Talking to Terrorists
One week ago, Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgai opened fire on tourists near Sousse, Tunisia, killing 38 people. On the same day, a man was beheaded in France and a bomb detonated in a Shia mosque in Kuwait killing 27. ISIS claimed responsibility for all three.
Amidst the media coverage that follows terrorist attacks such as these two schools of thought generally emerge: one asserts that terrorists are driven by religious ideology and the other that they are driven by political motives, principally western foreign policy. "All the evidence suggests that this is deeply political," says Richard Jackson, Deputy Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. "It's the conclusion of all the serious scholars I'm aware of that in particular the invasion of Iraq was the single most radicalising event for militants across the Middle East and in European and Western countries."
"That makes complete sense," he continues. "Because if we look at this kind of terrorism it wasn't around in the same form and the same level or even close to the same extent 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. Islam's been around for hundreds of years... but this is a very modern phenomenon and it's very, very connected to the politics of the Middle East, particularly to the invasions to Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib torture, to drone strikes and so on."
"What you've got to remember is that the west has killed 1.3 million people in Iraq. That's likely to drive any reasonable person into a rage and cause immense grievance."
The Tunisian government responded to last Friday's attacks by issuing an order to close more than 80 mosques. Jackson, who is also Chief Editor of Critical Studies on Terrorismand runs a blog on the subject, explains that one of the oldest precepts of theories on terrorism states that isolated acts of violence push the state to respond by cracking down, which in turn intensifies grievances against the state and mobilises support.
The theory, he says, "is that you provoke the power to respond in a disproportionate way, which then creates grievance, which then gives terrorists more support and leads eventually to a broader, deeper movement that can perhaps consider moving to the next stage, which would be a kind of a civil war or an insurgency and then eventually overthrowing [the] regime."
Knee-jerk reactions, says Jackson, simply conform to terrorists' expectations; but not all governments respond in the same way. In 2011, Anders Breivik set off a bomb in Oslo before shooting dead 69 people at the Norwegian Labour Party's youth camp, yet Norway's response to the attack showed an alternative way to deal with such assaults: "They said we don't want to let this terrorist attack undermine our values and undermine our tolerance and our sense of community," he says. "We don't want the terrorists to win by making us suspicious of each other and creating greater senses of grievances so we're not going to respond in the way that they expect."
Like the Breivik assault, the tragic events in Tunisia, Kuwait and France last week went straight to the headlines. On the same day many more people across the world died in car crashes, work accidents, drone attacks, hunger and in wars; yet their stories received less attention. Jackson believes the media are largely responsible as they have adopted terrorism as "the most spectacular spectacle," responding to attacks with wall to wall coverage. The public then supports this by consuming media products, which in turn increases revenue for media producers. "Small arms kill half a million people a year around the world," points out Jackson. "These are less spectacular but far more lethal [than terrorism]."
Moreover, he says, terrorists actually rely on this kind of media coverage to spread their message:
"Without the media terrorism wouldn't really exist. It would be very hard for terrorists to have any impact at all if no one publicised what they were doing. So sadly there's a kind of symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism because terrorism relies on the media to get their spectacular message out and the media relies on terrorism to get their ratings up. So both sides benefit."
That being said, attempts by the government to control the media and restrict what is broadcast haven't worked either. "It's hard to know how to get the media to behave more responsibly and not play into the hands of terrorists," he says.
Last year, Jackson took a break from writing academic books to pen Confessions of a Terrorist, a fictional account of a dialogue between a wanted terrorist and a British intelligence officer. Jackson says he has always wanted a novel to give to his students but only found literature that painted terrorists out to be Hollywood-style villains.
Confessions of a Terrorist questions the taboo of talking to terrorists and the fear many have that doing so will lead to understanding and sympathising with their behaviour. "I think that it's really important that we talk to them so we know what we really want and so that we understand what they're trying to achieve and why they think they have to use violence... and whether if the situation was reversed we would do the same thing... [T]he reality is in many ways we go and commit a lot of violence overseas and then when people react against that and fight back we get all shocked and surprised. So we need to talk to them."
"If you look at the academic research, you find out that actually most terrorist groups are not defeated through military means, but a much higher proportion of them stop their terrorism through political dialogue," he continues. "So once you start talking to them and once you bring them into the political process, once you listen to what their grievances are and try and address them terrorism subsides."
One of the consequences of not talking to terrorists, believes Jackson, is that we have dehumanised them which allows us to take away their human rights and justifies acts such as killing them with drones. "As a consequence countless innocent people have been killed... Countless innocent people have been tortured; have been kidnapped and taken to these horrible, secret prisons around the world. All kinds of human rights abuses have been carried out and as a result we in many ways have betrayed our own values and that's because we've dehumanised the terrorists and that's why I think it's really important to re-humanise them."
The language of terrorism is thus a way of defining the "other" and drawing a distinction between us and them, good versus evil, freedom lovers against freedom haters and soldiers and patriots against terrorists, says Jackson: "You can look through history – recent and long in the past –and realise that actually governments commit exactly the same acts as so-called terrorists. They use violence to try and terrify groups of people and intimidate groups of people. Sometimes, they plant bombs in public places or blow up or hijack planes. There are so many examples."
A lot of terrorist scholars argue, therefore, that if the definition of terrorism is applied objectively a lot of state violence can be classified as state terrorism. "But again, that's a very difficult narrative to make and to be accepted in public because we like to have these clear lines between our good legitimate violence which comes out of the authority of the state and illegitimate, illegal violence," says Jackson.
"The problem is that when those two forms of violence look identical and you can't tell the difference between them; [then] there comes to be a question over [whether] our violence [is] actually that legitimate."
Published in Middle East Monitor