Terrorism as regressive globalisation

About the author
Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

As the Hutton Enquiry into the events running up to the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly, a scientific advisor to the British government, continues its revealing probe into the decision-making processes which were the prelude to war in Iraq, it seems clearer by the day that the one issue the government was not willing to share, either with its Parliament or its electorate, was the fundamental question of whether it was truly advisable to go to war. Was a war of prevention of this kind likely to defeat, or to exacerbate the forces of terrorism?

In the Chicago speech Tony Blair made in 1999 to justify international ‘humanitarian intervention’ in places such as Kosovo, he argued that we ‘cannot turn our back on conflicts and the violation of human rights in other countries if we still want to be secure.’ Neo-conservatives in the United States make the argument that we have to address authoritarianism and conflict in the Middle East if we want to tackle global terrorism. It is very important for those who oppose the policies of the Bush administration, especially the concept of pre-emptive attack, to take these arguments seriously and to elaborate progressive policies for dealing with global terrorism.

Terrorism is a technique increasingly used by extreme religious and/or nationalist political movements as part of an array of forms of violence mainly directed against civilians. Many of these movements were quiescent during the immediate post second world war period. But in the last two decades we have seen a marked increase in their political presence, not only through their involvement in violent episodes, but also in electoral terms. Typical recruits to these movements are restless young men, often educated for roles that no longer exist because of the decline of the state or of the industrial sector, unable to marry because they lack income, and sometimes needing to legitimate the semi-criminal activities in which they can find their only source of income. Membership in such groups offers meaning, a sense of historical relevance, and also adventure.

Related to the sense of insecurity is the encounter with globalisation, that is to say with growing interconnectedness, and the sense of impotence that arises when crucial decisions that affect every day life are taken at a further and further remove. The leaders of the team of young Saudis who committed suicide on 11 September 2001 were all educated in the west. This is typical of many religious militants, who are often migrants, either from countryside to town or from south to west, experiencing the loss of ties to their places of origin whilst not yet integrated into their new homes.

I use the term ‘regressive globalisation’ to describe the character of new groups which make use of and even promote globalisation, when it is in the interests of a particular religious or nationalist group. These groups arise as a reaction to the insecurities generated by globalisation, as well as disillusion with the secular ideologies of the state. At the same time, they make use of the opportunities created by globalisation – the new media, especially television and internet, and increased opportunities for funding from the diaspora as well as from transnational criminal groups. As a result, they differ significantly from classic terrorist groups, in ideology, tactics and organisation.

A modern political agenda with anti-modern symbols

Sharing the goal of state power with classical terrorism, but claiming to be explicitly anti-modern and backward-looking, the new global terrorist groups have four main features:

1 They seek political power – generally control of the state.

All seek political power. Groups such as the nationalist parties of Serbs, Croats, Hungarians or Romanians, espousing irredentist policies in Europe, may seek territorial expansion to include historic lands or lands inhabited by the ethnic nations. Other minority groups who want their own state, such as the Moros in the Philippines, the Aceh people in Indonesia, the Sikhs in India (Khalistan), the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Corsicans in France, or the Uighurs in China, seek secession.

The Basques argue both for secession and for expansion since they want to unite the lands where Basque people live. The same is true of Kurdish nationalist groups, who currently argue for secession or autonomy within Turkey and Iraq. Others, like the Hindu nationalists who want to preserve Hindu culture in India and downgrade or eliminate Christians and Muslims, call for ethnically pure states and a strengthening of sovereignty. The new Global Islamic groups, often linked to al-Qaida, want to establish regional Islamic states in the Middle East, south Asia, or southeast Asia.

All these groups have what might be described as a modernist view of the state. They still believe in state sovereignty and reject the conditionality that has accompanied globalisation. They believe that religions and ethnicities can somehow be kept within or be excluded from bordered territory.

2 They see themselves as opposed to modernity

Many of the new nationalist and religious groups object to what they see as both the relativism of modernity, and the claim that human reason is superior to other forms of human knowledge.

They object to the doubt and questioning that characterises modern society, insisting that sacred knowledge is the superior form of knowledge, and that there is a ‘correct’ interpretation of events given by God which cannot be contradicted by human reason. Many nationalists also insist that their beliefs are God-given. But even secular nationalists, at least extreme secularists, assume that there is one model for society that has to be applied, whatever the obstacles.

3 Emphasis is placed on the need to regenerate and unify a corrupt society

The notion of decline acts as a powerful justification for the existence of many of these movements. Whether nationalist or religious, such groups are often nostalgic for a ‘pure’ past where religion was practised widely and according to ritual and/or where the nation was ‘unpolluted’ by foreigners, minorities, or mixed groups. Islamists propose a return to Islam’s founding period 1,400 years ago and judge any state deviation from that golden age as jahiliyya, or pre-Islamic ignorance. Radical protestant sects, on the other hand, see themselves as returning to the arcadia of the early Christian church.

These groups are at once traditional and anti-traditional. They insist on the reinvention of tradition, on reintroducing past rituals and practises even if these ‘traditions’ are quite at odds with the customs of everyday life. In effect these groups invent a past, ignoring more recent history or whatever does not fit their preconceptions.

4 They believe they are part of a great war against an ‘other’

Nostalgia is often linked to a notion of struggle that may be the most important shared characteristic of religious and nationalist ideologies. Islamic groups insist on the importance of Jihad. Some Christian right groups talk about a ‘civil war’ in America. ‘Rahowa’ stands for ‘racial holy war’, which is the greeting and rallying cry in the World Church of the Creator, a group that undertook targeted racial killings in Illinois and Indiana in 1999.

Religious leaders see their struggle as a ‘cosmic war’ against ‘evil’ and promote the idea that every follower has to participate in that struggle. Their political causes are thereby given sacred legitimacy and their members, a sense of participation in something larger than every day life. Nationalist groups similarly claim to be avenging historic injustices.

Forms of violence

The classical terrorist tactic of groups like the IRA and ETA, and also the GIA in Algeria, was to adopt very specific strategic goals aimed at the state apparatus or other high value targets – for example, attacks on state officials, high ranks of the civil service, or military and security officers.

The trend, however, is towards both symbolic and strategic violence aimed at apparently random and senseless killing of civilians. Symbolic violence is a message, a way of making a statement. Terrorist attacks against civilians are typical. Violence is ‘deliberately exaggerated’ and often macabre. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda cuts off ears and lips. Hamas suicide bombers put nails in their bombs to kill as many people as possible. Spectacles like the World Trade Towers or the destruction of the Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan are also important.

But violence is not merely symbolic, not just ‘letters to Israel’ as one Hamas activist described the suicide bombers. In many of the recent armed conflicts, the aim has been deliberate elimination or indeed extermination of the ‘other’. The goal of the wars in the former Yugoslavia or the southern Caucasus was to create ethnically pure territories. In these cases, exaggerated violence was aimed at making people hate their homes. Systematic rape, for example, was a deliberate weapon of war with the aim of making women, particularly Muslim women, feel ashamed and defiled so that they would not want to return to their homes.

Both symbolic and strategic violence may be most easily understood as a form of political mobilisation for extremist groups. In Yugoslavia, killings and displacement in conflict generated the very ideologies supposed to have been the cause of the conflict. Indeed this strengthening of extremist sentiment may be the point of the violence. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain how suicide bombing in Palestine is designed to achieve a Palestinian state, or the brutal Israeli response, a way of improving security.

This type of conflict is difficult to end and difficult to contain. It is these long-running conflicts in Afghanistan, the Middle East or parts of Africa that produce ‘black holes’ of lawlessness, extremist ideologies and endemic insecurity. And it is in the ‘black holes’ that the culture of violence is nurtured.

Organisation, media and funding

New global terrorism differs from ‘old’ terrorism in organisation, in the use of media and in methods of funding. The increasing transnational character of these movements has led to a shift from vertical forms of organisation to more horizontal networking structures.

Linked to the horizontal network is the absence of publicly identifiable command structures and the tendency for anonymity, even though charismatic leaders like Osama bin Laden remain important. ‘Old’ terrorists always claimed responsibility for their acts. Even today, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11.

Moreover, many of these groups are part of a family of organisations. Nationalist and religious groups often organise what might be described as parallel societies, a sophisticated organisational infrastructure with political, military, educational, welfare and publishing components.

All of these groups make use of the ‘new media’ – television, internet, videocassettes. Many groups have their own TV or radio channels. Hindu nationalists benefit from the new satellite channel, Star TV. Serbian television paid a critical role in the years leading up to the Yugoslav wars in promoting nationalist propaganda, interchanging contemporary events with the second world war and the 1389 battle of Kosovo.

Many groups, as in the past, levy ‘taxes’ on their supporters, especially those abroad. Some groups, like al-Qaida, or the Christian right, benefit from wealthy individuals. Traditionally, the main sources of funding for terrorists were donations from supporters, crime and state sponsorship. The first two remain important sources of income, although they are more transnational than before. But while state sponsorship has declined, diaspora support has increased.

Far away from what they see as their homeland, diaspora groups are often vulnerable to the appeals of extremist groups and to the imaginary depiction of a struggle that is supposed to be happening at home. Hence diaspora support is increasingly important for all south Asian groups, for Serbs, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, as well as Kurds.

Many people in the diaspora support charitable organisations. Whether knowingly or not, funds to extremist groups are often channelled through religious NGOs, which is why Islamic NGOs were one of the first targets of the FBI after 11 September in their efforts to crack down on terrorism.

A case-study: Al-Qaida

Al-Qaida is in a class of its own – more global and networked than probably any other violent religious or nationalist group. It was al-Qaida that developed the ideology of directing violence at a global level ‘against Jews and Crusaders’ and not just local elites.

The infrastructure of al-Qaida has many parallels with the infrastructure of international NGOs or civil society networks. Al-Qaida is a cross-border network, involving hybrid forms of organisation. Al-Qaida (The Base) itself is a coalition involving a number of constituent organisations: the most well-known are the Egyptian groups Islamic Jihad and Jama’a Islamia (Islamic Group of Egypt) and the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) of Algeria, but there are also organisations from Pakistan, Chechnya, Sudan, Somalia, and the Philippines among others. These organisations come together in a Shura Majlis or Consultative Council, which is thought to have four committees (religio-legal, military, finance, and media).

Although this may be exaggerated by western sources, al-Qaida is also involved in partnerships and different forms of co-operation with other Islamic terrorist groups. Many local branches, known in the West as operational cells, are linked to mosques and Muslim charities and NGOs in perhaps as many as ninety countries, including western Europe and North America.

As with networks like Jubilee 2000 or the Landmines Coalition, what holds the network together is the mission. In the absence of traditional, vertical forms of organisation, individual commitment is a key organising tool.

In this case, the mission is to restore the Muslim caliphate in the Middle East, abolished in 1924, and reinstate Islamic control over the holy sites, especially the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the mosques in Mecca and Medina.

In 1998, al-Qaida established the ‘World Islamic Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders’. The constituent organisations are all signatories to the founding statement, which included the following fatwa: ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country which is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Mosque (Mecca) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.’

Like global civil society groups, al-Qaida have pioneered new forms of action: in this case, the ‘raid’. In the last ten years before his death, the Prophet redefined what had been a characteristic notion of pre-Islamic nomad groups, as part of Jihad, to mean a raid aimed at the benefit of the whole community and not individual gain. Al-Qaida have resurrected the term. It was used to describe the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other operations. In the founding statement quoted above, al-Qaida calls on ‘Muslim Ulema, leaders, youths and soldiers to launch a raid on Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.’

Al-Qaida has a range of funding sources. Bin Laden himself is personally very wealthy; his inherited fortune is estimated at $300 million and he owns a range of businesses, including banks, farms and factories throughout the world. Nevertheless, the network seems to be engaged in perpetual fundraising.

A second source of funding is banks and Islamic charities. In 2002, the United States and its allies in the global coalition froze the assets of two banks, al-Taqwa and Bakarat that manage hawala transfers (non-recorded transfers of remittances). These transfers amount to some $5-6 billion annually. They are mostly legitimate – Gulf workers, for example transferring money to their relatives. But the bank makes a 5% commission and this can be used for transfers within for the network.

Bakarat seems to have branches in many countries but it is particularly important to Somalia, where it acts unofficially as the central bank. (It is not clear whether al-Qaida exploited the informal nature of the hawala system to its own ends or whether these banks actively supported the organisation.)

Likewise, Islamic NGOs like the Texas based charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), or the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO) are said to be used, according to the FBI, both as methods for channelling funds, and as support infrastructure for terrorist activity.

Since 2001, the FBI has frozen some $125 million in assets; some 2,700 known or suspected operatives have been arrested, and perhaps a third of the leadership has been killed; nevertheless, according to all accounts the organisation continues to grow, with ‘raids’ this year in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, Yemen and Kenya. What is important is the ability to recruit young men to the cause; that is what makes possible the multiplication of cells.

Implications for policy

Groups like al-Qaida differ from classical terrorists in their goals (anti-modernist religious and national rather than left or right); in the forms of violence mainly directed against civilians and symbolic targets rather than state or high value economic targets; in their forms of organisation, which tend to be transnational networks rather than hierarchical command structures; in their use of the new media and internet; and in their forms of funding, which tend to be transnational and criminal. Above all, these groups share a commitment to the idea of violent struggle, of war between good and evil.

‘Regressive globalisers’ on the one hand feed on the insecurities generated by globalisation and are organised as global networks in ways similar to other global organisations in civil society or the business world. On the other, their goals are rather traditional – they want to capture state power or construct new regional or new secessionist states, and they envisage states in traditional terms as ‘bordered power containers’. In other words, they want to roll back globalisation, while making use of the instruments of globalisation.

If this analysis is correct, these groups are likely to grow, both because of growing insecurities and because they are only now beginning to exploit fully the organisational opportunities provided by globalisation. But in the context of globalisation, their political goals are fundamentally contradictory. The goal of achieving ethnically pure or religious states is more elusive than ever. Perhaps these groups do not expect to achieve their stated goals; it is the struggle on which they thrive and the difficulty of achieving their stated goals will make the struggle even more plausible. If so, the prognosis is gloomy.

For those who could be described as ‘progressive globalisers’, that is to say those who favour globalisation when it benefits the many rather than the few, and who press for the reform of global institutions in order to bring this about, it is very important to develop a strategy for countering the growth of these groups that is based on law and morality rather than war, even though such a strategy will probably have to involve military means. It may never be possible to eliminate these new groups, but it might be possible to reduce their recruiting power and to minimise the damage they are able to inflict. If the aim is to reduce the insecurities that provide a breeding ground for extreme ideologies, then such a strategy ultimately amounts to a global agenda for progressive governance. But it is possible to draw out some more specific strands of policy.

First of all, such a strategy has to involve the protection of civilians and the capture and arrest of criminals responsible for violence in order to deal with the immediate risks. And this applies to all forms of illegal violence (war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, massive violations of human rights, as well as private crime) – not just terrorism. But it is important that countering violence is treated as law enforcement not war. The big risk of using the language of war and attacking states, which sponsor terrorism, as the Bush Administration is doing, is that this feeds into the terrorists own perception of struggle. War implies legitimate killing by agents of the state whereas terrorism is viewed as criminal violence by non-state actors.

War feeds into the terrorists’ notions of perpetual struggle. It may be necessary to use military means, for example in destroying terrorist camps, but any military action must be viewed as law enforcement rather than war. This is not just a matter of procedure: that the use of military force should be approved through due process, for example the United Nations Security Council. It is also a matter of means. Law enforcement starts from the assumption of human equality. The lives of soldiers cannot be privileged over the lives of the civilians they are supposed to protect. Hence, military force must be used on the same principles as policing; soldiers are expected to risk their lives to save others.

The importance of means also applies to intelligence, policing and other legal procedures. The various counter-terrorist legislation in Britain and the United States allows procedures to be adopted, such as detention without charges that potentially contravene human rights. The risk is not just that this behaviour can further fuel anger and resentment among potential recruits to extremist causes, it is also the challenge to our own civil liberties and our claim to offer an alternative ideology. How to balance the needs of counter-terrorism with civil liberties does require much more careful attention both by scholars and policymakers.

Second, it is of key importance to counter the ideology of these groups and do so through grass roots political mobilisation. This means support for and dialogue with civil society groups especially in areas, like the ‘black holes’ created by conflict, which are the most likely recruiting areas for these groups.

The global mobilisation against the war in Iraq represented an opportunity to build an alternative popular mobilisation because it involved both Europe and the Arab world and, for the first time, brought immigrant communities into the political process. This was particularly important in Britain, where Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims joined the demonstrations. At the moment, however, these groups do not have serious formal political representation and there is a real need for progressive elected representatives to reach out to them. It is true that many of the individuals and groups that took part in the demonstrations were rejectionist (against globalisation) or regressive and this is particularly true of many of the spokespeople, who were often remnants of the old left, or Islamicists. But there are thousands of young people who are being politicised by the movement and who are open to, and indeed hope for, a more constructive reformist agenda.

Third, such a strategy has to counter the sophisticated organisational infrastructure of these groups. I would emphasise four factors:

  • Education. Universal primary education would be very important in reducing the incentive to send children to religious schools. Education of girls is especially important.

  • Media. There needs to be much greater investment in global public (but not state) radio and TV. Independent community radio is especially important in countering extremist propaganda, as has been shown in Serbia and parts of Africa.

  • Welfare. The decline in social services has provided openings for humanitarian NGOs who also bring with them a political message.

  • Jobs. Unemployed or criminalised young men are the main breeding ground for these ideologies. Development needs to give priority to legitimate ways for these young people to make a living.

All of these four factors are part of a wider strategy to reduce global insecurity. Perhaps the most important element of any strategy is to deal not with terrorism per se but the ‘black holes’ that generate the culture of violent struggle. This requires an enormous commitment not just of resources but also of will. It means behaving and not just speaking in cosmopolitan terms. The most important challenge is cognitive; how to take seriously the principle that all human beings are equal.

President Clinton made the point in his speech to the Conference on Progressive Governance that the right thrives on enemies and attacks, while the left has to depend on debate and evidence. This assertion applies very well to extreme nationalist and religious movements, which thrive on notions of struggle and insecurity. There is a real risk that regressive globalisers, whether we are talking about American neo-conservatives or the movements that generate global terrorism, will feed on each other, squeezing the space for progressives, that is to say, the space for debate and evidence.

The third Global Civil Society yearbook, (Kaldor/Anheier/Glasius, ed., Global Civil Society 2003, Oxford: OUP) will be launched on 7 October 2003 at London School of Economics, where Mary Kaldor will give a lecture on this topic on 28 October.