Random Terrorism: Why Do Some Groups Keep Trying It?

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Mon, Oct 13 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure: Random Terrorism

The odd thing about random terror and the current war is not that one off example of it working, with the Madrid Bombings. Rather, it’s that that is about the only example I can think of where it’s worked against westerners. It has rarely been useful, let alone reliable, against others.

Gunboat diplomacy – where the trivial western warship shows up off some Asiatic or African or Latin shore – and demands concessions of pain of bombardment – looks like exercise in random terror. And, sure, it sometimes worked. Still, one wonders why. My personal suspicion is that it worked, when it did, because it humiliated the ruling class of whichever place the gunboats bombarded, illustrating their weakness and, quite possibly, putting thoughts in the minds of the underclass those rulers didn’t want there. That is, admittedly, only a guess. It also raises the question of whether gunboat diplomacy even was random terror, since it had, if my guess is right, a specific effect – the raising of a specific set of fears – in a specific set of minds.

And, speaking of bombing Asians, the Japanese were hardly the only Asians we ever bombed the crap out of; in ways much more thorough, violent and, all in all, serious, than a gunboat’s popguns could hope to. The Japanese sneered and dug in amongst the ashes of their own cities. The Vietnamese took it in pretty good stride. Just to show that even Asians can fail to learn or understand, the Viet Cong and NVA used to launch frequent rocket attacks against government held South Vietnamese cities with no noticeable effectiveness. Bombing has been used in Latin America1 a fair amount, but does not seem to have been effective there, either. And Africa has had a bit of it, too, with little useful result, even in the bombers’ terms.

So why do some groups keep trying to use it? There are probably as many motivators as there are political extremists, but three strike me as paramount, these last 50 or so years. One of these is terror as theater, in which the terrorist gets to star in his own production. Don’t discount it; many of these folks live in a fantasy anyway, where the rest of us are mere stage props. Indeed, that seems to me to be the default setting – basically sociopathy – of the intellectualism (I do not mean it as a compliment) behind much of the last half century’s politically inspired terrorism.

Another – speaking of fantasies – is urban guerrilla theory, which held as an interim objective provocations so outrageous that they would lead inexorably to the creation of a government so vile and oppressive that the people would rise up en masse to overthrow that government. They pretty much always got the government they sought; that much must be admitted. Somehow, though, the people who were supposed to rise up instead cheered while said governments proceeded to ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate the movements of which the urban guerrillas were the arm.

But in the current war (by which I don’t mean the one that began on 9/11, but the most recent phase of the longer struggle, possibly starting in Palestine in the 30s) they keep trying random terror and, barring that one success in Madrid, it hasn’t worked. They killed a few thousand of our civilians, knocked down a couple of buildings, knocked a chunk out of another, and we took out two countries and have been hunting them like rats all over the globe. Yet they keep trying. They bombed the London subways. Unlike Spain, the UK did not tuck its tail between its legs and run off from the war. They rocket Israel and get creamed in return (barring when the Israelis elect an incompetent prime minister who puts an incompetent flyboy in charge of a ground war).

Why? Why can’t they learn how useless it’s likely to be?

I think there are at least two reasons. One is that they see it as their job just to fight, leaving strategy to Allah. Their problem there is that they’re not very good at fighting us, directly, such that Allah’s purpose and generalship would be thwarted. It has been thwarted, after all, every time they’ve tried to face a western armed force since about 1571. Hence, they have little recourse but to terror, where they can at least have some effect other than being humiliated and failing their god.

But the other reason may be more important, or more important to our understanding, anyway. I think they keep doing it, keep engaging in random terror, not because of the unique success with regard to Spain, but because they don’t understand why it doesn’t work. Why not? Why don’t they understand that?

I suspect that they don’t understand it because they know themselves very well; they know random terror would work on them.

Think about the implications of that one, for a bit, and I’ll go work on next week’s column; Specific Terror.


1 Note, however, that the 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association bombing may have killed 85 partially random people, but it was probably not random terror.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Defining Terrorism: Random Acts of Terror.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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  • Ori Pomerantz

    Winning against the west may be their long term desire. But the more realistic short term goal is to out-fanatic the competition in their own societies as a recruitment and donation raising tool. These aren’t typically governments with the power to raise taxes and conscript cannon fodder, but NGOs that have to ask for resources to fight with.

    Random terror DOES work to appear to be doing something.

    • Tom Kratman

      Might be a close corrolary to what I said; they don’t understand why it doesn’t work on us, because it would work on them, so they think it is working on us?

    • Ori Pomerantz

      You mean, not necessarily appearing to work for the people running it, but for the new recruit Jamil would-be Jihadi and his rich neighbor Fuad Funder? Yes, that makes sense.

    • Iron Spartan

      This makes sense. Look how many people debate style can be boiled down to “It worked on me.”

    • Gary Wolfman

      It could also be that they don’t actually get the difference between specific and random acts of terror. Consider, the most prolific suicide bombers in history have been the Tamil Tigers – but with a rather different MO, target set and objectives.

      I would imagine that they could look at bombings done be the LTTE, IRA and even others in the ME – I’m thinking post-1948, here – and make some mistaken assumptions about why certain groups had successes.

    • Tom Kratman

      That’s interesting; spin it out a little, why don’t you?

    • Gary Wolfman

      OK, I’ll see what i can do…

      First, for those not aware, there was an extensive and rigorous study of suicide terrorism done by Robert Pape in 2005 and published as “Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”.

      The most prolific suicide bombers were the Tamil Tigers, a secular Marxist-Leninist group drawn mainly from Hindu families.

      The most successful terrorist groups of the “pre-suicide terror” era – the IRA, Basque ETA and PLO – either didn’t convert to suicide terrorism or did it relatively poorly (the PLO Fatah – which only adopted it during the second Intifada). MENA suicide terrorism really originated in the early 1980′s with the formation of Hezbollah.

      The successful terror groups (suicide or not), used their attacks asymmetrically to conduct attacks they couldn’t conduct conventionally – they were specific terror attacks, to use your terminology (e.g., The Tamil Tigers killed two Heads of State through suicide attacks). Sometimes, such as with the IRA, there was extensive collateral damage, but the attacks were still primarily targeted. The attacks were also primarily aimed at compelling an occupying democracy to withdraw conventional forces from contested territory (usually an occupied homeland).

      And, incidentally, the original form of Al-Queda under Bin Laden fit this pattern as well – he wanted the US out of Saudi Arabia, and learned how to conduct suicide terror operations by sending operatives to Hezbollah.

      But what happens if the target is no longer a democratic polity? Or no longer an occupying force in the homeland? Or no longer so conventionally superior that the asymmetric use of specific terror is instinctively justifiable? I’m not sure, but I suspect that if your leadership lacks depth of strategic understanding…then you never get past “blowing up stuff worked for other people”. And, maybe you don’t get the difference between specific and random terror because there’s no conventionally strong, democratic occupying force to specifically target – and if there’s no specific target, then any random target might just be valid in your mind.

      That’s sort of the gist of my thought, anyway.

    • David Sanchez

      Perhaps some of those mistaken assumptions are connected to the fact that very different religions and philosophies underpin these various groups. The Irish people tend to be pretty Catholic, then and now, and people embracing Judeo-Christian philosophy and ethics are going to be very uncomfortable with terrorism in general. There’s a fundamental respect for and belief in basic human dignity and value of all human life at work which runs contrary to criminalism, terror, etc. and I would submit that this reality underpinned – at least in part – the success of the Belfast Accords. Conversely, Islam’s very foundation is predicated on conquest, bloodshed, and terror. Islam doesn’t embrace anything like a fundamental value in all human beings. Nor does it see dignity and worth in anything except Islam and followers of same. They don’t see anyone other than Muslims as human or as objects to be converted or from whom money or labor can be extracted or extorted. Muslim fundamentalists are willing to burn the entire world before their movement and content to erect their tents on ashes with the labor of slaves simply because no one besides Muslims really quite rate as ‘human’ in their eyes and nothing else matters except jihad.

    • Gary Wolfman

      I don’t know about that; the IRA had no problem killing “the English”. And in some cases they even coerced unwilling victims into becoming human bombs by kidnapping their families.

      But…first of all, they were very concerned about protecting and preserving the lives of their own members (who they referred to as Volunteers) – they never committed suicide attacks, and the attacks they did carry out were meticulously planned to allow their own to get away (not that the plans always worked, of course).

      Second, the IRA attacks were usually very specifically targeted – checkpoints, barracks and so on – but they showed no particular hesitation to kill, or even to accept collateral damage.

      I doubt that any of the European terrorist groups form WWII onwards showed a particularly “Judeo-Christian” respect for the lives and dignity of their victims (no more than the Jewish insurgents who eventually died at Masada).

    • http://madhatter.ca/ Wayne Borean

      I’m not sure it would work on them Tom.

      We are talking wildly different cultures. One of my High School teachers was a high caste Hindu. He talked in class about the attitudes that his caste had against the other castes one time, and the method of thought that he explained was alien to us Canadian farm boys.

      In their culture it might be that trying and dying is acceptable, where in our culture, trying and winning is acceptable. So Canadians would become snipers, and I suspect Americans, while they end up with suicide bombers.

      Different culture, different driving force.


    • Tom Kratman

      Doesn’t really explain why they keep trying something with so little benefit, though.

    • Neil

      I wouldn’t say it has no benefit. There’s an awful lot of young men in the Middle East who are frustrated enough to think that a glorious death is a lot better than the life they have to look forward to. I suspect that I talked to a few of them back before 9/11.

      Given a large body of nihilistic foot soldiers, you’d expect that “leaders” will step forward to put them to work. It seems to me that the strategic aims of those leaders might not look like rational objectives to us.

    • Tom Kratman

      Not even a good idea for the leaders, since we and the Jews hunt them globally like dogs.

  • Justin Watson

    It had occurred to me, frequently, that the emphasis on the random explosion over, say, snipers or even indirect fire (not that they didn’t use those), even when fighting a conventional force, says a lot about them. And it’s not, “they’re cowards and won’t fight,” or, “they’re hopelessly outmatched, what choice do they have?”

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Might it have something to do with Insha’llah level marksmanship? You have to suit your tactics to the troops you have.

    • Tom Kratman

      Ori, when bullets are flying both ways it’s almost always Inshallah levels of marksmanship, for anybody, even without any belief in Inshallah. The difference is that, because they suck, we can usually be calm enough to take something like aim.

    • Justin Watson

      This. And sniper operations are yet another question. Some of the imports that came to play were quite good, but they never seemed to proliferate their training as widely as the IED makers. I”m glad of that, but it does speak to the psychology of the enemy.

      But, yes, Ori, LTC Kratman is right. I’ve only fired my rifle in anger once. I have no idea if I hit anything or not and, at least according to Army qualification courses, I’m an excellent shot.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      As you said, there’s a difference between firing in anger (and fear), which tends to be unaimed, and sniper operations. Yet the Jihadis tend to avoid sniper operations which could have killed more US troops than random explosions.

    • Tom Kratman

      It doesn’t work for most of them. As Justin said, some foreigners had some talent, but it wasn’t widely replicable. I mean, watch listen to some of the youtube videos where they’re trying to get set for a shot and chanting something Islamic. Gotta tell ya, talking while shooting is not conducive to accuracy.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yeah, I don’t know – I think I made it clear I don’t know – exactly why they do what they do. But it’s at least a fair theory.

  • Stephen St.Onge

    I don’t think one should discount the sheer “I like to do this” factor in random terrorism. The Air Farces of the World started talking up ‘strategic’ bombing in the years between WWI and WWII, even though they’d had examples of such bombing in WWI, and it hadn’t worked. The air war was, to a large extent, an end in itself for the air forces.

    I suspect something similar is at work with terrorists of the current kind.

    • Tom Kratman

      That comes close to the terror as theater school.

    • Stephen St.Onge

      Yes, but it’s not just ‘Oh, look at me, I’m so impressive’, in War II it was also ‘Gee, I just love being in command of this organization, and ordering raids, and killing enemy civilians’. They didn’t nickname Arthur Harris “Butch”for nothing, after all. It was short for “Butcher.”

    • Tom Kratman

      Thing is, though, that Harris, for all he was a psychopath, thought he was advancing the war effort, not just killing people to be killing them. For many and probably most terrorists, I am not sure that it rises above the level of theater.

    • Stephen St.Onge

      Well, Butch certainly claimed he thought he was advancing the war effort, but there was no independent measure of whether or not those bombs were bringing Germany closer to surrender. Nor was there any effort made to find one. And he sure resisted all efforts to do anything but randomly blow up and burn down German cities. Solly Zuckerman could point out endlessly that damage to the transportation system was the most effective in disrupting the German economy, as shown by Enigma intelligence, while area bombing was least effective, but Butch kept on slaughtering civilians and burning down houses with all his might.
      The U.S. effort was much the same in WWII/Europe, Korea, and Viet Nam. Only Lemay’s bombing of Japan actually achieved what it set out to do, namely destroy the war economy.
      As far as I’ve seen, it was all circular: the measurement of effort WAS the measurement of effectiveness. You see the same in governmental social programs, where the ‘success’ of the program is measured by the money spent, the people enrolled, the number of things the money is spent on, etc.

    • Tom Kratman

      As it turned out, there was no accurate measure. There were, however, all kinds of tables and graphs and charts purporting to be accurate and trying to correlate deaths and damage to demoralization and economic depression. I think that, yes, those began with an assumption of straight line or increasing correlation between effort and result. But I don’t think you’ve made the case that he understood that.

    • Tom Kratman

      Or, if you recall that 10 year old posting on the Bar, “impacted.”

  • Anthony Aristar

    I was discussing this issue with Tom Kratman on his Facebook page. This was our interchange. I Thought it might be interesting to readers:

    Anthony Aristar: Hmm… There’s another possibility. They keep doing it because, while it may not be effective militarily, and while it may generate painful responses from government, it serves the purpose of making Westerners afraid of the possibilities. Consider how many cringing reactions come from Western governments, organizations, and institutions when someone says or does something that might engender a violent Islamic reaction. Some Western European governments are even telling their militaries not to go into the streets dressed in uniform for fear that some Muslim might attack them.

    Tom Kratman That’s analagous to saying that they’re still doing it because we failed to nuke 30 million of them to paradise after 9/11. It’s true, of course, but that addresses why it hasn’t stopped, which is not precisely the same as why they do it.

    Anthony Aristar Then, perhaps the reason why they began it is different from the reason why they continue it. They started it because they thought it would work to make Western governments recoil. They continue it because it’s having a salutary political and cultural effect, from their perspective. Of course, if they were dealing with countries which were historically “normal” — by which I mean countries that react to threats in a practical and age-old way, by attacking and destroying their enemies’ will to threaten — then this would not work, and their homelands would be in ruins. But modern western countries are not “normal” in that sense. They verge, instead, on the suicidal, with ideology triumphing over what what one might call, for want of a better phrase, “common sense”.

    • Tom Kratman

      Thing is, while there’s certainly a human tendency for inertia, this has worked badly enough for them for the most part that they should have overcome the inertia. But they haven’t.

  • Ronald Homer

    with regards to traditional Gunboat diplomacy, I don’t think that qualifies as ‘random’ terror.

    Assume two sides, “Western”, which has the gunboats and local naval superiority, and “Eastern”, which has a major port city under threat.

    If we make the following assumptions:
    1. the “Western” onboard marines can occupy a maximum of one block of local buildings for 1 week.
    2. The “Western” gunboats can reliably shell any designated city block, but cannot be more accurate than that.
    3. The “Western” gunboats can sail to any other port at will.
    4. The “Western” chain of command back home will support any action short of destroying an entire city.

    5. The “Eastern” forces have multiple major cities or major ports. currently, only one major port is under actual threat, although it is likely to also be the Eastern Capital.
    6. The “Eastern” forces can resist or repel any long-term ground invasion by throwing bodies at the problem.
    7. The “Eastern” forces have no hope of gaining local or strategic naval superiority.
    8. The “Eastern” forces are led by an unelected elite that largely defines power through wealth and influence. They are not popularly liked, and their system of government is not highly stable,

    IF those assumptions are true, the western strategy is pretty clear.
    First, Define all the targets within range of the gunboats which are especially valuable to the nation, and by extension, are likely owned and valued by the governing elite. Some of these targets can be reduced by naval gunfire, some will require marine raids supported by naval gunfire
    Second, Define every military or police barracks and checkpoints within range of the guns. If those points are destroyed, or if the military/police are killed defending wealthy targets, then no-one is left to prevent the population from revolting.
    Third, require the local elites to sign a treaty where the major points could be easily enforced by gunboats, and the minor points are relatively trivial and unimportant to both sides. failure to sign the treaty, or treachery after signing the treaty, is punishable by naval gunfire.

    in that scenario, you’re not threatening to kill random civilians or property. you’re threatening to destroy most or all of the socially and economically important targets in all the port cities, which is probably at least 30% of the value of all socially and economically important targets in the country.

    • Tom Kratman

      I think there are too many assumptions in there to stand scrutiny. Defining the valuable targets within range of the gunboats doesn’t mean that much of anything of value is in range. The guns, themselves, were not all that powerful and indirect fire, in the day, rather problematic. And Police and Military will disperse before much harm is done.

      No, I’m still leaning to what I suggested, that it was the demonstration fo ineffectuality and loss of face, and what that entailed with the peasantry, that made it effective. Which makes it a kinf of specific terror. I _think_.

  • Dan Kemp

    I really do like the terror as theater explanation. I had a long chat with a Saudi cell leader we picked up one night southwest of Baghdad, and that guy was such a true believer in such an alien point of view it did seem delusional. But then he thought he was doing his god’s work, so he was going to stay after it. Can’t really reason with people like that.

    • Tom Kratman

      Certainly not as efficient as wringing them like sponges and then shooting them, no.

    • Dan Kemp

      I would just as soon glass the whole place as waste more time trying to negotiate with the silly savages. Pull out some of “our” people, loot the museums, and then let the Tridents fly.

  • sconzey

    With regards to Japan, Steve Sailer has a nice summary of the strategic situation that Japan faced at the end of the war: briefly, that the atomic bombs provided an impetus of their own but most importantly, a face-saving reason to surrender.

  • Pugmak

    Imo, what we’re dealing with, while nothing new, is causing confusion because too many treat it as something new. Another problem is trying to mesh western warfare with eastern or middle eastern. Different worlds, different methods with different goals.

    In “raider” (middle eastern) based war fighting and conquest, terror can effectively work in a broad band approach. Random and specific have their applications and uses. Random opens up a territory, specific follows on its heels. Both aspects encourage their (the terror originators) homefront and draw recruits aplenty. The random draws its particular mindset, specific another. Both also start the process of defeat from within of the targeted population since there will always be those who either decide to join up the team that’s making the most noise, or those who hope to survive by collaboration.

    Much of what is now “muslim world” was conquered in just this manner. Muslim propaganda will refute it, but a large chunk of what islam owns in east Asia was taken in such a process. The only AO where islamic conquest required large armies was when facing off against the west, since it fought in such a manner itself.

    The theater aspect of terror is important to the process. It is through this theater that the weak and spineless are convinced to kneel to their conquerors. It is also the process through which a significant portion of both their regulars and their local collaborators are recruited.

  • sconzey

    With regards to the use of random terror by Islamist extremists, I would be wary of assuming that an organisations actual aims are the same as it’s stated aims. The Saudi cell leader mentioned by Dan Kemp probably was a True Believer, which is a useful trait in a man who might be needed to blow himself up next to a bus full of schoolchildren.

    However, the handler who put together the cell, and the committee which issues the orders are going to have different goals and motivations and probably a more realistic understanding of the strategy.

    It’s not quite random terror, but the current conflagration engulfing Syria and Iraq probably won’t create an Islamic Caliphate. It is effective at drawing in money and mujahideen, not to mention NGO cash and ransomable humanitarian workers.

    • Gary Wolfman

      “However, the handler who put together the cell, and the committee which issues the orders are going to have different goals and motivations and probably a more realistic understanding of the strategy.”

      Pape has a thorough discussion of this in “Dying to Win”. If anything, the bombers are kept ignorant of the tactical and strategic context of their attack. But, they are kept focused on the importance of doing their duty, and maybe of the temporal rewards their family will receive because of their sacrifice.

      The current situation seems different mainly in the misapplication of this kind of attack against ahistorical targets. The classic post-WWII target of specific terror (and suicide terror in particular) in an occupying force from a nominally democratic nation that the terrorists have no way to beat conventionally.

    • sconzey

      Thanks Gary, I read your other comments. You’re actually the third person I’ve seen recommend ‘Dying to Win’. I should probably read it.

    • Dan Kemp

      Nah, this guy was apparently a money man and shot-caller. He was an “imam” of some variety at a local mosque. Saudi border-jumper with an expensive car, the red-dyed Amish-style Salafi beard, etc. He was spotting for an IED engagement out near MSR Tampa, fled the scene, and caught a bunch of .50 cal to his car. Not a scratch on him, which speaks poorly for the kid’s marksmanship or well for BMW, I’m not sure which.

      We talked for a while when B Troop brought him in and I was getting the capture packet together- I would go so far as to say his English was better than mine. But he was adamant that the world would be united under the flag of Islam and everyone else would either convert or die.

  • sconzey

    I think they keep doing it, keep engaging in random terror, not because of the unique success with regard to Spain, but because they don’t understand why it doesn’t work. Why not? Why don’t they understand that?

    I suspect that they don’t understand it because they know themselves very well; they know random terror would work on them.

    This has interesting implications for Daesh, recruiting as they do from Moslems raised in the West.

  • Pugmak

    Something else that percolated through my brain last night… This might or might not fit to the points being made by the author, but I think it might so I’m gonna put it out here.

    In the Balkans pre-WW1, there was quite a bit of random terrorism. Assassinations, beatings, killings, murders, bombings, etc and so on. The usual thing.

    Then there was the hit on the Austrian dood.

    The terrorists had a goal. They, more or less, achieved their goal. It might not have worked out exactly how the terrorists hoped, but the Great Powers allowed themselves to be drawn into a war that ended up mostly destroying the central European Great Powers. Much of the Balkans got independence from the results… for awhile at least.

    I’m not one of them what believes the assassination of the Austrian dood was honestly the cause of the war, but it did lend itself as a good excuse for those Great Powers already setting their minds to having a war.

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