Revisiting the Original Blueprint of Terrorism

by Jennifer Kimble, December 2001

“Terrorism will persist so long as oppression, poverty, and injustice persists.” This statement, spoken by my political science professor at George Mason University, Joseph Conley, is quite reflective and profound because it requires us to understand terrorism in a different perspective. It requires the victim of terrorism to understand that the terrorist perceives the victim as being responsible for the violence that was inflicted against him. The victim is responsible because of his injustice, his oppressive behavior or his insistence on keeping a society in poverty.

Conley, who taught a course on terrorism, has served with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over 20 years in its anti-terrorism task force. His experiences and study of terrorism has revealed to him that terrorism is a shared creation between the perpetrator and the victim. It is shared because the perpetrator seeks a specific response from his victim. It is shared because the victim is in need of reacting to the terrorist act. It is shared because there is a past history between the two where the perpetrator of terrorism perceives that his victim is oppressive to his culture, society, or needs.

Terrorism is an old strategy with the specific purpose of gaining specific goals through fear. Political scientists typically will date the original concept of political terrorism to the year 1793 when the “Reign of Terror” took place during the French Revolution. Maximilien Robespierre, one of revolution’s leaders, ordered the execution of approximately 12,000 of his own people who he deemed to be enemies of the Revolution. This violent purge, conducted with the weakest of evidence, is the birth of the concept of terrorism as we now know it. This incident also is the origin for the word terrorism. This model of purging the unwanted from a society occurs throughout the late 19th and early 20th century in locations such as Russia, Europe, and the United States.

A remarkable change of tactics in the early 20th century takes us further along on the road towards terrorism. In colonized countries, such as Egypt, Vietnam, and Israel, rebellions against foreign colonizers were committed in the hopes of gaining independence. These rebellions used violence, not to kill haphazardly, but to specifically wound the military or local government of the colonizer. It was hoped that targeting the symbols of the colonizer would encourage that country to leave. When Algeria’s national movement towards liberation began, they too followed this model, however the Algerian movement changed dramatically in the 1950s when their 20 year-old, non-violent, civil rights movement remained fruitless and civil rights appeared unobtainable.

Algerian history, like the majority of African countries, includes being colonized in the mid-1800s. In the case of Algeria, the colonizing country was France and like many colonized lands, the French government decided to expropriate land for French settlers who wished to live in Algeria. By the 1900s, these settlers had become the dominant power in the country, owning the best farmland and enjoying a high level of prosperity. Perhaps, to add insult to injury, the French looked upon the Algerian population as inferior. Algerians lost many of their civil liberties during colonization, including not being allowed to hold public meetings, bear arms, or leave their districts or villages without government permission. The Algerians were under French authority but they could not become French citizens unless they renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. It was a system that alienated the vast majority of Algerians. The situation was a brewing ground for a terrorist organization to emerge.

The Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) emerged because of frustrations with the French, who had been extremely slow to grant Algerians basic civil rights. Frustrated that civil rights could not be obtained on the land of their birth, twelve young Algerian men formed the FLN with the intention of seeking independence by creating a unified Algerian people. This unification, which would lead to independence in FLN’s viewpoint, could only occur if all of Algeria saw everything French as oppressive and as the enemy. To create this reality the FLN incited the French into action by carrying out criminal activities targeted against the civilian population, hoping the French would respond by distinguishing the Algerians as the suspects. Thus, when the FLN placed a bomb in a bus terminal, their desire was not necessarily to blow up the terminal, but to have the French respond as if all Algerians in the area were suspects.

The French, not realizing they were not fighting a guerrilla war, instinctively reacted by treating all persons of non-European origin as a suspect. The effect on the Algerian community was detrimental to the French colony. The Algerian population began to feel excluded from the existing French communities. This feeling was exacerbated when the French began to implement rules that put up walls between the French and the Algerians. Final alienation came when French authorities transferred French army units comprised of Algerian troops, out of Algeria and into mainland France, replacing them with European troops. Undoubtedly, the Algerian people formed coalitions against the French which ultimately lead to independence from France in 1962.

The French, as the FLN desired, reacted as if they were responding to a guerrilla threat and not to a terrorist threat. Terrorism, unlike guerrilla warfare, does not attack military or government centers with the desire to take power. Rather terrorism targets unsuspecting victims to publicize their cause and create panic among the strong. The terrorist hopes that by randomly attacking “off limit” targets, it will create a fear so intolerable that despite power the victim will surrender to the terrorists’ demands. Thus, terrorism is an indirect strategy to accomplish direct and specific goals. David Fromkin has said that the terrorist is much like a magician who tricks you into watching his right hand while his left hand, unnoticed, makes the switch.

In the weeks following September 11th, our victimhood has been at the forefront. We have been violated by a criminal act of insurmountable proportions, but our goal now should be to react with our minds and not our emotions. We Americans are in the process of understanding the reasons behind the attack and understanding those reasons has not been easy. There is not a qualified technique available to help define the situation. This lack of definition or lack of information leads some to suggest that there is no particular goal for the attack except that Bin Laden wishes to destroy America. For some, this is all the political comment that we need.

Unfortunately this unsubstantive viewpoint does not answer the “why” or the “what next?” The important lesson from Algeria is that the victim of a terrorist act can only win the “war against terrorism” through the response, and an effective response depends upon understanding the reasons behind the attack. If we want to defeat terrorist activity, we will need to understand the perception of Bin Laden and those who follow or support his causes, for that perception is their reality. We, as the most recent victims of terrorism, can refuse to fall into the terrorists’ trap by understanding this reality and how it is used to create and maintain support, as well as increase supporters. The weakness of terrorism as a strategy is that success or failure ultimately lies in the hand of the victim because we get to choose our response.

Will eradicating oppression and other social ills be the complete answer to deterring or ending terrorist activity? Much of the terrorist activity we have seen post 1940’s has had linkages to angry people. However, traditionally it is not those who are oppressed (at the very bottom of the society) who turn into terrorists. Terrorists tend to be very well educated and from upper middle class families. They are angry people who find an issue and justify their violence with that issue. Additionally, we will never be able to eradicate the feelings of oppression. Someone is always going to feel oppressed and justify their violent actions with those feelings. Tim McVeigh felt oppressed, but was he from an oppressed group?

Terrorists need to be heard, but before they become terrorists. Once they cross that line and use violence, they (that particular group) should lose the right to be heard. Killing people for the purpose of gaining attention for a cause cannot be condoned or encouraged. Imagine the consequences if we participated in such an action. Does Bin Laden have valid concerns regarding the U.S. and its policies towards Muslim countries? I’m sure he does. Does his concerns justify the killing of 7,000 people? Absolutely not. Could we have caught Bin Laden’s anger and dealt with it before September 11th? I’m sure we could have. Can we plan for the future to create some type of structure where issues of oppression can be addressed before violence erupts? Yes. Maybe September 11th will lead us on that path. But, don’t expect that all people want to be just heard. Some like to put action to their convictions. And evil will always exist, no matter how open we create the arena. That’s why we hold onto God.

At the time of publication, Jennifer Kimble was the director of EMU’s Multicultural Services. She is an ’02 MA graduate of the Conflict Transformation Program.