Cui bono?

Terrorism is notoriously resistant to strict definition, and the most obvious reason for this is generally understood. Unlike (for instance) guerrilla warfare, ‘terrorism’ is not merely a tactic, but an intrinsically abominated tactic. Whatever the technical usage of the word, it adheres to the register of propaganda, as a partisan denunciation. It is what the other side does.

This partisan skew is reinforced by technical considerations. Even more than guerrilla warfare, terrorism is a tactic suited to relatively disorganized non-state actors. When even guerrilla warfare is impractical, terrorism is the mode of violent ‘resistance’ that remains. In the sentimental language of the Left, it is the warfare of the weak.


If these factors are recognized, a realistic definition of terrorism can be constructed that coldly acknowledges both aspects of its positioning, as an ideologically motivated atrocity without state legitimation. Terrorism is violent partisan criminality. It is aggressive violation of the law in the service of a political cause.

In a post written prior to the identification of the Boston Marathon bombers, Richard Fernandez makes a point that is far from original, but all the more important for being clearly true, and widely accepted as being true:

The ascription of guilt in public attacks has become highly politicized. Each ideological side is rooting for its own set of villains to be identified as guilty. The Left desperately want the perpetrators to come [from] the Tea Party, White Supremacist Groups or at least Christians while the conservatives want the perps to be Muslims or drug addled lions of the Left.

Acts of terror taint a cause, its supporters, and its demographic base with violent partisan criminality. Who benefits? In the case of American domestic terrorism, at least, the answer is almost insultingly obvious. Those identified with the target of terror are strengthened by it, those pre-positioned as enemies of the terrorists even more so. After the atrocity occurs, the cry immediately arises: please let it not be ours.

This is distinctly odd. An act that is inherently political has a valency that directly and explicitly contradicts its superficial partisan motivation. Terrorism is not only something the other side does, it is something that — when reptilian partisan considerations are all that count — one wants the other side to do. How utterly delightful (if unavowable) to be blessed with spectacular public confirmation that one’s enemies are violent partisan criminals.

An inevitable consequence of this oddity is the proliferation of conspiracy theories. If the guiding question is cui bono?, the inescapable implication is that the target — ultimately, the State — is the only agent with a rational interest in terror taking place. ‘False flags’ make much more sense than raw terror ever could. This way lies madness, and perhaps an ineluctable mass insanity.

The alternative to conspiracy theory can only be common sense, but it finds itself surprisingly stressed. Is terror rationally explicable at all? Are its proponents simply deranged? Or do they perceive subtle advantage in sheer escalation — feeding their enemies, as a way to feed the war? With the world becoming ever more Black Swan-compatible, this is a story that has scarcely begun.

ADDED: Driven to kill by brutalist architecture.

ADDED: ‘George Washington’ on False Flag Terror.

April 23, 2013admin 12 Comments »
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12 Responses to this entry

  • adsorb Says:

    If at the moment of detonation the state gathers what it can by spectacular force to appear intelligible and justified, then ‘false flags’ do seem to be the only means by which one can answer the guiding question that you pose. As the image of a dying Socrates is to the portals of science the ‘false flag’ is to the state. . .
    Feeding the enemy aside, how much nourishment can really be found in ‘false flags’?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    If you’re looking for something beyond a glib ‘hostile terror is the steroids of the state’ you’ll have to feed me a little more fishing line.

    [Reply]

    Federico Reply:

    Putin found some nourishment.

    Putin’s sudden emergence from nowhere as the country’s future leader was astonishing. He was still virtually unknown in the country, and indeed to most of the political elite. But in the months that followed he became the new face of Russia – tough, energetic and ruthless in responding to ever more audacious Chechen terrorist attacks.

    In the space of two weeks in September four bomb explosions destroyed apartment blocks in the cities of Buynaksk, Moscow (twice) and Volgodonsk. Almost 300 people were killed. The attacks were blamed on Chechens and, together with the invasion of Dagestan, provided Putin with the excuse, if he needed one, to launch the second Chechen war. At a meeting with Bill Clinton on 12 September an agitated Putin drew a map of Chechnya and described his plan to annihilate the separatists. ‘These people are not human,’ he snarled to the press afterwards. ‘You can’t even call them animals – or if they’re animals, they’re rabid animals …’

    The apartment bombings were so convenient in providing Putin with the pretext to go to war, and thereby to improve his ratings, that some Russians believe they were carried out by the FSB. Conspiracy theories are so rife – and so outlandish – in Russia that you would have to rewrite history if you believed them all. But real suspicions were raised by a fifth incident, in the city of Ryazan, where police acting on a tip-off foiled an apparent plot after discovering three sacks of white powder, which they identified as explosive, together with detonators, in the basement of a block of flats. Thousands of local residents were evacuated while the sacks were removed and made safe. Putin himself praised the vigilance of the people who had spotted the sacks being carried into the building. When men suspected of planting the bombs were arrested, however, they turned out to be FSB agents. The FSB chief then claimed it had all been an ‘exercise’ to test responses after the earlier explosions and that the bags only contained sugar. The local FSB in Ryazan knew nothing about such an exercise, however, and issued a statement expressing surprise.

    Several other mysterious circumstances surround the apartment bombings. For example, the speaker of the State Duma announced to parliament that he had just received a report of the apartment bombing in Volgodonsk on 13 September – the day of one of the Moscow bombings, but three days before the Volgodonsk explosion. Had someone who knew in advance about all the planned attacks got the dates mixed up? But attempts to have the incidents properly investigated in Russia have been thwarted, and the Kremlin reacts with fury to questions on the subject. Moreover, two members of an independent commission that tried to establish the facts were murdered and a third was killed in a car accident, while the commission’s investigating lawyer was arrested and jailed for alleged illegal arms possession. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, both of whom investigated the bombings, were murdered in 2006.

    [Reply]

    adsorb Reply:

    Looking but not finding anything beyond steroids. Conceded for the moment. Clearly nourishing. . . It has sent me in circles somewhat -stuck wondering about the utility of receiving terror (if there is even a question of it).

    [Reply]

    Posted on April 23rd, 2013 at 8:52 am Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    There are many problems here, but I’ll focus on one for now.

    The problem here is that ‘terrorism’ is not merely a tactic, nor merely an intrinsically abominated tactic.

    A tactic is rational means to achieve a short-term end. And there can be little doubt that terrorism by some parties at some points in History is almost purely such a tactic.

    But with the Atrocity-Islamist, the act itself is an end. The psychological state of the actor is one of wish-fulfillment, achieving a dream of martial glory, an ‘honorable’, ‘fighting’ death (in the case of Chechens, the prefer to go down fire-fighting, and not begin-and-end their careers via self-detonation). Fighting and killing the wicked infidel oppressor, showing one’s ‘superior’ courage and commitment, is fun and exciting.

    In other words, being a terrorist, the planning, the comrade of conspiracy, the adrenaline – is enticing and improves the terrorists utility. And this private benefit (and a good amount of cognitive bias – obliviousness or apathy about short-term political results, since the war never ends until it’s won), often overwhelms whatever political strategic setbacks may result – and that’s assuming that these counterproductive setbacks are even appreciated.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    OK, that all sounds extremely convincing, but how is it not — from the perspective of politico-military rationality — “simply deranged”?

    [Reply]

    Handle Reply:

    Perhaps it depends on the context. The Taliban are a good example of mixed rational-calculus and derangement.

    The Taliban goal is to use violent intimidation to reconquer Afghanistan and regain and retain power there. They want to use that power to create a “pure” Islamic state, and, frankly, a sanctuary and/or base of operations for your global motley crew of Islamist militants who want to hook up with the Jihad, or maybe just get trained and organize their own offshoot. North Pakistan serves that purpose today, mainly for Sunnis, and there’s a reason you’ll find Chechens there too.

    Now, obviously the Taliban are under a lot of pressure that is preventing them from presently accomplishing their goal. Especially the kind of pressure that emanates from the blast wave emerging from that drone-launched hellfire missile. But, as they themselves like to say, “You’ve got the watches, but we’ve got the time”.

    Now, after the first few months of the Afghan campaign and the decision to stop hot pursuit (well, mostly, more or less) at the Durand Line, the Taliban could have taken a few moments to think and realized that the Americans don’t really want to be there a minute longer than they think they have to. And that their assessment of “have to” is basically the metric of number of current attacks. They want to declare victory and go home, and if things are quiet for just long enough, they will! The strategically right answer for the Taliban (and I haven’t met a single veteran that disputes this point in any degree), would have been to do nothing, recover, recruit, rearm, and …wait the Americans out.

    No more than two years without a single incident and the Americans would have abandoned the hell-hole to the Devil. Meanwhile, the Afghan government, and most definitely their pathetic, inexperienced, cowardly, and corrupt military and police units, would have been easy pickings, what without years of training and hundreds of billions of free armaments and gear from ISAF.

    But, I’m telling you, these guys are impatient and impractical. They’re not strategic or pragmatic. All they know how to do is fight and die, and it’s all they want to do. They think it terrifies us, and they live for that. Their thinking – when projected to long time horizons – is fuzzy at best. I’m even willing to believe that the way their whole system operated relies upon constant action – that they wouldn’t be able to recruit and retain members just to wait for the Yankees to go home. Perpetual Focoism.

    On the other hand, the constant stream of harassment, killings, and bombings, also keeps the population constantly aware of what’s going to go down when the infidels leave. It’s going to be ugly, and the Taliban wants and needs to send a constant message that, when the revolution comes, they can and will put anybody in their way against the wall. It’s a Psychological Operation that needs constant refreshment or the effect with depreciate and degrade.

    [Reply]

    fotrkd Reply:

    @ admin

    “You’ve got the watches, but we’ve got the time” – sounds like a terrifying phrase Duzsl
    could utilise.

    admin Reply:

    A significant proportion of the Taliban activity is probably better described as ‘guerrilla warfare’ than as ‘terrorism’ because it is plausibly directed towards seizing state power. It’s hard — or impossible — to understand attacks on the US homeland in the same way. There’s an overlap, of course, but the distinction is especially relevant to questions of strategic purpose.

    Posted on April 23rd, 2013 at 9:23 am Reply | Quote
  • Federico Says:

    Driven to kill by brutalist architecture

    It could be a motivating factor.

    Second, the way of life that grows under the aegis of the shari‘a is profoundly domestic, without any public or ceremonial character except in the matter of communal worship. The mosque and its school, or madrasah, together with the souq or bazaar, are the only genuine public spaces in traditional Muslim towns. The street is a lane among private houses, which lie along it and across it in a disorderly jumble of inward-turning courtyards. The Muslim city is a creation of the shari‘a—a hive of private spaces, built cell on cell. Above its rooftops the minarets point to God like outstretched fingers, resounding with the voice of the muezzin as he calls the faithful to prayer.

    I mention these two features because they are often overlooked, despite their enormous importance in the psychology and the politics of the Islamic world. The Muslim city is explicitly a city for Muslims, a place of congregation in which individuals and their families live side-by-side in obedience to God, and where non-Muslims exist only on sufferance. The mosque is the link to God, and the pious believe that no building should overtop the minarets, or destroy their mastery of the skyline. The true city lies huddled under God’s protection, and even the finest palace is no more than a private chamber, ordered by family rituals and sanctified by prayer.

    The image of such a city is familiar to all of us from the Thousand and One Nights, and also from the engravings and sketches of nineteenth-century travellers. And here and there the Muslim city still exists, ravaged by the modern styles of building and by the densely crowded jerry-built slums, but the image, for the ordinary believer, of a communal form of peace. Many a Muslim carries this image in his heart, and when he encounters the Western city, with its open spaces and public buildings, its wide streets, its visible interiors, its skyscrapers dwarfing the few religious buildings, he is apt to feel both wonder and rage at the God-defying arrogance that has so completely eclipsed the life of piety and prayer. It is not merely of anecdotal significance that, when the terrorist leader Mohammed Atta left his native Egypt for Hamburg to continue his studies in architecture, it was not to learn about the modernist buildings that disfigure German cities, but to write a thesis on the restoration of the ancient city of Aleppo, where the philosopher al-Farabi once resided in the court of a Hamdanid prince. When he led the attack against the World Trade Center, Atta was assaulting a symbol of economic, aesthetic, and spiritual paganism.

    [Reply]

    Posted on April 23rd, 2013 at 12:12 pm Reply | Quote
  • little hans Says:

    I agree with Handle, the perpetrator of the terrorist act often slides into the kind of mindset which would make them commit the final action incrementally, rather than as a one-time, balanced decision.

    However, the Terror Planner, who creates the cause and puts them there does look at the problem on a larger scale. This is where we need to look for a (warped) rationale. I propose the reason they encourage terrorist acts is that without them, they have no presence in the Cathedralist media – so abstractly, their choice isn’t between being seen as a ‘good cause’ or as ‘violent, partisan criminals’ but between having no recognition or some. The Chechens, through their violence, at least have gained acknowledgement of their struggle and are the most celebrated repressed-statelet in Central Asia. Sure, many more people despise what they have done than support it, but at least it has some kind of recognition. In the west, the same would go for AQ after 9-11.

    False flag claims become useful to those groups who have some voice in the Cathedral, albeit a very marginal one – they can hijack the event and promote their own position through the prism of their re-imagining without having to suffer the enmity that the perpetrator receives. This is especially true in the moments just after the attack, when there is a huge media space to fill, and very little content beyond a simple narrative how-it-happened.

    [Reply]

    Posted on April 23rd, 2013 at 12:24 pm Reply | Quote
  • Scharlach Says:

    I think it’s probably a mistake to be looking for meaning in between the Motives of the Terrorists (foreign, especially) and the We Are Vindicated games played by the Western targets. I just can’t bring myself to believe that terrorists are all that cognizant of the game you so succinctly described, or if they are, it doesn’t matter to them. Did these Chechen brothers give any thought to how their action would be framed and played out by the status-whores of the Cathedral and the nationalists on right-wing radio? Did Timothy McVeigh think about it? I really don’t think so.

    Their reasons—the motives of all terrorists—are inscrutable and legion. “Political agency” (or lack thereof) is, in my opinion, a convenient cover. Terrorism is simply the random manifestation of the violence and tribalism that we in the neoreaction accept as part of the human condition. Western Society has advanced so far, of course, that such violence and tribalism has been mitigated to a great extent. (When it spills over, we’re shocked! There are places in the world where such a bomb blast is as newsworthy as taking a shit.)

    The question “who benefits?” is largely divorced from the raw fact of violent outbursts masked in ideological garb. Hence why I ignore the conspiracy theorists. A better question, perhaps, is “who can make the most of it?”

    [Reply]

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 at 12:02 am Reply | Quote

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