Old and New Terrorism
Reviewer: Martin Plocek
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On 11 September 2001 the image of terrorism changed dramatically. A phenomenon that had been treated as a secondary issue in the social studies instantly emerged as a hotly debated. Peter Neumann's work entitled: Old and New Terrorism argues that since the end of the 20th century the terminology of terrorism has become obsolete, and a new framework must be developed together with relevant counterterrorism strategies. Neumann divides the history of terrorism into two distinct eras, old and new, and suggests that while some basic features of old terrorism have been retained; practices and goals have largely changed. Moreover, the prospect of reaching a generalisation is not only unlikely but also undesirable as the number of terrorist groups has remained high and their agendas are rather incompatible. The main aim of the book is to pinpoint key changes to international politics, which have unfolded over the past decades, and synthesise them with the changes to the framework of terrorism.
The book is divided into five basic sections dealing with particular factors that have affected terrorism in different ways. The opening chapter briefly outlines the concept of old terrorism by using the example of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and compares it to Al Qaeda, which represents new terrorist groups. In the following three chapters Neumann deals with various aspects of post-Cold War international relations in a way not dissimilar to Friedman's conceptualisation of globalisation, namely; networking, religious extremism and its impact on the political agendas of terrorist groups, and the rise of mass-casualty terrorism. The concluding chapter offers several possibilities of how to cope with the challenges posed by the new terrorism.
In the opening chapter, three variables - which are deployed in a bid to define terrorism as social phenomenon - are taken into account, highlighting fundamental differences between old and new forms of terrorism: structures, aims and ideologies, and methods.
Structural differences provide the most apparent distinctions between old and new terrorist groups. While old terrorist groups tended to mimic the traditional structure of national armies, new forms have evolved into extremely sophisticated entities, organised either into independent cells or are entirely non-hierarchical in character. The physical centre of gravity also changed considerably. Neumann argues that the traditional geographical focal point no longer matters since globalisation, more specifically, new information technology, have increased global interconnectedness more than ever before. He argues that cooperation between the particular cells of a terrorist group or even different terrorist groups is much more common, regardless of whether their agenda is national or international.
Aims and ideologies - which usually distinguish terrorist groups from other criminal organisations - are transforming more gradually than other variables, but change is nonetheless noticeable. Neumann argues that the agendas of extreme political parties influence the agendas of terrorist groups. His historical account splits the 20th century into three eras: in the first half of the 20th century nationalist-separatist movements predominated and in the second half they drew upon Marxist and anti-neocolonialist ideologies. The 1970's supposedly mark the beginning of the massive spread of religious extremism (and consequently new forms of terrorism), which has become one of the most common ideologies of terrorist groups since the 1990s.
Methods or ‘terroristic' violence constitutes the third variable. According to Neumann, the symbolism of killing innocent people is recognised as abhorrent around the world since the dawn of civilisation and has remained one of the most common methods of pressure used by terrorist groups. However, with the rise of the global media, new terrorist groups become trapped in a ‘vicious circle of the mass-casualty terrorism'. An unfortunate escalation of violence is caused by the fact that new technology allows acts of violence to be broadcast to a wider audience than ever before. As such, simple acts of killing are no longer ‘attractive' for audiences and each terrorist attack must be more dramatic than previous ones.
In the second half of the chapter these three variables are applied to the cases of the IRA and Al Qaeda as a means of illustrating the prescribed changes.
In the following chapter, Neumann explores the phenomenon of the first variable; the structure of new terrorist groups. Friedman once argued that the world is being flattened by information technology and the importance of nation states as the basic units of international relations is diminishing, which is similarly argued by Neumann. He indirectly links the internet and the proliferation of ways of broadcasting with the diffusion of terrorist structures, commonly known as terrorist networks. One significant change is the shift in the concept of leadership. Throughout the era of old terrorism, leaders were regularly involved in all aspects of terrorist organisation, whereas contemporary leaders usually fulfil roles in strategic planning or as ideological guides rather than the coordination of the day-to-day agenda. Meanwhile a kind of middle-management still exists; terrorist networks usually live a life of their own and particular cells only occasionally get in touch with higher ranks - if there are such things as ranks - or even other cells.
As terrorist networks have become transnational their perception of targets has also changed, just like in the case of Al Qaeda whose members quite frequently refers to an international conspiracy against Islam and not only targets their explicit enemies, but also the allies of their enemies.
The next section maintains the pattern and further explores the aims and ideologies variable, namely the link between religious extremism and terrorism. Neumann puts these two interconnected phenomena into a broader context. The empirical evidence given shows that religious extremism and terrorism became interconnected much sooner than is usually argued, and that the increase in the number of religious terrorist groups since the 1990's is only the latest ‘wave.' In contrast to 18th century enlightenment theories - which refute the combination of religious fundamentalism and modernism - the Cold War period revealed that modernity is compatible with religion and that religious fundamentalism is compatible with modern politics. The source of the latest wave of religious extremism is, according to Neumann, the Cold War secularisation effect and the following emergence of reactionary religious movements that attempted to bridge the gap of social dissatisfaction. This trend later produced two different streams; one of politicisation of religious fundamentalism, and a second one of separatism and terrorism. The events of 11 September 2001, following the relatively peaceful 1990's, were, according to Neumann, the most recent and most successful attempt to provoke the West to react violently, a situation which would convince Muslim nations to unite and thus link religious fundamentalism and politics once more.
The third variable, the methods utilised by terrorist groups, is the focus of the following chapter. Neumann identifies sources for the increasing number of suicidal attacks - the willingness to pay the ultimate sacrifice for perceived higher causes. Indeed, Neumann blames three basic phenomena for the paradigmatic shift that legitimated the increasingly shocking acts conducted by terrorist groups.
The first is the ongoing change from universalist to particularist theories. The decline of universalist theories, such as Marxism or separatism, is supposed to be one of the reasons why mass-casualty terrorism is on rise. These movements, Neumann argues, usually targeted particular segments of a population (policemen, politicians, etc.), but particularist, for example nationalist or fundamentalist religious movements, widened their focus simply against the enemy's population in general.
The second phenomenon is the ‘media overload and emotional desensitisation.' The familiarity of publics with the level of violence broadcasted worldwide and the subsequent need to carry out increasingly attention-seeking acts of terrorism cause a vicious circle of mass-casualty terrorism. In the words of the French anarchist Auguste Vaillant: ‘The more they are deaf, the more your voice must thunder out so that they will understand you.'
The third interrelated phenomenon is the problem of outbidding. Neumann uses case studies of several terrorist groups which are trying to attract the attention of a wider audience, and in order to do so they must to outbid the ‘attractiveness' of other terrorist groups' acts of violence.
These three phenomena basically lead to alienation from the public and a certain level of apathy towards violent terrorism which, according to Neumann, decreases the popularity of these terrorist groups even among those they are fighting for and makes counter-terrorist activities easier.
The concluding chapter gives several suggestions of how to fight the new kind of terrorist groups. Neumann appeals to national governments to abandon their old-fashioned fears and initiate international cooperation in order to address modern terrorist groups, which manage to react much faster and more efficiently in the reality of a globalised international society. He suggests that national governments should loosen constraints about their national security measures and cooperate internationally in a manner similar to the way they already do on a vast range of matters.
He also emphasises the focus on information networks such as the internet or the other forms of broadcasting which are already domains of terrorist groups and which have been, thus far, considered a matter of minor importance by national governments.
In his final point, Neumann suggests that since one of the strongest weapons of current terrorist groups is ideology the war against terrorism should also take place in the hearts and minds of the public. Two aims of this ‘ideological war' should be: a) the promotion of non-violent forms of expressing identity or ideology and constraints on violent forms of expression, and b) further focus on a gradual process of softening particularism.
This book is suitable for everybody who wants to understand the basic principles and driving forces behind current terrorist groups as well as those wishing to in-depth knowledge of the history of terrorism. Despite the complexity of the evidence about the gradual changes that have led to a transformation in the phenomenon of terrorism, the overall thesis of the book is easy to comprehend, and all arguments are easy to follow. The only drawback of the book is the narrowness of the concluding chapter, which gives only limited suggestions of how to fight new terrorist organisations, or rather only touches on topics that deserve to be discussed in more depth.