Friday, October 05, 2012

Terrorism, cliche and teapots.

A friend tweeted a link to Stratfor article called "Terrorism Tradecraft" to me, asking for my thoughts on it. There's no way I can get my thoughts into 140 characters, so instead I might as well blog them here. Scott Stewart who wrote the article should certainly know his stuff, but to me the article is rather representative of unhelpfully pushing ill-fitting phenomena into certain frames. Once 'framed' that way, we might have a pretty picture to look at and study, but the frame shapes how we see the phenomena, we no longer see the shape of the phenomenon itself.

In this case, I can't think of a better word for the frame than "cliche". At home, I have a terrorist teapot. It scalds my hand or dribbles tea down the side, no more than any other averagely functional teapot and, hence, is no more dangerous. It is just a teapot that looks like a terrorist. It wouldn't be funny, and my sister wouldn't have bought it for me as a Christmas present, if we didn't all know what terrorists are supposed to look like. I also know what "tradecraft" means, I've read enough Len Deighton and John le Carré. You're not going to get through Checkpoint Charlie and successfully retrieve the microfiche from the dead letter box without the Stasi picking you out without good "tradecraft". The idea that there is an identifiable "terrorist tradecraft" is a conceit designed to encompass wildly different situations whilst keeping them wrapped up under the neat, if useless, bow of "terrorism". In a way Stewart makes exactly this point in his article but seems to miss the implications of it: he notes that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was essentially a small unit military operation. Probably a young infantry lieutenant studying at any decent war college would recognize the "tradecraft" (the tactics) used. What this has to do with, say, Mohammed Sidique Khan or Anders Behring Breivik deciding to attack London and Oslo respectively, I don't really know. If there was "tradecraft" to compare it to, it should perhaps be the Navy SEALs assaulting Bin Laden's house in Abbottabad, or the SAS taking back the Libyan Embassy in London. That the "tradecraft" of Ansar al-Sharia's small unit tactics and Sidique Khan deciding to blow up the Tube are somehow connected is only the result of the frame that we, as observers, put on two different events separated in time and space; the same frame that makes my teapot mildly amusing. I think this frame has much to do with Hollywood now as it does to what, problematically, could be called "real life". We just 'know' what terrorists are like, therefore we then look for things that connect them - in this case their 'tradecraft'. The very obvious danger here is that because we 'know' what terrorists are like, when real life doesn't look like that image, we don't see terrorism - Anders Behring Breivik and Wade Michael Page (the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooter) being cases in point.

So the concept of "terrorism tradecraft" just seems a pretty useless classification. There is now lots of evidence of particularly bomb making technologies spreading through Jihadi chains - from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan or from one group to another. But of the terrorist attacks seen in the West, both the tactics used and the ways individuals or groups decided on them is too diverse to claim there is a tradecraft somehow indicative of terrorism. I simply don't think it is identifiable as separate from the methods used by other evil/crazy/both dudes blowing people up or shooting them. Breivik showed all too clearly that you do not have to gain bomb making training from al Qaeda to build a successful large bomb. But considering that his bomb accounted for only 8 out of his 77 murders, it wasn't a huge step up from the horrific bombing of the Myyrmanni shopping centre, here in Helsinki in 2002, by the 19 year old Petri Gerdt. Gerdt killed six innocents including a 7-year old child along with himself. There are bad people who want to do bad things, and some will do them. How they do those bad things will differ, there is no body of method we can call tradecraft.

But the cliche doesn't stop on that level; the article notes the importance of "operational security" for terrorists. Alternatively, and less self importantly, this could be called "the importance of not being an idiot and getting caught". Potential terrorists who are stupid, get caught (or blow themselves up along the way). Indeed, the FBI has become unsurprisingly adept at catching really stupid wannabe terrorists - (hint to aspirant but intellectually challenged [that means 'stupid', stupid.] wannabe terrorists: spraying on the internet your hate of the West and love for OBL is not good "operational security", you can have that as a freebie). Calling it "operational security" is spy movie cliche, it doesn't help us define anything. Not being stupid isn't terrorist tradecraft, it is simply not being stupid.

Six years and a day ago it turns out, I wrote about the terrorism industry. Plus ça change... Actually, that was more about the private sector trying to find ways to make money out of governments spending on 'counter-terrorism initiatives' and the like. This is more a question of the academic and para-academic area of "Terrorism Studies"; of which the Stratfor article is (just?) within that field. Some high quality research is being done, and some not so high quality. There is though plenty of discussion on the more meta questions involved in studying terrorism. There is even now a sub-field of "Critical Terrorism Studies" aimed at deconstructing Terrorism Studies - looking at the unanswered but inherent questions in the field (although I trust the irony of creating an industry to comment negatively on another industry isn't lost on the participants). But, as ever, the issues should define the field of analysis, not the field define the issues. Let's keep "tradecraft" in the spy movies and describe what violent political extremists actually do rather than what we would like them to be doing for reasons of analytical neatness.

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