A Better Way to Tackle Terror

The five days between July 6 and July 10 were for Londoners a mini-epic of emotional intensity. Between exultant celebrations of the successful 2012 Olympic Games bid and proud commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, the city's transport networks suffered a coordinated assault of four bombings that killed 56 people and injured 700.

The pattern of events produced a familiar narrative in response: that Londoners -- and British people generally -- are good at pulling together in a crisis. This narrative, drawing on a broader sense of historical continuity and solidarity, encourages the British to feel that they can find themselves not merely in standing together, but in being prepared to fight together.

But 2005 is not 1945, and the bombings of "7/7" present a different kind of threat. The long, bloody conflict in Northern Ireland shows that if terrorism is approached as war, it cannot be defeated. If superior force could subdue terror, the mightiest military machine in history would by now surely have prevailed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is needed instead is intelligence: intelligence of the obvious kind (tracking people down, stopping flows of money, cutting supplies of weapons and explosives) and of a less obvious kind (intelligence that understands the mind of the extremist). A reaction that asserts "these people only understand force" or "these people are psychopaths" does not help. It is potentially more useful -- though much more difficult -- to understand why people are furious enough to commit extreme acts of political violence, often involving their own deaths.

The Power of Humiliation

Terrorism is a calculated act of political violence intended to create maximum public disruption and response. The ultimate aim is psychological intimidation -- to create an environment in which people no longer feel safe. The intelligent response is also, in turn, psychological.

What might it feel like to be Osama bin Laden, or any militant Islamic fundamentalist? Perhaps this:

"The attractiveness of popular western culture -- largely American culture -- is overwhelming. It spurts images and possibilities of fulfilled individual desire (the pursuit of happiness in high consumption environments) and is profoundly corrosive of other societies. It may not entirely dissolve but it certainly modifies them ... spiritual pollution squirts in faster and faster over satellites and cables, like a long term toxic attack"

[see Paul Schulte's essay in Brad Roberts, ed., Hype or Reality? The New Terrorism and Mass Casualty Attacks (CBACI, 2000)].
Such an experience of western culture, one quite commonly expressed across the middle east, can produce seething hostility and aggressive, disgusted reactions. Add to this the humiliation felt by Palestinians, Afghans and now Iraqis as they are forced to submit to roadblocks, strip-searches, curfews and their homes being raided. The theme of humiliation recurs throughout reports and opinion surveys. A March 2004 poll sponsored by ABC News, NHK (Japan), ARD (Germany) and the BBC, with fieldwork by Oxford Research International, found that 41% of Iraqis thought the war had humiliated Iraq.

The act of scrawling an obscene insult -- "Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it!" on a bedroom mirror during a house raid -- may appear an isolated, inconsequential event, but a single act of this sort can reaffirm nationalist tendencies in an entire neighbourhood and colour its perception of the American mission.

United States Marines, searching for insurgents in Ramadi, randomly kicked in the doors of houses to shout at the women inside: "'Where's your black mask?' and 'Bitch, where's the guns?'" These soldiers were not taught in advance to respect human decencies and Iraqi cultural norms; the violation involved here is also of the honour of male family members, who in response are likely to seek retaliation for the mistreatment of their wives and sisters.

Humiliation and degradation are ancient and explosive weapons of war, and inevitably produce a backlash. In cultures where the concept of honour is profound, those who humiliate and dehumanise do so at their peril. In doing so, they put a much wider group of citizens at risk.

In Iraq, the sense of powerlessness of ordinary people under Saddam Hussein has been compounded by the humiliation of the invasion and the failures of reconstruction. Alistair Crooke, intelligence officer and former European Union security adviser, directly experienced the US assault on Fallujah. "If you haven't experienced it you can have no idea what it feels like being subjected to bombing of this kind", he says. "The houses which were destroyed had nothing to do with the resistance fighters, who slept in alleyways. And, because bombs were attached to doorbells, the US troops killed the first person they saw as a matter of course. This kind of trauma generates intense hostility", says Crooke. "Even if you are an observer, you can't trust your emotions."

There is a direct link between the humiliation and trauma of occupation, and political violence. In an atmosphere of chaos and humiliation, fundamentalism offers a firm philosophy which can give the impression of certainty in an uncertain world. For those suffering the indignities of occupation with the sense of helplessness, to identify with strict codes of practice can offer emotional relief.
Imagine the impact for some young Muslim men, exposed to satellite images on their television screens of the ravages of Fallujah, now a ghost city where 1,874 (according to IraqBodyCount's latest report) of its inhabitants have been killed; some observers describe this devastated city as Iraq's equivalent of the Basque Gernika during Spain's civil war. They have emulated the violence that has been inflicted on those with whom they identify, and have chosen to use the same violent methods themselves.

The Cycles of Violence

Individuals, as well as communities or nations, get caught up in deadly cycles of violence. These cycles are deadly because they ensure that one conflict leads straight into another, often involving more and more killing. The classic cycle of violence has roughly seven stages and this diagram shows how it works in the human psyche, at the level of emotions. The prevention of terrorism, if it is possible, must operate at a human level. The origins of the cycle can only be dismantled within the individual human mind and heart.

Intervention is needed at the point before anger hardens into bitterness, revenge and retaliation. To be effective it must address the physical, the political and the psychological security of people trapped in violence; all are equally important, and one without the other is insufficiently strong to break the cycle.

That is why strategies for reducing terror must address simultaneously the physical, psychological and political dimensions of security, and seek to combine political negotiation and formal agreements with changes in everyday life and behaviour.

What Is To Be Done?

The implications of this approach, and the accumulated experience it embodies, suggest five principles to guide an alternative strategy for addressing the problem of terrorism:

  • Avoid, wherever possible, using more violence. Nothing should be done that supports the image of the terrorist as a heroic warrior defending the interests of the people. Incidents like Abu Ghraib, the killing of innocent civilians in Fallujah and tank shells fired into the Gaza strip, make it easier for militants to claim convincingly that their campaign of violence, repugnant to so many outside, is legitimate amongst the people and communities it springs from.

Our society has to be sophisticated enough to resist engrenage, the military word for tit-for-tat spirals which might involve inflicting significant casualties on populations with whom the terrorists identify. This is a trap laid by the politically violent, into which the United States (and to an extent Britain) has fallen in Iraq.

  • Show respect. A constant theme of my and my colleagues' research has been that humiliation emerges as a key driver of political violence. Conversely, to redress and reduce violence requires systematic training for soldiers and all those involved in conflict in the necessity for respect for other cultures. This means, for the training of all police and armed forces, not only knowledge of customs and religious sensitivities, but also education in awareness -- understanding why respect is so important.

Political leaders could demonstrate this by making a deliberate "public space" in our own society to honour the culture and norms of Islam, to celebrate and support those whose interpretations of the Qur'an are peaceable, to offer them a megaphone. If such a public space were extended worldwide, it could cut across religious and cultural boundaries and decisively undermine the cells of terror.

The concept is easy to grasp at the personal level: if someone feels deeply insulted by another, he is hardly likely to behave in a peaceful and cooperative way; whereas if the other speaks in a respectful non-aggressive manner -- even if there is profound disagreement -- differences can often be sorted out. What is effective between two people is also effective with groups and between nations. The personal is indeed political.

At key moments, respect can save lives in ways that guns cannot. The US officer who ordered his men to "take a knee" in an explosive encounter with enraged civilians in Fallujah was using his understanding of the need for respect as well as his initiative. Great courage is needed to defuse violent situations in this way.

  • Deep listening. When large numbers of people have endured horror, it becomes important to create spaces in which they can humanise their relationships and move beyond demonising the other. This obviously applies to the victims of the London bombings, but it also applies to community and religious leaders who will want to do whatever they can to ensure that the violent are isolated and undermined. Initiatives within local communities to discuss the attacks should be actively supported and professionally facilitated. This was done with spectacular success in South Africa, and has been a key factor in decreasing violence in Northern Ireland.

  • Engage civil society. In modern wars and campaigns of political violence, more than ten civilians are killed for every combatant. The disproportion of civilian-military casualties is increasing. Civilians and civil society therefore have a central role in minimising political violence. Some of their most effective methods look to ancient (and very modern) traditions of non-violence.

The power of change in the human heart is formidable. It is what can transform violent activists into statesmen. The journey of Nelson Mandela during his long incarceration on Robben Island (after a conviction for "terrorism") made it possible for him to emerge from jail unshakably committed to negotiation and reconciliation. The depth of his and his colleagues' commitment to non-violence helped avoid what might otherwise have been a civil war with enormous human costs.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, such non-violent methods would undoubtedly have taken longer to effect the removal of the respective Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. They would have faced plenty of difficulties. But they would have resulted in few civilian or military casualties, little physical destruction, and none of the current bitterness and hatred for the occupying forces. Non-military support for progress to a multi-party state -- as happened in South Africa, the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Timor -- could eventually have produced an Iraqi opposition capable of government. By keeping to the principle of enabling a people to decide its own future, rather than imposing military rule, the current level of anger and resentment towards the United States and Britain -- and its latent contribution to terrorism -- would have been avoided.

  • Involve women. Terror networks typically include few women, and women can play a key role in defusing or undermining the politically violent, suggesting and arranging more effective methods of bringing about change. In development work worldwide, it is now commonly accepted that women are effective agents of change; there are striking examples of successful peacebuilding by women in Kenya, Somalia, India, Colombia, Afghanistan, South Africa, Croatia and Serbia.

The American Obstacle and British Challenge

None of these five principles would easily be endorsed or approved of by George W Bush. But, in the two main theatres of his "war on terror", his own methods have not worked.

Afghanistan has an unstable government which controls little beyond Kabul; most of the country is off-limits to aid workers; heroin cultivation now accounts for 60% of Afghanistan's economy; and a resurgent Taliban, better equipped and funded than ever before, is mounting a campaign of bombings and killings.

Iraq is torn by relentless violence, which many fear will descend into civil war. The regular, devastating suicide bombings are only the most visible sign of a society, polity and country in deep crisis.

These situations could get much worse. Insurgents in Baghdad or Kabul (or Washington or London) could use chemical weapons or fatally pollute water supplies, and expose the utter defenceless of citizens in the face of (real) "weapons of mass destruction".

War, conflict and intimidation -- from Afghanistan and Iraq to Madrid and London -- pose huge challenges of human security and peacebuilding. To halt the cycles of violence, the world needs a public debate about new, creative ways of addressing terrorism. In Britain, this should include the question of whether it would be wise to decouple from a dangerous United States ally and chart a more independent security path.

In the second half of 2005, Britain holds the presidency of the European Union and of the G8. This is a precious opportunity for the government and its citizens to work with the rest of the world towards using methods that stand a chance of undermining terror.

Scilla Elworthy is (with Gabrielle Rifkind) author of the report Heart and Minds: human security approaches to political violence, published by the think-tank Demos on 21 July 2005.

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