Debunking the Myths of Terrorism

  Follow Debunking the Myths of Terrorism

You’re probably wondering what the hell is a post about terrorism doing on a primarily IT oriented blog? Well, I got interested in the term cyber terrorism. I want learn more about this term: is cyber terrorism possible, how to fight against it, etc.

To get an answer to questions on cyber terrorism, I wanted to look at the basics: what terrorism is and is it a real threat. So, I visited a couple of sites that I usually use to learn something new and I found out about the course called Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice offered by the University of Leiden. I have to say that my recent volunteering experience had a huge impact of selecting this course over any other way of studying this subject. Seriously, the city Leiden is freaking beautiful!

I finished three weeks of the course in the last three days and now that I have some prior knowledge about the subject, I wanted to share with you some common assumptions about the terrorism and to clarify whether are they true or not.


What is terrorism?

This might be the biggest question in the field of terrorism to answer. Terrorism is a highly subjective term. We do not have a widely accepted definition of this term and this has proven to be one of the major obstacles in actually fighting against terrorism. After all, how can you fight against something if you cannot properly define it?

There are different reasons why this term is hard to define, but because I want this article to be short and straightforward, I’ll skip writing about those reasons now.

For the sake of actually writing the rest of this article, I will borrow the definition from the Oxford dictionary, mostly because this definition seems like the easiest one to understand:

Terrorism is the unofficial use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Assumption no.1: Terrorism is caused by poverty

This is a myth. Nothing else. There are lots of examples of wealthy terrorists. There are no direct links between terrorism and poverty what so ever. It is true in some individual cases, but poverty is not the root cause of the problem.

Why is it important to beat this assumption? Well, if this assumption was true, then we would have a pretty straightforward way of actually fighting against terrorism. Terrorism would be yet just another reason on why we should fight against the poverty in the third world countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Assumption no.2: Terrorists are crazy

In this assumption, we again face the problem of actually defining the terms such as “crazy” and “insane”. Both of those terms are highly subjective.

It is easy to assume why we assume that the terrorists are crazy. After all, it is hard for us to realize that the rational person (someone just like you and me) could ever do such a thing as killing (mostly) innocent people to achieve certain goals.

However, I do have to disappoint you. Although this assumption is not a myth, it is false. Terrorism is a rational behavior making terrorists rational actors that kill to achieve certain political goals.

“They [terrorists] are not depressed and not severely emotionally disturbed, nor are they crazed fanatics. In fact, terrorist groups and organizations regularly weed out emotionally unstable individuals. They represent, after all, a security risk.”

Why is it important to debunk this myth? Well, if it were true, and if the terrorists were really crazy, then there would be no point in fighting against terrorism. We could not investigate their motives. It would mean that they’re simply crazy. And I think that you would all agree when I say that labeling crazy persons as potential terrorists and discriminating them because of that would not be really democratic.

Assumption no.3: Terrorism is increasingly lethal

Here, we will have to divide this assumption in two pieces:

  1. There are more terrorist attacks than ever before.
  2. Terrorist attacks kill more people than ever before.

If this assumption proves to be true, then it is easy to say that we have to devote more means to fight against terrorism than ever before. If this assumption proves to be false, then it is easy to say that it might be better to spend more money and resources on something else.

So, is the terrorism becoming more lethal? Well, yes and no. The worldwide number of terrorist victims worldwide has its ups and downs over the years. The number of victims has not increased after 9/11 as many people assume it did. However, the number of victims per attack has increased.

We can say that this assumption is partially true. Number of victims per attack is increasing, but the worldwide number of terrorist victims per year is not going straight upwards.

Assumption no.4: Terrorism is predominately anti-western

If we mistakenly assume that this is true, we could make anti-western groups even bigger than ever before, we could increase the struggle between Christianity and Islam and this could lead to generalization and stereotyping against certain groups.

As you can see, this assumption is highly delicate. However, it is not really true. We do have a higher number of threats against the western world than ever before. But lets look at the actual number of victims. Between 2005 and 2010, somewhere between 82 and 97% of all terrorist victims worldwide were actually Muslim. Most of them were victims of separatist groups in places where Muslim population is a majority, places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, some central parts of Africa and southern parts of Russia.

As a conclusion, the number of anti-western threats is increasing, but the majority of the actual victims of terrorist attacks are not located in the western parts of the world.

Assumption no.5: Terrorism is successful

To fight against this assumption, first we have to define what makes a terrorist attack successful. Is it the number of casualties? Is it the ability to spread fear? Is it the number of cases where terrorists managed to fulfill their political goals?

It is surprising to know that only 7% of the time terrorists actually managed to accomplish their political goals. Of those 7%, majority of the attacks were conducted against military victims, not civilians. In fact, if we look at the stats, we can safely say that if the terrorist group attacks civilians, their chances of actually achieving their political goals are negligible.

But are terrorists actually succeeding is spreading fear? Surprisingly, the number of people that are worried about themselves or the members of their family actually becoming victims of the terrorist attack is not increasing in the western world. It remains pretty much the same now as it did prior to 9/11. Of course, it is true to say that this number was peaking right after the 9/11 attack. But, apart from that, nothing is changing. Somewhere between 25 and 42% of people in the U.S. are concerned of becoming the victims of a terrorist attack. The number is way lower in European countries. The situation was pretty much the same prior to 9/11.

“Terrorists often succeed tactically and thereby gain attention, cause alarms, and attract recruits. But their struggle has brought them no success measured against their own stated goals. In that sense, terrorism has failed, but the phenomenon of terrorism continues.”

So, is the fear justified?

“Between 1981 and 1986, more news stories were broadcast [by the three TV networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC] on terrorism than on poverty, unemployment, racial inequality, and crime combined.”

The propaganda against terrorism is strong. It is stronger than ever. Terrorism, on the other side, is not. Terrorism is a threat, but it is not as big of a threat as medias, politicians, and public figures make it.

“The main education of the public on terrorism is via the media and frequent misuse of the word will result in it becoming a meaningless cliché.”

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