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Terrorism: a technique of war?

Updated Mar 06, 2017 11:03am

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