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Bombing Terrorism

By George Thomas - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

Can the United States bomb international terrorism out of existence? This is the underlying belief in the bombing of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is no conventional military solution to the problem. The success of terrorism does not depend on the actions of the terrorists, but on over-reaction by the state and world-wide publicity given to the cause. Massive and indiscriminate retaliation usually plays right into their hands. The French discovered this to their dismay in their attempts to crush the Algerian nationalists who resorted to acts of terrorism in their successful attempts to expel the French from Algeria in the late 1950s.

Similarly, Israel’s overwhelming military response to Palestinian terrorism has generated more terrorism on Israelis in an unending upward cycle of violence for decades. Yet, Israel persists with this counterproductive policy. The cliche that violence begets more violence is valid here. Then can three months of massive American military "pounding" of Afghanistan eliminate future terrorism against the US? A British newspaper calculated from various news reports that more civilians were killed in Afghanistan than at the World Trade Center. Unable to defend themselves from American air power, several thousands more medieval Pashtun warriors of the Taliban regime, whose basic instinct has been to defend against foreign forces for centuries, were slaughtered mercilessly. Hundreds of murderous Al Qaeda terrorists were dispatched appropriately to their graves.

The Al-Qaeda is a psychotic group whose interpretation of Islam and world views and visions are twisted. Group martyrdom is welcomed as in the case of the suicide terrorist teams that attacked the WTC. Because terrorism cannot be bombed, and because "we cannot just sit around do nothing" in response to the WTC attack, the US has bombed Afghanistan instead, a state under the oppressive Taliban regime. In doing so, the seeds of more terrorism may have been sown. This may arise not from Afghans in Afghanistan or from among the angry demonstrators in the streets of Pakistan, but from the miniscule silent Islamic fanatics world-wide who will not forgive or forget. Hate will fester in their hearts and they will harbor thoughts of revenge through more acts of terrorism for several years to come.


To understand the utility or futility of military force against terrorism, a distinction may be made between the "territorial-irredentist" type and the "religious-millenarian or "secular-millenarian" type. The goals of the territorial-irredentists are not different from insurgents except that the latter strike at strategic targets and the former at civilians. Both are invisible enemies until they strike. Both seek to change the prevailing territorial boundaries of states. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basques of Spain (ETA) are examples.

The secular-millenarian’s objectives are vague and grandiose but usually brief. Alienation comes from feelings of socio-economic injustice. The Symbionese Liberation Army in the Berkeley area, and the Baader-Meinhoff gang in Germany, are examples. In such cases, selective and restrained military responses may work.

However, religious-millenarians are irrational, apocalyptic, transnational and durable. Their objectives may overlap with those of insurgents. For example, the goals of the PLO who attack Israeli security forces, and the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), Hamas and Islamic Jihad that attack Israeli civilians, are not different. They all seek to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the return of East Jerusalem. However, while PLF terrorism is of the territorial-irredentist type, those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are of the religious-millenarian. Like the brief and lesser Jewish Stern Gang and Irgun terrorist groups which dissolved after Israel was created, PLF terrorism may disappear when Palestine is independent. But the terrorism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, based on Muslim antagonism towards Jews, may continue regardless of any Palestinian settlement.

Likewise, Al Qaeda is a religious-millenarian terrorist group who harbor hate towards the Christian West and Jewish Israel for what they see as injustices inflicted on Palestinians, Iraqis and surely now on Afghans. But it is also directed vaguely at Western corruption of Islamic values, and perceptions of the West as the obstacle to the return of Islamic power and glory as it was a millennium ago. In this context, what did the US bombing of Afghanistan achieve when the unscrupulous and faceless enemy may rise again at another time and another place? Time will tell.

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About the Author

Raju G C Thomas is the Allis Chalmers distinguished professor of International Affairs at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His most recent book is as contributing editor of Yugoslavia Unraveled : Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention, Lexington Books, 2004

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