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Characterizing Terrorists

An essay for School of International Service 419: Countering Terrorism: it addresses the characteristics of terrorists. Written 11 Oct. 2010.

I. Assertions: The Characteristics of a Terrorist:

Terrorists are inherently political actors striving to produce a long-term, structural change through the deliberate and systematic use of violence. The intent of this paper is not to define terrorism, as to which there is considerable debate among both academics and government agencies, but to determine the similar characteristics that define terrorists as both individuals and as members of groups that commit shocking acts of violence. Those characteristics will first be listed and described to form an overall picture of the modern terrorist. Then, the arguments offered by two academics, Louise Richardson and Bruce Hoffman; one politician, Abdul Salam Zaeef; and one former spy, Omar Nasiri will be considered and applied to that picture. A couple characteristics are listed at the start of this paragraph: terrorists are political actors desiring significant political change, and that they will utilize deliberate and systematic violence in an effort to spur that change.

The violence that terrorists commit is linked to an intense loyalty to a particular community. Every act is seen as redressing a perceived wrong that the community has suffered and to ensure that such wrongs are not duplicated. In such a way, the terrorist perceives himself or herself to be acting altruistically on behalf of that disrespected community. Such altruism is evident in the terrorist’s willingness to die for a cause which will most likely claim his or her life before ever producing any of the tangible, long-term results that he or she seeks. Nonetheless, the community that the terrorist claims to represent may not support the violence that the terrorist commits on their behalf. Even de facto support can be withdrawn after heinous acts kill civilian members of said community along with their alleged enemy. Such discrepancy between perceived support and the actual representation of a community is tied to the terrorist’s emphasis on short term, attack-centered successes that often eschew the long term community organizing efforts which are endorsed by nonviolent political actors.

Throughout the training for and performing of such attacks, the terrorist is bound to others in the organization with intense feelings of camaraderie. The experiences of a Moroccan who spied for a French intelligence agency, to be described later, attest to those feelings and the overwhelming sense of community. That community within the organization creates both a support network during setbacks and the constant encouragement to commit another act to purportedly advance the long term goal of the organization. However, that need for validation does not distinguish the terrorist from his or her nonviolent peers, nor does the desire for camaraderie. Often there is the assumption that terrorists are irrational sociopaths whose fanaticism for a particular cause makes them unpredictable and evil.  That tendency to demonize and segregate the terrorist into a group of somehow less than human individuals disregards the normalcy and rationality identified by the range of authors who are listed earlier in the paper.

The success of any organization, illicit or otherwise, is tied to its membership. As with any large organization there are outliers who do not match the desired or normal criteria, but on the whole the terrorist must exhibit the traits of a rational actor. Otherwise, the fanaticism of many individuals would destabilize and undermine the operations of the group as a whole. Such destabilization would occur with disobedience and disregard for restraint in particular actions or during particular periods. So instead of the picture of a loner individual, there is the picture of the relatively normal individual. Such relativity is crucial. Overall the terrorist is not markedly different socioeconomically from the community that he or she claims to represent, and on average he or she has had the same opportunities for educational achievement, employment, and entertainment. Still, that similarity in status does not guarantee that the terrorist has had a comfortable life. The concept of relative deprivation, endorsed byRichardson, is useful in understanding the motive of the terrorist in taking up arms when the majority of his or her peers do not. Especially with a more globalized society, the terrorist is exposed to the potentially extravagant lifestyles of others and can then be more receptive to propaganda blaming individuals with that lifestyle for the perceived wrongs inflicted on his or her community.

Those wrongs are often severe enough that any rational individual would desire revenge in some form, though not necessarily through violence. Moreover, the wrongs need not have affected the terrorist or his or her family directly. As mentioned earlier in the paper, the terrorist is intensely loyal to his or her perceived community. That loyalty is buoyed by the terrorist’s collectivist demeanor, which enables him or her to empathize with victims of police brutality, the abuses of soldiers, the burden of international sanctions, or a litany of other wrongs. After those wrongs are identified, the terrorist, as any other person, looks to place blame for their occurrence. Propaganda can then play a part in convincing the individual that a particular government or group is responsible for the action. Due to the actual or perceived minority status of the terrorist’s community, it is then easy to create a scapegoat and paint the world in black and white while decrying the perceived hypocrisy of his or her opponent. Still, the terrorist will argue that violence is only a last resort, and that the violent acts committed are done in self defense against the perceived aggressor.

It is the labeling of the aggressor as hypocritical, as unjust and savage that enables the terrorist to view his or her actions as just. Even as the terrorist attacks seemingly innocent civilians, he or she is quick to assert that any civilian who does not openly oppose the perceived aggressor is a sympathizer. However, just as the civilians are not directly responsible for the wrongs committed against the terrorist or the terrorist’s community, the victims of the attacks are frequently not the intended audience. Terrorists are masters of psychological theater. They act to provoke an inherently unwieldy response from the aggressor to ensure the significant external attention and renown that Richardson specifies. They are a clandestine force that can evade the larger, advanced, and better equipped militaries and police forces that are bound by the rules of war and frequently stymied by their non-uniformed foes.

Ultimately, not all terrorists will conform to the aforementioned characteristics. Moreover, the characteristics are less applicable to the leadership of a particular organization. Unlike the rank and file, the leadership may profess a grand worldview or near impossible political objective while remaining motivated by a desire for power rather than by a professed ideology. Even so, it is useful to consider the average terrorist as having the aforementioned characteristics, rather than demonizing them, so that the propaganda of groups and the recruitment of individuals can be countered. To support the assertions of this undergraduate, the next sections address the arguments of two academics, one politician, and one former spy whose views ground this paper.

II. Richardson: Rationality, Revenge, and Loyalty

Louise Richardson, Ph.D. is an academic. She is a principal at the distinguished University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where her focus remains international security and terrorist movements. Her work “What Terrorists Want,” published in 2006, is useful in identifying several of the characteristics listed in the first section of this paper. In particular, Richardson supports the rationality of the terrorist, his revenge-based motivations, and the loyalty to a perceived, sometimes supportive, community.

The terrorist in the eyes of Richardson is a “psychologically sound,” rational actor (Richardson 117). He or she is “intoxicated” by the group’s ideology but whose motivations for participating in the asymmetrical conflict are “no more irrational” than “anyone prepared to give his life for a cause” (15). Such devotion and loyalty is an ideal that is praised by coaches and generals in sports and among conventional forces. Moreover, the primary motivations that Richardson argues drive a terrorist to action are marked for their normalcy. She argues that terrorists act because of a need for Revenge, Renown and Reaction: revenge to redress a perceived or actual wrong, renown to immortalize the terrorist and publicize the cause, and reaction from the opponent to create additional wrongs in a self-fulfilling cycle. The revenge of a nonviolent actor may be simply to beep a horn after another driver fails to signal while switching lanes, the renown is the attention that the horn calls to the incident, and the reaction is the other driver’s choice gesture or use of his horn in response. In both incidents the motivations are the same, with the difference only the degree of action.

The degree of the wrong necessitates the type of revenge, with the style of revenge dictated by the individual’s community. Richardson describes the “complicit surround” of a community that condones or even glorifies violence coupled with a religion or ideology, such as nationalism, that legitimizes the attacks against available targets (Richardson 49). The terrorist that draws from such a network can then claim to represent the masses when he or she carries out attacks on their behalf (32). The most successful organization in securing recruits will “exploit every fragment of local alienation” to “consolidate their support” (35). Additionally, they will emphasize the “relative deprivation,” or socioeconomic status relative others, to “mobilize a sense of resentment” (56) against differences in statuses and to blame the desired scapegoat. In such a way, the loyalty of a terrorist is matched to grievances that dictate a need for revenge, which is directed via the perceived support of a community against the available target.

III. Hoffman: Attention and Perception

Bruce Hoffman, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the former director of the RAND Corporation’s Washington office, and specializes in terrorism and counterinsurgency. His book “Inside Terrorism” first published in 1999 was revised and expanded in 2006. As with Richardson, he aims to characterize all aspects of terrorism. For the purposes of this paper, it is useful to focus on his characterization of terrorists as attention-seeking, as well as his characterization of their perception of themselves and of their actions.

Hoffman argues that the terrorist is a “violent intellectual,” a political actor looking to “fundamentally alter a political system” through violent acts (Hoffman 38, 37). As should be expected with any political actor, the terrorist does not define his or her actions through a selfish desire for power but rather through a virtuous and altruistic lens. Such a perception of altruism is present in the terrorist’s view of suicide terrorism. Instead of decrying the socially unacceptable act of suicide, the terrorist is hailed as a martyr for his or her “bravery and selflessness” for the advancement of the cause (158). Additionally, Hoffman identifies the tendency of terrorists to favor euphemisms such as “freedom fighters” or “self defense movements” in lieu of the negative connotations associated with “terrorist” (21). Facing a “numerically superior, better-armed, and better-equipped opponent” (155) lends credence to the perception of self defense. However, the victims of attacks are frequently not just the military of the opponent.

The divergence between the victim and the actual aggressor is related to the terrorist’s need for attention. Similar to Richardson, who identified the renown and reaction seeking behavior of the terrorist, Hoffman argues that the success of every attack is measured by its “psychological impact” (Hoffman 50). The more publicity an attack achieves, the larger the impact. Fear is a common result of a terrorist act, and spreads quickly through the media and society of the opponent following an attack that kills numerous civilians. Accordingly, the terrorist attempts to appeal to a worldwide audience with acts that claim high death tolls. The desire for such acts leads the terrorist towards the deliberate and systematic behavior that Hoffman details, which is frequently directed towards symbols of his or her opponent. Even as the terrorist kills civilians for publicity and renown, he or she remains committed to notions of altruism and the just nature of the act.

IV. Zaeef: The Immoral Opponent

Abdul Salam Zaeef served as the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan during the period of the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He was a founding member of the Taliban as a political force and fought with both the Mujahedeen and the early elements of the Taliban during the war against the Soviets. His experiences as expressed in his autobiography “My Life with the Taliban” are useful for presenting the perspectives of a group that would later resort to terrorist tactics after the U.S-led invasion. Those perspectives include redefining the objectives of the opponent and deriding an opponent as hypocritical.

Throughout his autobiography, Zaeef emphasizes that the Taliban emerged to stabilize a country that had descended into chaos following the invasion and subsequent withdrawal by the Soviet Union. After the withdrawal, was the “topakiyaan,” literally the “time of the men with guns,” as former Mujahedeen became corrupt strongmen who were then confronted by the Taliban, which he described as having pure intentions with every member “ready to die as a martyr” (Zaeef 59, 43). Such a distinction between the purity and altruism of one’s cause and the corruption of one’s opponent is emblematic of the terrorist’s tactic of defining the world in stark black and white terms. The “us-versus-them” approach was compounded by the world’s refusal to recognize the Taliban’s authority. He notes several examples whereby the Taliban-led government is treated as a lesser partner. In particular, he criticizes the actions of the United States regarding Osama Bin Laden. Rather than accept that the U.S. is seeking Bin Laden as part of a strategy to combat terrorism, Zaeef redefines America’s intentions as a fight between the West and Islam. He argues that the U.S. believed that there was no justice in the Islamic world and that it was only interested in further manipulating Afghanistan (137).

Such a redefinition is enhanced by Zaeef’s rhetoric which consistently portrays the U.S. negatively. He disregards U.S. funding during the war against the Soviets and instead focuses on the “greedy maw” of America in its invasion of Afghanistan, not for Bin Laden, but to overthrow the Taliban and to occupy the country (Zaeef 224). In a manner similar to a terrorist, Zaeef then details a litany of abuses that the U.S., as a clear opponent, is responsible for following the invasion. He regards his treatment at Guantanamo Bay as emblematic of the hypocrisy of the U.S. and of the transformation of the UN into a pawn of American foreign policy (133). Exposing the perceived hypocrisy of one’s opponent is the standard propaganda-generating procedure that a terrorist utilizes to galvanize popular support and to identify wrongs that demand revenge. Zaeef’s perspectives can then be applied to the current Taliban which operates with terrorist tactics and can be further applied to terrorists as a group. As such, particular grievances with an opponent leads to negative generalizations regarding the opponent’s actions and character, which in turn permits the terrorist to redefine the opponent’s goals and to label any actions of the opponent as hypocritical to garner further support.

V. Nasiri: Discipline and Camaraderie

Omar Nasiri is the pseudonym of a former spy, born in Morocco in the 1960’s and educated in Belgium.  He spied for the French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) while supplying weapons to the Belgian cell of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria. Later he infiltrated the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. His autobiography “Inside the Jihad” is useful in describing the camaraderie and discipline of terrorists

Notable in Nasiri’s description of the camps is the intense similarity to a conventional military base. Fighters woke every dawn and participated in several-mile long runs up and down nearby mountains. All manner of weapons were introduced and each man was required to practice constantly. Discipline was enforced with an emphasis on maintaining one’s weapon. Additionally, Nasiri describes propaganda that presented terrorists as needing to “obey very strict laws” and that they always “fight for the right reasons” as opposed to their enemies who are described as killing indiscriminately (Nasiri 147). Moreover, rather than accept any willing individual into the camps, Nasiri enhances the image of the rational terrorist, with an anecdote of the camp commander turning away an individual who was “not right in the head” and could thereby be dangerous to the rest of the group (172).

Loyalty to the group is paramount to the terrorist as he has a deep camaraderie with his fellow fighters. Even Nasiri needed to remind himself that he was a spy, as it became “harder for [him] to separate [himself] from [his] brothers” (Nasiri 137, 151). Despite living in Belgium for a significant period of life, Nasiri describes the camps as the “most democratic place” (149) that he had ever been. The ability of life at the camp to cause Nasiri to nearly forget his purpose in spying and to laud the democracy of the camp attests to the propaganda power of terrorists and the strength of the community and camaraderie present among fighters. Nevertheless, Nasiri distinguishes his ability to think freely and remain an individual in contrast to the collectivism he viewed in the other fighters at the camp (171). Even so, the discipline presented by Nasiri underscores the commitment that terrorists have for a particular cause, as they are willing to travel to distant countries with different languages, and the bonds of support that terrorists provide for one another within an organization.

VI. Conclusion: The Characteristics Again

Terrorists are inherently Hoffman’s political actors striving to produce a long-term, structural change through the deliberate and systematic use of violence. They perceive themselves to be acting altruistically on behalf of a disrespected community that is inherently an oppressed minority. However, they spurn the terrorist label in favor of euphemisms such as freedom fighter or self defense movements. In doing so, they argue that their actions are just and that their violence is purely the method of last resort. Such feelings of victimization and of desperation are supplemented by the intense camaraderie, identified by Nasiri, felt among fighters.

It is that camaraderie which enhances Richardson’s identification of a loyalty to their perceived constituency and to their cause that enables them to engage in an asymmetrical conflict that will most likely continue indefinitely after their death. Even so, they are rational actors who are marked by their normalcy. Fanatics are not useful to the stability of any organization, so successful terrorists must have similar socioeconomic statuses and similar advantages as compared to their non-terrorist peers. Still, their relative deprivation, especially in a more globalized society, overshadows that similarity so that propaganda advocating revenge is more convincing. As such, their world is Zaeef’s “black-and-white”, without room for sympathizers, neutrality, rules of war, defined battlefields, or gray.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Richardson. Inside Terrorism: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Nasiri, Omar. Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2006. Print.

Richardson, Louise. What Terrorists Want. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

Zaeef, Abdul Salam. My Life with the Taliban. Trans. Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Print.



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