Terrorism as Performance Art


May 2012 | Tom Parker,

By crafting attacks designed to provoke a draconian state response, terrorists hope to exploit the inevitable societal polarization that results to attract new recruits to their banner while undermining the state's own claim to be acting legitimately.

The Breakthrough Institute's insight that western states have failed to engage terrorist violence effectively on its own terms is an important one. As their report, "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs" notes, terrorists use violence in large part discursively to promote narratives that attract support and undermine opponent's claims of legitimacy. We ignore these narratives at our peril.

The idea that the medium is the message is hardwired into terrorism. The 19th century anarchist and socialist revolutionaries like Johann Most and Luigi Galleani who first pioneered the use of terrorist violence also married it to the concept of propaganda by deed, which still drives terrorist violence today. As the report notes, there were powerful narrative reasons for Al Qaeda's selection of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as targets on September 11th, 2001.

Not for nothing has terrorism been variously described as theater, a live-action spectacular, and performance art. By their own admission, terrorists use violence as a means of communication and it makes sense that those involved in countering terrorist threats should make decoding these communications a high priority. And yet, more often than not, both terrorists and counterterrorism officials are talking past each other in a dialogue of the deaf that would be absurd if its consequences weren't so tragic.

The anti-authoritarian movements of the 19th century bequeath us two other concepts that resonate with this new report. The first is a fascination with explosives often described as "the philosophy of the bomb". Karl Marx wrote of the "therapeutic quality" of explosions and Emile Henry of "the voice of dynamite." To this day, there is undoubtedly something about the drama of an explosion that quickens the terrorist pulse.

The second is an instinctive understanding of the comparative advantage of weakness. By operating from the shadows, terrorist groups make a virtue of their small numbers and neutralize the superior military resources of the state. As the People's Will propagandist Nikolai Morozov noted in his 1880 essay The Terrorist Struggle: "Force is only dreadful to the obvious enemy. Against the secret one it is completely useless."

However, terrorist groups don't stop at neutralizing coercive organs of the state, they actively seek to put them to work on their behalf. By crafting attacks designed to provoke a draconian state response, terrorists hope to exploit the inevitable societal polarization that results to attract new recruits to their banner while undermining the state's own claim to be acting legitimately. It is an act of political jujitsu of the highest order and entirely deliberate.

We can find clear statements of this intent present in terrorist writings from the 1860s to the present day. The first to articulate it was Sergei Nechaev whose The Catechism of the Revolutionary can be considered the first 'how to' manual for aspirant terrorists. Catechism seventeen instructs that violent officials should be "granted temporary respite to live, solely in order that their bestial behavior shall drive the people to inevitable revolt."

This is no secret formula. You can trace the meme through the words of Irish revolutionaries Padraig Pearse and Michael Collins, the memoirs of Irgun's Menachem Begin, Eoka's George Grivas and Fateh's Abu Iyad, the pamphlets of Carlos Marighella and Che Guevara, and, as the report's authors themselves note, the public proclamations of Abu Bakr al Naji and Osama bin Laden.

It is, quite literally, Terrorism 101.

Yet, ten years after September 11th we still don't get it -- the genius of terrorism is that it turns us into our own worst enemies. Democratic societies are particularly vulnerable as politicians frequently succumb to popular prejudices as a simple short cut to boosting their own popularity. Speaking wisdom to ignorance is rarely well received -- as presidential candidate John Kerry discovered on the campaign trail in 2004 when he characterized of Al Qaeda as primarily a law enforcement problem.

By cutting through the hyperbole and taking a long hard look at what Al Qaeda has actually said and done since its inception, the Breakthrough Institute has done the policy community a great favor -- it has introduced a sense of proportion to the current counterterrorism debate. There is a place for contingency planning, and even for thinking the unthinkable, but the focus of counterterrorism professionals must primarily be on the world as it is, not as it could be.

Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. It has carried out a handful of successful attacks since September 11th and they have each had a relatively minimal impact on the societies concerned. The popularity of the organization continues to decline among its potential constituents. The Arab spring has demonstrated all too clearly that better avenues for change exist. As things currently stand, the struggle with Al Qaeda is the West's to lose.

Here again, a parallel exists with the anti-authoritarian movements of the 19th century. Anarchism was the existential threat of its day. US President Teddy Roosevelt, who owed his very position to an anarchist bullet, told supporters in 1908 that "compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance." Yet, in the end the western liberal narrative of individual rights and free markets won out. Suppression didn't defeat anarchism, history did.

As we enter the second decade of the War on Terror the time has surely come for us to treat the monster under the bed as it really is -- more the product of our own fears and imagination than the global network of super-terrorists that sensationally minded commentators would have us believe. In counterterrorism, now more than ever, what we have to fear most is fear itself.

Tom Parker is the Policy Director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA.