Forecasting Terrorism

The obsession with the level of terror in some Western circles is a dangerous delusion. Terror is a result, not a cause. Those interested in predicting it need to focus on what causes it, rather than on the terror itself. Looking for imminent terrorist incidents, while certainly an important police matter, is not the proper focus of political analysis or government thinking; such an approach will leave the initiative permanently in the hands of the terrorist because of the enormous time lag between cause and result. Rather, the focus needs to be on what persuades people to adopt violent tactics. That, of course, is complicated because many dimensions contribute to the decision to adopt terror or any other particular tactic. The trick is to identify a sufficiently complete and causal set of dimensions for effective prediction while keeping it small enough to be analytically manageable. Terror is a tactic and thus not causal at all, except to the extent that terror may cause counterterror and copycat terror.

To get a sense of the likely future course of Islamic politics—and of the likelihood of anti-Western terrorism, a focus on the three dimensions of “force,” “aspirations,” and “organization” may be more productive. These dimensions are defined as follows:

  • Force – the degree to which force (violence, oppression) is the means of achieving goals;
  • Aspirations – the degree to which local aspirations are being addressed;
  • Organization – the degree to which political opposition is organized.

Combining these three dimensions may be thought of as generating eight alternative “ideal type” scenarios (“ideal” because in fact all three dimensions are continuous), as shown in the “Dimensions of Dissent” diagram here. This diagram depicts a political world in which behavior results from various combinations of three dimensions, or causal factors. The point is to provide an easily remembered model or “default” world with two critical extremes (red and white).

If extreme force is being applied to frustrate people’s aspirations in a context of highly organized resistance, one can predict headline-making behavior (red octant). If the resistance is grossly outclassed militarily by the powerholders, asymmetric warfare is probable, and from there—when the powerholders are already applying extreme force that very probably harms bystanders–it is an easy step to attacks on bystanders by the resistance. Indeed, once powerholders with superior military capabilities cross the threshold from democratic action to the use of force, they can hardly expect a weaker but well organized resistance to forego the use of whatever weapons it may have.

The opposite extreme is the case in which all sides operate within a democratic space, aspirations are addressed, and the political opposition is unorganized (white octant). A crisis would then be surprising.

Extremism begets extremism; force begets force. Hamas rockets cannot be understood without considering the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails or the Jewish-only roads in the West Bank. The fact that the type of force used by one side differs from the type used by another is beside the point: one uses the tool at hand. One side closes newspapers or denies certain groups the right to participate in politics; the other side uses roadside bombs.

But force of course does not automatically beget force. The fact that force was used in the first place presumably implies that the elite was trying to prevent someone from realizing his aspirations. When everyone in a defeated army is fired in an economy that offers no employment opportunities, resistance is predictable. When food prices suddenly rise to the point where the average person can no longer afford to eat (e.g., Egypt and Pakistan today), resistance is predictable. To the degree that fundamental aspirations (employment, access to food, respectful treatment) are denied by force, resistance is predictable.

But effective resistance against an organized regime usually requires organization by the resistance. Hence the common delusion in elite circles that one can ignore the provocative nature of force and ignore the unsatisfied aspirations of the oppressed as long as opposition organizational structures are smashed. This is a delusion for several reasons, including the difficulty in an increasingly connected and educated world of smashing resistance organizational structures as well as the tendency of underlying frustrations and resultant resistance efforts to rise exponentially in the face of repression. Examples of resistance forces that show surprising organizational capability under severe conditions are today legion – e.g., Hezbollah’s ability to occupy Beirut in a space of hours, al Sadr’s on-going reorganization of his militia, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban over the past year, the ability of Hamas to institute effective governance in Gaza.

Determination of where various Moslem societies are and the direction in which they are moving in this three-dimensional analytical space of “force x aspirations x organization” should provide much more long-range guidance about what lies ahead than looking for specific plots or setting “terrorist threat levels.” Rather than waiting until a dissident group gets organized, plans the use of violence, and puts that plan into action, this model raises warning flags throughout the process, revealing opportunities to, for example, moderate regime repression or address popular aspirations long before terrorist cells ever get organized.


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