Roots of Terrorism
Robert McC. Adams
University of California at San Diego
In a meeting primarily devoted to enhancing the role of science and technology in reducing the threat of terrorism, this contribution takes a somewhat different perspective. The apparent suddenness of the emergence of that threat does not mean that its origins are irrelevant or impenetrable, but only that the formative and sustaining processes responsible for it deserve serious attention of a different kind. Clearly, there was a time not long ago when the international problem that now concerns us all was not yet regarded as particularly urgent anywhere, at least in the developed world. What changed, and what can we learn from those changes that may inform our efforts better to contain and eventually overcome it?
This problem primarily calls for social and behavioral science perspectives, not innovative advances in hardware or even software. Valery Tishkov and I are cochairs of an interacademy study1 that began three years ago with a focus on ethnic violence, as terrorism had not yet drawn our attention. Having watched it rise sharply in visibility as our work continued after September 11, 2001, we have come to recognize a significant (if only partial) overlap between ethnic violence and terrorism that makes this a useful starting point.
Our committee’s activities were first devoted to the North Caucasus, including a meeting with local and regional ethnic specialists and administrators. That led into a major Moscow symposium that considered not only Russian and former Soviet Union ethnic violence but also some comparative dimensions of the subject. Later, this was followed by candid and productive exchanges with senior officials in the governorate of Nizhny Novgorod, and with members of a conflict early warning network that had assembled and was functioning there. Next, there
were meetings in Kazan to consider the radically different nature of pressure for change in the Tartar Republic. Most recently, in September 2002, meetings were held in Sochi concentrating on the reconstruction of the Chechen educational system as a strategic first step in reestablishing conditions for peace and reconstruction in that most difficult and tragic setting.
The challenge of diverse ethnic tensions within Russia itself has eased since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but there remains a heterogeneous group of largely Muslim, deeply entrenched ethnic and linguistic enclaves that are quasinational in outlook and character. In all, they amount to about 20 percent of the gross population of the Russian Federation. The restive members of this group, with behavior ranging from periodic threat and tension to fairly continuous, lowlevel hostilities, were the subject of an earlier interacademy collaboration (reported on in Balancing and Sharing Political Power in Multiethnic Societies: Summary of a Workshop, 1993). The ground was well prepared, in other words, to ask to what extent endemic ethnic violence was a related, possibly contributory, and sometimes perhaps even initiatory element in full-scale terrorism, as the latter became a central focus of our common concern and work.
Our existing project originated in 2000 with a Russian Academy of Sciences initiative, which the U.S. National Academies readily joined. The war in Chechnya had recently resumed in all its destructive intensity, with pitiless interpersonal violence on both sides but without the hallmarks of the al Qaeda variety of terrorism. What constructive involvement, as a convening authority if nothing more, could the two academies working jointly bring to the many ongoing and incipient problems of this kind in Russia and neighboring areas? In the days before September 11, 2001, our undertaking had from the outset a broader, more comparative, less crisis- and countermeasure-oriented agenda than would have been the case if we were beginning today.
As already noted at the outset, the new international wave of Islamist terrorism cannot be regarded as a direct derivative of, let alone a synonym for, ethnic violence. There are complex and important differences between the two. Ethnic violence is not only more diverse and geographically widespread but much more accessible to serious study than terrorism. Much but not all of it has religious overtones, with Muslims roughly as often the victims as the perpetrators.
A number of questions arise in an environment where ethnic violence is prevalent, and the phenomenon of ethnic violence and later its relationship to terrorism, whether religiously or politically motivated, can be approached from different angles. The entire committee finds itself devoting enhanced attention to the relationship of education to the control and reduction of violence and now the recruitment of terrorists. Of special concern is the problem of demobilized irregular militias who, having missed years of formal education, find themselves unemployed, unemployable, and without prospects. Among further questions the committee has been persistently concerned with are the following:
May incidental violence spread through an internal dynamic of its own after an almost accidental origin, and then perpetuate itself and generate its own rationalizations?
What is the role of essentially external factors, such as specific local inequities accompanying the ongoing globalization of the world’s economy?
What about center-periphery power imbalances within Russia and extending to successor states of the former Soviet Union?
To what extent are “objective” conditions of the affected population—poverty, un- or underemployment, corruption, confiscatory tax codes or other governmental malfeasance, educational shortcomings—factors that, on the one hand, may precipitate or intensify violence but, on the other hand, may also be constructively addressed to keep it under control?
What are the respective effects of a state’s employment of military forces as opposed to civil authorities in negotiating with potentially violent groups?
What steps are effective in building trust in order for peaceful negotiations to go forward?
How can provisions for early warning be made more timely and useful?
These generic questions apply in the main to potentially violent ethnic tensions that are not substantially infused with religious differences. Where Islam becomes a medium of protest in its own right, many additional questions need to be addressed, for example,
How fundamental are the differences between violent conflicts invoking national, secular, state, or ethnic group loyalties as opposed to those in which one party speaks in the name of a religion?
What is the role of Koranic schools in this process, how are they established and staffed, how can their curricula be broadened to provide for something more than an extremely narrow, economically stultifying, religious education?
To what extent is agitation for the replacement of civil with Sharia law, posed as a religious demand, perhaps primarily a reflection of the inadequacies of the prevailing, state-administered system of justice?
In short, we are trying to give more disciplined attention to the problem of religious versus ethnic identifications. But a widespread current heightening of the role of militant (versus moderate) Islamism in a number of regions of the Russian Federation is undeniable—even if it is often overstated in policy pronouncements and usually overestimated in public opinion at large.
A further and no less interesting and important set of questions is difficult to approach with relevant, reliable data. Those questions concern individuals who are recruited into violent movements.
How coherent and sharply bounded are they as a generation? In what respects are their prior careers also distinctive?
What are the feedback mechanisms that seem to reinforce their commitment?
How do they find their places in a differentiated, inherently very centralized and hierarchical, protest structure? Do they experience regular episodes of alienation and detachment, and if so, under what conditions?
Apart from the extreme stresses, such as military defeat in Afghanistan, how often, and how, is it possible for individuals to break away from the movement? What inducements can assist in this process?
Ideological terrorism does not arise in a vacuum from a few unstable individuals who go berserk. Highly relevant is a recent comprehensive review of terrorism in the Middle East by Scott Atran, “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,”2 which concludes that those involved exhibit “no appreciable psychopathology and are as educated and economically well-off as the surrounding communities.” Rather, a group process generates true believers. “A first line of defense is to get the communities from which the suicide attackers stem to stop the attacks by learning how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations” [italics added]. The absolutist mentality often ascribed to terrorists has been observed upon inspection to be associated with pragmatic adaptive behavior closely attuned with reality.
It is also important to consider the environment in which ideological terrorism arises. Most non-Western societies, including Muslim societies, are disadvantaged in demographic and economic respects. High fertility places heavy demands on resources for growth and general well-being, with the high proportion of children and very young resulting in high dependency ratios, adverse pressure on educational systems, high unemployment, poor prospects for stable family formation, and regressive distribution of incomes—but at the same time, wide exposure to high expectations through media. Nondemocratic regimes are characteristic in many such societies, repressing even moderate forms of political opposition and thus opening doors to more radical, more effectively conspiratorial ones. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that social movements emerge with revivalist ideologies—perceiving threats to traditional values and institutions, and holding a vision of restoration of these societies to a state of traditional purity.
Islam lacks any central unifying doctrine or hierarchical structure. Given its vast heterogeneity and geographical diversity and its deep internal schisms and rivalries, the rapid spread of allegedly Islamic terrorism across many kinds of boundaries is a new and unprecedented facet. Helping to explain the spread of the new militancy, however, is that it surely feeds upon another development that is somewhat older but still new in its global dominance, that is, the bundle of trends commonly identified with globalization. We would like to think of eco-
nomic integration and development as a positive force—and generally it has been in the industrialized world. However, this positive aspect is not truly global. The overwhelming bulk of North American trade takes place within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and of European trade within Europe. In the 1960s the richest fifth of the world’s population had a total income 30 times greater than the poorest fifth. By 1998 the ratio had grown to 74 to 1. Making this trend even more dangerous is the imbalance between the location of the bulk of the world’s scarce nonrenewable resources, such as petroleum, and the regions of consumption. The Middle East accounts for just 6 percent of oil consumption but has 65 percent of total known reserves, while the United States alone consumes 30 percent and has only 6 percent of reserves. How completely can we afford to ignore the impression that an irreplaceable resource is being wastefully consumed without regard to the wider, long-term interest of the global commons?
Market forces associated with globalization can increase inequalities within nation-states, not just across larger world regions. What assurance is there of justice and equity in the relations between centers and peripheries? May not the homogenization of commercial popular culture in the hands of media giants provoke a natural reaction of intensified ethnic identities? Moreover, the perception of injustice or the threat of cultural loss, and their frequently less than one-to-one correspondence with “objective reality,” can have major community impacts that escape the notice of outside observers.
In contrast with what we are experiencing with modern terrorism, most ethnic conflicts fortunately do not normally involve implacable hostilities or merciless attacks upon the fabric of civil society. Therefore, it is often possible to find ways to reconcile them before some initial incident of violence degenerates into a spiral of retaliatory violence. Ethnic rivals are also less embedded in secretive planning than those who have crossed over the line into outright terrorism. Hence, we can learn about them and about the interplay of proximate and more remote forces contributing to their complex, multilevel manifestations directly from informants, and thus at least indirectly from participants. At least some of that understanding is transferable to the much more refractory subject of terrorist cells and planning.
More so than terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, potentially violent ethnic groups are rarely homogeneous. They frequently factionalize, break up, form new alliances, and are often not uniformly adversarial or supportive with regard to the states or other civil entities with which they deal. Issues and events that turn out to be polarizing and the immediate precipitators of violence are often symbolic rather than substantive and can be recognized only in retrospect. Careful study of particulars can be rewarding, since detailed knowledge on the part of negotiators conveys a useful sense of deep awareness and concern to be deployed during their meetings with representatives or spokespersons of ethnic communities. The abruptness of some threatening rate of change often turns out
to be as important as the magnitude of change itself in precipitating violence. Real peacemaking and peacekeeping require transparency in the give-and-take of negotiation and readiness to work through all available third parties as partners. Purely military solutions are seldom if ever effective. Ultimatums, dead-lines, and decisive positions not open to shadings and renegotiation tend to be major obstacles to peaceful solutions.
All of these tactics and attitudes are just as vital in dealing with terrorist groups even if there is absolutely no direct communication with them, for in that case we have to turn our attention to intermediaries and interlocutors wherever we can find them. We need to avoid at all costs seeing terrorists as discrete groups of fanatics to be met with narrowly specific countermeasures, instead seeing them as groups of extremists who depend on continuously interacting with and drawing recruits from an immense, largely passive population reservoir. The terrorists’ tactic is to distort and magnify both their own exploits and the latent perceived senses of repression, exclusion, injustice, and impoverishment. This is what we must work tirelessly to correct.
The most immediately practical applications of this interacademy activity will largely be found in Russia, not in the United States. The U.S. members of our joint committee are acutely conscious of this fact, which dictates careful attention to maintaining a strictly consultative role. Our own contribution comes from engagement in dialogue, not from any misapprehension that such dialogue will be directly determinative of policy: Our presence supports efforts to maintain broader comparative perspectives, to explore the widest possible range of alternatives, and to maintain a concern for long-term outcomes as well as immediate ones and for human rights issues.
We believe additionally there is something highly constructive in the example of the effectiveness of the cooperation between U.S. and Russian groups of social scientists committed to a common problem such as the control and reduction of violence. The Russian members, with years of field experience, a well-developed, quantitative database, and many major analytical and descriptive publications to their credit, have an excellent command of the interplay of demographic and sociological factors, of formal employment and cost-of-living statistics, and of detailed event sequences. Their impressive early warning networks may be the best means available for forecasting and thus averting violence. Aspects of the informal economy and perceived outcomes of shifting patterns of land use and tenure are more difficult to monitor, as are sources of dangerous tensions. American investigators bring their particular strengths in the study of ethnic identity formation, concern for identifying symbolic sources of action, dissension, and boundaries, and perhaps in formulating alternative governance structures. The mix is proving to be a remarkably productive and harmonious one.
It may be helpful, as planning for further interacademy efforts gets under way in this field, to specify some operating parameters we have felt it important to follow consistently:
Participants have been acutely conscious of the long and rewarding tradition of interacademy cooperation. In a sensitive, easily misunderstood area like this, it has been an essential principle to maintain candid, ongoing communication on the progress of our work with the leadership of both academies.
Our objective is scientific inquiry, including the development of a more adequate theoretical base for the field as a whole. We take no part in intelligence gathering or planning for the active suppression of violence, while recognizing that these must go on in defense of civil society.
While there are practical limits, inquiries of a scientific character require (fairly) open dialogue with informants, interlocutors, and sometimes even potential adversaries.
Narrowly descriptive or event-oriented narratives are not always especially helpful, yet in actual ethnic confrontations, the factors at work are often highly complex and localized. Simplification comes at a cost, in other words. Moreover, ours is a field-oriented committee with an anthropological emphasis, accustomed to seeking out inputs from regional and local administrators and researchers rather than limiting itself to high-level meetings in national capitals. The balance we seek to strike accepts this orientation and yet seeks to abstract from it relatively generalized processes, factors, causes, and—very hesitantly and informally—recommendations.
In a setting devoted not so much to causes as to countermeasures, this account must aim at brevity. There are, however, a number of post-September 11, 2001, published studies and reports of the National Academies complex that cover some of the same ground more fully, albeit dealing with the issue in an almost exclusively U.S. domestic context. They include Terrorism: Perspectives from the Behavioral and Social Sciences (2002) and Discouraging Terrorism: Some Implications of 9/11 (2002). In addition, behavioral and social science findings also figure in the comprehensive Academy report of the committee cochaired by Lewis Branscomb and Richard Klausner, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism (2002).
To summarize, active defense of civil society against terrorist violence is, of course, necessary. Alongside it, however, there is a no less indispensable place for ongoing, multilevel, constructive dialogues with the central masses of ethnic populations. These dialogues not only vent grievances but also act upon every aspect of social rehabilitation, education, employment, health, and other needs, and to be effective they need to remain carefully independent of security personnel and most security considerations. Enhancement of the role of intermediaries; stress on long-term, mutual adjustments; a cultivation of trust; the maintenance of transparency in negotiations; and an avoidance of fixed, unyielding positions are all interlocking, key principles of behavior. But with every possible degree of care in consistently maintaining this stance, it remains clear that, in the near
term, there are no swift and miraculous solutions that will lead to the eradication of the new and virulent wave of international terrorism.