A Lightning History of Terrorism, Part 2 – Moving Beyond Politics

Until the mid-eighties, modern terrorism was dominated by Third-World leftist groups in their fight against “imperialism.”  There were three main factors during that decade that shifted the focus of terrorism from left to right:

The Birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran – The world’s first sovereign Shi’ite government in centuries emerged from what began as a leftist revolution.  After violently purging the Marxists, the new government turned to face a region of hostile neighbors. The long, gory war with Iraq radicalized the new government and bred a comfort level with state-sponsored terrorism that it remains unable to shake.

The Russian Invasion of Afghanistan – Osama bin Laden was just one of dozens of volunteer organizers who sponsored Afghan forces, providing them with weapons, men, money, and a new ideological training.  Afghanistan, like most of the Middle East, had historically embraced what we would see today as a very moderate form of Islam.  That would change.  Chaos and radicalization would turn the place into a cauldron.

Global Collapse of the Old Left – Between Thatcher in Europe and Reagan in the US, a newly energized coalition emerged that would finally spell the end of the old left.  By the end of the decade Marxist inspired movements and regimes were drying up all over the world.  Terrorist organizations they sponsored from Ireland to Palestine to Latin America shriveled with them.

In the promising new world that emerged in the nineties, terrorism remained a factor, but terrorism was becoming more decentralized and less political.  Few states remained to organize or fund terrorist activities.  Those that did were inspired less by socialist revolution than religious zeal.

The forge for the new generation of terrorists proved to be southern Lebanon.  The Israelis had maintained control of a buffer zone in Lebanon since their invasion in 1982.  In the late eighties a Shi’ite militia group funded by Iran and Syria, called Hezbollah (Party of God), began using a novel new tactic in their ongoing fight against the occupation.

Hezbollah deployed suicide bombers in their raids on Israeli military positions.  As the tactic was refined, they found that it began to neutralize the Israelis’ significant technical superiority on the battlefield.  It’s use, however, created a serious problem.

Suicide is sternly condemned in Islam. The tactic served to exacerbate the tension between Shias, with their traditional emphasis on martyrdom, and the majority Sunnis in the Islamic world.

Religion has a habit of bending to accommodate success and this was the case, at least for a time, with suicide bombing.  The Hezbollah campaign forced the Israelis to abandon Lebanon in 2000 and by then Sunni Palestinians in the young Hamas movement had adopted the loathsome tactic.

Hezbollah’s success became an inspiration for a new generation of suicide terrorists driven by religious radicalism.  As the tactic of suicide bombing was adapted for pure terrorism, distinct from a military campaign, it became at the same time particularly deadly and uniquely self-defeating.  It marked a new level of political pointlessness in terrorism.

No description of terrorism in this period can make sense without mentioning Timothy McVeigh.  The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 led to a wave of militia organizing across the US in the ’90’s.  The rationale of the militias was as hard to summarize then as the Tea Party Movement is now, but basically they feared that federal power would be expanding to destroy critical rights, or something like that.  McVeigh’s destruction of the federal building with a home-made truck bomb in April of 1995 put the whole militia movement on ice.

Apart from 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing remains the most damaging terrorist attack we have ever suffered on our own soil.

But back to our story.  The growth of Hezbollah’s suicide campaign in Lebanon attracted the attention of a sidelined veteran of the mujahidin campaigns in Afghanistan.  Osama bin Laden was kicked out of Saudi Arabia in 1992 and hid for a time in Sudan. His organization, Al Qaida, began attacking American targets in the mid-nineties.

As the heat turned up in 1996 he went to the only place on Earth lawless and ignorant enough to take him in, Afghanistan.  From there he engineered the 9/11 attacks.

Al Qaida’s attacks on the US created a global shock, forcing the remaining state-sponsors of terrorism to seriously re-evaluate their plans.  Bin Laden’s organization demonstrated the danger these movements could pose to any government, especially the old Arab-nationalist ones.  The sudden deadly seriousness of the Americans in shutting off terror support was sobering.

Some countries, like Libya and Syria, began distancing themselves from old clients.  Libya essentially surrendered.  Iraq on the other hand, was slow to read the new map.

The Iraqi regime was convinced, reasonably, that the greatest threat to their security came from Iran.  After years of feints and jabs from the Americans they did not take the threat of invasion seriously.  Revealing for the whole world the fact that their WMD programs were a sham would weaken their deterrent against their real enemy.  It would have been nice if he had a better understanding of the New World Order.  Oh well.

Today there are only three countries that still sponsor terrorist organizations.  Iran is the only true enthusiast on the list.  Syria can’t easily disengage itself from Hamas or Hezbollah, at the risk of losing influence to Iran, or seeing their own corrupt government collapse.  The last country on the list, Pakistan, is our “steadfast ally” and safe home of Osama bin Laden.

The Pakistanis can’t get over their inferiority complex, continuing the conceited delusion that their much larger, more prosperous, and vastly more successful neighbor India is their greatest security threat.  For decades they have cultivated terrorist organizations in Kashmir and helped build the Taliban in Afghanistan as a hedge against Indian power.  Now India has moved on to bigger and better things and those terrorist groups are ripping Pakistan apart.

The end of large-scale state sponsored terrorism is a mixed blessing. Disconnecting terrorist organizations from state sponsors did weaken them, but it also loosed them from constraints.  They have become more atomized and more violent.  Where they once attracted mischievous rebels with political grievances looking for adventure they are now a magnet for pure sociopaths.

We live with the hollowed-out shells of earlier, politically oriented terror groups, populated now by simple street criminals.  And we are beginning to see even the facade of politics begin to drop from terrorism.  The attack at Fort Hood, the IRS building in Austin, and at the Discovery Channel headquarters last week presage the future of terror – nothing more than an aggrieved nutjob with a weapon and a slogan.  Terrorists today are hard to distinguish from yesterday’s axe murderers.

On a political level, this new environment calls for calm.  When I was a kid we didn’t lock our doors at night.  At one point we discovered that we couldn’t even find all the keys.  Now we live differently. We may never again be able to take a thermos of coffee with us to the airport. I don’t like that, but I don’t want some nutjob blowing up my plane on behalf of God, G_d, Allah, Krishna, Jodie Foster, or the voices in his head.  So I’ll buy overpriced coffee on the other side of the security check-in and try not to let the bitterness eat me.

Our politicians are going to attempt to exploit this situation.  They will lock us up in virtual cages for our own protection if we let them.  Or more to the point, if we reward them for it.  A free society cannot eliminate terrorism any more than it can eliminate car theft.  Neither right-wing crackdowns nor left-wing sympathy will work entirely.

We would do well to recognize that terror is not politics or war.  It is crime.  The people involved in it, even if they carry a title in a government, are outside any acceptable bounds of political discourse.  A terrorist act committed by an Irish Catholic inspired by his political or religious grievances does not tell us anything more about the Irish, or Catholics, or the aggrieved, then John Wayne Gacy tells us about clowns (I remain suspicious of clowns, but for my own reasons).

Being the leader of the free world will make us an attractive target for nutjobs for many years to come.  We need to decide whether we have the nerve to serve in this role.  Do your best to enjoy your coffee and don’t linger in the galley area at the front of the plane.  Life goes on.

Have a safe flight.

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