To good a story to die: eliminate legitimate grievances to eliminate terrorism

Some beliefs — simple matters of detail — have almost no factual support but refuse to die, probably because they serve to support deeply held beliefs.   William Dalrymple puts his understanding of the origins of terrorism on display for our edification.  Theodore Dalrymple then explains why William’s theory is absurd.

Mumbai atrocities highlight need for solution in Kashmir“, William Dalrymple (historian, bio), op-ed in The Observer, 30 November 2008 — “Jihadi groups will exploit Muslim grievances unless peace can be brought to the troubled state.”  Bold emphasis added.  Excerpt:

I thought back to this conversation last week, when news came in that the murderous attackers of Mumbai had brutally assaulted the city’s hospitals in addition to the more obvious Islamist targets of five-star hotels, Jewish centres and cafes frequented by Americans and Brits. Since then, the links between the Mumbai attacks and the separatist struggle in Kashmir have become ever more explicit. There now seems to be a growing consensus that the operation is linked to the Pakistan-based jihadi outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose leader, Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed, operates openly from his base at Muridhke outside Lahore.

This probable Pakistani origin of the Mumbai attacks, and the links to Kashmir-focused jihadi groups, means that the horrific events have to be seen in the context of the wider disaster of Western policy in the region since 9/11. The abject failure of the Bush administration to woo the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan away from the Islamists and, instead, managing to convince many of them of the hostility of the West towards all Muslim aspirations, has now led to a gathering catastrophe in Afghanistan where the once-hated Taliban are now again at the gates of Kabul.

… India meanwhile continues to make matters worse by its ill-treatment of the people of Kashmir, which has handed to the jihadis an entire generation of educated, angry middle-class Muslims. One of the clean-shaven boys who attacked CST railway station – now named by the Indian media as Mohammad Ajmal Mohammad Amin Kasab, from Faridkot in the Pakistani Punjab – was wearing a Versace T-shirt. The other boys in the operation wore jeans and Nikes and were described by eyewitnesses as chikna or well-off. These were not poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs, but angry and well-educated, middle-class kids furious at the gross injustice they perceive being done to Muslims by Israel, the US, the UK and India in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir respectively.

Once we have eliminated legitimate grievances we these well-educated, middle class kids will not long be furious at the gross injustices they perceive being done.  Of course, as Bill Ayers explains, that might take quite a while — as even the US has a long way to go.  I recommend reading “The Real Bill Ayers“, op-ed in The New York Times, 5 December 2008 (nice of the Times to wait until the election was over before publishing Ayer’s despicable attempt at self-justification).

The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices – the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious – as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.

If their small bombs “accidentally” maimed or killed someone (e.g., a cleaning lady or security guard), their apology would have been first rate.

A bit more about this from “Mumbai’s The Word“, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name of psychiatrist Anthony Daniels), New English Review, December 2008 — Excerpt:

It would take an entire book, perhaps, to disentangle all the assumptions and misconceptions that this {Dalrymple’s} passage implies, or on whose connotations it depends for its force.

In the short space available, let me refer first to the surprise that it should be educated, middle-class young men who perpetrated such acts. The assumption underlying this surprise is that there is some direct connection between poverty and ignorance on the one hand, and extreme political violence or terrorism on the other. Well-to-do people are not driven to the desperation of terrorism. And this view, it seems to me, genuinely implies an almost total absence of knowledge of world history, to say nothing of an inability to make fairly obvious connections.

Although I am not an historian, it has long seemed to me that some acquaintance with the history of Nineteenth Century Russia is absolutely crucial to understanding the modern world, for it was there that the various forms of modern revolutionary terrorism, and politics as the pursuit of an ideological end, first developed. And the first terrorists were certainly not downtrodden peasants brainwashed by religious or other leaders: they were either aristocrats suffering angst at their own privilege in the midst of poverty, or members of the newly-emerged middle classes, angry that their education had not resulted in the influence in society to which they thought themselves entitled by virtue of their intelligence, idealism and knowledge.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again. Latin America is a very good example. Castro was the spoilt son of a self-made millionaire who had a personal grudge against society because he was illegitimate and sometimes humiliated for it; in other words, he was both highly privileged, with a sense of entitlement, and deeply resentful, always a dreadful combination. Ernesto Guevara was of partially aristocratic descent, whose upbringing was that of a bohemian bourgeois, who was too egotistical and lacking in compassion for individual human beings to accept the humdrum discipline of medical practice.

The leaders of the guerrilla movement in Guatemala (a country, oddly, with many parallels to Nineteenth Century Russia) were of bourgeois and educated origin; one of them was the son of a Nobel-prize winner, not exactly a true social representative of the population. The leader and founder of Sendero Luminoso of Peru, a movement of the Pol Pot tendency (and Pol Pot himself, of course, studied in Paris), was a professor of philosophy, and his followers were the first educated generation of the peasantry, not the peasants themselves. Peasants are capable of uprisings, no doubt, even very bloody ones, but they do not elaborate ideologies or undergo training for attacks on distant targets.


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10 thoughts on “To good a story to die: eliminate legitimate grievances to eliminate terrorism”

  1. Dalymple (Theodore) confuses leaders and followers in insurrectionary movements. Of course leaders tend to come from educated, professional classes who have the background to understand the forms and agents of oppression in their society. who have nothing to lose. Dalrymple is simply endorsing Bush’s idea that “they hate us for our freedoms.” He probably cringes at the thought that we have any obligation, or reason of self-interest, to make other peoples’ lives better.

    He shows his own lack of intellectual rigor by using the term “terrorist” for genuine social revolutions, like Lenin’s or Castro’s.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe either of these objections are correct.

    (1) “But their followers and foot-soldeirs, and certainly 100% of the suicide bombers, come from the desparate and ill-educated classes”

    Do you have any supporting evidence for this? Your statement is true of neither the 19th century anacorists or the 9/11 terrorists. Most studies of modern terrorism draw other conclusions, such as “The Normality of Global Jihadi Terrorism“, Marc Sageman, The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2005 — Excerpt:

    In fact, most of the terrorists in the sample come from core Arab countries, immigrant communities in the West, Indonesia or Malaysia. They do not come from the poorest countries in the world, such as Afghanistan. Surprisingly, there is no Afghan in the sample. In terms of socio-economic background, three-fourths come from upper and middle class families. Far from coming from broken families, they grew up in caring intact families, mildly religious and concerned about their communities. In terms of education, over 60 percent have some college education. Most are in the technical fields, such as engineering, architecture, computers, medicine, and business. This is all the more remarkable because college education is still relatively uncommon in the countries or immigrant communities they come from. Far from being immature teenagers, the men in my sample joined the terrorist organization at the age of twenty-six years, on average. Such as

    Most of the terrorists have some occupational skills. Three-fourths are either professional (physicians, lawyers, architects, engineers, or teachers) or semi-professionals (businessmen, craftsmen, or computer specialists). They are solidly anchored in family responsibilities. Three-fourths are married and the majority have children. There was no indication of weak minds brainwashed by their family or education. About half of the sample grew up as religious children, but only 13 percent of the sample, almost all of them in Southeast Asia, were educated in Islamist boarding schools or madrassas. The entire sample from the North African region and the second generation Europeans went to secular schools. About ten percent were Catholic converts to Islam, who could not have been brainwashed into Islam as children.

    (2) “He shows his own lack of intellectual rigor by using the term “terrorist” for genuine social revolutions, like Lenin’s or Castro’s.”

    Perhaps you should apologize to Dalymple. From the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, 17 October 2007:

    terrorist — An individual who commits an act or acts of violence or threatens violence in pursuit of political, religious, or ideological objectives.

  2. Well we seem to have two separate questions on hand. The demographic make-up of terrorists and their motivations. With respect to the first question, studies like the Sageman paper seem able to answer that well enough, and his conclusions about Jihadi terrorism does fit the general historical pattern of upper and middle-class origins. Particularly appropos of the parallels with 19th century Russian terrorism was this talk by Robert Greene to West Point cadets, noting that the general goal of terrorism is to create chaos and cycles of reaction that destabilize a static and undesirable (to the terrorist) situation.

    I find it interesting that Hezbollah, an organization that is primarily composed of the poor, is much less interested in terrorism against civilians (although implicated in several incidents (which they deny, natch)) than in constructing social service networks and territorial defense (a gross oversimplification but it’s a question of emphasis). The rich and middle-class can have the luxury of wanting to smash things up and create chaos. The poor have generally had enough of smashed-up stuff and chaotic living. One reason, IMO, for the greater success and mass-appeal of the Hezbollah model vs. the AQ model in the 4GW Cola Wars.

    Addressing the second question of motivation will have to wait, but I’ll mention in passing that the famous problem with defining terrorism is excluding your own violence from the definition. By the strict DoD definition the entire U.S. military is composed of terrorists. Probably not the semantic intent . . .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for posting this interesting comment!

  3. Robert Pape’s book “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (2005), presents the results of the most comprehensive empirical study of suicide terrorism. He finds that most common element to this form of terrorism that is not poverty or underdevelopment, or religious indoctrination. Rather it almost always involves a violent struggle against military occupation. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, a secular resistance movement, have made the most frequent use of the tactic over the last several decade.

    Pape is clear:

    what over 95 percent of all suicide attacks around the world since 1980 until today have in common is not religion, but a clear, strategic objective: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.

    While Kashmir is not considered officially to be occupied territory, there is a violent resistance by a large segment of the population against Indian rule.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a great reply; thank you for this comment!

  4. Not sure what the point here is. If Kashmir “goes away”, will jihadi attacks on India end? Probably not. Would removing Kashmir as a causus belli be beneficial for pretty much everyone on both sides other than those entities who profit from Indian/Pakistani belligerance? Probably.

    But beyond a small handful of people who also still believe in Santa Claus and the free lunch I’d suspect that few on the Left believe that “opression” or “injustice” are the sole root cause of violent extremeism and that eliminating the former will eliminate the latter. Probably about the same percentage as the percentage of people on the Right who believe that “they hate us for our freedoms”.

    The rest of us are willing to accept this stuff as an endproduct of the usual human clusterfuck of ambition, distraction, uglification and derision, along with greed, hate, envy, supidity, evil, misguided religion, and the boneheaded legacy of the “If Not For The Belgians and Portugese We’d Be The Worst Imperialists In European History” British Empire. Setting this up as “an issue” seems like a strawman to me.

  5. William is wrong about implicitly assuming terrorists are poor. The poor don’t have time nor energy for much terrorizing, except maybe to join a local terror gang for easy local cash.

    But he’s right that Kashmir is an issue that should be solved.
    Unfortunately, WAR has been the main tool that successfully decides borders; tho it often fails, too. India and Pakistan have fought some 4 times since Pakistan split off.

    The other issue is minority rights. But most terrorists with an ideology do seem to want to create a local society which will NOT respect the rights of those who disagree with the terrorists.
    That makes them morally inferior to those societies which are more liberal and accept more disagreement.

  6. The comments on terrorists as resisting military interference etc. are spot on. However, with Mumbai it seems we have a far more complex situation involving international drug trafficking turf war involving Russian-Israeli mafia muscling into new territory interlinked with criminal and state-sponsored international operations mixed in a cocktail involving geopolitical maneuverings in the ever-unfolding Great Game. This one looks far more like a gang war than an ideological or local ‘terrorist/resistance’ operation per se. What is perhaps most important here is to identify the various ‘gangs’ involved both large and small.

  7. Erasmus: Wayne Madsen has a lot of material that supports your view above.

    There was a lot of reporting after 9-11 that mocked the belief of suicide bombers that they would be rewarded in heaven with bevies of virgins. I don’t remember anyone refuting these reports, and if true they hardly suggest people of educated, middle class background.

    “Terrorism” is a much abused term, especially in contemporary America, where it seems to include anyone who resists established authority. As someone notes above, the principal attribute of terrorism — the targeting of civilian populations for political purposes — is more typical of large state actors than the stateless groups usually called “terrorist”.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence that this “hardly suggest people of educated, middle class background”? Middle class people have strong beliefs — even fanatical — about politics and region, just like other folks. The Puritans were largely of the English “middle class”, as were many followers of Luther and Calvin. Esp I suggest reading some of Luther’s writings as a counter-example.

  8. I think the evidence pretty well supports the idea that grievances, “legitimate” or otherwise are a driving force of terrorism. The demographic picture painted by Sageman actually supports this, since it eliminates crushing poverty, child abuse, religious “brainwashing,” etc. International jihadi terrorism is usually pretty outspoken about their motivations, generally involving the perceived injustices of the U.S., Britain and Israel against muslim populations, and their choice of targets reflects this. If legitimate grievances are irrelevant and the predisposition to terrorism is inherent and randomly distributed then why aren’t German engineers bombing Swedish discos? Instead you see terrorists drawn from or identifying with groups that are perceived to be oppressed, targeting the perceived oppressor. There is a predisposition, to be sure, but the grievance fuels the fire.

    The case of Bill Ayers is actually an instructive example of eliminating terrorism by eliminating grievances. Why aren’t the Weathermen still around setting their “little” bombs? We know that the F.B.I. had little success disrupting their activities and finding their members. It was only after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam took away their big rallying cry, and took the wind out of the sails of the radical left generally that they came in from the cold. A few diehards continued on fighting “the fascist insect” until the early eighties but the end of Vietnam pretty much ended radical left violence. By their own statements they were motivated primarily by a burning desire to prevent the slaughter of millions of Southeast Asians, even as their deplorable and ultimately counterproductive tactics turned them into what they despised (God preserve us from righteous intent).

    In chimpanzee societies, the perception of “unfairness” and injustice is one of the strongest driver of behavior, above self-interest.

    Anyway, I agree with FDChief that removing grievances won’t end terrorism but it will take some of the fuel off the fire. Where ending such grievances coincides with other strategic objectives, it’s an easy choice. Where it conflicts, the decision is harder.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What is the “evidence pretty well supports the idea that grievances.” There is none, just work eliminating other possible factors. That does not leave this one factor, grievances. That is likely a factor, but not necessarily the factor (the love of single factor explanation is a pox in discussions of human affairs).

    “why aren’t German engineers bombing Swedish discos?”

    That’s an odd question. Why should they? Wives usually murder their husbands, not travel down the street killing other women’s husbands (and vice versa).

    The relevant question is why are there no German terorists do terrorist-things. The answer is that there was a generation ago: Baader-Meinhof Group and Red Army Faction. They came and went, driven by obscure social forces perhaps unrelated to the intensity of “legitimate social grievances” in Germany.

  9. I have a lot of respect for Theodore Dalrymple. Life at the Bottom was a great book. However, I think Eric Hoffer is more instructive in these matters. Dalrymple is correct when he points out that terrorists are often from educated and even priviledged classes however it is also pretty apparent that they come from many different strata with in my estimation the exception of the very poorest strata from which they get very, very few people. Hoffer explains why.

    I tend to think you need three kinds of people to form a political terrorist/revolutionary group. book smart guys, street smart guys and foot soldiers. The book smart guys come up with the rationale/grievances, creeds, beliefs and grand vision and figure out who the enemy is. The street smart guys come up with the money, guns and sack lunches. The foot soldiers read the book smart guys or listen to them talk and when they join up they are kept in line and on time by the Street smart guys. The thing they all have to have in common is not economics, education, or anything else but a shared sense of despair about their own lives. There are some people who fit one role exclusively and some who grow into other roles or can drift back and forth.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Eric Hoffer is IMO one of the great underappreciated voices of modern western philosophy. “The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements” is an essential text to understand the dynamics of modern political movements, of all flavors.

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