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Terrorism as a disease

By Jeremy Ballenger - posted Monday, 12 March 2007

Working Paper No. 73 (PDF 303KB) from the Center for Global Development by Stewart Patrick is entitled Weak States and Global Threats: Assessing Evidence of “Spillovers”.

This is an excellent paper questioning the “conventional wisdom” in relation to the connection between state weakness and global threats, arguing that this connection is less clear and more variable than typically assumed. Just as Patrick questions the causality between weak states and “spillovers”, just how solid is the approach of basing any analysis of security or related matters around the interaction of nation states as actors?

Samuel Huntington posited a “Clash of Civilizations” in his now famous Foreign Policy piece: a controversial theory that people’s cultural-religious identity will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Much has come to pass since his fine 1993 essay, with many critiques and geopolitical changes providing rebuttals to his initial argument, one of which comes from Arjun Appadurai in his recent book Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger.


Its arguable how much of Huntington’s forecast has actually eventuated, and Appadurai argues more for “a civilisation of clashes” as a better frame of reference.

Key to the thesis being developed in this piece is a paraphrase of Appadurai, where part of the problem related to his “clash” is the battle appears joined between “vertebrate” nation states and “cellular” terrorist organisations. For the sake of this argument, consider the entity of a nation state as a person or individual. Such an approach provides 192 different people making up the community known as the United Nations. Using people also serves another purpose - they are vertebrate creatures.

Many commentators freely describe terrorist organisations as a blight on humanity. A disease operating at a cellular level, travelling around wreaking havoc inside the systems of their hosts. This activity is scaleable: epidemics are the result of transmission of disease from one vertebrate creature to another occurring through various mechanisms, vector or vehicle borne for example.

These analogies are not new, and when we consider that support networks for the transmission of the terrorist “pathogen” and assistance for the operating mechanisms of cellular terrorist organisations already exist, such as a global marketplace, international banking, lax immigration laws (despite what we are led to believe by our governments), they are hardly surprising.

An unfortunate limitation of the very structure we build around our vertebrate selves enabling us to flourish is our construction of the necessary conduits for successful transmission of the pathogens otherwise known as terrorist groups. They are ideally suited to moving about undetected, and continue to do so despite our best efforts at vaccination and control. Executive Orders from US Presidents, sanctions on international banking, freezing assets, excision of territory from immigration zones and “Pacific solutions” - all have very limited effect.

Further, the nature of our wonderfully efficient large scale international and commercial structures delivers other limitations on our control of terrorists. Slow to react, unwieldy, and inflexible are characteristics not generally associated with rapid, targeted responses to threats.


Terrorism on the other hand works differently, with the term cellular an apt descriptor for the operating mechanisms of many terrorist organisations.

At the operational level most are small, and free to move within the structure of the vertebrate (nation state) system as easily as an infectious disease moves through a closed community. In an effort to combat this problem, what if we were to look at terrorist behaviour not in terms of ideological bent, but more in the light of communicable diseases? Can epidemiology inform our work in monitoring and predicting the spread of terrorist behaviour?

Consider an approach where the use of epidemiological principles for analysis of data provides direction for security and intelligence action. Epidemiological information might be used in planning how to control and prevent radicalisation in a community. Another approach could be the identification of a patient zero for a particular outbreak. Such an individual might then be investigated, which in turn might provide details of the disease reservoir - where he or she first trained and was radicalised.

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Jeremy Ballenger is a Melbourne-based researcher and writer. His website is here.

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