Orlando and the Future of Terrorism


Those who commit atrocities in the name of ISIS should be considered criminals and nothing more. Their desire to elevate their crimes should not be honored. (Photo: YouTube)

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the recent tragedy that left 49 dead at a gay bar in Orlando. The shooter, Omar Mateen, declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call he made during the massacre. President Obama and much of the news media have declared the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history an act of terrorism.

Perhaps the incident was a terrorist act. The killer was targeting civilians seemingly in the service of a larger ideological goal. Still, the last-minute marriage of convenience between Mateen and ISIS had an opportunistic feel to it. The shooter seemed to want to elevate his homophobic rampage to a higher level, and the Islamic State was eager to demonstrate its capability to target the American homeland.

The president confirmed that Mateen was “self-radicalized” through materials he’d found on the Internet. But the FBI, in its two prior investigations of Mateen, had not been able to link him to terrorist organizations. And in its statement, ISIS did not claim to have directed Mateen as it had orchestrated the attacks in Paris last year.

In this sense, the Orlando shooting followed the same pattern as the San Bernardino attack: The shooters and ISIS had no prior contact, but enthusiastically embraced each another through the act itself.

Terrorism, of course, is a tactic, not an ideology. But according to the common definition, it’s a tactic in service of political aims. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), for instance, is interested in establishing a Kurdish state, so the bombings it has conducted throughout Turkey qualify as terrorism. Various already-existing states — the United States, Israel, China, Russia — have killed civilians in their efforts to achieve certain political aims, so that qualifies as “state terrorism.”

But the Islamic State is something different. It has aims, of course, but they’re not strictly speaking political. If the Islamic State is not a political organization, and if the recent acts of violence in Orlando and San Bernardino are only opportunistically connected to ISIS, do they really count as terrorism?

It’s become customary these days to expand the definition of terrorism to include the acts of racists like Dylann Roof in South Carolina and the shooting of three Muslim Americans in North Carolina. The use of the term “terrorist” here serves an important function by underscoring the seriousness of the acts, connecting them to a larger network of people who share the same belief system, and demonstrating that right-wing, racist, and Islamophobic actors are just as likely to kill civilians as Muslim extremists.

However useful in some respects, the application of the term “terrorism” in this way — to include both the Dylann Roofs and the Omar Mateens of the world — may ultimately be counterproductive.

ISIS and Anti-Politics

Despite its name, the Islamic State is not particularly interested in matters of statecraft.

It hasn’t approached the United Nations to petition for recognition — it doesn’t acknowledge the United Nations as a legitimate body. It hasn’t asked other countries for recognition — and it wouldn’t likely get any recognition if it did. The Montevideo Convention lists four conditions for statehood — a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into agreements with other states.

The only condition ISIS meets is its possession of a government, but even this is a stretch. In its effort to administer cities and other territory that it has overrun, ISIS has indeed established a certain level of bureaucracy. It has Islamic courts, a police force, and even a consumer protection agency. It runs some of the basic services of government, such as fixing potholes and providing social services. And it collects taxes from its inhabitants and issues its own currency.

In Syria, ISIS rules as many conquerors have in the past: by imposing an ideological overlay while keeping local structures in place, as Time reported last year in Raqqa:

Most of the civil servants who make the city function remained in their old jobs, still paid by the government in Damascus even though they are now effectively entrenching ISIS in power. School teachers, state telecoms company employees and municipal workers all remain at work, under ISIS control but paid by Damascus. According to several businessmen, activists and ISIS supporters in Raqqa, ISIS has placed its own members at the top of existing institutions, like schools or the municipal headquarters, to make sure employees follow ISIS’s new rules.

But ISIS lacks a foreign minister, a minister of trade, or any of the other personnel required to engage with other states. It has a caliph who has nothing but contempt for the interstate system. ISIS considers even Saudi Arabia, which shares a commitment to the Wahhabi version of Islam, to be an enemy. It has encouraged a number of attacks against Saudi institutions, believing that the kingdom is a corrupt version of Islam.

Non-state actors that use terrorism have generally aspired to create something political, such as a separate state (Palestine, Israel, Kurdistan) or a particular kind of state (Marxist, fascist, anarchist). ISIS uses violence against civilians much as a criminal syndicate or a cult would: to promote in-group loyalty, strike fear into opponents, and gain adherents.

ISIS styles itself a caliphate, a form of governance that historically precedes the inter-state system. ISIS doesn’t imagine a future in which the caliphate negotiates with the non-caliphate, even though that’s precisely how caliphates behaved in the past. Rather, ISIS considers all states, even conservative Islamist ones, to be illegitimate. In fact, ISIS is rather like Dick Cheney, who famously said that the United States “doesn’t negotiate with evil, we defeat evil.” ISIS is both unable and unwilling to negotiate with the evil non-caliphate.

As such, ISIS is fundamentally anti-political. It will not circumscribe its will to power as Hezbollah has done to participate in government as in Lebanon. It won’t subordinate its religious goals for worldly gain, as Hamas as done in Gaza. It is, essentially, a millenarian death cult, as Graeme Wood has written in The Atlantic. From its propaganda, it’s clear that ISIS

rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

ISIS kills. It commits war crimes. It engages in widespread atrocities. But since it doesn’t have political aims, it does not in fact commit terrorism. And those who commit atrocities in its name should be considered criminals and nothing more. Their desire to elevate their crimes should not be honored.

One person’s terrorist, as the saying goes, is another person’s freedom fighter. But one person’s mass murderer is another person’s…. mass murderer. Charlie Manson was not a hero to anyone except a tiny knot of crazed followers. The Columbine shooters were not freedom fighters.

Mass murderer: That should also be the category to which we consign Omar Mateen, the San Bernardino shooters, Dylann Roof, and the other “lone wolf” killers who grandly declare that they are fighting for a higher cause.

The Future of Terrorism

This is not just a definitional issue, a splitting of hairs. Terrorism, after all, is not just a tactic. It is a frame that the international community uses to define the most urgent threat to existing states. It has generated a world war that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

The United States may have inaugurated the “war on terrorism” — and Obama may have retired the phrase — but much of the world continues to wage a struggle against what are considered terrorist organizations: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, al-Qaeda in various places. Specific countries have also targeted their own terrorist formations. Turkey is battling the PKK, China has cracked down on the East Turkestan Independence Movement, Israel continues to fight against Hamas, Nigeria is trying to defeat Boko Haram, the Philippines is struggling against Abu Sayyaf, and so on.

Given the horrific attacks that have taken place recently in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, it would seem that terrorism is on the upswing. Indeed, according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, more than 32,000 people died worldwide in 2014 as a result of terrorism, an 80 percent increase over 2013. It also took the largest economic toll ever: $52.9 billion.

But if you separate out the non-political entities like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, traditional terrorism is on the wane.

True, Turkey and the PKK have resumed their decades-old struggle. But otherwise, the traditional terrorist organizations of the past, like the Irish Republican Army and the Kosovo Liberation Army, have jettisoned the terrorist baggage because they’ve achieved their political aims. Or, like the Shining Path in Peru, they have basically disappeared without achieving their objectives. Or, like ETA in the Basque area of Spain and FARC in Colombia, they are negotiating some kind of political solution.

This isn’t to say that terrorism is no longer deployed as a tactic. But most groups have witnessed the declining utility of violence, particularly against civilians. Where there is still no consensus on sovereignty questions — between Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and Russia and Ukraine — some groups continue to resort to violence against civilians for political reasons. But these now seem to be more the exceptions than the rule.

The terrorism of groups fighting for their own states can be handled politically through negotiations. Those negotiations might fail repeatedly, extend over long periods of time, and frustrate a succession of mediators. But ultimately, the demands of a persistent group are met through regime change (South Africa), state creation (Israel, Kosovo), or some measure of decentralized power (ETA). Israel and Palestine are still several steps away from that solution, but a plan for political accommodation is at least feasible. The Sri Lankan generals believe that they obliterated the Tamil Tigers through military force, but the current government of Maithripala Sirisena has promised to secure greater autonomy for the Tamils in the north of the country.

It’s the very political nature of terrorism that dictates its own solution: not endless violence, but endless politics.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram: These groups can’t be pressured to give up their acts of terrorism in exchange for a place at the table because they have no intention of ever sitting at the table. Violence, woven into the very fabric of their operations, is effectively their politics.

It might seem logical, then, to adopt the hardliners’ approach of bombing these groups into oblivion. But the evidence of the last 25 years demonstrates that violence only begets violence. “We keep on killing bad guys, and the bad guys just keep on keeping on,” writes former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks about the situation in Afghanistan. “In the three years since the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the group appears to have gotten stronger, not weaker.”

So, if neither the offer of political carrots nor the wielding of military sticks seems to solve the problem, what’s left? We, the non-caliphate, must reimagine our carrots and sticks.

On the stick side, we should approach these anti-political organizations and their followers as we would a criminal syndicate. We should go after them with RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), with the sharing of information internationally, and with the coordinated shutdown of their propaganda arms. We should go after their financing, strong-arming our Saudi allies to do the same, and disrupt their networks.

On the carrot side, we should support the expression of political Islam, the peaceful engagement of Muslims in the political process. This has not always gone well, considering the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the deviation toward autocracy in Turkey. But it is essential that experiments in the combination of Islam and democracy continue and thrive, as they are in such places as Indonesia (where Islam-based parties poll around 20 percent) and Tunisia (where the former ruling party Ennahda is moving away from its Islamist roots).

Pouring money into “countering violent extremism” is all well and good. But ultimately only states that accommodate Islam politically will offer an alternative to the putative Islamic State. States potentially offer the protection to Muslims — to worship, raise families, and avoid indiscriminate attacks — that satisfy at least some of the demands of the people drawn into the orbit of the extremists.

The Islamist State and its ilk will not, of course, find such carrots attractive. Rather, such tactics are designed to woo away potential followers. The anti-politics of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and others put them beyond the reach of negotiations. Their “terrorism” can’t be tamed by politics.

Nor can the “lone wolves” who associate with ISIS and are determined to wreak havoc be somehow lured back to civilian life through political means — as operatives who engaged in terrorism in paramilitary outfits, like Menachem Begin of Irgun, would eventually be attracted to public office. Omar Mateen and Dylann Roof, like other mass murderers, can be deterred if at all through strict gun control and the flagging of early-warning behavior.

It’s tempting to use a harsh epithet like “terrorism” to describe the actions in Orlando and Charleston. But it miscategorizes them and suggests the wrong kind of response. Perhaps “mass hate crime” would be more accurate.

John Feffer directs Foreign Policy in Focus.

  • Aer O’Head

    Benyamin Netanyahu said it was terrorism and he is the Definer-in-Chief of what is, and what isn’t, terrorism. He took out a patent and a trademark on the word “terrorism” (and all derivatives thereof) in 1979 with the establishment of the Jonathan Institute and the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism. Who are us mere mortals to question him?

  • meredithtax

    You say, “The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), for instance, is interested in establishing a Kurdish state, so the bombings it has conducted throughout Turkey qualify as terrorism.” The PKK stopped pushing for a Kurdish state in the 90s and swore to abide by the Geneva Convention in 1995. It wants the same thing as the PYD in Rojava wants, decentralization, civil liberties, and what it calls “democratic autonomy”or local control. Most of the bombings you refer to have been claimed by TAK (Freedom Falcons), a group that thinks the PKK has become too moderate.

    • John Feffer

      Thanks for the additional information. Yes, TAK has claimed responsibility for most of the bombings, but the PKK has claimed responsibility for some. And it’s not entirely clear whether the two groups are indeed so distinct, despite TAK’s rhetoric. The PKK has not in the past tolerated such “breakaway factions,” so it may just be a disavowal of convenience. And while it’s true that the PKK has called for greater autonomy inside Turkey, their aims outside the country are not as clear. Just as Kurdistan functions as a de facto Kurdish state within Iraq, Rojava seems to have the same aim within Syria. And Rojava is inspired by PKK ideology. So, I would argue that the PKK is still interested in establishing a Kurdish state, but it would not include parts of Turkey.

      • meredithtax

        The PKK is a Turkish organization. If it does not want to establish a state in Turkey, where do you think it does? The Rojava Kurds have clearly said clearly they want to be part of a federated Syria. Their politics and the way they govern could not be more different from that of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are arguing for an alternative to the kind of centralized monolithic state that insists on one culture, one language, and one leader over all. As we would ourselves, so why should we assume this is the only possible model for a state in the Middle East?

        • John Feffer

          As you no doubt know, the PKK operates in several countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria. As I explained, its focus is not just on Turkey, for several reasons. As for Rojava being part of a federated Syria, sure, that would be nice — but that’s not happening any time soon. In the meantime, a de facto state is what they are building. What emerges from the chaos of today’s Middle East is very different from what the PKK imagined during its heyday in the 1970s. So, I wouldn’t be as certain as you seem to be about what the PKK is fighting for at the moment….

  • Alexi

    This is astoundingly ridiculous.

    So called “State terrorism” are attacks on targets of a Military nature or military asset etc.. be they conducted by drone at individual bomb makers or insurgent armies, or collateral damage in a wartime situation when targets purposely conceal themselves within civilian populations of behind civilian shields.

    The deaths of civilians resulting from those actions are tragic. But that does NOT define the action that caused them.

    INDISCRIMINATE Attacks on CIVILIAN populations in order to terrorize the general public, create a climate of FEAR, and hence force a political capitulation as opposed to using dialogue, negotiations or other peaceful means of bargaining with the State in question is terrorism. And indiscriminate attacks on civilians in order to seek vengeance for political redress is also terrorism because it makes whatever conflict is of concern to the terrorist, even if in a far off land, the focus. ie. the Orlando attack was a terrorist attack in the name of Islamism which as an ideology seeks to make the entire world “safe for Sharia” (force it down our throats or kill us for refusal); and the Dylan Roof attack, in the name of White Supremacism is the same. They are both ideologies that through their supporters seek to force political change through fear and intimidation.

    After that I ceased reading and skipped to your conclusion. When you begin an article with an untruth as the foundation, the rest isn’t worth a damn. And it wasn’t.

  • Alexi

    Islamism is political. ISIS, Al-Queda, Boko Haram etc are POLITICAL MOVEMENTS.

    Seeking to establish Theocratic Governance is POLITICAL. Sheesh.