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Terrorism: a technique of war?

Updated Mar 06, 2017 11:03am

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AFTER the cataclysmic events of September 2001, a war was declared on ‘terrorism’. Some feeble attempts were made to explain the nature of this beast but the frenzy was not conducive to a meaningful dialogue. Now that Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, in his op-ed in this paper on Feb 24, has reopened the discourse, it is time to resume the effort.

Even though the term terrorism was first used during the ‘reign of terror’ unleashed by the French Revolution of 1795, the phenomenon has existed through the ages. One of its earliest practitioners is believed to be Hassan bin Sabah, who in 11th-century Iran used to get his followers high on hashish to go on a killing spree. Many of us were thus familiar with the ‘T’ word, but ask anyone to explain it and chances were that you would draw a blank. We claim to know what it is but still struggle to define it. It reminds me of an American judge, who when asked to describe ‘pornography’ admitted that he could not, but “would recognise it when he saw it”.

Nevertheless, there were times that decrypting this mystery was seriously pursued to reach a generally acceptable definition. I vaguely recall it was the US State Department that once floated a text: “deliberately targeting non-combatants to achieve a political objective”. Mr Akhtar neatly captured the spirit of the exercise and correctly understood why it was abandoned. Since the state too had been targeting non-combatants, in fact more than the non-state actors, it would have made America the leading terrorist entity — for nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bombing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for endless other acts. Britain’s bombardment of Dresden in the Second World War was a quintessential act of terrorism.


America has not only been the leading perpetrator of terror, but also its main beneficiary.


Unlike the search for a consensus definition, the discussion on state terrorism was, however, not abandoned till after 9/11. The US then took charge and got the state immunity from the T tag. Subsequently, only the non-state actors could vie for this privilege. In fact, a state may now declare any dissident group — even if fighting an oppressive regime or resisting occupation — terrorist, and all its actions against this nuisance would become kosher. There were times one could try to distinguish acts of terror from wars of liberation. Not anymore. All of them — Chechens, Uighur, Hamas, Hezbollah, Kashmiris, et al — once branded ‘terrorist’ were fair game. Terrorism as a label is now an invaluable instrument of state policy.

The late Sir Hilary Synnott was once the British high commissioner in Pakistan. In 2004, speaking at a seminar in the UK, he called terrorism a technique. As a soldier I was gratified that a civilian too understood this aspect of war. Years later, I learnt that a military man, the American general William Odom too had stated on C-Span that terrorism was a tactic. In 1997, during a conference on new forms of terrorism, an Israeli major general said something quite interesting: “The Shia hara-kiri bombers were so effective that the Jewish state was seeking a fatwa from the Sunni religious scholars against suicide”. That should have alerted me to the use of this tactic in combat.

Even in wars between conventional armies, as in the quoted examples of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, non-combatants (NSAs) have been wilfully targeted. But in asymmetric wars, waged between the state and the non-state actors, this technique is unavoidable. The latter, lacking the ability to seriously hurt state security forces, have no option but to go for soft targets.

Over time, these NSAs have learnt the use of the ‘ultimate weapon’. The human being possesses most of the attributes desired in a perfect weapon system. He can carry a warhead and manoeuvre around obstacles; is hard to detect and intercept; can identify the target; choose the time to release his lethal cargo; and if needed abort the mission at the last moment. There still remains though, the matter of motivating him to make the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. Depending upon the individual, money, a cause worth its while and indoctrination, are some of the means. In military terms too, it is cost effective: many of us for one of theirs, with terror as the collateral, in fact the real, benefit.

America has not only been the leading perpetrator of terror, but also its main beneficiary. The rest of us, however, have been rather forgiving. While conceding that the US’s policies and actions created Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State (IS) group, the country was generally spared the charge of wilfulness. Considering how the US — and not only its infamous ‘military-industrial complex’ — have profited by initiating wars and their perpetuation, there was no more space for any benefit of doubt. To secure a foothold in strategically important regions, the Middle East and Central Asia, the ‘war on terror’ was the raison d’être to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This inevitably led to armed resistance, disingenuously dubbed terrorism, and thus not only rationalised the invasion but also provided the perfect pretext to continue occupation — to fight ever more terrorists.

At a high-profile conference in the UK in late 2014, the resurgence of IS was welcomed by Ashraf Ghani’s delegates and his American patrons: “Mercifully, the US military would now give up any plans to leave Afghanistan” (not that it had any). The Kabul regime got a new lease of life, and prayed for some other IS clone to come to its rescue when next needed.

Postscript: Since terrorism has survived through the ages, is it possible that it is part of human nature? As children we were afraid of the ‘bully on the block’. When the local badmash terrified the neighbourhood, we wanted someone to do the same to him. We relished the thought that others would live in fear of us. Maybe terrorism is merely a more radical version of scaring, intimidating, petrifying or frightening others. But then that is a subject for social scientists and psychologists.

The writer is a former head of the ISI.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2017



The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (37) Closed



mendon Mar 06, 2017 01:56am

We cant expect better explanation and understanding of Terrorism than this, from Head of the ISI!!.

django Mar 06, 2017 02:44am

The most erudite Pakistani General of his generation, a true asset to his country, may the almighty give General Asad Durrani a long and healthy life so he can continue to serve this nation in whatever capacity he sees fit.

Dr.Shamir Baloch Mar 06, 2017 02:46am

There is a lot of truth in the article by ex-IS chief by excellently going through the chronological history of terror and it's masters.

Pyati Mar 06, 2017 03:07am

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, that's what Tim McVeigh the Oklahoma City bomber said. The terrible event took place on 19th April 1995. Denying nationhood for Palestinians and occupying Arab Lands for exploiting their natural resources has given rise to the so-called Islamic Terrorism.

D Patel Mar 06, 2017 03:28am

Author gives interesting literary analysis of the word "Terror". Now that we know the literary meaning, how do we use this knowledge to save innocent lives currently being lost in series of terror incidences? Do we put this literary knowledge in storage for a while, and march forward to find the effective strategical actions to stop the terror? Answer is very obvious.

Asif A Shah Mar 06, 2017 05:34am

Impressive, scholarly and honest.

ahmed Mar 06, 2017 05:50am

food for thougt. nice reading

Tanvir Mar 06, 2017 07:57am

No doubt that Terrorism techniques have become a human vehicle for delivering a weapon to its target destination - simply because conventional vehicles are not available to a weaker group.

Sampath Mar 06, 2017 08:22am

The article is, I believe, is an apology on terrorism. It is high time UN defines terrorism.

AMIYA DEKA Mar 06, 2017 09:01am

What the author is saying appears to me as absolutely truth but is it ethical under any faith/culture or legal under any nation state's constitution is the question? But again in any movement by state or otherwise , what is given more importance , ethics or expediency?

unknown Mar 06, 2017 09:41am

Some of Germans really tired from the division of their troops in unnecessary ways ... Actually they want to summarize the whole situation for all of their laws which has been made by their diggers ;)

syed Mar 06, 2017 09:50am

excellent write no wonder he was head of ISI--the clarity of thought,knowledge and simple language used is unique and can only come from some one who knows the subject

MMM Mar 06, 2017 10:19am

Excellent analysis. Impressed by the intellectual level of this head of spy agency.

M.Islam Mar 06, 2017 10:30am

Firsthand knowledge based excellent write,

sabir Mar 06, 2017 10:55am

Excellent, unbiased and thoughtful article, no fancy but the truth, worth reading.

Masood Ahmad Khan Mar 06, 2017 11:11am

Cheers! With Great Power Comes Great Insanity!

sohan Mar 06, 2017 01:00pm

It is not a revelation that terrorism has always been there, but it does not mean it is an accepted as a norm. It should be condemned. But the difference is that now some states use it a tool to achieve their goals which is still unacceptable.

Saif zulfiqar Mar 06, 2017 01:17pm

Terrorism started spreading throughout the world after 9/11.

Wise Mar 06, 2017 01:43pm

We need forces that promotes non violence and celebrates life. We don't need powers try predation and compel sacrifices. Read history with critical mind. Someone has done it before doesn't mean it is right or you have the right to do the same. Right the wrongs.

Vishal Mar 06, 2017 01:46pm

I am not a great fan of America. I believe that the unrest which is there in the world today is mainly because of America. Gulf War was beginning of all the terrorism that we see today. To some extent erstwhile USSR is also equally responsible for terrorism. But would appreciate an honest article from your side without any biasness on Pakistan and Terrorism !

ashutosh mishra Mar 06, 2017 01:55pm

Good intellectual stuff!!

Lalvaz Mar 06, 2017 02:04pm

Asad Durrani saab, excellent article and you're absolutely right that Terrorism is a technique of war. The wars between Pakistan & India, and the low frequency conflict have bought only pain, grief, misery to the region.

usman Mar 06, 2017 04:03pm

Agreed with the point that in asymmetric war Fedayeen attacks may be equalizing factor. But why they kill non-combatants of their own country and not the presumed imperialists?

Ahmed Raza Mar 06, 2017 04:44pm

An excellent piece of writing. Yes it's true that USA is the sole beneficial of war on terror and terror. In fact it's now becoming war for terror

Observer Mar 06, 2017 05:22pm

@Tanvir And this 'vehicle' will always be some poor man's son, not any of the leaders themselves.

Samir Lone Mar 06, 2017 05:45pm

Well said sir. On Kashmir - Pakistan must back the nationalist groups. Kashmiris are very pro Pakistan and hope for more intervention. That's not terrorism, it's called morality in the face of tyranny and illegal occupation

Guest Mar 06, 2017 06:19pm

it is unfortunate that most of the world does not subscribe to your twisted analysis. Blame others instead of looking inwards and cleaning your own house. This is a very common practice.

Lalani Mar 06, 2017 06:23pm

Worth a read,

Avtar Mar 06, 2017 06:32pm

An interesting perspective!

AKB Mar 06, 2017 07:57pm

Excellent article, so true word by word and a great contribution from ex Head of ISI.

Chandra Mar 06, 2017 11:27pm

Unfortunately, you are correct. We are largely primitive at mindset, age old tactics is still followed, though with improved machinery

Moth Mar 06, 2017 11:46pm

It took so many years to know war models keep on changing. Be ahead of curve!

luqman Mar 07, 2017 12:36am

Terror is not a tactic but an ideology which is used to pollute underdeveloped minds to achieve vested interest. You can kill a man but can’t kill an idea which can live for centuries; maybe forever.

Muzaffar Ali Mar 07, 2017 02:08am

Irrelevant to blame some one else....

It is a universal, timeless Law.... weak always becomes a victim of the strong.

@Rana Mar 07, 2017 02:04am

very well written.

A dozen roses Mar 08, 2017 10:13am

Terrorism; a failed technique of war, where the victims are largely your own kind, not the "enemy".

naveed Mar 08, 2017 06:01pm

Being head of a powerful organization,which played on both sides of terrorism,at different times, now suggest solution to combat the the situation of terrorism which is haunting the innocent inhabitants of the world.