Terrorism cries out for an explanation. In offering my reasons for the existence of terrorists and terrorism, I focus squarely on the theme of civil society and democratization. Let’s begin with these assertions: Terrorists are not mad, they are not irrational, and they are not ineffective. If we fail to understand why otherwise ordinary people sometimes resort to acts of unspeakable cruelty and horror, we will never succeed in replacing terror with civility and democracy.
Terrorism is a rational strategy born of frustration and weakness. Terrorists are the extreme manifestation of a mass of people who are displeased with the policies of their own or other governments and whose voices are too feeble, too impoverished, and too powerless to effect change when they resort to normal, civil, political means. But when gathered in a small cell of fanatics willing to lay down their lives for their cause—however just or unjust—then they become empowered and are heard. That is the effectiveness of terrorism—that its users are heard. Being heard is the very thing that foments the continued use of terror as a strategy in political affairs.
How many more people today understand both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because for more than a quarter century members of the PLO have engaged in acts of terror, and in the process have raised awareness of the issues motivating their actions? How many can deny that Israel’s independence, like the independence of the United States, was won in part by the efforts of people willing to engage in what today would be called terrorist tactics? How many today celebrate the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, a man who brought peace, civility, and democracy to his land—and yet who also chose to remain imprisoned for 27 years rather than renounce the use of violence to overturn the evils of apartheid? I raise these examples not to give approval or credence to the heinous acts of terror that were committed against the United States on September 11, 2001, or the many other acts committed in the past against citizens in democratic societies. I condemn those who perpetrated those crimes and who planned, financed, and carried out the murder of thousands of innocent citizens. Rather, I raise these examples to draw our attention to the realization that terrorism is a strategy that has succeeded in the past but that must not be permitted to succeed in the future.
It is commonplace to observe that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter—but this is too simplistic. We must be clear on the difference between those who use such extreme tactics as terrorism against oppressive regimes and those who use such tactics against regimes that foster and promote civil society, human rights, and especially the free and open exchange of ideas.
Some resort to terror against oppressors—perhaps understandably—because no other way is open to them. Although we can condemn their means, we can also understand the potential virtue behind their ends and the utter absence of any opportunity to achieve those ends by normal, civil means. Those who live in societies where government does not hesitate to imprison or even kill those who disagree with it cannot hope to improve their lot by restricting their actions to civil disobedience. This was true of those who struggled against apartheid in South Africa; it was true in the American struggle for independence; it was true in countless struggles against colonial and imperial masters. It is not true of the actions taken against the United States by Al Qaeda, as it is not true for Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, or for past organizations of terror such as Black September, the Bader-Meinhof gang, and others who were committed to destroying freedom and erecting oppressive regimes. Black September is no more; the Bader-Meinhof gang is no more; Che Guevara is no more. Terrorism can be and has been defeated in many parts of the world. Obviously that struggle is not yet finished.
Those who attack free societies to create regimes in their own oppressive image need to be dealt with harshly because they would undermine the very right and opportunity of people to question or disagree with their point of view. The conditions that give rise to terrorism, however, are best resolved through compassion, compassion not for those who act out their frustrations but for those in whom the seeds of such frustration are growing. In acting through compassion we can address the grievances that breed terrorism, but we should make no mistake about it: Compassion must be guided by principles that promote good governance, not by misplaced notions of philanthropy without regard for the consequences. I wish to draw attention to the issue of how to create good governance because it is one of the most poorly understood features of efforts to alleviate suffering around the world, and it is a critical theme. I want especially to address two questions: (1) When, if ever, does it make sense to negotiate with terrorists? and (2) How can governmental institutions be used to influence quality of life and avoid nurturing future terrorists?
"Why is terrorism effective? It enables those who use it to get themselves heard."
Does Negotiating with Terrorists Ever Make Sense?
I believe it is a mistake to view all terrorist organizations as being alike. I have already suggested one distinction: Those who fight against an oppressive government that stifles the avenues of debate available in a free society may be given more latitude than those who fight against a government that promotes the free exchange of ideas. But another, subtler distinction is too often overlooked. I see two types of terrorists: One type I refer to as "true believers" and the other as "relatively reasonable terrorists," assuredly an odd term. The first type steadfastly pursues a goal and has no interest in compromises and concessions. Nothing will end their struggle except all-out victory—which must not be granted—or utter destruction. Relatively reasonable terrorists, in contrast, are interested in bringing their real or perceived plight to the attention of others; they seek greater understanding and hope for concessions but may accept a resolution of their frustrations and anger that is far short of all-out victory. These people engage in terror because they do not believe that governments will deal with them fairly if they come forward and pursue normal means of discourse. Fearful of being ignored or oppressed, they resort to terror when they would rather negotiate—because they do not believe that negotiation can be fruitful.
"Life for the people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, much of Africa, and, alas, elsewhere is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. These are the breeding grounds of terrorism."
Allow me to suggest transparent signals that terrorist organizations send to make clear their type. Relatively reasonable terrorists want to negotiate. Therefore, they commit money and personnel to a political arm designed to promote a better public image and oriented toward developing a leadership with which civil authorities can deal, witness the IRA’s Sinn Fein. The Real IRA—a violent breakaway faction—has no comparable political unit. Yasser Arafat, for another example, has tried for the past decade, with mixed results, to assume the political role of a negotiator within the PLO. Al Qaeda, in contrast, has no such political arm. No organization devoted to an all-or-nothing outcome has any reason to try to legitimize itself through normal political efforts. Rather, all the resources of "true believers" are committed to the direct pursuit of all-out victory. But those I call "relatively reasonable terrorists" spend resources on politics exactly because they are looking for a way to compromise; they want to make a deal. Whether that deal is acceptable to their rivals is, of course, an open question. Thus declaratory policies against ever negotiating with anyone who has engaged in terrorism ensures that more terrorism will be committed, not only by true believers but also by people with whom the possibility exists of reaching a peaceful accommodation. In my opinion, therefore, such a policy is a grievous error, unless, as seems unlikely, many more people are prepared to engage in terrorism to gain the opportunity to negotiate. Given the costs and risks associated with such actions, it seems unlikely that there is a large pool of people in waiting, ready to commit heinous acts on the chance of modest gains.
Nelson Mandela succeeded in reaching the above-mentioned accommodation with the South African apartheid regime. The PLO has yet to demonstrate that it will accept a compromise settlement with Israel, but elements in the PLO may be candidates for finding a path to peace. Yasser Arafat’s failure to clamp down on terrorism originating in the Palestinian Authority raises questions about his sincerity in pursuing a compromise settlement. The only way to discover whether Arafat is a "reasonable terrorist" or a "true believer" is through negotiation. His failure to offer a counterproposal to the settlement plan suggested by then Israeli prime minister Barak in 2000, coupled with the escalation in violence, suggests he may not be the right person with whom to try to make peace. The prospects of such a peaceful outcome are better today than they were before the Gulf War, however, when it seemed inconceivable that Yasser Arafat would show any restraint in the use of violence. He has not yet shown enough restraint, nor has the Israeli government, but each side has shown a willingness to contemplate compromise. One way any reasonable terrorist can demonstrate commitment to a negotiated peace—and this certainly applies to Arafat and others in the PLO—is to help ferret out and destroy true believers. This may be the most important way for so-called reasonable terrorists to demonstrate their own bona fides or good intentions. Relatively reasonable terrorists, after all, are far more likely to have better information and closer contacts with true believers than are democratic, civil authorities. So the policy of never negotiating with terrorists ought, in my view, to be moderated to acknowledge that negotiation is one way to discover who is a true believer and who is not. We can work with those who seek to change and pursue legitimate means of political discourse. True believers cannot adjust to become leaders of legitimate governments in the same way that relatively reasonable terrorists can and have adjusted in the past.
How Can Government Institutions Affect the Quality of Life?
Well-governed societies whose people live without the fear of government oppression and with the knowledge that they will enjoy the fruits of their own labor, protected by rule of law and transparent government, are societies that do not give birth to serious, sustained terrorism. Terrorists are most successfully bred in lands whose government has taken its people only a short distance beyond life as described by Thomas Hobbes 350 years ago when he wrote that life is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. Certainly life for the people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and, alas, elsewhere—especially throughout much of Africa—is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. These are the breeding grounds of future terrorism. What do such countries have in common and what can we as scholars and as citizens of free countries do to alleviate the suffering and frustration that breed terror and fuel the future of terrorism?
Those who wantonly murder innocents must be made to pay dearly for their acts because the primary duty of government is to protect the lives and well-being of its citizens. The sources of money that supports terrorism must be shut down, both by careful control over bank accounts and by controls over misplaced charitable giving to those who sustain and nurture terrorists. The IRA’s major source of revenue has long come from well-intentioned American citizens giving to seemingly legitimate organizations that in actuality supply money for arms and for training of terrorists. Such support must be stopped. In a similar way, Saudi citizens must be inhibited from sending monies intended for good uses such as religious education that are, instead, turned toward the support and recruitment of young would-be terrorists. Distinguishing between legitimate charities and supporters of terror is not easy, but the means of doing so must be identified and pursued.
Money is at the heart of recruitment, training, and even suicidal sacrifices. However strong the pull is to achieve eternal paradise, history teaches us that promises of financial benefits for surviving families is a greater pull in the creation of terrorists. When, in the Middle Ages, the pope sought volunteers to fight in holy wars by promising eternal salvation, only a few came. When the pope added debt relief for the families of those who fought, he had no trouble recruiting an army. So it was in Japan with kamikaze pilots whose families were well taken care of, and so it is today in the Palestinian Authority, where the relations of suicide bombers are well provided for.
"The cannon fodder of terrorist organizations—generally young, poorly educated men—is a product of failed societies whose governments are skillful at shifting onto others the blame for their own shortcomings."
To win the war on terrorism, governments must learn how to control the direct and indirect funding of terror. The politics of regulating such financial transactions is not well understood, but we must devote our attention to this question.
Shutting down the sources of money will prove to be beneficial, but it will be hard to monitor and sustain over many years. It speaks to the proximate cause of terrorist acts but not to the indirect elements that foster terrorism. Terrorism is not a simple problem with an easy solution. But the cannon fodder of terrorist organizations—generally young, poorly educated men—is a product of failed societies whose governments are skillful at shifting blame for their own shortcomings onto others. How easy it is, in societies with a controlled press and a limited exchange of ideas, for leaders such as Muammar Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khameini, and Saddam Hussein to shift responsibility for their people’s misery to countries such as the United States rather than face the responsibility themselves.
The countries that give rise to terrorists are almost always places with poor economic growth, low per capita incomes, poor education, poor life expectancy, high levels of corruption, and unusually long-ruling autocratic leaders. These leaders benefit by keeping their society poor, reserving resources to use as a means to reward their cronies and key backers at the expense of policies designed to promote growth and improved well-being for their average citizens.
When we urge our own governments and international agencies, including the IMF, the World Bank, and others, to help these autocratic countries with generous, largely unencumbered humanitarian aid, we make a terrible mistake. Unless we first insist that their governmental practices change to ensure that assistance actually goes to benefit those poor people it is intended to help, the dollars spent on assistance will be substituted for dollars the government might otherwise have had to spend on minimal food, clothing, and shelter for its citizenry.
"The countries that give rise to terrorists almost always are places with poor economic growth, low per capita incomes, poor education, poor life expectancy, high levels of corruption, and unusually long-ruling autocratic leaders."
The evidence from the past quarter century shows that per capita foreign assistance to autocratic regimes has no beneficial effect on growth rates, on per capita income, or on health and well-being. If aid fails to improve the welfare of its intended recipients, then it is a false promise that only assuages our own sense of helplessness. If aid actually enhances the well-being of the very governments we oppose—as appears to be the case—then it is an odd strategy that unwittingly gives aid and comfort to the enemy without also really benefiting those most in need.
Assistance should be given to those who show a commitment to using those dollars to alleviate suffering and misery—and this can be achieved readily enough. First, before turning money over to others to administer, governments should allow an independent and openly published audit of their books so that a public record exists of where money has gone in the past. Amnesty can be granted to those who have stolen in the past, provided the society withstands a second audit that shows no consequential irregularities after the first audit. Few governments may agree to such conditions, but then what does this tell us about their intentions? Second, aid should not be administered by recipient nations until and unless their leaders permit free access to the press by rival politicians and an open process of choosing the government that makes clear that incumbents are prepared to put their hold over power at risk. Again, few will be willing to accept such a demand. Those who are not willing clearly signal that they are more interested in staying in office than they are in improving their performance. They resist making their hold on power dependant on competing for support among the many, preferring instead to buy the loyalty of the few who can keep them in power by force and oppression.
When governments switch to rules that make the hold on office dependant on a large coalition rather than a few supporters, then significant increases in economic growth rates typically materialize rapidly. This too is a strong statistical pattern observed across many countries and decades of data. More-inclusive governments foster improved economic growth, which is anathema to those who seek to recruit future generations of terrorists. Imposing such conditions on aid may not find many who will accept them, but it will help identify those places with the greatest commitment to provoking future rounds of terrorism as opposed to those who truly want to take steps to improve the welfare of their people. The latter will find themselves freed from a necessary condition for sustained terrorist training—a large, poor, miserable population whose lives are reminiscent of the Hobbesian state of nature. If a necessary condition for training terrorists can be eliminated in some places, then those places are no longer candidates for giving rise to new terrorists in the future. If we wage our economic and governance campaigns with as much vigor and financial and political commitment as we wage military war on terrorists, we can hope to remove this scourge from the earth.