Terrorism - Big Ideas
Terrorism - A Sensible Approach
In January 1987, Terry Waite was Special Envoy to the Archbishop
of Canterbury, he went to Beirut to try and negotiate the release of
British and American hostages but, ended up being taken hostage
himself, for four years
His experience has left him with a surprisingly pragmatic view of
terrorism and terrorists. Here he discusses those views and his
My ordeal made me realise just how complex the idea of terrorism
is. But, I wonder if the current simplistic approach to it is making
the world an even more dangerous place. We are currently engage in,
what has been described as, a global war against terrorism. Ever
since 9/11 our politicians have vowed to destroy men and women who
promote violence and fear. Yet, six years on it seems that terrorism
is becoming more not less prevalent. There are few countries that
haven't suffered from attacks on innocent people.
The first thing to say, is that people often disagree about what,
exactly, constitutes terrorism. For some, the bombing of Iraq by
coalition forces is seen as an act of state terrorism. For others,
the behaviour of the Israeli military also provoked terror.
If we are ever to combat this menace, we first need to reach a
definition that we can agree on. Terrorism is the use of violence
with political ends in mind. It's a form of warfare which ignores
the conventional rules of warfare. Terrorism is indiscriminate,
uncontrolled, chaotic and unpredictable. It makes no distinction
between innocent parties and guilty parties and the psychological
damage it inflicts is out of all proportion to the physical.
However, even if it engenders shock and revulsion in most of us, it
has proved to be an effective way of drawing attention to your
We think of terrorism as being a modern phenomenon yet, violence,
the means of inducing terror, is as old as mankind itself. The
Greeks and the Romans were constantly coming up with inventive ways
of slaying their enemies. In an early spat between Islam and
Christianity, the blackened plague-infected corpses of Tartars were
loaded into guns and blasted at their Genoese enemies. One of the
very first examples of bio-terror. But these were all military
campaigns, legitimate tactics in the heat of battle. It wasn't until
1789 that the idea of terror as a deliberate political strategy was
formed by Maximilian Robespierre during the French revolution.
For the next 200 years, the idea of terror that could be used
against the state would spread across the world and the popular
perception of the terrorist as someone who stands outside the social
norm was born. I believe that, generally speaking, terrorism is a
symptom. It's a symptom of a deeper disorder that has gone
Ironically, my first encounter with extremism came about through my
work with the Church of England when I was asked to undertake a
delicate mission to Iran in the 1980s. Iran was a country in
turmoil, the Shah had been deposed in a bloody Islamic revolution
and been replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. There was deep mistrust
of the West. I was working as the Archbishop of Canterbury's Special
Envoy when several church workers in Iran were accused of spying and
imprisoned. Months passed with little news. After repeated requests
by their families I decided to fly out to Iran to see if there was
anything I could do. I had little experience with hostage taking,
but knew instinctively what I needed to do.
I managed to form a good relationship with one of the hostage
takers; a revolutionary guard. He took me to his home on one
occasion and we had a meal. I discovered that his family had
suffered dreadfully under the Shah's regime The West had done
nothing, they were perceived to be interested only in oil revenues.
While the Shah was a friend of the West, he was seen as a despot by
many of his subjects which is why they rebelled against him and why
there is still a lingering resentment of the West today. Through
quiet diplomacy and listening to the Iranians point of view, I
eventually secured the release of the church workers.
My experience in Iran changed the way I thought about
perpetrators of what some might consider terrorist acts and the
motivation of people who use violence for political ends. These men
an women, and many of them are women, never refer to themselves as
terrorists. They often claim to be fighting against oppression and
terrorist is a label applied to them by others and it's this
distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter which continues to
cause problems Almost all have some kind of recognisable political
Who we call a terrorist and who we don't often depends on our
political sympathies. Take the African National Congress for
The ANC was set up to fight for the right of the South African
black majority. Life for black South Africans, in the days of
apartheid, was grim and for many years they suffered injustice and
discrimination at the hands of the white minority. When peaceful
protest failed the ANC set-up a military wing in 1961 led by Nelson
Mandela who was imprisoned for refusing to renounce violence. It's
stated aim was to create maximum havoc and confusion, but they also
targeted civilians, frequently killing and maiming innocent people.
Now, however, the ANC is South Africa's ruling party and Nelson
Mandela, a man once regarded as a terrorist, is the country's most
respected elder statesman.
The IRA is the oldest modern terrorist organisation. It styled
itself as the people's army and it's aim was to unite the country
even if the only way of doing that was through violence. "Freedom"
Martin McGuiness once said "can only be gained at the point of an
IRA rifle but I apologise to no-one for saying we support and admire
the freedom fighters of the IRA". The truth is, the IRA would never
have been so effective nor had as much popular support if the Irish
Catholics hadn't had genuine grievances. They were discriminated
against in housing, in employment and under represented in the
police and local government. When peaceful protest led to further
repression there was a resurgence of support for the IRA and it's
political wing Sinn Fein. The result was more than 30 years of
blood-shed. When the bombs hit where it hurt, economically, the
government had to negotiate. A massive bomb attack on London's
financial centre paved the way for the peace process.
My own experience of what motivates terrorists was defined by my
experience in Lebanon as the Archbishop of Canterbury's Special
Envoy. In the 1980s there was a spate of hostage taking across the
Middle East; Beirut was the epicentre. As a hostage negotiator, I'd
become involved, at the highest level, with the British and American
governments. My US contact was Oliver North, a high-ranking official
in the Reagan administration. North was a highly controversial
figure, he'd been implicated in selling arms to Iran and using the
proceeds to finance anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. I'd always
said to terrorists that I would never do deals, that I had nothing
to offer, yet here I was linked, unwittingly, to a man who'd done
just that. On a visit to Beirut I was told I could see the hostages.
It was a ruse, and I ended up a hostage myself. My captors
interrogated me obsessively about the Oliver North affair. I was
tortured and at one point had a gun put to my head and told that I
would be killed. I wasn't killed ,but I would spend another 4 years
in Beirut as a hostage.
My kidnappers belonged to Hezbollah, a powerful political and
military organisation of Shi'a Muslims. It was set up in the early
1980s in response to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. It's always
been against Western interference in the country. Hezbollah has
taught me that for many oppressed people, violence often seems to be
the only way out. Could it be that when we in the West ignore
inequality and injustice we inadvertently encourage terrorism.
There is no bigger cause for genuine grievance than the
Palestinian issue, the flashpoint for much of the violence in the
Middle East today. Since the end of the 19th century, persecuted
Jews have been emigrating to, what was then, Palestine, a British
protectorate since 1920. For years there was an uneasy coexistence
between the Arabs, the British and the Jews, but the Jews wanted
independence and underground groups advocated the use of force to
establish a Jewish state. In a series of terrorist attacks, Zionist
groups targeted the British presence in Palestine. The British
abandoned Palestine after 4 years of violence and in 1948 the State
of Israel came into being. Over the next 20 years, Palestine was
gradually subsumed by Israel until it ceased to exist. When the
Palestinians protested, the world ignored them. When they turned to
terrorism, as the Zionists had done before them, the world couldn't
ignore them any more. The Palestinian cause shows the limits of
terrorism. By the end of the 20th century, more than 30 years of
violence may have kept their cause alive, but they are still no
closer to achieving their ultimate goal; their own state. They were
up against a powerful opponent who felt unwilling and unable to
compromise and the result was a cycle of violence which has
militated against the Palestinians.
A Stereotypical Terrorist
My experience as a hostage taught me that terrorist groups are
made up of so many different types of people. You have those at the
top, who are the strategic thinkers, who are the politicians, and
they are often the face we know and whose statements we hear. You
have those who are passionate and committed to the political cause
and then you have a few you might describe as psychopathic, those
who kill for the sake of killing.
The problem is that within some movements the psychopaths take
over altogether. In the late 20th century, some countries were torn
apart by extreme left-wing terrorist groups, like Bader-Meinhof and
the Red Brigade. They believed in a kind of revolutionary nihilism.
Their aim was to wreck society and those who serve it. For them,
violence became an end in itself, They were the genuine heirs of
Robespierre who enjoyed the feeling of power terror gave him. Many
people claim that's what we face today, a similarly nihilistic enemy
which is equally fanatical, equally uncompromising.
The July 7th attacks marked a dramatic escalation in the tactics
employed by terrorists. It was the first time suicide bombers had
struck in Britain. What made it all the more shocking was that the
bombers themselves were British. Despite being British they saw
themselves as being aprt of a much wider ideological struggle
against the oppression of their fellow Muslims everywhere. The
question was, were they genuinely driven to violence, or did they
So how should we combat terrorism? What we shouldn't do is foster
terrorism ourselves which is what I believe we have done in Iraq.
The war has, inadvertently, created a new generation of terrorists
and they're fighting what they perceive to be an occupying force. In
this case the British and the USA.
These are lessons which we in the West have failed to learn and
we run the risk of alienating reasonable people, Muslims included,
when we adopt the methods of the terrorist.
CREDITS: All of the above information was taken from the UK's Channel
Five series "Big Ideas"
||Inside Terrorism -
||Terrorism: A Very
Short Introduction - Charles Townshend