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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Do Terrorists Want?

After the terrorist violence in Brussels many people, including Barack Obama, said we should not change our way of life and live in fear because that is what terrorists want. Maybe, but is that all they want? It seems that something important is left out of the story. In the classical model of terrorism, instilling fear (along with causing death and injury) is not an end in itself. It's a means to an end.

Terrorists don't necessarily get a kick out creating carnage and fear (though it is possible). Primarily they want the survivors' fear converted into action aimed at changing their government's policy. Thus terrorism, if it is to have any meaning, is a political, not a sadistic, act. In the paradigm case a weak nonstate group, unable to resist a state's military or to change its policy directly, terrorizes the civilian population of that state in the hope it will demand a change in foreign or domestic policy. (Let's leave aside for this discussion that terrorism has been strategically (re)defined by the United States and its allies such that it can apply only to their adversaries, even when they attack military targets instead of civilians.)

It's not hard to fathom why the full story of terrorism is not acknowledged by officials and pundits: it would draw attention to what the U.S. government and allied states have long been doing to people in the Muslim world. Nearly all Americans seem to think it's a sheer coincidence that terrorism is most likely to be committed by people who profess some form of Islam and that the U.S. military has for decades been bombing, droning, occupying, torturing, etc. in multiple Islamic countries. Or perhaps they think U.S.-inflicted violence is just a defensive response to earlier terrorism. (I might be giving people too much credit by assuming they even know the U.S. government is doing any of this.) When the U.S. military isn't wreaking havoc directly, the U.S. government is underwriting and arming tyrants like those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. And just to complete the picture, the U.S. government fully backs the Israeli state, which has oppressed Palestinians and occupied their land for many decades.

All this is what Islamist terrorists say they seek revenge for (more here), and the U.S. government acknowledges this. (That does not excuse violence against noncombatants, of course.)

But telling the full story about the terrorists' objectives might inadvertently prompt a fresh look -- maybe even a reevaluation -- of America's atrocious foreign policy. The ruling elite and the military-industrial complex would not want that.

Since questioning and changing U.S. foreign policy are out of the question, the pundits and "terrorism experts" look for other ways to prevent terrorism. Unsurprisingly, everything they come up with entails violations of our civil liberties. Discussions about "profiling" are featured on cable news channels almost regularly. Should we or should we not profile? Those few who say no are accused of "political correctness," the handy put-down for anyone who is leery about violating privacy or gratuitously insulting whole classes of people.

But let's think about profiling for a moment. As acknowledged, when one hears about public, indiscriminate suicidal violence, such as occurred in Brussels, it is reasonable to wonder if the perpetrators professed some "extreme" variant of Islam. (That doesn't mean another group, say, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, couldn't be the perps, as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.) But since Islamists come to mind first, that might give us a clue to how to profile. As part of the profiling, why not look for links to countries the U.S. government and its allies bomb, occupy, or otherwise abuse? The media inform us that many of the terrorists in Europe first went to Syria to try to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad (whom the U.S. government wants overthrown), but then came home angry after NATO countries started bombing the Islamic State there and in Iraq, with the inevitable civilian casualties. In some cases Syrian nationals sneaked into Europe through Turkey.

So the perpetrators of the next terrorist act are likely to be Islamists with links to or sympathy for people terrorized by the United States and its allies -- namely, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. But if that kind of profiling makes sense, wouldn't it make even more sense simply to stop inflicting violence on the Muslim world?

I guess that's too simple for our experts.


Anonymous said...

hello, im new to this site and i have an open mind i think. but can i pose a different opinion. first i am a domestic security expert who just wanders into international politics but i have posed my ibservations to many of my muslim friends and acquaintences in serious attempts to understand. my discussions have led me to believe that the war on terror is actually a war to support womens rights. the mindset that i have encountered is that the muslim men do not like the "propoganda" the US is exporting about womens rights. they dont want to learn to have equal partners or to not be able to punish their wives and children when they feel its necessary. If they were to allow the propoganda to become ingrained in their society they would have to change a great deal of their power, religion, and way they live. maybe im wrong but every muslim ive talked to admits its true. that isnt that many people but....

Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks for your comment. Here's how we can find out if what you hear is true: a controlled experiment. For the next 50 years we have no military contact whatever with the Muslim world and nothing more than neutral diplomatic contact. This would include an end to all support for Israel. Domestically, we would fully recognize women's (and men's) rights. Let's see if Muslims are willing to come here on suicidal missions.

Anonymous said...

Even better - openly encourage trade with the Muslim world (and every other world). That would do wonders for building peace with them.

Of course, that strategy wouldn't benefit politicians and their wealthy friends who want us all to depend on them and keep them in power.

Anonymous said...


You don't really believe white nationalists or Neo-Nazis did the Oklahoma bombing, do you?

Sheldon Richman said...

Oh sure, with help from bumbling FBI informants. See the work of JD Cash and the book by Charles and Gumbel. Also see Scott Horton's interviews with Cash, Charles, and Jesse Trentadue.

Unknown said...

US foreign policy is to blame for Islamic upset in Belgium, Cologne and Paris ? Tibetans also suffer under occupation; where are the Buddhist suicide bombers? Where are the Hindu calls to Jihad?

Put it another way, millions of Christians were infuriated with the SCOTUS rulings legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage. Had they reacted as Islamists do, the Richmans of the world would not treat them with such kid gloves. So Buddhists, Hindus and Christians react completely differently from Muslims, and we are not supposed to notice the one major glaring difference in the latter group.

Sheldon Richman said...

Aren't you forgetting some examples? Irish Catholics, Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine, American Protestants in colonial America? Christians have used violence against doctors and others involved in abortion. Neo-Nazi WASPS have perpetrated violence against innocents in the name of attacking the US government. I'm sure there are other examples.

On the other side, what about all the peaceful Muslims and Arabs in the world? This would rule out there being something inherently violent about Islam or Arabs. How people react to similar situations depends on many things. What I am saying is that if the US practiced nonintervention, Arabs wouldn't fly planes into our buildings. Western hands are rather dirty.

"The Richmans of the world..." Ms. Loy, if you are going to presume to know how I would react to a hypothetical situation, please at least try to get it right.

Sheldon Richman said...

I forgot the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Ron H. said...


Yes, US and European foreign policies are the primary reason there are so many displaced Islamic refugees in Europe where socialist domestic and economic policies, as well as high union membership and high unemployment levels act to ensure those people are unemployable and unassimilable.

Hindu suicide bombers? Here you go. We in the west don't pay much attention to that part of the world, but Tamil Tigers are responsible for more suicide bombing deaths than all Islamic bombings to date.

Buddhist/Shinto bombers? Surely you're aware of the thousands of Japanese Kamikaze bombers who martyred themselves in the name of the Emperor toward the end of WW2 when military defeat seemed inevitable.

Of course suicide bombing isn't about religion primarily but about attempts to influence the foreign policy of a foreign invader or occupier of a homeland, against whom there are no realistic military options available.

For an excellent treatment of the subject see Dying To Win by Robert Pape.

Unknown said...

I suppose you have a point. If western women stopped dressing so provocatively and if gays would go back into the closet and if atheists would keep their views to themselves, Muslims would feel more at home in the West.

Sheldon Richman said...

So you equate provocative clothing and gays living openly with bombing, invasion, occupation, torture, and support for tyranny? Interesting.

Unknown said...

"if the US practiced nonintervention, Arabs wouldn't fly planes into our buildings"
I'm a non-interventionist and a secularist, but this statement is unadulterated bullshit. When we can draw cartoons of Mohammed just as we can put a crucifix in urine or put elephant dung on the Virgin Mary (taxpayer funded, no less!) without Muslims throwing a shitfit such as the Jyllands-Posten controversy or the Garland, TX shooting last summer, then I will believe you. By the way, right before the Garland attack, one of the gunmen posted "May Allah accept us as mujahideen" on Twitter. Yeah, real complex geopolitical statement there.

3D Face Analysis said...

> I suppose you have a point. If western women stopped dressing so provocatively and if gays would go back into the closet and if atheists would keep their views to themselves, Muslims would feel more at home in the West.

If that's true, then why does the Islamic State hate Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia and already implements the same "Salafi" policies as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, so it's unlikely because it isn't Islamic enough. More likely, it's because Saudi Arabia is brutal dictatorship supported by the United States.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State, hated the Jordanian government so much that he wanted to overthrow it. His first two concerns was the American/European military intervention in Muslim countries and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. "Islamism" was only a tertiary issue.

And why does the Taliban exist in Pakistan even though Pakistan is already a Muslim country? It's probably because the Pakistani government is perceived to be a puppet of the West. The Pakistani does not do anything to stop the U.S. drone strikes, such drone strikes have has killed thousands of Muslim civilians.

Anonymous said...


It has not been proven that Arabs flew any planes into any buildings. It's not even proven that any planes actually struck any buildings, but that's another matter I know it is tempting to use the Establishment's own narrative against them and their interventionist foreign policy.