those who are not only connected directly to the perpetrator but all those who indirectly give sustenance. The rules of international law have changed after every world war, in countries such as Pakistan one has to take cognizance of our domestic situation and amend the laws to suit the prevailing circumstances. How well we can differentiate in meting out punishment (and reward) will determine our success ratio in fighting this growing threat, one that has the potential of dissolving society into anarchy.