It’s something of a truism in the world of terrorism studies that non-state terrorists carry out extreme acts of violence in order to provoke an extreme reaction from the army or the government they’re fighting. In some cases such groups seek to provoke an overreaction that they think will bring them political gains to compensate for their military weakness, by luring their more powerful opponents into a debilitating confrontation that they hope will attract more supporters to their cause.
Bombing campaigns that kill civilians; war, torture,repression, the excessive use of military force – all this is grist to the terrorist mill, because the worse things get for everybody they better they might become for the organizations that provoked these responses. Vera Figner, one of the members of the group that assassinated Tsar Alexander II once referred to terrorism as ‘ a very sombre form of struggle.’
It is doubtful that Figner and her comrades from the Peoples Will would have much sympathy with ISIS. They were, or wanted to be democrats, fighting an absolutist regime, not clerical fascists and reactionary bigots. Nevertheless their tactics, if not their methods, are not entirely dissimilar. The assassination of Alexander was partly intended as revenge for the repressive actions carried out by the Tsarist regime, partly as a demonstration of power, and partly as a provocation that was intended to invite even further repression, in the hope that it would rouse a would-be constituency to the cause.
All these objectives are implicit in the latest terror-production from the murderous auteurs of ISIS. To deliberately set a man on fire in a cage, with the bunch of well-turned out executioners standing behind him with masked faces and immaculate uniforms, rifles all pointing downwards with Busby Berkeley symmetry, represents a horrifying fusion of inquisitorial ritual with 21st century tactics and technology. Robert Fisk described it as an act worthy of Genghis Khan, but I think it is closer to the ‘Tooth Fairy’ serial killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, who tells one of his victims to feel ‘awe’ at his power before setting him on fire.
What differentiates ISIS from serial killers is the purposefulness of their actions, which as psychotic as they seem are not ‘mad’, but a conscious and calculated attempt to generate a political/military response. Jordan has already given its answer by hanging two prisoners – a tit-for-tat act of vengeance that changes nothing and resolves nothing, and is especially bankrupt given the Jordanian government’s previous role in facilitating the groups which gave rise to ISIS in the first place.
Nevertheless this depressingly familiar dynamic raises the obvious question; if terrorist groups want an overreaction why do states so often give it to them? Yural Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, has a very good article about this in the Guardian. He argues, as many students of non-state terrorism do, that organizations like ISIS operate from a position of weakness:
‘Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power when they have almost no military abilities. To achieve their aim, they present the state with an impossible challenge of its own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.’
If this mission is impossible, then why do states try to fulfil it? Harari suggests that the answer lies in the political legitimacy of the modern state, which is ‘based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence. A regime can withstand terrible catastrophes, and even ignore them, provided its legitimacy is not based on preventing them. On the other hand, a regime may collapse due to a minor problem if it is seen as undermining its legitimacy.’
In other words, states under attack from terrorist provocations are so concerned to preserve their political legitimacy that they will undertake extreme measures to demonstrate their ability to protect their populations – even at the risk of playing into the terrorists’ hands.
This is true as far as it goes. But there is also another dimension to this overreaction that Harari doesn’t address, namely that non-state terrorism doesn’t only threaten the state; it can also be useful to the state. By this usefulness I don’t mean ‘false flag’ episodes or the use of designated terrorist groups to carry out acts of violence against another state. Such things happen, for sure, but the history of terrorism is filled with episodes in which states have used terrorist emergencies to achieve objectives that would not have been possible if those emergencies hadn’t existed.
This is particularly the case in democratic societies where the aggressive and authoritarian instincts of the state are kept in check to some extent or some form of accountability exists. Look back over the hundred and thirty years or so since the assassination of Alexander in 1881, and you can find episode after episode in which governments have used terrorism as a pretext and a justification to take action against a whole range of political opponents who were only loosely connected to the groups actually carrying out violent acts, or had no connection with them at all.
You find this behavior in the Kenyan ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency, where the colonial government shut down all nationalist organizations amongst the Kikuyu tribe and delayed independence until they were able to secure it on its own terms. You find in Uruguay and Argentina in the 70s, where the security forces used leftist terrorist groups as a pretext to abolish democracy altogether. In 1982 Israel used an assassination attempt on its ambassador in London as a justification to invade Lebanon and destroy the PLO.
You also find it after 9/11, when the most militarist ‘American century’ section of the US political and military establishment used the attacks to usher in a new age of permanent war that we are still living in.
So yes, sometimes states may sometimes ‘overreact’ to terrorism because of an over-zealous anxiety to preserve their political legitimacy and demonstrate their ability to protect the population that allows them to exercise a ‘monopoly of violence.’ But these overreactions may also enable them to claw back some of the powers that they may have only reluctantly conceded, and acquire new ones.
In this sense there’s a kind of ‘fearful symmetry’ about terrorist emergencies, in which both the state and the terrorist seek to get something out of them for themselves, and each of them seeks to benefit from the actions of the other.
As Vera Figner said, it’s a very sombre form of struggle that casts a cold chill across the whole of society, and it doesn’t get much more sombre or crueler than the vile game that ISIS is playing.