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Dissent: Terrorism has indeed advanced the Islamist cause

Reader comment on item: The Limits of Terrorism

Submitted by Stuart Fagin (United States), Apr 24, 2009 at 20:02

To judge whether terrorism is worthwhile, from the standpoint of the Islamist enterprise, one must assess its benefits relative to its costs. Benefits will be understated if narrowly measured to include only the successful accomplishment of specific, publicly-announced Islamist goals. Abrams's analysis is flawed in this way.

Benefits

1. Violent Islamism creates an esteem of lawful Islamism – The widely held view in the west, that Muslim violence is a response to western and particularly American excesses, creates an urge to embrace Muslim groups to demonstrate good will. Lawful Islamist groups, being the most prominent, are the ones to be embraced. Would these groups have attained their influence with the British Labour government were it not for the "reaching out" necessitated by the July '05 London bombings? Rather than viewing lawful Islamism and violent Islamism as alternative or competing political strategies with identical goals, it is more realistic to regard them as complementing elements of a single broad strategy. This is so even if the two camps do not tightly coordinate their activities. Think of it as a kind of good cop – bad cop routine.

2. Attaining short term benefits – In the Abrams analysis the Madrid bombings were not counted among the three successes. But it is surely an Islamist objective to isolate us in Iraq, and the bombings clearly advanced that purpose; the more so if we consider the added pressure to exit that the bombings exerted on other coalition members.

3. Attaining longer term benefits – In Lebanon, much of the exuberance of the Cedar Revolution has been dampened as a result of the assassination of journalists and political figures striving for a democratic and independent Lebanon, widely attributed to Syrian intelligence.Add in the terrorization of pro-western elements by Hezbollah. In this way violent Islamism has enabled Syria and Iran to project power beyond its border into Lebanon, making it a much greater danger to Israel than it would otherwise be.

Costs

It may be anticipated that terrorism would create an antagonism to Islamism in the west. However, this is minimized in practice by the lawful Islamists pro forma denunciation of the terrorist act, thus creating an apparent separation between lawful and violent Islamism. The exception is where the terrorist act is so large as to induce a reprisal of lasting repercussions. The only case is 9/11 where we lost two towers (and many civilian lives) and they lost two countries. Here the cost to Islamism greatly exceeded any benefit. So the strategic moral is: keep the violent pressure on, but with no event so great as to induce a reprisal with lasting repercussions. It's kind of like reeling in a fish, with the west on the hook.

One final note. The computed 7% success rate of terrorism is described as "measly" But, terrorism requires few resources (in comparison to say projecting power militarily), and a 7% success rate may be well more than sufficient to justify its utilization. In summary, when the breadth of violent Islamism's activities is considered, along with its synergistic association with lawful Islamism, it is clear that terrorism has resulted in some strong advances to the Islamist enterprise.

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