Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rationality in the Midst of Despair: A Balanced Look at Terrorism

The Independent ran an excellent story (2/27/09) titled "Despair and rage among Gaza's youths," which presented a variety of perspectives expressed by young Palestinian men in the wake of Israel’s recent military offensive. Despite being relatively short, the story spells out multiple factors that can contribute to terrorist movements.

Facing extreme poverty, violence, and victimization, some of these young male refugees – many of whom are in college – begin looking to terrorist organizations as an alternative.

"I used to keep away from military activity," says student Ahmad al-Khateeb, 21. "I wanted to graduate and leave the country. I was sometimes afraid of death".

But now, unable to sit his exams because his ID papers are buried under the rubble of his home, he says his views have "completely changed".

Sports science student Mohammad al-Mukayed, 22, says he saw three children killed by an airstrike as they played in the street just meters away from him.

"They were just pieces of flesh. I wanted to help but I couldn't. I do think of joining a group. I would rather be killed defending my land than die like these kids, doing nothing."

Rabah Mohanna, a political leader with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the smaller militant factions, says the organisation has seen an in increase in the number of people volunteering to carry out suicide bombings since the conflict.

Many of them are young; most have either lost relatives or homes, or seen it happen to others, he says.

At the same time, other men’s voices display an alternative perspective that simply hopes for peace, feeling a resistance could not possibly overthrow Israel’s military prowess, and a realization that terrorist groups do not always look out for the greater good of their entire community who they claim to represent.

With few job opportunities even for those who can afford to study, many young people dream of emigrating.

"We're dead - either by Israeli weapons or as the living dead," says Mahmoud Abuqammar, 22.

Jihad al-Ajramy, 24, still bears a scar on his cheek from his two years as a militant, which he says ended when open warfare broke out between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority-linked Fatah.

The workshop he used to work in has long since closed as the flow of raw materials dried up under the blockade.

"I used to earn 200 shekels ($50) a day, now I even have to borrow cigarettes. None of these military factions is helping me. Why would I join?"

"During the war, everybody was thinking of fighting, of revenge, of going back to military action - but what fighting? Fighting against Israeli F16s?"

Again, it is an excellent read that needs to be read in its entirety. It also has a bit of commentary on masculinity's connection to violence and is nicely augmented by this BBC audio slideshow, titled "Homeless in Gaza."

The piece also ties in nicely with Louise Richardson’s (author of What Terrorists Want) research on terrorism. Richardson was on BBC’s radio show, “Outlook” (3/16/09; click HERE to listen to the whole interview) and offered brilliant insight into how terrorist groups operate, as well as how America’s “War on Terror” has fed into terrorist desires. Some highlights from the interview:

Terrorists have two types of motives. First, the underlying political motives, and these differ with different types of terrorist groups, so religious groups may want to reintroduce the counter faith, whereas nationalist groups may want independence or autonomy, secession and so on. So they differ with the different types of groups, but the secondary or more immediate motives I believe are constant across all types of terrorist groups.

So I believe the answer to the question “What Terrorists Want,” is first and foremost revenge, second renown, and third to provoke a reaction, so those are I think the motives that are held constant across all different terrorist groups – revenge, renown, and reaction.

People are recruited out of their commitment to the ideology. So what’s interesting, what’s the challenge for us is to try to understand how a person who in one part of his or her life may be a functioning student or a good parent can nevertheless commit atrocities in an effort to achieve a highly unlikely goal.

I think the main motive that anybody joins the IRA is the same motive that most people join Al-Qaeda. It’s a desire for revenge, usually for an act committed not against themselves personally, but with a larger group with which they identify.

I think the U.S. grossly, tragically over-reacted to the tragedy, the atrocity of September 11th, and in so doing, they played directly into the hands of Al-Qaeda. By declaring war on what was after all a motley collection of extremists living under the sponsorship of one of the poorest governments on the planet, we elevated their status to a degree that was almost unimaginable to them.

Terrorists want to be considered at war because it legitimizes them and raises their profile. And I think also by declaring war, we decided on a military response. And again, America has an extraordinary military, but as we’ve seen time and time again, military strength doesn’t translate into victory against terrorism. There is a role for the military, but it’s a limited role.

We need to understand (terrorists) so that we can fashion more effective counter-terrorism policy.

Looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from this point of view, one can more clearly see why some (definitely not all) Palestinians join Hamas or smaller combative organizations. And as Dr. Richardson states, those who join terrorist organizations are not necessarily blind puppets.

They frequently have excessively violent experiences behind them coupled with a strained perspective lying ahead, in which their life’s aspirations do not coincide with expectations. Without exonerating terrorist efforts, this puts a more humanistic and properly contextualized angle on terrorism, accounting for co-occurring violence and power imbalance.

(Photo courtesy of BBC News)

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  1. Another story here providing further evidence that innocent Palestinians were killed by Israeli military forces...again helping to better understand why future Palestinians may join Hamas.

    "Israel's dirty secrets in Gaza: Army veterans reveal how they gunned down innocent Palestinian families and destroyed homes and farms"

  2. Another story, but focusing on a family from Fallujah, Iraq, which essentially illustrates the same thing.

    "Fate Of Fallujah Family Tells Story Of Iraq War's Toll"

  3. I believe Rabin once said that if he was Palestinian he'd be in a fighting organization.

    Most Americans don't get it, but I wonder why, because it is summed up very well by the statement Americans love "die on your feet, or on your knees".

    To many of these people, that, or a living death with no hope for a better future, are the only choices they feel they have.