'Scaring People May Be the Only Way to Avoid the Risks of New-Style Terrorism'; Claims That Our Leaders Are Playing the "Politics of Fear" Are Misconceived. Society Could Easily Weather Attacks from the Likes of the IRA; Just One from Al-Qaeda Could Be Devastating

By Giddens, Anthony | New Statesman (1996), January 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Scaring People May Be the Only Way to Avoid the Risks of New-Style Terrorism'; Claims That Our Leaders Are Playing the "Politics of Fear" Are Misconceived. Society Could Easily Weather Attacks from the Likes of the IRA; Just One from Al-Qaeda Could Be Devastating


Giddens, Anthony, New Statesman (1996)


The current debate about terrorism, including its implications for civil liberties (which were recently highlighted by the law lords' denunciation of British ministers for imprisoning foreign nationals without trial), is vitiated by a failure to distinguish between two types of threat. One type I shall call old-style terrorism--with which we have been familiar for decades. It was practised by groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy or Baader-Meinhof in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is more commonly associated with nationalist struggles, usually involving "nations without states". It is the sort of conflict associated with Northern Ireland, the Basque country, Quebec or Kashmir.

Such terrorist activity is linked to specific, local objectives. The level of violence is often relatively low--more civilians died on the roads in Northern Ireland during the Troubles than from terrorist violence. Old-style terrorism can become more violent and destructive where it shades into something closer to civil war, as in Israel/Palestine or Sri Lanka.

Old-style terrorism dates back at least as far as the rise of the modern nation state in the 18th century. Globalisation has changed its nature. It can now have far-flung networks of support and finance: the IRA got funding from sympathisers in the US, Libya and other countries, and established links with terrorist groups and guerrillas in central and southern America.

New-style terrorism, however, is directly a child of the global age. Globalisation--meaning the growing interdependence of world society--is not just about the spread of markets and the increasing influence of cross-border financial institutions. It is driven primarily by the development of instantaneous electronic communications and mass transportation; and it is political and cultural, as well as economic.

Al-Qaeda and its activities form a prototypical example of new-style terrorism, but al-Qaeda is by no means the only group of its kind. Mary Kaldor, of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, has described al-Qaeda as being run in some ways as if it were a non-governmental organisation such as Oxfam or Friends of the Earth. The analogy cannot be stretched too far because NGOs are open and legitimate, while new-style terrorist groups are covert and illegal. Yet the similarities are striking. Both al-Qaeda-type organisations and NGOs are highly decentralised. They are loose networks, driven by a sense of mission that holds together disparate groups or cells across the world, which quite often act semi-autonomously. Both deploy up-to-date communications technologies to co-ordinate their actions and to promote their messages. They have home bases, but these are in principle mutable and diverse. The home bases of new-style terrorist groups are in failing states, but they may also get covert support from governments elsewhere.

The goals of the new-style terrorists are not local, but more far-reaching. Al-Qaeda's aims, as expressed in Osama Bin Laden's proclamations, are truly geopolitical. Bin Laden wants to see the "Crusader-Jewish alliance" driven out of Arabia, and ultimately proposes the re-creation of a caliphate running from Pakistan through to North Africa and southern Spain.

This is the first difference between new and old terrorists. The aims of the former are wider, but also vaguer, than those of the latter. That is why negotiation, much less settlement, is generally impossible. The second important difference concerns organisational capacity. New systems of communication, allied to rapid travel, allow groups to organise at a distance and to co-ordinate terrorist actions. The third difference is ruthlessness. New-style terrorists are prepared to kill thousands, even millions.

The fourth difference is weaponry. The internet allows anyone with the requisite technical knowledge and resources to develop weapons of high destructive potential. …

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'Scaring People May Be the Only Way to Avoid the Risks of New-Style Terrorism'; Claims That Our Leaders Are Playing the "Politics of Fear" Are Misconceived. Society Could Easily Weather Attacks from the Likes of the IRA; Just One from Al-Qaeda Could Be Devastating
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