Understanding what Terrorists want: is there such a thing as non-political terrorism?

Ben Moles

The events in Boston yesterday got me thinking about terrorism, as part of my Masters degree at Sydney University I studied terrorism under the immensely knowledgeable, interesting and experienced terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton.


After shock, my initial reaction to what happened was: this looks amateur, two small explosions that went off almost simultaneously, and if some reports are to be believed, others that didn’t detonate at all; why Boston, a small (by US standards) city and why the Boston marathon, it’s hardly a symbol of western capitalism – this made me consider that the perpetrator/s will likely be local, with local knowledge and a local grievance, not the hallmark of international terrorists. Finally, the sceptic in me linked the likely reaction to the aftermath of such an event, a justifiable right and need to bear arms, to the current attempts to pass gun legislation in the US- on all accounts I am prepared to accept I may be wrong.

President Obama’s initial reaction to the bombings was, thankfully, cautious in tone. However, he has since declared this an “act of terror”. But without knowing what this/these ‘terrorist’s’ want this isn’t strictly true. For this heinous crime to be determined a ‘terrorist act’, it remains necessary to understand both what the terrorist’s want (their political message) and recognise the interconnection between the essential communication of that political message- to the act.

“War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

Carl Von Clausewitz famously states war to be a continuation of politics via other means. Terrorism is a strategy and example of asymmetric war. It is a strategy employed by a weaker party seeking to negate an opponent’s strength through exploiting their weakness. It is a strategy utilised as a means of achieving a political end and if a political end is not being sought then the phenomenon being examined is not terrorism, it is something else. Simply put, there is no such thing as non-political terrorism.

For the purpose of analysis it is both important and necessary to set parameters and define exactly what it is that we mean when we say terrorism, again borrowing from Clausewitz ‘we must understand its true nature: not mistaking it for, or trying to turn it into, something it is not.’  Language specificity is important to both effectively analyse the phenomenon of terrorism and, through understanding and research, produce effective means to combat it.

Inhibitors to achieving a globally accepted definition of terrorism have included disagreements over specific terminology that would include/exclude groups that certain governments support/denounce and disagreements amongst analysts over the certain nuances of terrorism, for example: whether the 2000 attack on the USS Cole was a terrorist attack because it was directed against a military vessel and not a civilian target and whether actors working alone, ‘lone wolves’, are considered terrorists or whether a terrorist prerequisite is group membership. Without an accepted framework these points are open to be debated and left to individual interpretation. However, furthering the extant knowledge within the academic field of terrorism, a consensus has emerged amongst a body of scholars that achieving political objectives and communicating what those objectives are is a defining element and key aspect of terrorism, an absence of which would negate it to being something else, for example a purely criminal act.

Former Harvard Professor Louise Richardson defines terrorism as “…deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes.”  Richardson prescribes a coherent framework for analysis which has at its core the pursuit of political objectives. Utilising her analytical framework enables a foundation for building an understanding of terrorism. She maintains that terrorists are rational, non-state actors. Based on core realist assumptions: understanding that the international system is anarchic, that they operate within a self-help system, and that they have limited power-recognising their power relative to that of the state, terrorists exploit a weakness in the system to attempt to coerce states to recognise their political objectives. They bring into question the sovereignty of the state and its ability to protect its citizens through violent, symbolic acts, terrorising both, through fear.

Thomas Schelling describes the threat to use violence as ‘dirty bargaining’, that it is a tool of diplomacy that is most successful when threatened and not used “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Terrorism is a vehicle for conveying a political message. Richardson identifies the political aspirations of terrorist groups falling into one of two categories. Firstly temporal political goals: those that can be achieved without overthrowing the political status quo, such as anti-abortionists desire for the outlawing of abortion clinics. Secondly, transformational political goals: those that seek to create a new order through abolishing the existing state system, such as the desire of Jemaah Islamiyah to establish a regional caliphate in South East Asia.

Terrorism is not an ideology, it is a method and category of politically motivated violence which can be viewed on a scale from low level violence, including the throwing of Molotov cocktails to extreme violence with intent to seriously injure or kill. Through perpetrating violent acts, or the threat thereof, the intended target audience, of the aforementioned message, is the larger political community, the state. It is an attempt to change and influence the behaviour and policies of the state by terrorising, through such acts of violence, those whom the state claims to be representative of. Brian Jenkins categorises terrorists falling into one of two groups, and the level of violence they use is determined by which category they fall into. Firstly, there are terrorists who, concerned about public opinion, will limit their actions to maintain popular support. Secondly, there are terrorists who believe in the righteousness of their cause and that the end will justify their means irrespective of public support and opinion.

The use of terror as a strategy is not a new phenomenon, however, terrorism as we currently understand it to be, has followed a pattern and the achieving of political objectives has been an observed feature throughout. David Rapoport has analysed and views modern terrorism as waves, cycles of activity over a given time period propelled by political motivation “’Revolution’ is the over-riding aim in every wave… Revolutionaries create a new source of political legitimacy.” Rapoport states that we are currently in the fourth wave, or ‘religious wave’, of terrorism and that its defining feature is the shrouding of political objectives in religious terminology. One group which is representative of this fourth wave is Jemaah Islamiyah, whose ambition is to radically change the existing political structure of South East Asia through revolution and the eventual establishment of a Caliphate. Al Qaeda is another example of a fourth wave terrorist group, and in particular Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula whose objective is to establish a Caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula, interestingly though it has been suggested that their failure and lack of success stems in part, from an inability to articulate a better political alternative to that which currently exists and their excessive use of violence, a failure to achieve political legitimacy amongst those they claim to be representative of.

Ambiguity and overuse of the word terrorism, in particular over the past decade, means that without a framework for analysis, there is a real danger that its overuse will lead to a dilution and loss of all utility to the term. Richardson’s framework for analysis enables a precise understanding and facilitates a distinction between what is, and what isn’t terrorism. Political objectives are an integral aspect to understanding terrorism and as such there is no such thing as non-political terrorism.

I am confident over the coming weeks the political message that the abominable criminal act of the Boston Marathon bombings was intended to convey will emerge (transforming it into an ‘act of terror’) and the perpetrators caught. I narrowly (by a couple of hours) avoided being caught up in an IRA bomb explosion in London in 1992. This is a sad and untimely reminder that terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11; that it existed before and shall unfortunately continue after.

Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


2 thoughts on “Understanding what Terrorists want: is there such a thing as non-political terrorism?

  1. Good article, Moles.

    To me the most interesting thing about political violence is the importance of perception around it – more important than the facts actually. The fact, for example, that 3000+ people have been killed by firearms in the US since the Newtown school schooting four months ago. That is more than died on ‘9/11’. Newtown itself saw many more people killed than died in the Boston bombing.

    Yet these now regular fire-arm attacks are not considered terrorism. The means invested in attempting to put an end do not match the means invested in preventing (international) terrorism by the US, even though small arms kill far more people.

    • Cheers Jerry.

      But those shootings/fire-arms attacks are not acts of political violence or terrorism, they are deplorable acts of violence but not terrorist acts- with a political message.

      The problem with shootings in the US is that people are socially conditioned to accept them, they happen so frequently people are not shocked by them. What is accepted is the explanation/reason for such shootings, the person was a paranoid schizophrenic, the person was depressed, it was drug related, it was a robbery gone wrong- paradoxically there is a ‘logical’ explanation to it, it shouldn’t have happened but it did and people don’t fear it, it was an unfortunate random act.

      With terrorism and acts of terror, people are not conditioned to them. There is a strange line of thinking at play here. Many rationalise these acts as being initiated by rational actors who know and plan what they are doing, they are not random acts. Their acts of terror are cold, calculated and yet kill indiscriminately. What really strikes fear into people is the knowledge/belief that the perpetrators of the crime are not insane, they are not random crimes or accidents, they do what they do in the full knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and many people can’t comprehend this and this is what people fear, sane people doing insane (unexplainable-to them) things.

      On the issue of the bombings. One of the problems I had, apart from the poor CNN live style full and continuous coverage of the bombings, which I switched off after 20 minutes having realised we were not going to glean any new factual information (or any other news for that matter)- was the fact that this very type of coverage is what terrorists want. I quoted Thomas Shelling in the piece, he “…describes the threat to use violence as ‘dirty bargaining’, that it is a tool of diplomacy that is most successful when threatened and not used “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Well, such coverage certainly ticks the box for allowing a lot of people to watch- and through so doing helps the spread of fear, tick, and increases the possibility of ‘copy-cat’ acts, another tick!

      I think it is time to consider striking a better balance when reporting such events in future.

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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