Cooper – Terrorism And Security In The Twenty-First Century
Terrorism And Security In The Twenty-First Century
University of Calgary
Paper presented at the 37th National
Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, April 20th, 2001, at the
Sheraton Society Hill Hotel, Philadelphia.
contemporary terrorism, one must begin by examining its context:
the modern world, in both its material and its spiritual
dimensions. That will be my first
topic. The second is to consider
what might be called recent trends in terrorism.
Here I would like to answer the question:
what, if anything, is new about terrorists today?
I will offer a few examples to illustrate my argument.
Third, I will consider what is to be done.
About ten years ago Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in "On the Threshold:
Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict," a paper that has
subsequently become something of a minor classic, that war and civil violence
are likely in the future to result from conflict over environmental resource
scarcities such as water, arable land, forests and fish, not commodity
scarcities. Plenty of evidence has
accumulated over the decade to indicate that he is probably correct.
Population over the next half-century has been projected to grow from
about five and a half billion to around nine billion, and 95% of it is located
in poor countries. These places may
not be able to function; they are almost certain not to be friendly to the west.
Internally, environmentally stressed regimes can range from the frankly
totalitarian, as in Iraq, to the loose kind of warlord balances of Somalia.
We have a pretty good idea already about the kind of men that lead such
regimes, and of the kind of people that they lead.
V.S. Naipaul was writing of India, usually seen as a triumph of political
development, but he sub-titled his famous book, A Wounded Civilization.
This is what he said:
saw themselves at the beginning of things:
unaccommodated men making a claim on their land for the first time, and
out of chaos evolving their own philosophy of community and self-help.
For them the past was dead; they had left it behind in the villages.
The past was
dead. For urbanized peasants, the
entire world is new. Possibly the
least pleasant aspect of this newness is the unstable poverty of urban life, a
poverty spiked with resentment, and much different than the poverty of the
villages. In the villages poverty
was traditional, but tradition has died as well.
Imagine life in a pseudo-modern city for one of these new men or women.
You are at the beginning of things, and you have no tradition to guide
you into the future. Basic services
such as electricity and running water are scarce, and are interrupted, or are
simply not available. There is
clear evidence of what Homer-Dixon called human-induced environmental pressure.
In plain language, the air stinks. It
is about as far from the Philadelphia Main Line as you can get.
The order, to say nothing of the comfort, of our urban life is unknown to
their experience, but available as a kind of utopian TV-mediated image.
It is not simply material discomfort that matters.
What, for simplicity, we may call spiritual deprivation counts even more.
To people living in such unhealthy material conditions,
without the stability of tradition and exposed to contextless images of a
materially comfortable west, to such people, war and the stability of barracks
discipline may look highly attractive.
We can see the attractions easily enough by reading Hobbes’ Leviathan,
especially Chapter 13, devoted to his reflections on "the natural condition
of mankind." Now Hobbes’
famous state of nature is not a prehistoric or even an early historical
condition, but a potential for disorder into which common life may at any time
Hobbes attributed the cause to pride and vanity, but saw as
well that the absence of "a common power to fear" was needed.
In any event, in such a condition, Hobbes said in his most oft-quoted
phrase, there is "continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life
of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
It is a state of war without law and without justice, filled only with
force and fraud, the "two cardinal virtues" of war.
There is one other feature of Hobbes’ account that we should also recall.
His analysis of competitions and the race to "out-do" is far
more than a vulgar desire for consumer goods.
True joy, for a man, which is open to all human beings, "consisteth
in comparing himself with other men" and is limited only by a kind of
madness where someone, believing herself to have a special grace, begins to
compare herself to God. When groups
of such people come together, their collective madness constitutes in Hobbes
words, "the seditious roaring of a troubled nation."
It should perhaps be pointed out that the madness Hobbes had in mind was
not so much the clinical disorders listed in the handbooks of psychiatry, but a nosos,
a spiritual disorder, as Plato called it. Or,
to use Schelling’s more recent distinction, it is a disease of the spirit, a
pneumopathology, not a mental disease, a psychopathology, that afflicted human
beings who saw themselves as specially chosen by Godóor even as gods
Now Hobbes idiom was the theological, as was the seditious roaring of his
times. It takes little
interpretative ingenuity, however, to transform his language into a contemporary
mode. There are still plenty of
people around whose pneumopathology permits them to identify their words with
the word of God. Milder
pneumopathologies can lead people to claim divine inspiration or inspiration
from other sources, some of them no doubt occult, and all of them hidden to the
world of commonsense. The plainly
disturbed are political saviours; the mildly disordered are content to profess
the one and only truth. all of
them, however, can flourish in the context of a past and a tradition that is
dead. All see themselves at the
beginning of things, where the temptation of violence has perhaps its greatest
For such people the words of AndrÈ Malreaux in Man’s Fate ring
true: "Oh, what a relief to
fight, to fight enemies who defend themselves, enemies who are awake!"
For terrorists, I would add, it may be even more attractive to fight
enemies who are not awake.
The attractiveness of war and violence to increasingly large populations
brings me to a second point. We
should recall that war and violence are part of human culture, not an
inexplicable aberration or breakdown. Indeed,
war is part of primate life, as the fascinating studies of chimpanzees by Jane
Goodall or Michael Ghiglieri have shown. What
has changed over the past few decades, as some military historians and strategic
theorists have argued, is not war but the forms of war.
For Clausewitz, war could be waged only by the state, for the state, and
against another state; the instrument used in the conduct of war was the army,
which was distinguished from the civilian population by customs such as the
salute, distinct laws, and separate costumes.
The third element postulated by Clausewitz is the people, the civilians,
whose sole task was to remain quiet and pay their taxes.
All of this practice was codified in the second half of the nineteenth
century, say from the battle of Solferino in 1859 to the Second Hague Conference
Two things were implied by Clausewitzian orthodoxy.
First, only states waged war; second, the practice of violence by peoples
who knew nothing of the state, and the divisions between the state, the army,
and the people were by definition hors de loi.
On the one hand, this meant that Europeans operating in uniform outside
of Europe were licenced to kill; on the other, it meant that the lesson was not
lost on Kipling’s "lesser breeds without the law."
Such people, we should remind ourselves constituted then and now a large
majority of the inhabitants of the globe.
One finds a similar challenge to Clausewitzian orthodoxy regarding
state-directed war by considering not spatial separation from Europe but the
time prior to the widespread existence of the stateówhich for convenience we
usually identify with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
The conduct of war in Europe prior to the advent of the state presented
its own characteristics. Here, for
example, is Van Creveld’s description:
all these struggles political, social, economic, and religious motives were
hopelessly entangled. Since this
was an age when armies consisted of mercenaries, all were also attended by
swarms of military entrepreneursÖ. Many
of them paid little but lip service to the organizations for whom they had
contracted to fight. Instead, they
robbed the countryside on their own behalfÖ.
such conditions, any fine distinctionsÖbetween armies on the one hand and
peoples on the other were bound to break down.
Engulfed by war, civilians suffered terrible atrocities.
clearly enough apply to Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Bosnia, or
Rwanda. The absence of distinctions
between armies and peoples or between armies and cultures is what makes the
circle of trust among such military organizations so restricted, on the one
hand, and on the other makes the circle of their legitimate targets so wide.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a wider circle of targets than is provided
For example, we were given a preview of the Taliban
destruction of monumental statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan when the Serbs
obliterated medieval monument in Croation Dubrovnik.
Tightly-based military organizations engaged in cultural conflicts have
no use for another aspect of Clausewitzian war, respect for state borders.
In December, 1999, when Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles by a
U.S. Customs officer, he had already spent a significant time of his life in
France and Afghanistan before being welcomed to Montreal as a refugee from his
native Algeria. Moreover, his
personal biography looks just like one of Naipaul’s urbanized peasants.
Like the pre-Clauswitzian soldiers, Ressam had mixed religions with
political, economic, and social motives. His
actual citizenship is almost irrelevant. It
is worth remembering as well, however, that these men are not medieval pre-state
warriors so much as post-state or indeed post-modern men.
Of course they may look primitive to historians who know only
Clauswitzian perspectives. In fact
it is more accurate to say they are re-primitivized.
The prefix "re" is all-important.
It is what accounts for Ressam’s use of Casio watches and complex plastic
minaturization is an essential component of contemporary stateless terrorists.
It is what distinguishes them from the industrial terrorists
of China, for example, who are forced to rely on large amounts of dynamite.
In this respect the Chinese terrorists are akin to Timothy McVeigh and
his associates who are responsible for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April, 1995óan observation that both
groups would probably find equally unpalatable.
Both, however, exemplify another aspect of modern terrorism, an end to
the distinction between war and crime. The
condition for maintaining this distinction was the integrity of the state and
its legal monopoly of armed force. Where
the integrity of the state has been challengedóas in Sri Lanka, Colombia,
Lebanon or Sierra Leoneóthe distinction evaporates.
At the same time, private security operations move in to protect citizens
and their economic interests. Some
of them look familiaróExecutive Solutions in South Africa, for exampleówhile
others do notóhere one thinks of the urban mafias of the former communist
countries. This is a question to
which I will return.
Besides the long sweep of military violence from pre- to post-Clausewitzian
times there are a couple of other features specific to contemporary terrorism
that deserve notice. Originally
terrorists tended to be associated with left-wing ideological positions.
Today, however, terrorists are more likely to be motivated by
ethnic nationalism or religious extremism, or both.
Examples can be found in all the major religious of the world, from Sikh
terrorists in search of Khalistan to Christian "Aryan Nations" and, of
course the Jewish Defence League and various Islamic groups.
Even animal rights advocates and deep green environmentalists have
terrorist wings to supplement and occasionally form alliances with such old
fashioned ideological groups as Sundero Luminoso.
Another new feature has accompanied terrorist conduct at the start of the
twenty-first century, namely a willingness to use unconventional weapons,
especially chemical and biological weapons.
Of course these weapons are particularly attractive to states such as
Iraq, Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and to certain religious groups as
In fact, most terrorists and terrorist groups use
conventional weapons. According to
the RAND-St. Andrews Chronology of International terrorist Incidents, fewer than
60 of the more than 8,000 they have recorded involved plots, threats, or use of
nuclear, chemical, bacteriological or radiation weapons.
One reason for this conservatism among terrorists in their
weapons of choice is that there seems to be a negative correlation between the
desire to commit acts of mass destruction and the technical rationality needed
to actualize that desire. State-sponsored
terrorists have a better chance of successfully dealing with the technical
problems of manufacture and delivery, so that state sponsorship of non-state
terrorists promises to be a major problem in the future.
On the other hand, once a state is identified as having sponsored
non-state terrorists, leaders are obliged to consider the risk of retaliation.
Lybia and the Sudan, for example, have on occasion been reminded of their
responsibilities in this respect.
Before 1960, terrorism was directed almost exclusively at assassination
targets; after 1960 random attacks on otherwise innocent individuals grew;
hostage-taking, plane hijacking and embassy attacks followed during the 1970s
By the mid-1980s women and children were fair game and the
attack on the World Trade Centre in the early 1990s was an attack on Americans
inside the U.S. This was not an
There is one further pattern that makes my previous remarks seem cheerful
Traditionally terrorists are content to engage in violent but
patient harassment. More recently,
however, terrorists have identified their own conduct with one or another kind
of political apocalypse. This is an
old tradition even in the West. As
one member of a millenarian group called "Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the
Lord" observed, "the original timetable was up to God, but God could
use us in creating Armageddonóthat if we stepped out [and killed sinners]
things might be hurried along. You
get tired of waiting for what you think God is planning."
One is reminded of Trotsky’s desire to "accentuate the
contradictions" that Marx was willing to see unfold on their own, to say
nothing of earlier millenarian movements.
A non-state terrorist group that has combined a vision of an omnicidal
political apocalypse with a modest technical capacity to produce and deploy
unconventional weapons in Aum Shinrikyo. a
few words about the significance of this group may therefore be in order.
On March 20, 2995, five men, each carrying two or three plastic bags
covered in newspaper boarded five Tokyo subway trains during the morning rush
hour. They placed the bags on the
floor and punctured them, each using the sharpened end of an umbrella, releasing
a nerve gas called sarin, which had first been developed by the Nazis.
Passengers choked, convulsed and coughed in the train cars, in the
stations where the trains stopped, and in the subway exits.
Twelve Japanese died and 5,000 were injured.
Casualties and deaths would have been very much greater had the sarin not
been contaminated. Prior to the
successful sarin attack, Aum had attempted a botulinum and an anthrax attack,
but these efforts failed, either because the delivery systems were faulty or the
strains developed were non-lethal, or both.
Biological weapons are much more difficult to use effectively than
chemical ones, so it is perhaps not surprising that Aum switched to sarin.
In a kind of dress rehearsal for the Tokyo attack, nine months earlier
members of the group released sarin in the resort town of Matsumoto, killing
seven people and a large number of dogs and fish.
The killings were blamed on an accidental release of a
The individuals who carried out these attacks understood themselves to be
acting on behalf of their leader, Shoko Asahara.
Asahara had long been possessed by visions of the end of the world, a
common enough apocalyptic fantasy, the sources of which can be found in many
different religious traditions. This
is why Aum is usually referred to as a cult.
In any event, Asahara, like the members of Covenant, Sword and Arm of the
Lord, was convinced that his job was to ensure that the world came to an end.
Specifically, the sarin attack was intended to precipitate a war between
the major nuclear powers, which in turn would cause unprecedented destruction.
Fortunately it is easier to dream about ending the world than it is to
bring it about, a fact that provides cold comfort:
after all, thousands could have died, and as Robert Jay
Lifton has argued at some length, the motivations of Asahara and Aum are hardly
unique to them.
In addition to Western apocalypticism, Asahara drew upon esoteric
Buddhist and Hindu teachings and symbols to "justify" the
pneumopathological expectation that he would become a destroyer of the world.
The point I would make, however, is not an academic one.
One can, of course, trace Asahara’s doctrine to the Buddhist
understanding of poa, which Asahara interpreted to mean killing for the
sake of the victims, for example, or see the sarin attack as a development from
"compassionate killing" undertaken by Zen-inspired soldiers of the
Japanese Imperial Army.
The point I would make, however, is that Aum is part of a loosely
connected network of terrorists advocating apocalyptic violence as a
purification of humanity by means of the near complete destruction of the earth.
In this respect it has been suggested that the Aum cult shares certain
attributes with the Heaven’s Gate cult. Mass
suicide is unquestionably much different than mass murder, but the motivations
in each case seem to be similar. Both
saw killing as a means to gaining a post-Armageddon immortality.
Both found the world intolerable and sought to resolve the decay and
destruction by attaining another "level."
For Heaven’s Gate, the appearance of comet Hale-Bopp in July, 1995, which
cult members knew was hiding a UFO trailing behind, provided the opportunity.
Mass suicide like mass murder was intended to be a self-fulfilling action
that ensured the end-time would come for everyone, or everyone who mattered.
The logic of Asahara is the logic of many such cults and ideological
movements. An exposition of it can
indicate quite clearly the intellectual operations of a pneumopathological
individual. Asahara saw himself as
an actor in his own drama of Armageddon. Unlike
the orthodox Armageddon, which left the purgation and purification of the world
to the gods or to God, Asahara took on the task himself.
He would initiate the final events and in this way prove the truth of his
apocalyptic vision. His logic is
akin to that of the National Socialists or Bolsheviks.
For example, the former declared that Poles were without well-developed
intellects because they had no intellectuals; they had no intellectuals because
the Nazis had murdered them. Similarly,
the Bolshevik doctrine that the kulaks were a "dying class" was proved
by the extermination of kulaks. And
likewise Asahara sought to bring about what he predicted:
poa for everyone meant the removal of bad karma, and so was an act
Closer to home and closer to Aum was the terrorist attack on the federal
building in Oklahoma City mentioned earlier.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nickols killed 168 people, 19 of them children,
with a crude but effective 3,000 kilogram bomb made with ammonia nitrate
fertilizer and diesel fuel. Unlike
the Aum cult, McVeigh followed no leader such as Asahara.
He did, however, study with great devotion an apocalyptic neo-Nazi novel,
called The Turner Diaries, that is replete with apocalyptic themes.
Indeed, the recipe for a fertilizer bomb is contained in this book and in
the novel is used to blow up the FBI headquarters in Washington.
McVeigh apparently believed in a "New World Order plot" that
relied on UN troops with plans to place "patriots" such as himself in
concentration camps and conduct surveillance by the famous unmarked black
helicopters. The details of
McVeigh’s apocalyptic vision are less important than the intersection they make
with Aum Shinrikyo. Not that the
American need ever have heard of Asahara: the
appeal of a big event to spark an incident that may destroy the corruption of
the world was all they needed to have in common.
There is no reason to think that a more technologically sophisticated
McVeigh or a cult leader such as David Koresh might galvanize a world-ending
vision with a world-ending technology.
However that may be, it remains true that Aum was centred in Japan.
About 10,000 Japanese were members of the cult, including about 1,400
"renunciants" or monks. A
significant number of members still exist in Russia and a few in Germany, Sri
Lanka, and the U.S., even after Asahara’s imprisonment in May, 1995.
Asahara was fascinated with Hitler, the Nazis, especially the Nazi
doctors, and with atomic weapons. He
drew on the Japanese recollection of Hiroshima, but also on Nostradamus, Tantric
Tibetan Buddhism, and popular Japanese cultural icons such as Godzillaóa film
that has had 22 sequels in Japan ending with
Godzilla becoming a force for good by killing other monsters.
There is something very Japanese about Aum, no question.
But it can also be seen as an intelligible response to a more
general problem, which Lifton has called spiritual fragmentation.
In the Japanese context, the Emperor’s radio speech of surrender given on
August 14, 1945, was shocking not just because of its content, but because for
the first time his divine words were being heard by ordinary mortals.
When, on New Years Day, 1946, the Emperor renounced his divinity, Shinto
collapsed and what has been called a "rush hour of the gods" took
place with thousands of new cults responding to the dislocation caused by the
loss of the war, the loss of a divine leader, the American occupation,
urbanization, and so on. For the
half-century after the defeat of Japan the number of vaguely new age religions
has grown. At the time of the sarin
attack, there were something like 23,000 religious groups in the country with a
total membership of some 70-million greater than the population of Japanówhich
indicates the ability of the Japanese and of other people in similar conditions
of spiritual confusion to affiliate with several religious groups in order to
find or at least express their longing for spiritual meaning and order.
It seems to me obvious that this lust for an apocalyptic resolution of
spiritual confusion is not confined to Japan, and is not going away.
I would refer you to testimony before the House of Energy and Commerce
Committee given by a man called RaÎl a few weeks ago on March 28th
on the subject of cloning humans by his company Clonaid. RaÎl, who was born
Claude Vorillon, was taught the basic truths of his movement by aliens in a
Regarding the kind of free-floating pneumopathologies of RaÎl or McVeigh
or Asahara there is probably not much to be done.
Robert Musil, whose great novel, A Man Without Qualities, is a
long meditation on pneumopathology, once observed that political realism was
driven by needs not ideas. Realists
play as well as they can with the hand they have been dealt.
One of the cards we have been dealt is the end of the Cold War and a
return, as Metternich said of the period following the Congress of Vienna, to
"ordinary history." Such
times are superficial and unheroic. There
is no doubt the Cold War was dangerous, but as Robert Kaplan reminded us
recently, there are dangers of peace as well.
In addition to the trivialization of life or the advent of a Nietzschean
last man devoted to entertainment and convenience that so bothered Frank
Fukuyama a few years ago, there is a temptation of peaceful softness.
Another realist, Raymond Aron, observed that prudence does not require
compromise and war is not always meaningless or criminal.
Perhaps the reauthorization by Congress of assassination would be
salutary. At the very least, it
seems to me necessary to restore some credibility to the intelligence business.
The threats to liberal and constitutional democracy are coming not from
Soviet tanks but from Russian mafias and nuclear, or chemical, or biological
terrorists. There are problems with
drug cartels and kidnapping but also with urbanization and environmental
degradation. As I have suggested,
many of these real problems can be solved in the imagination of the new and
pneumopathological groups such as Aum Shinrikyo or the Branch Davidians.
Traditional spy agencies, relying on electronic and human intelligence,
are of course still needed. As, no
doubt, are a kind of beefed-up Special Forces attracting recruits for whom Sir
Richard Francis Burton might be a model. In
addition, however, it seems to me that intelligence requires an awareness of,
and sensitivity to, contagious spiritual disorders at least as much as it needs
a capacity to discern and counter conventional sources of material threats.