“Or, Maybe, Let’s Not Give Them What They Aspire?”


Every year, decade, and generation will be remembered for certain things, and some things will be more remembered than others – those will become the time period’s brand image. 2015 saw the peak of the European refugee crisis, the battle of Kobane, and the Iranian Nuclear Deal; 2014 the declaration of Daesh’s caliphate, the annexation of Crimea, and the deadliest ever outbreaks of Ebola. What will 2016 become known for? Recently, a friend of mine in Germany claimed that last year will become famous for having brought ‘terrorism’ finally to Europe and that our so-called ‘Generation Y’ will be known as ‘the generation of terror’. This inspired me to write this blog article for clarifying the meaning of terrorism beyond arousal of fear of acquired im-/material values.

According to Barry Buzan and George Lawson, the study of International Relations is organized around an orthodox set of benchmark dates. They identify the following: 1648, 1919, 1945, and 1989. Or, to verbalize their events: The Treaty of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War, the end of World War I, the end of World War II, and the end of the Cold War. Each of them established a new world order. At this point, the attentive reader will probably have recognized the notion of ‘war’ as their overall similarity. Roughly speaking: Over the course of these world orders, the type of conflict and means of warfare changed from full-scale interstate to low intensity intra-state conflict.

Since the 1990s, the list of war combatants extended to non-state actors; and since 2001, the list of the enemies extended to abstract notions like (War on) ‘terrorism’ as well. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2016, attacks committed by so-called ‘lone wolves’ increased significantly since Daesh’s 2014 call for individuals to carry out independent attacks. Having already been responsible for every fifth terrorist death in an OECD country in 2015, lone wolf attacks like the 13 June 2016 Orlando club shooting or the 21 December 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack are expected to rise in ‘the West’. I argue that in order to contain future attacks, the West must move beyond the ‘terrorists are insane extremists’ narrative and start taking the perpetrator’s motives seriously.

“A Man is A (Lone) Wolf to Another Man”?

During the French revolution, la terreur referred to state actors, i.e. the aristocracy who ruled the nation by a rigid execution policy regarding everyone impediment to their measures. It etymologically roots in the Latin terrere, to „fill with fear, frighten“. As it is arguably also connected to terra (“earth”), terror becomes an emotional and spatial term. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2016, 72 per cent of all terrorism deaths of 2015 occurred in only five countries, namely Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. In comparison, 21 of the 34 OECD member states suffered from an attack in the same year, with 577 deaths in total, mostly in Turkey and France. Simultaneously, the global number of deaths caused by terrorism decreased by 10 per cent in 2015, which set a record in the 16 years investigated by the Institute of Economics and Peace.

In De Cive, Thomas Hobbes (1642) argues that “Man to Man is a kind of God” when one compares citizens amongst themselves, whilst “Man to Man is an errant Wolfe”, if one compares citizens of different cities. When Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington was trying to predict the new world order of the post-Cold War era, his hypothesis was that cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the newly emerging international system. In his 1996 book ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’, Huntington claimed to predict ‘the Islamic civilization to become the next US enemy, as the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics failed to exist, and that – this is less well known – terror on Western targets will be the central issue of the years to come. After 11 September 2001, his claims were both contemplated and criticized in twilight of the ‘War on Terror’, amongst others, for they gave hostile food for thought in both ‘Western countries’ and Middle Eastern countries. Interestingly enough, Daesh’s propaganda jumps on the exact same train and is said to try to increase the tension between the two groups – not least by its monthly magazine Dabiq which is translated into various languages, including English, French, Russian and German, and bears the name of a city in northern Syria where the final battle between Christians and Muslims is said to take place in the holy Quran.

Terrorism is used by the self-proclaimed ‘weak’ of a particular time and context in order to redistribute political power between themselves and ‘the strong’ and thereby turns into a tool for political ends. Terrorism scholar David Rapaport examined four ‘waves of terrorism’: (1) 1890-1914 (assassinations of leaders by using bombs and dynamite), (2) 1920-1960 (urban guerilla warfare in the anti-colonial atmosphere, using cellular structures and increasingly focusing on civilian casualties), (3) 1970-1980s (combined motivations, e.g. ideological and ethnic, operating international, using physical encounters, airline hijackings, etc.), and (4) 1990-present (religious / divine justifications, ahierarchical network structures and transnational / global operations). The phenomenon of lone wolf terrorism, however, is of a domestic nature; persons, mostly with an immigrant background to the country of residence, become radicalized perpetrators of atrocities against people of a city or area they were living in for at least some years.  

The Terrorism Trap

In order to defeat future types of self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists, the West must look to its past and draw from the experiences of other countries which bear the lion’s share of terrorist deaths. The case of the IRA in Ireland and ETA in Spain highlight the importance of political dialogue, as the formation and political representation of an affiliated party demonstrable impacted the resolution of the conflict. Surely, neither Daesh nor al-Qaeda are interested in acquiring a self-governing territory from an existing state, but establishing an Islamic caliphate. Yet, the demands articulated through their various propaganda channels and transmitted through violence as a means of communication, should be analyzed as political statements. Or, to be more precise: political statements that physically target and thereby condemn military and economic involvement in Islamic countries ranging from colonialist and imperialist times to neoliberalist globalization; the spread of democracy; and Western lifestyle in general. Fighting effects by enhancing classical security standards instead of fighting causes like socioeconomic deprivation plays into terrorist hands and narratives.   

Image: Blockaderunner.