If the leaders of the Western world want to do our security a
favour, they could adopt a New Year resolution to economise on the
use of the word ‘terrorist’ in their rhetoric. This proposal is
based not upon indulgence towards al-Qa’eda or the IRA, but upon the
need to think clear-headedly about how best to protect our
Through the ages, Britain has faced enemies of many creeds and
nationalities. Today, a mind-boggling weight of verbiage is
addressed to the perils posed not by Spaniards or Frenchmen, Germans
or Russians, but instead by ‘terrorism’. The danger is real enough,
but the definition encourages lazy thinking. ‘Terrorist’ is a
woefully inadequate identification. Like ‘infantryman’ or
‘cavalryman’, it merely describes a method of engaging in combat.
‘Terrorist’ is a seductively pejorative label, because it
reflects abhorrence. The Germans used it to describe wartime
resistance fighters in occupied Europe (and to this day such sages
as John Keegan deplore the activities of Special Operations
Executive and its brethren because they created unwelcome
precedents). The term is unhelpful in encouraging reasoned responses
to practitioners of many hues.
Conventional armed forces kill far more ‘innocent civilians’ in
the course of pursuing their purposes than any terrorist group has
contrived, as many Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians would testify
after experience at the hands of the US and Israeli armies and air
forces. Yet most people feel less abhorrence towards the old way of
war, because it operates within frameworks of ritual and order with
which we are familiar.
It is a cultural conceit of democracies that we take for granted
a right to go about our daily lives in peace. We resent a phenomenon
which strikes without warning, impelled by groups which lack the
legitimacy of nation-states, which do not oblige us with formal
declarations of war, or clothe themselves in distinguishable
Even in the darkest days of the IRA campaign in Britain, it
seemed foolish for our leaders to dismiss the attackers as
‘cowardly’. Whatever the IRA — or the Palestinian suicide-bombers —
lack, it is not courage. How many posthumous citations for
decorations in the world wars included the admiring words: ‘with
absolute disregard for his own safety’?
We dislike terrorism partly because we reject our antagonists’
perception that we are engaged in conflict with them, and partly
also because such a form of attack does not suit nation-states’
traditional means of defence, based upon horse, foot and gun. Yet
who could expect those who dislike the West to oblige us by engaging
our military power on a battlefield?
The IRA’s snipers shot British soldiers in the back at long range
because to face the army’s firepower at high noon would have been
suicidal. Gerry Adams might assert that such a policy accorded with
the doctrine taught in Western staff colleges for centuries: ‘We
make war as we can, rather than as we should.’
When Pauline Neville Jones was chairman of the Joint Intelligence
Committee more than a decade ago, I remember her observing, ‘The
lesson people who hate us have learned from the Gulf war is: “Don’t
engage the West on terms that suit the West. Don’t march across a
line in the sand that provides an obvious casus belli for the
application of Western military power.”’
Terrorism is simply one means of applying force in pursuit of
political ends. It is traditionally adopted by the weak, who cannot
hope to prevail in a conventional contest. Because the military
power of the United States and its allies is today overwhelming, we
must assume that terrorism — asymmetric warfare — will be the
dominant tactic adopted by our enemies in the future, whatever
regional conflicts persist between more evenly matched opponents.
By now, I can hear a clamour from some readers who say: ‘How can
you justify the behaviour of such organisations as the IRA, a tiny
minority in a democratic society, who sought to gain by the gun what
they could not achieve through the ballot box?’
I am not expressing sympathy for the IRA, an exceptionally nasty
organisation of fascistic convictions, nor for any other
perpetrators of violence. I am making a pragmatic case for
classifying terrorists in political and ideological terms, rather
than, crudely and misleadingly, by the mere means which they employ
to fight us. We seem likely to do better in defending ourselves if
we strip any moral dimension from the debate about how to do so.
The biggest mistake made by the Bush administration since 9/11
has been to proclaim a universalist ‘war on international terror’,
in which it has appeared happy to ally itself with President Putin
of Russia in his struggle against the Chechens, with Prime Minister
Sharon against the Palestinians, and indeed with almost any national
regime facing attack by terrorist means.
The US President thus seeks to throw the power of his country into
a struggle against a methodology he recoils from, rather than undertake
the harder but much more useful task of categorising terrorist causes
on their merits, and carefully denominating worthy friends and foes.
The declaration of a ‘war against terror’ falsely implies a contest
that can be waged principally through the deployment of conventional
military might, which it cannot. Some terrorist movements operate
beyond the pale of possible political dialogue — al-Qa’eda to name
but one. Others do not. Most people who have studied the problem
of Chechnya believe that it must be resolved by political means,
rather than by Moscow’s crude application of force. The Chechen
separatists may employ repugnant methods to pursue their ends, but
it seems madness to endorse implicitly or explicitly President Putin’s
response to them.
In the Middle East, the most plausible means of ending Palestinian
violence is to give Palestinian people something to lose, not least
self-respect, as an alternative to the chronic despair created by
unrelenting repression. In Gaza and the West Bank today, terrorism
and the manufacture of grievances are the only thriving industries.
Does anyone seriously suppose that Israeli military operations can
achieve conclusive success against Hamas and their brethren? Or,
for that matter, that Israel might be susceptible to offering the
Palestinians a reasonable settlement without the threat or reality
of Palestinian violence?
I am not here seeking to reopen the interminable argument about
the means of achieving Middle East peace, only to make the case
against treating all dissident forces which employ terrorist means
as part of a common global manifestation of evil, which can only
be addressed by military might. Some people may suggest this is
a trite observation. Yet it flies in the face of everything said
and done by the US government over the past three years.
Closest to home for us is, of course, Ireland. For more than 20
years, successive British governments tried to defeat the IRA by
military means, and all failed. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s anger
and frustration when the army told her that ‘sealing the border’
between North and South would not work? For all the rhetoric about
the perils of ‘appeasing terrorism’, John Major and Tony Blair deserve
much credit for demonstrating that political means are far more
effective than military ones in edging Ulster towards peace.
Whatever we may think of the messy situation which prevails in
the province today, violence is drastically diminished. In the end,
economic forces seem most likely to determine Ireland’s future.
The Republic’s soaring prosperity offers prospects for sectarian
reconciliation far more tempting than any application of counter-insurgency
methods. It has become evident that the IRA is merely an exceptionally
ugly manifestation of forces that cannot be suppressed by military
The objection to casual denunciations of foes as ‘terrorists’ is
that such language can persuade politicians, who should know better,
that they can abdicate responsibility for seeking non-military means
of addressing an issue. Such an approach can promote a deadly political
Some terrorist movements — Baader-Meinhof and the Italian Red Brigades
spring to mind — require only a law-enforcement response, because
they represent no plausible political cause nor substantial body
of opinion, and are wedded to violence for its own sake in the fashion
of 19th-century anarchists. History suggests, however, that most
terrorist campaigns are best addressed by a mix of political generosity
towards the community from which terrorists come, and armed suppression
of irreconcilable men of violence.
The one certainty is that discrimination is essential in assessing
the nature of ideological and national groups which resort to terrorism.
Firepower — stealth bombers and tanks — is seldom relevant. A blend
of politics, diplomacy, bribery, intelligence, police work and spasmodic
special forces deployments is most efficacious. There should be
no ‘war on international terror’, but rather campaigns tailored
to address the nature of differing hostile groups which use terrorist
The ‘war on terror’ is a phrase cynically abused by President Bush
to further his own re-election. Now that he has secured another
four-year lease on the White House, it would be a boon to the world
if he abandoned unhelpful sloganising.