Terrorism is not an ideology or philosophy
Posted Saturday, September 28 2013 at 01:00
Terrorism is not a state of mind, a state of being, a religion or an ethnicity. Terrorism is a method of war that is nearly as old as war itself. It is used and has been used by legitimate and illegitimate armed groups that are engaged in asymmetrical fights over legitimate and illegitimate causes.
In Prof John Kozy, an American mathematician and logician, said that “The careless use of language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts”! I love that quotation not just because I am a lawyer who is trained to obsess on the definitions and meanings of specific words or phrases but because it is just simply true. A lack of care in the application of words to any situation can lead us into dead ends, unnecessary escalations, false solutions and worse because if we do not use the appropriate language, carefully weighing up the true meaning of each word and phrase that we are applying, it is easy for our attendant thought process to wander and miss the mark.
In the aftermath of the outrageous and tragic Westgate siege, the words of John Kozy came to mind. As politicians, the media and commentators looked for words to express their outrage, sorrow and disgust at the acts of despicable people who have subverted the teachings of a noble religion to murderous ends were wreaking havoc, murder and mayhem in the centre of Nairobi, we started to hear refrains of language from George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror”. We heard President Uhuru Kenyatta referring to terrorism as “the philosophy of cowards” and saying that Kenya will not yield in the war on terror. We heard other officials talking about this being a global war and how terrorism will be defeated wherever it is. We read about “Islamic terrorists” and “Somali terrorists” and in Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called “White Widow”, we have a new terror mastermind, a white female Osama Bin Laden, if you like.
Let me be clear, I do not condone for one moment the outrageous acts of the terrorists and feel the deepest sadness for all those who lost loved ones or were injured in this gruesome and mindless attack. However, if we are to get a solution to this problem we cannot start by applying wrong definitions.
Terrorism is not a philosophy and nor is it an ideology. Terrorism is not a state of mind, a state of being, a religion or an ethnicity. Terrorism is a method of war that is nearly as old as war itself. It is used and has been used by legitimate and illegitimate armed groups that are engaged in asymmetrical fights over legitimate and illegitimate causes. It is the use of violence to achieve political ends by inflicting a psychological blow (fear or terror) on a larger adversary so as to cause the larger adversary to behave in the way that the terrorist desires. By necessity, terrorists do not operate openly or engage well protected and armed targets as conventional armies would do in a conventional war. They operate clandestinely and go for the “soft” targets, looking to inflict civilian casualties and/or massive economic damage so as to sow fear and reap a political reward.
The trouble with declaring war against terror, despicable though it may be, is the fact that you set yourself an absolutely impossible objective. You cannot win a war on terror any more than you can win a war on conventional wars! Further by declaring “war” a legitimate government arguably bestows some kind of legitimacy on otherwise illegitimate violent non-state actors who mete out terror.
This is part of the political objectives that the terrorists actually seek, a propaganda victory which suggests that the state is panicking and has gone into war mode. Then having inflicted a few blows they rely on the inverted principle of victory that Henry Kissinger illustrated when he said “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The [terrorist] wins if he does not lose.”
So how should the State react in the face of such heinous crime? The State should take a leaf from Sun Tzu’s Art of War and take on the terrorist where he is unprepared and appear where it is not expected. The terrorists and terrorism should be placed in perspective. It is crime; violent and gross, but it is crime nonetheless. It should be defined and treated as such. Security agencies have to step up their game and citizens have to be vigilant but the threat must be defined as it truly is, a criminal threat against peace, law and order and not as an existential threat to a well founded and run State.
The State should also contextualise the risk of injury or death arising from terrorism. You are far more likely to die in a motor or other accident than you are at the hands of terrorists. Lastly, the State must find innovative and comprehensive ways of dealing with the underlying political issues that give rise to terrorism. Doing this is not giving in to terror, but a legitimate engagement in the solution of political problems. With the political problems solved the terrorists are denied a cause.
This may not be easy or cheap but it’s definitely far easier and cheaper than trying to win a war against a concept or an endlessly shifting and morphing target.