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The ‘others’

July 16, 2012

WE tend to think that terrorists are the ‘others’, people who cannot belong in a civilised society structure. It is also tempting to assume that terrorists must necessarily be evil, deluded or homicidal misfits who are the products of poverty, ignorance and anarchy.

Since these misfits are and ostensibly always have been caught up in a spiral of anarchy, they will always become terrorists, or so the thinking goes.

However, study after study has clearly shown that terrorists are rarely ignorant, impoverished, crazed, cowardly, apathetic or asocial. It is the organisation which is germane to the issue, and such an entity usually exerts a group appeal on an individual who is trying to come to terms with the world in some context.

Thus, a terrorist is not someone who does not think too much of his actions like the psychopath. In reality, he is someone who actually thinks a lot about the reasons for his maladjustment with societal experience. The conclusions he reaches may be the wrong ones which steer him towards extremism, but the context paradigm will always have some truth to it, otherwise it would not have been that appealing.

There will be terrorists where there is poverty or inequality. It was realised in the US early on in the war on terror that other wars had to be waged. Thus, the US national strategy for combating terrorism highlighted the ‘war of ideas’ and ‘war on poverty’ as necessary elements of the war on terror from very early on.

However, poverty alone does not breed terrorism unless it is combined with other factors like a sense of injustice, or identification with some other group undergoing the experience. Poverty in a specific geographical area will only breed terrorism where there are other influences — usually but not always ideological — which interact with this poverty to result in extremism. On the other hand, ideology in itself is insufficient for bringing about change unless there is already some cognitive dissonance within the minds of the individuals that it affects.

Thus, the jingoistic war of ideas like the Bush administration’s ‘they hate our freedoms, and thus they want to destroy it’ sentiment, expressed both with regard to Al Qaeda and the Iraqi resistance, is off the mark. This is because all it lends to understanding terrorism and terrorists is the context that they are irrational homicidal maniacs hell-bent on destroying liberal western values.

But the reality is that Muslims in even the most deeply conservative countries value personal liberty, educational opportunity and economic choice, and American culture as symbolising the West is still very much the iconic choice and fashion statement for this conservative populace. For instance, Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Centre for Survey and Policy Research, has time and time again found that a majority of Palestinians have a favourable impression of the American form of government, education, economy, and even literature and art, even though nearly three-fourths of the population supports suicide attacks.

The questions which relate to why terrorists kill are many. Is there a specific personality type which is prone to such a tendency? If there is no specific personality type as many analysts have opined, why do normal persons who are not psychopaths engage in killing, and why? More importantly, when can we identify when such a person is likely to ‘go off’? The answers to these questions may be very random, and may list factors such as poverty or lack of social mobility or a feeling of non-integration. However, a catalyst is identifiable, which is the perception of their community being under threat.

This is particularly true within a social structure such as a family, group of friends, masjid discussion group, madressah group or a tribe. Such a tight-knit social structure can add another layer of conviction, a feeling of group pressure which has been documented to be strong enough to send suicide bombers to their missions even when they have not been fully convinced.

For a person with half-baked views on a certain ideology or cohesion within a group, it becomes a matter of sometimes everlasting shame if he is perceived to have let his extremist group down. The tendency to join a social group with extremist tendencies may have many random causes, but one of the main prerequisites for this path is perceived injustice.

This cannot be remedied by individual action alone for the majority of individuals and a plethora of political science literature on collective action shows that people will join groups to accomplish objectives that they would not be able to accomplish on their own. The stronger the grievance the more radical the remedy will be, and thus violence can be legitimised by such groups as a tool to policies perceived as undesirable.

Thus, violence will be enhanced when influences such as relative deprivation exerts its effect. This group action tends to have a typical life cycle. When such action starts, it is more popular and more attractive, especially when the movement is thriving or is perceived to be thriving. It will attract more recruits during this growth phase. Thus, during the times that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was formed in Pakistan and it seemed to be a serious threat, people were joining in droves especially during the insurgency in Swat.

Ostensibly, people perceived less risk in joining a movement that seemed to have potential. However, there is usually a negative phase to such group life cycles, such as when the Pakistani state cracked down with all its might in Swat. In 2011, joining the Taliban in Swat carried a much greater risk due to the successful government counterinsurgency operations, and the movement had also by then become more unpopular. This enhances the personal risk taken by the individuals to join the group, and gradually diminishes group membership.

Another issue that becomes problematic is the mobilisation of resources as groups aim to acquire political power, especially through violence. A group can be said to be truly mobilised when it achieves “collective control over resources, rather than the simple accretion of resources”. This is problematic because this implies that a group has to actually gain substantial control over resources of an area before it can aspire for true power, something which states will usually not allow easily.

The writer is a security analyst.