What drives terrorism? Last week I began this series looking at the forces that influence trends in terrorism tactics and tradecraft in an attempt to answer that question. The first part examined the importance of ideology and terrorist theory
in shaping terrorism trends. But there are other equally influential factors. Understanding them not only helps put attacks in context, but also permits observers to see how terrorism dynamics evolve so they can be predicted and forecasted. And while this knowledge doesn’t explain what leads an individual to become radicalized and join an organization or movement that embraces terrorism in the first place (that was never the intention of this series), it still has value.
In subsequent weeks I will discuss other drivers: counterterrorism efforts, technology, and media coverage. But this week will focus on the political and economic developments that define terrorism.
Politics By Other Means
Carl von Clausewitz once said war is the continuation of politics by other means. If terrorism is a form of warfare — even if one directed at civilians — then it is inherently political. This conclusion complements Stratfor’s definition of terrorism as politically motivated violence directed against noncombatants. All terrorists, even those who have ideologies that are based on religion, ultimately seek a political goal. Whether members of the extreme right-wing movement Christian Identity, Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo or jihadist groups, they all seek to achieve objectives such as replacing the respective political order through violence.
It’s understandable, then, that political changes that threaten an ideology or a terrorist group’s goals can have a dramatic impact on the group’s operational tempo and focus. For example, both Jewish extremists and Palestinian radicals have conducted terrorist attacks to disrupt efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite having very different motives for opposing the same political development. The 2013 coup in Egypt, too, dashed the political hopes of the Muslim Brotherhood and caused many younger members to reject the group's nonviolent ideology and embrace jihadism, while others formed new terrorist organizations such as the Hasam Movement
The wave of nationalism currently sweeping the globe is another noteworthy political force. Emboldened ultranationalists in many countries have begun attacking members of ethnic or religious groups — many of them refugees driven out of their home countries by civil war, drought or criminality — they consider a threat to their identity. The violence is running strong not just through Europe, Russia and the United States, but also Turkey, India, the Philippines and Indonesia, among others. Ultranationalism is even provoking a left-wing response from those who see it as a threat to their groups and political objectives.
But political changes do not have to threaten an ideology or its goals to shape trends in terrorism. Sometimes the changes provide opportunities. The Arab Spring in 2011, for example, caused dramatic social upheavals across the Middle East that resulted in governments being overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt and bloody civil wars beginning in Libya and Syria. This chaos provided jihadist groups more freedom to operate and unprecedented access to weapons across large parts of the region. Likewise, the tumult following the 2012 coup in Mali
and in the ongoing civil war in Yemen
enabled jihadists in those areas to flourish.
Foreign policy decisions, like basing foreign troops in countries where some in the population do not want them, have provoked terrorist acts and violence. Changes in laws, such as the burqa ban in France
, the legalization of abortion in the United States and the approval of U.S. pipeline projects despite environmentalist objections, have too.
And of course, elections influence militant behavior, either in planning attacks beforehand that affect the outcome or afterward to vent popular frustration at the final tally. Al Qaeda did the former when it specifically targeted Madrid commuter trains in 2004 to influence the Spanish elections, mainly so the Spanish government would avoid participating in the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. As for the latter, votes in Europe and the United States have polarized their electorates, which will result in additional violence from the right and the left because of ultranationalism and the reaction against it.
Yet political events can help end an insurgency or terrorism campaign as much as facilitate it. The Good Friday Agreement
in Northern Ireland helped integrate the nationalist Sinn Fein party into politics and disarmed the Provisional Irish Republican Army
and loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defense Association. Likewise, the Chapultepec Peace Accords brought an end to the Salvadoran civil war in 1992. In this case, the Marxist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which had previously waged a guerrilla war with many terrorist attacks, abandoned its struggle and joined the political process
. El Salvador’s current president is an FMLN member.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
At the same time, economic developments have long influenced radical, revolutionary thought and cannot be overlooked. Marxist and anarchist terrorism, after all, was a direct response to the perceived abuses of capitalist excess in the 1800s. Theories of class warfare led to the targeting of business tycoons and political leaders in Europe and the United States. The first vehicle bombing in the United States
was, in fact, carried out by anarchists, who detonated a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon in front of the J.P. Morgan Bank on Wall Street.
But it’s not all about ideology. Many terrorist activities are driven by a much simpler motivation: financial need. During the Cold War, nationalist groups would gladly adopt Marxist ideology primarily to attain desperately needed funding from the Soviet Union and its proxies. Other groups would become “terrorist mercenaries,” accepting payments for their services to fund their own operations. The Japanese Red Army, for example, conducted a string of anti-American attacks on behalf of Libya following the U.S. bombing of Tripoli in 1986. Following the Good Friday Agreement, some experienced Provisional Irish Republican Army bombmakers traveled to Colombia and were paid to teach the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) their techniques, which led to a trend of increasingly sophisticated terrorist bombings by the Colombian militants.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, meant a collapse in its vast network of state-sponsorship for terrorism. Many Marxist terrorist groups lost their channel of financial support and had to search for new sources of revenue. Groups such as the New People’s Army in the Philippines
formed "dirty jobs intelligence groups" such as the Red Scorpion Group that were tasked with criminal operations such as bank robberies, armored car heists and kidnappings to fund the group’s broader operations. Their reliance on "revolutionary taxes" — another term for extortion — also increased. The shift toward financially motivated criminal activity was replicated in other places: El Salvador’s FMLN dispatched operatives to conduct kidnappings of wealthy business executives in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil to raise money to keep their revolution alive.
In locations where there are natural resources to exploit, such as illegal mining and logging, antiquities theft or drug production, terrorist organizations have been sure to harness them for money. The FARC embraced the narcotics trade, illegal mining and extortion of oil companies. The Taliban and the Islamic State did, too. Militants in the Sahel region of Northern Africa also used kidnappings, along with drug, tobacco and weapons smuggling, to finance their operations.
Economic policies can easily influence terrorism
as well. Austerity measures the European Union has imposed on Italy and Greece have helped to reinvigorate anarchist violence there in recent years. Changes in patronage networks in Nigeria have also frequently led to spikes in terrorism in the Niger Delta
region and the country's northern provinces, because politicians encourage violence as a means to force the government to send money and political power in their direction.
So whether it’s politics or economics, these intertwining forces will continue to influence terrorism. Knowing them helps us understand terrorist groups and how they may act in the future — and be that much more prepared.