Know thy enemy —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Modern states cannot afford to surrender to terrorists. Sri Lanka has admirably held itself against the Tamil terrorist groups. Other states have also learnt the same lesson: there is no alternative but to fight back and for as long as it takes to establish peace and order

Terrorists operate with strategic logic. If they commit acts of violence against unsuspecting civilians, police and other security forces, it is to achieve well-defined political objectives. The groups engaged in terrorism can represent a wide range of political ideologies, religious beliefs, and other intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally propelled agendas. Such groups can be numerically large or small, and may enjoy popular support or be subjects of widespread loathing. Operating in different geographic, political, and cultural environments, they adopt different means and rules of engagement.

But all of them have one thing in common – a politically geared challenge to, and in defiance of, the nation-state’s monopoly over armed violence and coercion.

Members of terrorist groups are frequently prepared to kill and die for their struggles and, as sociologists would attest, that presupposes a sort of conviction and mindset that has come into conflict with the modern age.

Additionally, any discussion of terrorism is often deflected by the argument that there is no agreement on what terrorism is and what it is not.

Let us define terrorism as the threat or use of violence for political purposes by individuals or groups – whether acting for, or in opposition to, established governmental authority – that intend to shock, stun, or intimidate the population and the state. The objective is to coerce the state and society into acceding to certain demands.

It is almost universally accepted that terrorists of all political shades and ideologies, no matter what their motives, are enemies of humanity, and they deserve no sympathy. Unfortunately, until recently, this was not a popular view in our part of the world where most of the terrorist networks have emerged to apparently avenge wrongs of the past.

The argument that terrorism is a weapon of the weak against the strong looks trite, stale and devoid of any meaning. The real question that should be asked is: what is the moral or political justification for targeting innocent civilians? That is a problematic question as unfortunately some cultures, communities and even states have often used this deadly weapon to punish and coerce adversaries into capitulating on some issues.

But has terrorism been effective as a political and military strategy in achieving stated goals? Perhaps it has brought the grievances of disenchanted groups before the world or fuelled publicity for such groups. But while terrorists have inflicted pain on states and societies, they have not achieved the objectives they set before themselves. And the world community is closing their ranks to defeat such groups no matter what its takes.

An overwhelming number of people around the world rightly regard terrorist acts as crimes against the all of humanity. And in view of what has been happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must disregard the terrorists’ religious beliefs, political agenda or grievances.

There can be, and are, alternative ways and means to address grievances; terrorism is reprehensible, inhuman, and ultimately works against the interests of the communities that the terrorists claim to represent.

Modern states, though sometimes appearing weak and helpless, cannot afford to surrender to terrorists. Sri Lanka has admirably held itself against the Tamil terrorist groups. Other states have also learnt the same lesson: there is no alternative but to fight back and for as long as it takes to establish peace and order.

Terrorists are emerging as new enemies of the state that pose a grave challenge to its internal security and stability. They use disaffection of populations as a ploy to garner sympathy and support among local communities.

But quite often it is their fear, the thunder of guns and acts of brutality – not conviction and sympathy – that force local populations to embrace the terrorists. Herein lies the obligation of the state to free communities of this fear and liberate them by denying any territorial space to the terrorists.

There is a sobering lesson that we should not forget when facing up to the terrorist challenge; no country, however big or powerful, is safe from highly motivated and determined terrorists. All countries are vulnerable to terrorism and have a common ground to work together to fight against it. It also needs to be understood that no single country alone can fight this war and hope to win.

While maintaining a credible force structure and political will to use military means against terrorist groups, we must be aware that punitive strikes or retaliation against a specific group or network may only give us temporary relief and some satisfaction in revenge. But in all situations of military engagement there is, and must be, a political objective. The objective of using force against terrorist groups should be to convey the message that they cannot win their war and that the state and its writ will prevail.

We need to carefully analyse the social, economic and political roots of terrorism and ask ourselves: why do some individuals become so determined to destroy thousands of other lives and even sacrifice their own? What motivates individuals to get involved in terrorist networks and prepares them to do whatever it takes to send a political message? These are difficult questions, but we cannot escape finding answers to them.

We must address the root causes of terrorism. Otherwise our gains in merely punishing it by military means will not last very long or take us very far. Some of the root causes may be: residue of historical grievances, deep sense of injustice, hopelessness, tyrannical leaders and their massive corruption, and poverty.

Political and economic means must complement the military instrument and efforts must be made to create a just and democratic society. Otherwise, success will be short, temporary and illusive.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

Daily Times, 1/7/2008

Leave a Reply