Often, we are so deeply entangled in a problem that it becomes a normal part of our lives. We tend to forget about its origins and also how to solve the problem. Rather, whenever it occurs, we just try to overcome the imminent situation, because we are already trained in doing so. On a societal level, terrorism is one of those problems that we occasionally come across and that we are so weary of that we just shake it off with a shrug and a tear and spend lesser thoughts on it every time it occurs. But when we just take moment to deeply reflect on terror and start thinking about the long-term development of it, can we maybe say that terror is just outdated?
Defined as random act of violence and intimidation against the civilian population, terrorism is one of the most bitter forms of danger in our world. There are countless terror attacks that we have experienced to this day – most recently the attacks in Afghanistan’s Balkh province or the Austrian capital Vienna. All of them are tragic and change the lives of the family members and friends of those who became victims of the attacks. On the other side, the names and motives of the terrorists fade away quickly and their cause moves away farther from their aims. No matter what organisation or ideology drives a person to turn into a terrorist, it is in any case a lose-lose situation – the most breadless endeavour ever, so to speak. This rule is applicable to all types of terrorist groups, but also individual acts of terror, such is frequently the case at North American schools. Whether we talk about individual racists and racist organisations like the KKK, NSU or other Neo-Nazi organisations, or religious terrorist groups like DAESH (or ISIS), Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda, or whether they are political terror organisations like the PKK, YPG, Taliban or Hamas, none of them have advanced their unclear agenda, while having brought nothing but misery.
Interestingly, most of the enumerated organisations are concentrated in regions with a predominantly Arab population. Of course, there are many more organisations in the world that pursue their agenda by unlawful conduct and spread fear among the civilian population. At some point of time, these organised crime organisations have used some form of terror. However, many have moved past the use of terror. Let us think about the Italian Mafia, the Chinese Triads, the Latin American and North American gangs or leftist organisations like the German RAF. Most of these organisations moved away from the use of terror and concentrate on other unlawful ways to further their respective agendas. In simple terms, whether their main focus is on tax evasion, gambling, extortion, drug trafficking, human trafficking or bribery, they simply do not go out there and randomly bomb some crowded place, although they could easily do so. Obviously, their areas of expertise are in no way to be morally defended, but this situation raises several questions about terrorism. Why are criminal organisations, that do not use terrorism, better organised and much richer than the criminal organisations that frequently carry out such attacks? Does this correlation tell us something about the underlying premises of the organisations? Does it tell us something about an organisation’s goals? Does this tell us something about the place of terror in the political system?
Some of the above-mentioned organised crime groups are very old and even date back several centuries, like the Mafia or the Triads. Most of the terror organisations from the Middle Eastern and North African region, however, were founded in the 1980’s like the PKK or Al Qaeda, or later. It could be argued that the use of terror is correlated to the life cycle of a criminal organisation. However, comparing the PKK and Al Qaeda, which were founded in 1983 and 1988, respectively, we see that the organisations apply different strategies today. Whereas Al Qaeda and related organisations in their network are still carrying out terrorist attacks, the PKK lately shifted to a more organised application of violence by engaging in international lobbying to fund structured warfare against the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish governments. Accordingly, it is probable that factors, other than the temporal ones, influence the use of terror. Looking at organised crime syndicates, they all have one commonality regardless of their activity – they all, in some form, work together with governments. This does not mean that governments approve their activities, fund the organisations or that there is large-scale cooperation between the actors – although occasionally these points might be true sometimes -, it means that there is some sort of coordinated action that grants both sides some desirable advantages. For example, it is likely that the government does not interfere in certain neighbourhoods where a particular drug gang is heavily represented. In exchange for legal freedom, the gang will try to keep violence as low as possible in this neighbourhood. Similar dynamics can also be seen with gambling cartels or human trafficking rings. Every government has an interest in allowing some degree of illegal activity, because there is always a high demand for such products and services. However, governments are also responsible to protect the public from products and services that endanger public health and safety. By allowing for some sort of illegality, the government can strike the balance between responsibility and utility.
What separates terrorist groups from other organised crime is that they do not work with governments, as none of their interests align. Terrorists pursue some sort of radical racial, religious or political agenda, which does not align with government interests. Of course, most of the funding of the groups comes from activities similar to the ones ordinary criminal organisations engage in, but the main purpose is not to generate money, but to achieve an immaterial goal, such as political power or asserting the superiority of the own religion. Occasionally, terrorist organisations are supported by other governments that have a short-term agenda, but in those cases, the government does this explicitly to also emphasise this agenda diplomatically. Here, the support is merely a temporal tool rather than constructive cooperation. Accordingly, terrorist organisations operate within a much more uncertain environment than organised crime syndicates, because the number of structural constants is close to zero. Neither can they rely on their members in the long-run, nor on any material security. Due to this uncertain environment, terrorist organisations are inherently flexible and, hence, tend to act randomly. One way to recruit new members is to constantly put their agenda on the table. While corporations and NGOs desperately throw around large amounts of money, in order to get some media coverage and advertise, terrorist organisations pay with lives – their own and others’. By doing this, they not only voice their agenda, but implicitly reach out to those who share the same conviction. Staying relevant through this tactic helps them to survive.
But it is also not more than that. Due to the volatile and uncertain environment of terrorist organisations, the daily operations are just enough to keep them above water – at best. Further, this is an energy-draining endeavour and will soon wear out the leadership and its members. This can be observed in various groups that gained momentum in their early days, but then significantly lost influence and power. We can also observe that no terror organisation was ever successful; neither became a KKK member president in a country, nor did any country adopt radical sharia law. On the other side, terror organisations like the PKK were successful in that it built permanent relationships with governments and, thus, secured continuous support for its despicable agenda. Also, organised crime members elevated to a significant political post and even to the level of head of the government, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy; in Colombia, Pablo Escobar became very influential in the political and societal sphere.
Summarising, next to its destructive effects, terrorism is a breadless endeavour. From an organisational standpoint, it does not make any sense to engage in terrorist activities and is merely a bridging tool. Terrorism is outdated, leads to organisational stagnation and goal displacement.