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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop Does the Emergence of Insurgencies Provide Lessons for Terrorism? Robert McC. Adams University of California at San Diego It is important to note at the outset that the Russian Academy of Sciences-National Academies Project on Conflict and Reconstruction in Multiethnic Societies was initiated in early 2000, preceding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States. Hence it originally had the substantially broader focus that its title suggests than the general subject of this meeting. The scope of activities as it was then anticipated is largely reflected in the publication of the proceedings of a U.S.-Russian workshop, Conflict and Reconstruction in Multiethnic Societies.1 This concern for relatively diffuse and heterogeneous sources of violence has been somewhat but not completely overtaken by the impacts of rapidly developing international networks of a generally Islamist, more specifically terrorist, character. By design, the binational group was composed of scholars seeking to establish broad patterns with a comparative approach, and not with individuals having the real-time concerns of national policy makers and those charged with the active suppression of terrorist acts. In fact, this experience leads me to believe that terrorist activity can be better explained by placing it in a fairly wide array of insurgent movements, rather than by focusing on a wholly committed terrorist group. Engagement in degrees of arguably terrorist activity extends across an irregular continuum, from occasional, part-time, and even one-time participation to full-time involvement. By far the larger numbers of those falling to some degree under this heading are 1 NRC Committee on Conflict and Reconstruction in Multiethnic Societies. 2004. Conflict and Reconstruction in Multiethnic Societies: Proceedings of a Russian-American Workshop. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop in the less committed category, and most of their behavior and ideas blend into those of much larger groups of which they remain members. Core groups of fully committed terrorists have exhibited serious, sophisticated concern for their own security. The conspicuous lack of success that U.S. and Iraqi national forces have had in capturing members of the al-Zarqawi leadership is evidence of that. On the other hand, emphasis on a tight-knit cellular structure amplifies such groups’ prevailing difficulties and slowness in communication with its dispersed members. This has the effect of loosening central control and encouraging independence of action. Moreover, in a context of widespread support for insurgency and publicly perceived terrorist effectiveness against seemingly overpowering military forces, new cells quickly form and take action on their own while typically exhibiting less and less concern for unity of program and action. Again, this is being repeatedly demonstrated not only in Iraq but also in Western Europe. Hence there are multiplying targets for antiter-rorist intelligence and action, presenting widely differing degrees of difficulty of access. It cannot be an acceptable strategy for counterterrorist policy makers to narrow their focus to what they, but not necessarily the subject population at large, perceive as the original, innermost circles at the heart of the challenges they face. More spontaneous and marginal participants have not infrequently proved to be approachable by journalists and unofficial informants. While some insights into the dynamics of these groupings can be gained in this way, as well as from comparative and historical data, specific, time-sensitive, action-oriented, information is prevailingly beyond reach. Valery Tishkov’s early warning networks are a useful innovation that rely on the reporting by trained local observers of depersonalized, essentially contextual criteria to identify impending conditions of threat or tension, but they, too, have limits. Typically extended and intense, fully candid networks of communication tend to shrivel up as tensions rise, so that when we most need them they become progressively more circumscribed and fragile. Great states that are victimized by terrorism may resist accepting this, but rigid definitions of what is terrorism are elusive and contentious. Targeting civilian noncombatants is a common shorthand description, but it has obvious limitations in situations of asymmetrical warfare. Are there genuine noncombatants when much of a region’s population is either actively up-in-arms or at least passively in support of those who are? Insurgents have to make use of the crude, low-tech, not very selective weapons they can readily seize or have at hand. Organized military forces, on the other hand, make use of much more powerful and destructive weapons, particularly air and heavy artillery bombardment, and then too frequently dismiss attendant civilian casualties as mere collateral damage. The affected population, of course, may view this differently. Certain egregious acts clearly qualify as terrorism, and certain organized groups like al Qaeda clearly see themselves as systematically engaged in exploiting precisely such
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop egregious acts to enhance their reputation for fearful conduct. I am personally uneasy when the uniform characterization of terrorist is used without qualification along its wide and heterogeneous borderlands. Terrorism in varying forms has appeared in other, earlier times and settings. We should not forget the current or recent examples of the Red Brigades, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and the Tamil Tigers, among others. Modern occurrences, most generally, are in contexts that blur the line—certainly in the perceptions of contending participants—between terrorism per se and some other types of insurgent (for example, religious, ethnic, or nationalist) violence. Typically the contexts involve what is locally perceived as longstanding, repressive discrimination in access to land, employment, education, and other resources, or military occupation that forecloses other, less violent types of civic protest or even involvement. This clearly does not provide an acceptable rationale for what committed terrorists are trying to do, but it drastically loosens all existing restraints on the wider communities in which they move. Intersecting networks of large and small grievances are formed, for which no orderly remedies are in sight. Leaving aside full committed terrorist cadres, individuals living in an insurgency thus often find themselves confronting multiple pressures calling for allegiance with or opposition to other organized groupings in their immediate surroundings. Dominant personal selections among these alternative identifications naturally are at first fluid, unstable, rarely well articulated or perhaps even understood. Peer pressure is obviously a factor in recruitment, but so are older attachments and rivalries, and even events that may range in scale from major to microscopic. Urgently we would like to obtain some general insights about relations between terrorists and the societies that sustain them (not completely unwillingly, or the terrorist cores could not operate and survive). In trying to find a constructive path through this conundrum there is an approach that deserves serious consideration. What can be learned from manifestations of civic violence involving the emergence of insurgent formations to which the term terrorist applies only questionably or not at all? Here our focus is on better understanding the dynamics of group formation under conditions of widely prevailing violence, if that permits us to learn from examples that are relatively more open to serious investigation. While one cannot take for granted that any such examples are similar in their essentials to the challenges of terrorism confronting us today, they may at least guide us to a better understanding of some important aspects of the problem, for example, on how insurgencies recruit their members, and then sustain themselves in the face of withering losses to better armed adversaries relate to the relatively more passive population around them from which they themselves are drawn
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop establish and communicate the goals for which they are ready to fight and make sacrifices generally have to settle for at best very partial successes An outstanding example of a study of this kind deserves brief description, emphasizing once again that it is insight into processes of insurgent group formation, coherence, and effective action amid sacrifices we are looking for, not rules that apply with any closeness of fit to the subject of countermeasures to terrorism that brings us together. I refer to a very recent monograph by Elisabeth Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador.2 On the basis of sensitive, long-continuing fieldwork, she traces evolving forms of militant peasant collective action in a series of representative Salvadoran case-study areas. Collective violence first occurred there in connection with a mass social movement in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s a loosely knit insurgent army had come into being, with scattered but vital covert support. Around this there emerged a vibrant civil society, capable of holding its own in what became a military stalemate. Wood conducted extended interviews over many years with hundreds of insurgents, landlords, nonparticipants, and commanders of military and guerilla forces. By repeated, extended, ultimately interlocking cross-checking of individuals’ own accounts of their motives and actions with those of other participants, she was able to establish a high, although she is careful to insist never absolute, level of veracity. The prevailing form of collective action was the seizure of lands from great haciendas and its distribution among militant cooperatives. A very heavy price was paid for this, the result of long-continuing, low-intensity warfare with regular military forces and vigilante death squads, assassinations, and unaccounted-for disappearances. From an annual high of around 20,000 war-related deaths in 1980, it tapered off to 2,000 or so in 1984 and stabilized there until peace was negotiated after 1990. El Salvador today faces other problems in maintaining a course of economic development and dealing with massive emigration, but the insurgent cooperatives have largely secured their place in a new, relatively stable social order. Still, as one rebel activist noted with apparent puzzlement some years later, “We shed blood all these years [just] in order to buy land at market prices?” Wood was at pains to probe the question of motivation. Personal gain she found she had to exclude: At great personal risk and loss, the insurgents shared what was won completely with nonparticipants. Similarly, she could not identify a pattern of preexisting community loyalty and well-established social networks. 2 Wood, E. 2003. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. New York: Cam-bridge University Press.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop Two-thirds of the residents in the areas studied lent no active support to the insurgents. Instead, Wood finds that the backgrounds and motivations of the insurgents were highly diverse, from personal grievances and perceived injustices to liberation theology. Her important conclusion is that, once joining the insurgency, individuals all “took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity”—in what she terms the “pleasure of agency.” In short, insurgents “were motivated in no small part by the value they put on taking part in the making of history.” A unifying set of themes was characteristic of those campesino-insurgents who engaged in and actively supported the insurgency—resentment at the social conditions before the war, aspirations for a different, hopefully more just social and economic order, moral outrage at earlier repression, and pride in what the insurgency achieved. All these themes were muted or absent in interviews with those who did not support the insurgency. This strongly suggests that a new political culture emerged during the civil war among those who supported and joined the insurgency. From diverse beginnings, their political identities were transformed through the struggles of the years of civil war. A new, more explicitly political culture emerged as the insurgent formations constituted themselves and took action, at the same time shaping those involved into new identities as militant activists. “[I]t was participation, rather than other factors,” Wood concludes, “that accounts for insurgent political … culture.” Insurgency is an emergent phenomenon, in other words. Its shape and dynamic follow no general laws of cause and effect but instead are outcomes of highly complex processes of feedback and interaction. Does the same apply to terrorism as a subset of insurgencies, and in particular to the radical Islamist variety of it that the world now confronts? I am very skeptical of any overall pattern of congruence, as noted earlier, but at the level of a newly emergent organizational structure that generates its own identities and loyalty, this at least deserves serious consideration. Efforts to deal with indigenous practices or occasions of terrorism may need to have the same flexibility of structure, goals, and tactics and a readiness both for sudden, resolute advance and strategic compromise or withdrawal, as was characteristic of other insurgencies like the well-reported one in El Salvador. In contrast, foreign, internationally moving and communicating networks of fully committed terrorists are an essentially different question. Rootless in a given country of operations, they are relatively unrestrained by gradations and qualifications of support from the population of the host country. Moreover the psychological and socioeconomic impacts they seek are international, with little regard for the interests of the host country. As a result, their growing influence and (perhaps exaggerated reputation for) effectiveness is perhaps the most dynamic and dangerous challenge the world now faces. Experience gained in this project, however, and in the comparative material with which it provided some familiarity, unfortunately provides little or no information that is helpful in dealing with them.
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