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In Praise of Terrorism
Ajai Sahni*

In the wake of each major terrorist attack in India, there is much brave posturing and stentorian denunciations, by those holding exalted office, of the ‘dastardly deed’ and the ‘cowardly act’, and declarations of firm resolution ‘not to be cowed down’ and to ‘fight the terrorists with determination’. As such postures and pronouncements emanate from the seat and fountainhead of national power, there is natural expectation that the might of this ‘emerging global power’ will be directed against, and will soon inflict harsh retribution on, the perpetrators of such atrocities, and sow panic among their supporters and sponsors. Inevitably, however, all manifestations of bellicosity, at best, produce "a hurried rearrangement of the security furniture"1, and then quickly lapse into much wringing of hands. In the meanwhile, extremist depredations multiply and become the more devastating.

There is, of course, a complex of reasons why this happens, including crippling and cumulative deficits in capacities of response2 that drastically circumscribe the very possibilities of effective remedial action. But these are equally inexplicable, given India’s size and resource configuration, unless we factor in the critical collapse of political and social will that has been insidiously engineered through the injection and entrenchment of a deep obscurantism, a muddying of clear and morally vital distinctions, in some of the most perverse arguments that have systematically undermined effective counter-terrorism capacity building and efforts. It is the paralyzing burden of "constraints imposed by our current doctrine and institutionalised inertia3" that have prevented – and will continue to prevent – rational responses to terrorism and other patterns of mass political violence, both within India as well as in several other afflicted theatres across the world.

Despite apparent and often fierce condemnations of terrorism, the reality is, these are almost never unqualified. The near-universal revulsion against particular terrorist acts is not translated sufficiently into strategy and action against terrorists, or, crucially, into the acquisition of necessary and sufficient capacities to fight the scourge. Indeed, there is a powerful stream of justification that underlies the liberal democratic critique of terrorism, and it is this backdrop that gives terrorism its greatest force. Terrorism works. Given the moral ambivalence of the liberal-democratic world, its practitioners bear no permanent stigma and, under appropriate circumstances, are quickly able to re-invent themselves as advocates of ‘peace’, as political leaders, world statesmen, and even as worthy recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize – as was Yasser Arafat. Recording a particular phase of intensive terrorism directed against Israel by the Abu Nidal group and Hezbollah, which "set new standards for publicized mass murder of civilians", one commentator notes:

As the summer of horrors by these two enemies of Tel Aviv mounted, pollsters (in the US) reported no rise in sympathy for Israel; instead, their polls showed a decline in American public support for Israel. More than half of America believed Israel should do more to resolve the crisis… Although none of the speakers ever described themselves as "yielding to terrorism," their behaviour illustrated its psychological and political effects4.

While this particular comment refers to circumstances in the 1980s, the observation will have a familiar ring across the world even today, with the most powerful advocacy – both by terrorist ‘fellow travelers’ and the ranks of ‘good people’ mouthing politically correct platitudes – of conciliation, appeasement and a range of inchoate political and developmental ‘solutions’, in the face of unending carnage. Indeed, after decades of unremitting terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and the slaughter of tens of thousands of the very people the jihadis claims to seek to ‘liberate’ (and the absolute denial of human and political rights to people in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, including the denial even of Constitutional recognition to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan), Pakistan is able to rightly boast that it has been able to bring the ‘Kashmir dispute’ to the world’s attention through its deceitful and bloody jihad.

Contemporary terrorism draws enormous strength from two factors: the ample and predictable rewards it secures; and the legitimacy of extreme (terrorist) violence within particular societies, certainly those that benefit from this reward system, but also often including a number of societies that are directly threatened or targeted by such violence. Among those who claim adherence to the liberal democratic ideology, there is only an occasional voice that has seen fit to defend the Constitutional order, and most have, willy-nilly, become apologists for those who engage in extreme and indiscriminate violence. With romanticised imagery and the strangest invention of arguments, even serious academicians arrive blindly at entirely preconceived conclusions5, in an "astonishingly philistine, know-nothing posture, blocking any deeper understanding of the terrorist’s mentality and motives6". These justifications of terrorism, with little consistent evidence, continue to be advanced by those who proclaim and see themselves as advocates of freedom and non-violence, and who argue that the response to such terrorism should not involve, or should minimize, use of force by the state. These arguments enjoy immense popularity, and they are constantly undermining the ability and capacity of democracies to effectively defend themselves against a pattern of warfare – often supported by inimical foreign powers – that constitutes an increasing threat to their very survival.

It is, consequently, imperative that the legitimacy of such violence is questioned. There is a need to realize that those who still demand the people’s blood in their quest for political transformation or religious renewal, treat the people as sacrificial animals, offered up to an unseen – secular or religious – deity in the hope of an uncertain paradise. There is little difference between the modern ideologies supporting terrorism and primitive blood sacrifices – they are obscurantist in their ideological content and their political intent; and they are just as unreliable as pathways to the promised salvation. They continue, nonetheless, to hold large masses of men – and among them, many a good mind – in thralldom.

It is necessary, consequently, to examine some of the contemporary myths that have so effectively been harnessed by the terrorists and their supporters, and that have been uncritically internalized by so many ‘intellectuals’ within the liberal-democratic fold, including powerful lobbies in national governments, paralyzing international capacities of effective response to a scourge that threatens the most fundamental structures and institutions of free societies.

Perhaps the most intuitively powerful of these fables is the ‘theory of root causes’, the assertion that terrorism cannot be countered by force, but demands an understanding and redressal of ‘underlying’ grievances and sources that ‘provoke’ such violence. A great deal of deliberate obfuscation underpins this ‘theory’, and it is useful, at the outset, to clarify basic distinctions between types of causes. It is, without exception, the case that a causal chain can be traced out for every terrorist movement or incident – there can, after all, be no ‘uncaused event’. But the assertion that ‘root causes’ underpin violence is fundamentally different: it amounts to the claim that there are certain unique and identifiable necessary or sufficient conditions that instigate every act and manifestation of terrorism. The most significant among ‘root causes’ that have been opportunistically identified include poverty and real or perceived deprivation. This thesis, however, has no empirical basis and numerous studies have demonstrated its manifest speciousness (though these have done little to diminish its appeal). Indeed, a review of the literature on the search for ‘root causes’ of terrorism, for instance,

…provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or an increase in educational attainment would, by themselves, meaningfully reduce international terrorism. Any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak… Moreover, premising foreign aid on the threat of terrorism could create perverse incentives in which some groups are induced to engage in terrorism to increase their prospects of receiving aid7.

Some other distinctions in the notion of causation help clarify the issue further. Certain factors may, of course, constitute ‘predispositions’ to violence – but these predispositions exist in every one of use. Who has, in a moment of grievous anger, not imagined inflicting terrible retribution on an antagonist? Such impulses, however, remain unrealized in most cases, unless suitable ‘triggering factors’ and facilitators are not brought into play. Even where violence is initiated, in an overwhelming proportion of cases, it quickly subsides. Its protraction or perpetuation depends on a unique sustaining dynamic that is quite unrelated, both to the original predispositions and to the triggering events or circumstances. This means that, even if the original causes or triggers are ‘redressed’ such violence could continue if the sustaining dynamic – in the form of a range of newly established equations of power and flow of resources to particular and violent elites – is not neutralized. Conversely, if this latter dynamic is, in fact, neutralized, violence has been found, again and again, to end, even if the so-called ‘root’ or ‘triggering’ causes remain intact. The ‘root causes’ thesis is, in fact, an enormously influential but essentially doctrinaire and unverified position which has drastically circumscribed the range of policy options available to counter-terrorism policy in moments of grave crisis.

Closely intertwined to the ‘root causes’ thesis is the dominance of the ‘developmental solution’, the assertion that the challenge of terrorism cannot be addressed through security responses, but must be resolved through the implementation of a range of programmes for poverty alleviation and the ‘empowerment’ of disadvantaged groups, to undercut the ‘recruitment pool’ of terrorist and violent political groups. This is another unexamined shibboleth, essentially based on the a priori reasoning that nations or regions that have attained a high measure of prosperity tend to escape the blight of terrorism. This is, in the first instance, historically inaccurate. Some of the first terrorist movements of the post-World War era emerged in the affluent nations of Western Europe and in a reconstructed Japan (substantially fuelled by the export of extreme Left Wing ideologies and material support from the Soviet Union), and Northern Ireland is certainly not located in the Third World. Some of the most affluent countries of Europe, today, find themselves susceptible to extremist Islamist mobilization and terrorism, even, indeed, as does the US (despite its minuscule Muslim population).

More significantly, however, developmental strategies as a response to terrorism have not only failed in the past, they are doomed, by their very character, to failure. These are, in reality, politically correct but utterly impractical solutions, based on half truths and a refusal to recognize the actual constraints within which states respond to the challenges of terrorism. Essential corollaries here are:

      • You cannot develop what you do not control. Significant levels of terrorism almost invariably provoke the breakdown or weakening of governance across wide areas. The principal source regions of terrorism and some of their target regions as well, have large expanses of territory that are divested of effective governance. In situations of widespread breakdown of law and order, and of institutional collapse, ‘leakages’ tend to account for the overwhelming proportion of developmental expenditure, with little of the allocated finance actually reaching intended beneficiaries. As one commentator notes, "the weaker the democracy gets the more the black economy flourishes8". The state’s mechanisms of delivery of social services, administration and relief in times of disaster are severely eroded, if not non-existent, in areas afflicted by widespread terrorism, insurgent violence and disorder. Overwhelming proportions of developmental funds in areas of conflict are mis-utilised or simply siphoned out without any measure of accountability.

      • ‘Development’ is not something that can be ordered off a menu card. The states absolute capacities to deliver an acceptable level of development to populations in the principal ‘problem areas’ are themselves limited by demographics, the available natural, financial and human resource base, and structural infirmities. This makes developmental transformations as an instrument of response to insurgency and terrorism, within any realistic (prophylactic or remedial) time frame, impossible. Simply put, no society in the world has ever ‘out-developed’ an ongoing insurgency or terrorist movement.

      • Dangerously, the ‘developmental solution’ has progressively become an alibi for persistent failures to address immediate tasks of response. The moment a security response is conceded to be a necessary rejoinder to terrorist depredations, administrations become immediately accountable, and are required to demonstrate on a day-to-day basis what they have done to improve capacities and protocols of response to terrorism. On the other hand, once it is conceded that the ‘solution’ principally lies in development – an outcome that can only be achieved over the years and decades – administrations are easily and indefinitely able to evade responsibility. Crucially, the time frames of counter-terrorism and developmental policy cannot be reconciled. Counter-terrorism demands immediate responses; development is, by definition a long-drawn-out process.

      • While the rhetoric of ‘development’ dominates the discourse in areas of major conflict, there is little evidence of a sustained effort at development or good governance in areas within affected countries – particularly in the rural hinterland – where there is no significant manifestation of insurgent or terrorist violence. Poor governance and the lack of efficient implementation of developmental programmes does not, for instance, only afflict the badlands of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal areas, but is a reality virtually across the country, and certainly across its entire rural expanse. Overwhelmingly, where significant progress could be secured in the absence of significant political violence, and that could act as a bulwark against the expansion of terrorist mobilization, such progress remains elusive in the face of governmental apathy, ineptitude, corruption and complicity.

      • Crucially, an overwhelming proportion of developmental resources and aid actually flow into the vast underground economy of terrorism, strengthening the very edifice that they are intended to dismantle. This includes the numerous and dodgy ‘charities’ and ‘non-governmental’ organizations that facilitate a flow of funds to terrorist groups, as well as such terrorist groups themselves, adding to vast revenues they generate through extortion, organized criminal operations, drug trafficking and the various powers of surrogate ‘governance’ that they assume in areas of dominance. Developmental aid, moreover, flows directly into various complicit structures of terrorism-sponsoring states.

      • Critically, what is missed out in the developmental debate is the fact that not every problem has a neat and easy-to-implement solution. Indeed, the developmental deficits in the troubled areas of the world are so enormous that any realistic assessment would need to conclude that they will remain unmet in the foreseeable future. More fundamentally, it should, by now, be abundantly clear that meeting the needs of a global population now approaching 6.9 billion – to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050 – at consumption standards that would be comparable even to the lower classes of Europe, is an unsustainable goal, and would potentially destroy the environment and would pollute or exhaust most know natural resources.

      • None of this is intended to imply that Governments are free to ignore the tasks of development. But developmental objectives must be pursued as inalienable responsibilities of the state towards its citizens, and not as a response to the challenge of terrorism.

The ‘root causes – developmental solution’ argument is, in fact, no more than a disguised and hollow tautology. It rests, simply on the unverified claim that the lack of development (poverty) is the ‘root cause’ of terrorism, and then prescribes the ‘elimination’ of this ‘cause’ as the ‘solution’, with no reference either to available resource configurations and administrative capacities, or to any rational assessment of the deficits that would need to be met in order to secure ‘success’. This is analogous to suggesting that the ‘solution’ to poverty is wealth; or the ‘solution’ to disease is good health – both claims are impeccably true, but imagine the reaction of a cancer patient being advised by his doctor to ‘go home and be healthy’!

Another contemporary ‘idol of the marketplace9’ is the insistence on a ‘negotiated’ or ‘political’ solution to terrorism – something that is currently and greatly being emphasized in the pursuit of ‘accords’ in many theatres of conflict across South Asia, but most urgently and disastrously in areas of Taliban dominance on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There has, in many theatres of intractable conflict, been an easy tendency on the part of mediators to seek to negotiate the future of millions of victims of extreme and barbaric violence with its worst perpetrators. There is, of course, a certain logic to this. If you want to stop the killing, whom do you talk to, if not the murderers? But this is facile. The ‘political realism of appeasement10’ has disastrous consequences, and this consideration is particularly urgent within the context of the growing criminalization of what are originally, or perceived to be, movements of political violence, and of the emergence and proliferation of modern warlordism and rampaging terrorism in many areas of persistent conflict. No democratic government, and no principled international polity, can rightly hand over entire populations to terrorist warlords through negotiated settlements on the false hope that such populations will receive justice and a guarantee of their dignity and freedoms under the successor regime. Moreover, those who feel no twinge of conscience at the mass murder of civilians can hardly be bound by the letter or spirit of a ‘peace accord’. They are led by their ideologies and their ambitions and will follow the imperatives of power, pursued by dramatic acts of carnage, wherever this is expedient. Negotiated settlements with terrorists, except where movements have been crushed or have been subjected to extended attritional stalemates, have only contributed to further terrorist consolidation. Unfortunately, the international pressure and the inclination of governments – including those of many functioning democracies – to work out ‘deals’ with terrorists and warlords appear to be increasing in the desperation, simply, to ‘settle with’ the immediate and apparent cause of conflict. But, it has been noted elsewhere in the context of Kashmir,

The notion of ‘peace at all costs’ is self-destructive, and negotiations based on false premises and projections, and on unrealistic or divergent assessments of realities on the ground, inevitably result in greater escalation – though they may produce a temporary and deceptive lull11.

A related area of advocacy is the contention that the principal response to terrorism must be ideological, rather than ‘military’; that Islamist extremist interpretations of the Faith must be whittled away by ‘ideological contestation’, rather than a direct assault against their violent adherents. This is another unexamined, but vastly popular banality. There is little in the historical record that could suggest any potential for success for such an approach. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, "Military victory is indeed essential. Radical political Islam is an ‘armed doctrine,’ in Edmund Burke’s phrase. Like other armed doctrines before it – fascism, for example – it can be discredited only by first being defeated12." In any event, what kind of ideological contestation could anyone conceive of with the Mullah in Swat who blows a man’s brains out because he is wearing his salwar (trousers) cut below, and not (as God evidently ordained and all men should know) above, his ankles13?

It is not possible, here, to examine the full range of the pseudo-histories and false sociologies, and the extensive scope of the tyranny of political correctness that has obstructed rational assessments of, and policies in response to, terrorism. There is the irrational quest for a ‘perfect definition’ of terrorism; the ludicrous affectation of the claim that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’; the simulated and unprincipled discourse over demands for ethnic or communal separation, autonomy and ‘self-determination’ – ideological bullock-carts that are irreconcilable in a globalising world order that shares universal values of equality and human rights; and the perversion of democratic processes to further the power and interest of democracy’s most unwavering enemies. It is clear that policy prescriptions based on abundantly falsified theoretical perspectives and mistaken popular beliefs contribute directly to terrorist butchery and to the persistence of movements of extremist violence across the world. Indeed, these campaigns of deception have been so successful, that each administration that is confronted with the challenge of terrorism now appears to be programmed to start out from the ‘default setting’ of these perverse perspectives, rather than any realistic appraisal of the successes and failures of past counter-terrorism strategy and tactics. It is only when the sheer virulence of terrorism forces a greater rationality of responses, that these delusions are reluctantly discarded. However, when counter-terrorism successes result in some diminution in the intensity of violence, administrations tend quickly to relapse into ‘default mode’ and resume talking about root causes, and inchoate developmental and political solutions, once again expanding spaces for terrorist consolidation.

Liberal democracies have tended to underestimate the devastating and pervasive impact of terrorism on the freedoms and institutions they most value, and the enormity and complexity of the tasks of prevention and containment of terrorist violence. The debate on the nature of terrorism is not as complex as it is made out to be, but there are powerful vested interests that do not seek clarity. The greatest power of terrorists is not the numbers they are able to kill, but the legitimacy they continue to enjoy, not only in communities directly supportive of their cause, but in muddled constituencies among the advocates of freedom and democracy. The delegitimization of terrorism – at the level of the delegitimization of genocide – will have to precede any coherent policies and strategies of effective responses.


*Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative.

  1. Bharat Karnad, "No more handlolding, please", Hindustan Times, January 30, 2009, p. 12.

  2. These deficits are discussed in some detail in, for instance, Ajai Sahni, "Strategic Vastu Shastra", South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 7, No. 24, December 22, 2009.

  3. Robert Leonhard, The Art of Manoeuvre, Dehru Dun: The English Book Depot, 1998, p. 4.

  4. Christopher C. Harmon, "What history suggests about terrorism and its future", in William Murray & Richard Hart Sinnreich, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, New York: Cambridge University, 2006, p. 228.

  5. For some examples see, for instance, Ajai Sahni, "Social Science and Contemporary Conflicts: The Challenge of Research in Terrorism," Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 9, New Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books, July 2001, pp., 131-157.

  6. Michael Kinsley, cited in the Uncommon Knowledge programme, "Pulling out the Roots", filmed, November 11, 2002, transcript at

  7. Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, "The Economics and the Education of Suicide Bombers: Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?" The New Republic, 24.06.2002,

  8. Arun Kumar, The Black Economy in India, Delhi: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 188.

  9. Sir Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620.

  10. Eric Hobsbawm speaks of the "political realists of appeasement" in the context of Europes craven negotiations with Hitler in the face of his growing belligerence after 1938. The Age of Extremes, New York: Vintage Books, p. 154.

  11. K.P.S. Gill & Ajai Sahni, "The J&K 'Peace Process: Chasing the Chimera," Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 8, New Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books, April 2001, p. 7.

  12. Fareed Zakaria, "How to Save the Arab World", Newsweek, December 24, 2001, p. 23.

  13. "Taliban gun down teacher for not hiking 'salwar' above ankles", The Times of India, January 23, 2009.

(Published Title: "Challenging Terrorism", India & Global Affairs, April-June, 2009)





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