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Thesis & Antithesis

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

21 July 2005

New Age of Terror?

It is premature to generate a trend from two observations, yet the two attacks against London, on July 7 and 21, could herald something new in the terrorist strategy: instead of aiming at the psychological impact of horror, the terrorists have shifted to the psychological impact of fear. If true, this would be a significant change in the way the terrorists conduct their war.

On September 11, 2001 terrorism took a sharp turn. It’s not just that it hit America’s homeland, but also that it succeeded in killing so many people whilst destroying symbols of America’s power. It is clear that September 11 was the culmination of a series of attacks beginning with the 1993 World Trade Center attack, to the killings in Riyadh in 1995, to the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

But in the strategic logic of terror, September 11 was more change than continuity—it marked the breaking point and the recognition that the terrorist strategy thus far was not working. The reason for this was simple—militant Islamists have misread America; they mistook America’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Somalia, areas where America had peripheral interests (especially Somalia), as a general disinclination to fight. Kill a few more Americans, the terrorists thought, and America will run away.

The terrorists were wrong and hence had to adapt their strategy. September 11 was a product of this strategic recalibration; the new policy, as best we can gauge it, would be to wreck havoc in America in the hope that America would react in a way as to further the terrorists interests. The terrorists knew that, as Professor David Fromkin wrote, “[terrorism] achieves its goal not through its acts but through the responses to its acts.”

They terrorists expected an overreaction provoked by fear but mostly from horror—horror at the brutality of the terrorist attacks. It would be foolish to have expected an immediate American discussion about disengaging from the Middle East, though the terrorists probably hoped that this would come with time. The terrorists also counted that the initial sympathy for America would wane; they knew that when a superpower flexes its military muscles, people get uncomfortable; and that, as time diluted the memory of the terrorist attack, the initial support for America would subside.

But mostly they counted that America would strike back, and would strike back hard. This would mean two things: first, that the terrorist argument that Islam was under attack would ring truer to many young Muslims; and second, that America would be drawn into a prolonged war in the Middle East. Why was this desirable? Because if you can’t convince your enemy to retreat, you have to force him to it—and a long war, costing lots of money and with many deaths, is the surest way to force a country to change its mind.

Meanwhile, the terrorists didn’t abandon their initial strategy. While their first wager on America turned out to be wrong, they suspected that other countries would not show the same perseverance, particularly given the high level of public opposition to the war in Iraq. That’s how the Philippines withdrew their forces from Iraq, that’s how 3/11 in Madrid came about.

But it could be that this hybrid strategy is morphing into something new for dealing with the most persistent countries. For now, it seems that the longevity of the Western presence in Iraq will be determined by the situation in the ground, rather than terrorist attacks in the West. Hence, further attacks intended to provoke horror and another overreaction are unlikely—the Americans, in particular, are spread too thin for another military undertaking.

Which brings us to July 7 and July 21. As the West debates what skeleton force to leave behind in Iraq, the terrorists are adapting their strategy. This time they hope to generate fear—fear, in this case, to ride the tube to work. From this they hope that terrorism will be seen not as sporadic act of horror but as a daily fear—and hence something to be dealt with.

Of course, this is a gamble—living daily with terror can desensitize a country and make it less likely to comply with the terrorists’ demands. But the terrorists are taking their chances. To win they have to generate enough fear as to provoke the British and others to think hard about how to silence terror— the ultimate hope is that a country which is horrified will overreact, but a country which is afraid of a daily threat will approach it more rationally—and for the terrorists, that rationality would lead the West to rethink its entire engagement with the Middle East.

It is a long shot. But if the two attacks in London herald anything, they could mean that we have passed from the strategy of horror to the strategy of fear.

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