Research studies of terrorism

Sociological concepts and methods have been fruitfully applied in efforts to understand and counter terrorism. The focus of research is on the dynamics through which terrorism becomes a social phenomenon. Terrorism is an interpretation of events and their presumed causes. These interpretations are not unbiased attempts to depict the truth but rather conscious efforts to manipulate perceptions to promote certain interest at the expense of others. When people and events come to be regularly described in public as terrorists and terrorism some governmental or other entity succeeds in a war of words in which the opponent promotes alternative designations such as martyr and liberation struggle. In official public usage, terrorism is far more likely to refer to incidents associated with agents and supporters of presumably foreign-based terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda than with the violence of home-grown militants acting in the name of such groups as the American Coalition for Life Activists (one of whose founders, Paul Hill, was executed in Florida on September 3, 2003 for murder, not terrorism).

The study of terrorism presupposes investigating the ways in which parties in conflict are trying to stigmatise one another. The construction and selective application of definitions of terrorism are embedded in the dynamic of political conflicts where ideological warfare to cast the enemy as an evildoer is a dimension of the struggle to win support for one’s own cause.

Structural or analytical conflict theories attend more to the possibility that violence may be a product of strategic and tactical decisions in a process of ongoing conflict. That interests or values may not be reconcilable is accepted, as is the proposition that various forms of violent action may be political options within the perceptual range of parties in conflict.

Terrorism is most usefully defined, for empirical research purposes, as the deliberate targeting of more or less randomly selected victims whose deaths and injuries are expected to weaken the opponent’s will to persist in a conflict. Terrorist acts are political, rarely involving psychopathology or material deprivation. It would be interesting to note how evidence is mounting that terrorism is associated with relative affluence and social advantage rather poverty, lack of education or other indicators of deprivation. The typical terrorist comes from a relatively well-off part of the world and appears to be motivated by political-ideological resentments rather then economic distress. Surprisingly, suicide bombers, for example, appear increasingly likely to be respected individuals from advantaged classes with stable family and community ties. Although their violent deaths may surprise relatives and friends, they are far more likely to be honoured than to be condemned or stigmatised as deviants.

Traditional notions about violence are misleading insofar as they lead terrorism researchers to focus on psychopathologies. This may be new information for many. A priority for research is to connect the emergence of terrorism to the political histories of the settings in which people come to see it as an option in struggles over who will have what life chances. According to research, the regions most likely to generate terrorist threats have a history of colonialist exploitation by western interests, and more recently of postcolonial economic and cultural penetration.

These facts have facilitated identification of the west as the source of global economic and political disadvantage, military weakness and cultural malaise, which provides a credible focus for resentment and moral outrage in the recruitment of terrorists and the mobilisation of supporters and sympathisers. The western and non-western media look at things differently. Terrorism has been analysed as communication through violence that problems exist. The usual assumption is that peaceful methods of seeking the redress of grievances have failed, so that violence is left as the only way in which to force attention to the aggrieved.

It is woefully unhelpful simply to point to religious schools as ‘factories’ producing terrorists, or to assume that only the foolishly aberrant become terrorists, or to blame terrorists as evil souls, or acclaim them as heroic fighters. Researchers have to be much more aware of the impact of the media and political-ideological influences on the definition and characterisation of terrorists if their life courses are to be understood and corrected.

Nationally and internationally, legal systems and procedures have been developed without anticipating the contingencies involved in dealing with modern terrorism. It is the first time in history that terrorists are getting access to weapons of mass destruction. The extraordinary threat of modern terrorism has been mirrored by extraordinary counter measures. The prevailing assumption is that the threat of terrorism is beyond the control capacities of established legal systems and procedures as well as the sharpness and capabilities of intelligence agencies. The military option to deal with terrorists cannot be ignored. The US has used this option. Pakistan has done well in its counter-terrorism efforts and rightfully feels proud of the successes of its military operations against terrorists and criminals.

Efforts to understand terrorism have generally been incidental or secondary to efforts to control it. The goal of operational studies and research is to provide authorities with information required to prevent terrorist attacks and to neutralise terrorists. Operational research prioritises immediately applicable findings rather than theoretical knowledge application, which is problematic. Debates over the respective merits of counter-terrorism operations revolve around the weighing of legal against military options, the political risks associated with different options, the levels of threat associated with current and potential enemies, and the ability of control agencies to implement policy decisions.

Any research effort has to focus on sociological issues in terrorism and the role religion and politics play in the creation of terrorism. The main hypothesis is that terrorism is the culmination of a conflict process that, predictably, having reached this extreme, ends in either the annihilation of one party or mutual exhaustion. Assuming that they must somehow continue to live in proximity and interdependence, survivors have to begin anew the search for a viable relationship.

Under the changed scenario we have to realise that Pakistan, a country founded on the basis of religious identity, now needs to embrace ethnic pluralism to find unity in the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, humanitarian stimulus to find a way forward requires the international community, particularly the west and the US, to dispose of the politics of fear and embrace a pro-people, pro-human, pro-refugee and pro-economy policy.

People around the world appreciate President Barack Obama’s message to all Americans to fight Islamophobia. He recently addressed the Islamic Society of the Baltimore Mosque. The US president called for unity among American faith communities, recognised the contributions of Muslim citizens and asked for Muslims around the world to help combat extremist ideologies of groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS). Research studies have found that hate crimes targeting Muslim businesses and mosques tripled in 2015. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest has condemned the heated rhetoric used by “some Republicans to try to marginalise law-abiding patriotic Muslim Americans”. It is that mindset that has to change.

The writer is a former director, National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA), a political analyst, public policy expert and author of the book Post 9/11 Pakistan