Saturday, July 23, 2011

Terrorism, Extremism and other bad stuff

Update(07/25): evidence is mounting that Breivik was part of a larger group and that one of his objective was to create a revolution. That something I would qualify as terrorism...

When I somewhat disagree with two of the most interesting people on the intertubes, Glenn Greenwald and Juan Cole, I feel really sad inside. So let me expose my sadness.

Norway's double-disaster yesterday led to some comparison between the treatment of an attack by a Muslim and by a Blond Norwegian. On this, I completely agree with the first part of Glenn Greenwald's post(until the part on the definition of terrorism). Linking yesterday's attacks to Al-Qaeda because the methods employed are the same is quite a weak link, for instance. The initial statements of some media(TV and newspapers) were quite bad given what we know now. Also, as Juan Cole says:
In 2008, only one terrorist attack out of hundreds in Europe was committed by radical Muslims. In 2010, according to Europol [pdf], 7 persons were killed in terrorist attacks. Some 160 of these attacks that year were carried out by separatists. The number launched by people of Muslim heritage? 3.

Where I am more doubtful is on the fact that yesterday's crime should be considered as terrorism, and that it is not qualified as such just because the guy is blond. The same argument was made when some guy crashed his plane on an IRS office last year.

My feeling is that those guys are crazy. They might have an extreme ideology. But it is not clear that they are trying to instill terror. One of Al-Qaeda's specific objective is to create fear. After Osama Bin Laden's death, there was discussion on whether he has won or not, because of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the increasing security costs(e.g. passenger screening). They pride themselves in low-cost actions leading to high-cost reactions:
In his October 2004 address to the American people, bin Laden noted that the 9/11 attacks cost al Qaeda only a fraction of the damage inflicted upon the United States. "Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event," he said, "while America in the incident and its aftermath lost -- according to the lowest estimates -- more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars."
Calling an act a "terrorist" act implies that the act was not the goal in itself, but that the goal was to instill fear that it could be repeated. That is why the plane crash in the IRS building is hard to qualify as "terrorism", for instance.

At FirstPost, a security specialist at NYU in London asks the key question about the Norwegian bomber/shooter:
"The next key question is whether he was acting alone, or whether he is part of a group."
Indeed, the group thing makes the act repeatable, and makes the act part of a larger objective. Before calling the act a terrorist act, this information is key. Now, today, Blake Houndshell tweettussed a document that surfaced on the internet with a blurry origin. The document seems to be some kind of manifesto, which would make the act part of a more global plan. That would be terrorism.

In the end, that's probably a question of terrorism. But I feel that before we know the true motivation for yesterday's disaster, saying that the media is bad because they don't call the guy a terrorist is not a good point.


  1. Tu fais la difference entre une action terroriste et l'action perpetre en Norvege compte tenu de leurs objectifs. Je suis oblige de te donner raison, parce qu'effectivement, je ne suis pas persuade que l'objectif d'Anders Behring Breivik etait de creer la peur.
    Qualifier l'acte de terroriste est une simplification peut etre abusive (cf Watzlavick).

    Je comprend cette simplification du fait d'un amalgame compte tenu de la nature de l'action et de la consequence.
    Ce que cette simplification entraine, c'est le risque d'une reponse inadaptee. La cause a le meme effet mais est-elle relevable du meme traitement?.

    Au dela de ce point qui me semble important, cela m'amene une reflexion sur une certaine "reussite" du terrorisme

    D'une part, les methodes terroristes contribuent a faciliter le passage a l'acte de ces extremistes isoles en montrant la faisabilite de l'action et l'electrochoc qu'elle induit.
    D'autre part, l'action en Norvege beneficie au terrorisme puisqu'elle contribue a creer la peur.

    L'acte de Anders Behring Breivik me semble plus pres de Colombine que des Twins.

  2. J'attends de voir. Ca ressemblait + a Columbine au debut, mais ce qu'on apprend sur son appartenance/allegeance a certains groupes extremes, son manifeste, et son desir de provoquer des actes similaires et une revolution, fait que la qualification de terroriste me parait + juste aujourd'hui.

    Je suis tout a fait d'accord sur l'utilisation abusive du terme "terroriste" et le possible lien entre terrorisme et actes extremes. D'ailleurs, Breivik semble admirer les methodes d'Al-Qaeda, ce qui rejoint ce que tu dis.