Terrorism as Political Ideology
By Dr. Ronald Meinardus*
In my position as the Resident Representative of the FNF, I receive
various invitations to educative and other events on a more or less
daily basis. Your invitation stands out for at least two reasons.
First, it relates to an activity in Mindanao – and coming from (imperial)
Manila, I must confess that my visits to this part of the country
are far too rare. Second, you actually invited my as a resource
person. As the head of a funding institute (and, therefore, master
over a certain amount of money) I usually get well crafted letters
soliciting our financial sponsorship – and only that. So thank you
for asking for my intellectual contribution.
Still, I must confess: I was puzzled when I first saw the invitation
letter signed by Executive Secretary Gerry Cano and his polite request
that I share with you my thoughts on “Terrorism as Political Ideology”.
I have many immediate concerns and dealings with political ideologies
– and particularly one political ideology – but this is light years
away from terrorism, yes, it is the exact antithesis of terrorism.
I am proud to profess I am a liberal. And I am happy to work for
a Foundation whose main – and only purpose – is the promotion of
A good speech usually begins with a joke. But, while I like joking,
today’s subject is much too serious to start in that manner.
Another good alternative for the beginning of a speech is to look
at the topic and offer some definitions. This is exactly what I
intend to do.
There exist different ways of defining an object or a concept,
one is by describing the antithesis, the direct opposite. As I said
earlier, the exact opposite of terrorism is liberalism. Therefore,
I will delineate the key concepts and core values of liberalism
– and from there we can move on:
- Freedom of the individual (and responsibility)
- Human Rights and equal opportunities
- The Rule of Law
- Democracy, majority rule and protection of minorities (the right
- Pluralism, Tolerance and the separation of church and state
- Market economy and the respect for private property
- Dialogue and peaceful means of conflict resolution
These principles, today, more or less, constitute the basis of all
liberal democracies. If liberal democracies have deficiencies (and
there are obviously such deficiencies in the Philippine democracy),
the reason in most cases is a lack of respect for the above mentioned
These principles, as we will see, are rejected by terrorists of
After this indirect definition, let’s look for a straight forward
definition of terrorism. In many international fora, diplomats fail
to reach a commonly acceptable definition – and usually the main
reason is whether the definition should apply only to organizations
or also to sovereign states.
I hope, we will not get stuck there, and I also hope that we can
all live with the definition offered by the Secretary General of
the UN, Kofi Anan, as presented in his address to the International
Summit on “Democracy, Terrorism and Security” on March 10, 2005
in Madrid, Spain:
“Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death
or serious bodily harm to civilians and non-combatants, with the
purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government
or an international organization to do or abstain from any act.”
Before we move on, a word of clarification regarding Political
Ideology. There exist various concepts of Ideology, and it really
depends on the political, historical and even national context.
In Germany, for instance, due to very specific historic circumstances,
ideology is a negatively tainted word and associated with dogmatism.
But in other societies, this is different. In general terms, an
ideology is an organized collection of ideas, or even more general
“a way at looking at things” in the sense of “Weltanschauung”. No
doubt, there exists a terrorist ideology – although this – and many
other things related to terrorism – has changed over times.
2. The fundamental terrorist strategy
As I said before, terrorism is a violent action or set of actions
(usually by non-state actors) aimed at promoting a political objective.
By this definition, the terrorist force in terms of factual power
is inferior and outnumbered in relation to the state it is targeting.
One strategic advantage of terrorists is that they operate in the
underground and attack with surprise.
The terrorist strategy is mainly focused on creating psychological
impact and effects. Terrorists typically are not out to conquer
territory or control these. Usually, terrorists aim at shocking
and intimidating individuals or groups of individuals. Thereby,
they often select targets of a high symbolic value, thereby provoking,
even humiliating their opponent. Terrorists, typically, have no
concern for innocent victims, to the contrary attacking and killing
innocents is a tactic to spread fear and anguish, and, yes, to terrorize
Typically, terrorists perceive themselves as being an elite or
and avant-garde fighting for the liberation etc. of the people or
a section of the people. It is typical that they haven’t a democratic
mandate in any form. They do what they do in a consciousness of
moral supremacy. They need this perception of moral supremacy (and
superiority) in order to justify the immorality of their terrorist
The terrorist strategy is basically an indirect strategy. Terrorists
don’t reach or promote their objectives by their primary attacks,
but much more through the responses and reactions of their foes.
The strategy of the terrorist is to provoke a reaction by the opponent
which will also affect innocent civilians and – in consequence –
lead to estrangement and loss of legitimacy. The tougher and more
brutal the reaction of the state, the more successful the terrorist
strategy may be called.
In this strategy of provoking a reaction by a well planned action,
the media play a central role. There are those who argue that terrorism
is basically a communications strategy. While that may be too one
sided, I believe that terrorism as we know it today, would be inconceivable
without the power of the global media, and particularly the global
3. Variants of terrorism
While in more recent years we have come to associate (even equate
terrorism with radical Islamism), this simplification is not appropriate.
While the Islamist challenge is, no doubt, the issue of the day
(and will remain so for years to come), there have been and continue
to be other variants of terrorism.
Basically, we should differentiate between secular and religiously
motivated terrorism. The secular variant is typically driven by
ideological objectives (socialism, fascism, anti-imperialism etc)
or nationalistic objectives (separatism, autonomy). Typical for
this variant of terrorists is that they have a clear and relatively
confined perception of who their enemy is: typically, this could
be the military, the police, members of the entrepreneurial class
or other public figures. On the other hand, terrorist organizations
with a religious objective have a much wider concept of the enemy.
This may lead to a perception in which every single member of a
different religion or creed becomes a potential enemy or target.
Seen historically, the religious variant of terrorism has been
gaining strength and is at the center of our discussions today.
Apart from the mentioned ideological versus religious dichotomy,
it may be worthwhile to look at a second set of variables or variants
- and these pertain to the geographical scope of the terrorist organizations.
In a study by the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik”, a security
policy think tank in Germany of 2002, the author differentiates
between national, international and transnational terrorism.
National (or internal) terrorism may be defined as politically
motivated violence by terrorists inside the confines of one state,
where victims and perpetrators have the same nationality. This is
the common variant of terrorism if we consider the context of various
anti-colonial struggles and separatist movements. More timely examples
would be the ETA of the Basques, the IRA of Northern Ireland, the
PKK of Kurdistan, the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) of Germany or the
17. November of Greece. These groups all have one thing in common:
their objective is to change the situation in the respective countries,
their attacks were – with a few exceptions – confined to targets
in these countries.
With one exception (ETA and possibly the PKK), all these groups
have basically been neutralized by state authorities.
Terrorist groups have learned from this experience – and one of
the strategic adjustments has been a stronger international orientation
and networking. This, one may observe in the case of Kashmir/India,
Sri Lanka (LTTE), Nepal, Spain and also the Philippines. It would
be a misconception to call the terrorist groups in these countries
local or national – they all have spread out and internationalized.
This internationalization has implications also as to the targets
and victims. While national terrorist organizations target national
targets, groups with an international perspective broaden their
targets. The classical example of this internationalization of a
local terrorist organization has been the Palestinian groups in
the late 1960s. Then, the PLFP and “Black September” deliberately
decided to widen their scope by hijacking airplanes (the first such
hijacking occurred in 1968, one year after the Six-Day-War) and
the attack against the Olympic Games in Munich (1972).
Related to this, international terrorist organization also became
a factor in international relations. They were supported by state
governments to destabilize or weaken other governments; or they
were supported by major powers who used them for their own geo-strategic
plans. Don’t forget, these were the times of the Cold War and the
confrontation between the USA and the SU. But typical for international
terrorist organizations of those days was the focus on national
The third variant of terrorist groups – the transnational terrorism
– is international regarding operations, but the objectives have
broadened. El Qaida (meaning “the base”) is the mother of what I
will call transnational terrorism. It was founded in the late 80ies
in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and supported by the secret services
of both the US and Pakistan, who saw the group as an instrument
to fight Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
According to estimates, up to 50 to 70 000 fighters from no less
than 55 different countries were trained in El Qaida camps. I haven’t
the time to give details of the various phases of El Qaida’s history.
But it is a stunning and mind boggling development to see how a
former ally of the West (and the U.S.) has turned over the years
to become its biggest enemy.
This dramatic development is best exemplified with the changes
in the primary objectives of El Qaida: In the early years, the group
aimed at expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan. Once this was accomplished,
they focused their attention on fighting what they perceived as
the “corrupt regimes of the Arab world.” Finally, the objective
changed to fighting and targeting those who are considered to be
the main outside supporters of those regimes – a clear reference
to the U.S. with its very substantial strategic interest in that
part of the world.
Of programmatic relevance in the context of this strategic change
are two fatwas – or religious rulings - by Osama Bin Laden: The
first (1996) entitled: Declaration of War Against the Americans
Occupying the Land of the Holy Places and the second of 1998
entitled Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
In both documents, the U.S. and its allies are declared principal
enemies, as they are said to be responsible for the suppression
of the Muslims. Therefore, a precondition for the liberation of
the Muslims, is the defeat and the expulsion of the U.S. from the
Importantly, in the 1998 Declaration, the differentiation between
civilian and military targets was explicitly lifted. To kill Americans
and their allies is a personal/individual obligation for every Muslim,
the paper says.
Shortly thereafter, in August 1998, the US embassies in Tansania
and Kenia were bombed with horrific civilian casualties.
As mentioned earlier, the objective of transnational terrorism
is no longer confined to the national order in one specific state,
but is aims at changing the international political order. The declared
goal of El Qaida is the elimination of Western influence from the
Arab and Islamic world.
El Qaida promotes a pan-Islamic ideology. It professes to speak
not only for the Arab world but for all Muslims, including converts.
The ideology is strongly influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers,
a fundamentalist movement which aspires a return to the “Golden
Age” of former times in which the Holy Book was considered the law
of the state. The creation of Islamic states is a central objective
of this ideology.
According to its critics (mainly in the West), this ideology leaves
no space for conciliation, dialogue and compromise with members
of other faiths. Accordingly, there exists only one pure doctrine,
and it is the holy duty of the believer to fight against the infidels.
The incarnation of the infidel is the US, whose hegemony and influence
– in the eyes – of El Qaida ideologues - must be destroyed and replaced
by a true Islamic order.
4. Strategies for Confronting Terrorism
Confronting terrorism has become the number one issue in many countries
and also of international relations. This alone, may be termed a
major success off the terrorist campaign(s).
Governments of the world have convened on various occasions to
discuss concerted responses to the challenge. I started my talk
with a reference to an important speech by the Secretary General
of the United Nations, and I wish to come to an end also by sharing
with you the perspective of the world organization.
At their discussions in Madrid in March 2005, the international
leaders came up with a five-point comprehensive strategy, also known
as the five “Ds”:
- Dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism to achieve
- Deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks
- Deter states from supporting terrorists
- Develop state capacity to prevent terrorism
- Defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism
In general terms, a broad consensus has evolved regarding the importance
of these five elements. On the other hand, major differences, particularly
in the Western hemisphere, have sprung up regarding the last point
referring to human rights.
At this point, I am talking not only as a liberal but also as a
European. Unfortunately, a rift has opened between the governments
of some European states and the United States as to the implications
of the inviolability (and sanctity) of the protection of human rights
even under the difficult conditions of terrorist threats.
From a liberal view point, we should never sacrifice or infringe
on human rights, for if we do that, we would hand victory to the
terrorists and the enemies of freedom.
It is against this background, that liberals cannot accept what
the U.S. authorities have been doing at Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds
of suspects, be they prisoners of war or alleged war criminals,
are held in detention without any satisfactory explanation of their
And lastly: In contrast to the perception of many Europeans and
their governments, the present U.S. Administration regards the war
against terrors as primarily a military problem that calls for a
military solutions. In this context, the war against terror has
been and continues to be used as an explanation (and legitimization)
of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Europeans see this
differently, and perceive terrorism not exclusively as a military
threat that can be overcome with military power. Some European security
agencies perceive a growing tendency of self-radicalization and
self-recruitment of young Muslim militants, many of whom are actually
living in the very midst of European societies. Superficially, the
experts assert, the radicalization is religiously motivated. Other
sources of Muslim extremism are social and political alienation,
the sense of being excluded from society and unemployment.
Add to this the drama of what may easily be perceived as an escalating
“clash of civilizations”, and you get a situation in which also
individuals with a college education get involved in terrorist activities.
Kofi Anan: A Global Strategy for Fighting
Terrorism, Keynote Address to the Closing Plenary of the
International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security, Madrid,
Spain, 10. March 2005
Paul Berman: Terror and Liberalism, New York 2003 (W.W.
Maria A. Ressa: Seeds of Terror. An eyewitness account of
Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia,
New York 2003 (Free Press)
Ulrich Schneckener: Netzwerke des Terrors. Charakter und Strukturen
des transnationalen Terrorismus, Berlin 2002 (SWP-Studie
2002/ S 42)
*Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the former resident
representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Philippines