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The utilization of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by terrorist groups is one of the largest international security concerns of the 21st century. If terrorists were able to carry out an attack on a major city using biological weapons the casualties could number in the thousands. The delayed effects of these weapons and the fact that such modes of attack are easy to conceal make them even more dangerous.

History of Bio-Terrorism

Biological weapons have been in use since at least the sixth century B.C. From the poisoning of wells with fungi by the ancient Assyrians to the smallpox infected blankets given to Native Americans by the British, biological warfare has long been a weapon in the human arsenal.

In the 20th century this form of weaponry was taken to new heights. In World War I German agents infected Allied livestock with glanders, a disease caused by bacteria. Nations began to further weaponize biological agents during World War II. The infamous Japanese Unit 731 experimented on prisoners of war and Chinese citizens, as well as dropped bombs filled with plague-infected fleas on Manchuria. During the Cold War the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both created massive biological weapons programs. However, this biological arms race soon receded. By the mid-1980s most of the world’s nations had signed onto the Biological Weapons Convention banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.

In 1984 the first true biological terrorist attack occurred when members of The Rajneeshee cult attempted to influence a local election in an Oregon town by contaminating salad bars with salmonella. The attack sickened 750 people. Similarly, after their deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in Japan’s subways, the cult Aum Shinrikyo was discovered to have previously attempted to use other biological weapons on targets in Japan. In as many as ten attempts the cult sprayed biological agents on business or cultural targets and even an American naval base. Fortunately these attacks failed to produce any casualties since they used strains of anthrax that were of poor offensive quality.

The most destructive case of biological terrorism in the U.S., in terms of casualties, came in the months after 9/11. Only a few days after the attacks on New York and Washington, letters were mailed to various offices and individuals containing strains of the anthrax virus. Over the course of the next few months, fifteen people were infected and five died of anthrax poisoning. The investigation, which was only concluded in late 2010, found that an Army scientist had carried out the attacks. However, the case was never tried in court as the suspect claimed his own life in 2008. These attacks serve to highlight not only the deadly potential of biological attacks but also the disruption and panic they can cause.

The Threat of Bio-Terrorism

Biological weapons are easy to use covertly and take time to detect after use. They can be deployed though the mail, by just about any device designed to spray, through air-conditioning systems, or by contaminating food and water supplies. One Homeland Security Department scenario involving the use of concealed spray cans on a truck theorized that it would take at least a day for pathogen sensors in major cities to alert authorities. As well, the early symptoms of infection for many bio-weapon agents are similar to those of other common diseases and could be mistaken for the cold or flu, leading to initial mistreatment that would cost further lives. Biological weapons also have the ability to spread from victim to victim, making the potential for contagion immense.

The capacity for harm due to loss of life and adverse effects on society is massive. This makes biological weapons a tantalizing option for terrorists to try and obtain. Indeed, if the Aum Shinrikyo attacks had been successful, casualty numbers could have been in the tens of thousands. Al Qaeda has also been among the organizations that have tried to develop bio-weapon capabilities. The group had been paying various experts from Pakistan and Malaysia to develop anthrax for the group in the late 1990s with little success. In early 2009 it was reported that an Al Qaeda base in Algeria had been abandoned by the fighters there after an outbreak of bubonic plague, possibly from working to weaponize it (though this was never confirmed and could have been a natural outbreak).

Policy Responses of Bio-Terrorism

There are several pieces of both domestic legislation in the U.S. and international agreements that help address the issue of biological weapons and terrorism. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 is a piece of international law in which signatories agree not to develop, produce, seek, or stockpile biological weapons. The treaty currently includes 163 states. Domestically, the U.S.’s Project Bioshield Act of 2004 encouraged the development, production, and stockpiling of vaccines for diseases used in biological weapons, while the Bioterrorism Act of 2001 provided measures aimed at preparing for and streamlining responses to a biological attack. Even though there are strong measures in place aimed at responding to this form of attack and mitigating its effects, serious shortcomings remain as to the prevention of biological weapon acquisition by terrorists.

The BWC lacks mechanisms to ensure compliance and indeed there have been numerous cases of blatant disregard of the treaty by signatory states. The states that do abide by the treaty need to take a harder approach and press for more concrete measures towards implementing compliance. Currently the treaty only mandates that states “consult with one another to solve compliance concerns.” Better mechanisms, such as investigative bodies, need to be developed in order to ensure states are held responsible for any breach of the BWC. The agreements of the BWC are essential to preventing stockpiles of biological weapons that could be acquired by extremist groups.

Next, current supplies of infectious diseases need to be better secured. There are currently hundreds of “germ banks” around the world that keep cultures of infectious diseases on hand so that scientists can have access to them for research in order to create better vaccines or medicines. These cultures are shipped around the world to those that request them. However, in the past, poor oversight as to whom these germs were shipped and their intended use resulted in supplying unscrupulous parties with deadly microbes. It was from American germ banks that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq received the cultures used to develop its biological weapons program. While security has increased over the past couple decades, particularly at U.S. germ banks, efforts should continue to make sure that facilities around the world are careful in determining the parties to whom these cultures are sent.

As the intentional export of microbes remains a concern, the overall security of laboratories is an even bigger problem. Many facilities around the world that house deadly diseases have poor security and remain vulnerable to theft. Last year the U.S. sent a team of experts and officials to advise Kenyan and Ugandan governments on the threat of bioterrorism and how to better secure facilities within their own borders. Similar actions should be taken to assist and advise governments around the world on how to better secure germ holding facilities.

As the biotechnology field continues to grow and advance, ensuring that new technology does not fall into the wrong hands will become more crucial. Preventing terrorists from obtaining biological weapons or the means to produce them will continue to be one of the 21st century’s premier security concerns. Governments will need to cooperate more and hold each other accountable internationally in order to ensure that biological attacks, which can potentially cause casualties in the thousands and economic damage in the billions, never come to pass.

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Right-Wing Terrorism

Right Wing TerrorismBecause of the recent July 2011 attack in Norway, right-wing terrorism is once again brought to the forefront of international media attention.  This type of terrorism has been around for well over a century in the form of racist groups such as the Klu-Klux-Klan, however it is only relatively recently that this ideology has begun to motivate attacks that have led to significant casualties. Groups and individuals within these movements rarely carry out large-scale attacks and most are content to grumble at rallies or in online chat rooms about their grievances against the multicultural liberal societies in which they live. However, as the 2011 attack in Norway has been a grim reminder, there are members of these movements who are both willing and capable of carrying out violent attacks on a large scale.

History of Right-Wing Terrorism

Right-wing extremist groups have been around for a long time. The Klu-Klux-Klan was formed near the end of the Civil War and has persisted, in varying degrees, to this day. Neo-Nazi, fascist, and ‘skinhead’ groups have also been in existence since soon after WWII, spawning numerous offshoots and sister organizations.

However, it was not until 1980 that such right-wing violence began to be seriously characterized as terrorism.  It was then on August 2nd that explosions ripped though a Bologna, Italy railway station, killing 84 and injuring an additional 180 people. Less than a month later on September 26th another bombing occurred at Munich, Germany’s Oktoberfest, killing another 11 people and injuring 200. Finally in that same year on October 3rd a bomb went off in front of a synagogue in Paris, France killing four and injuring fourteen. All of these attacks were carried out by different neo-Fascist terrorist organizations indigenous to the countries that they perpetrated the attacks in. While in the aftermath of these attacks many European governments feared further bombings, violence on a similar scale never materialized.

Fifteen years later on April 19th, 1995 right-wing terrorism was again responsible for another major attack. It was on that morning that Timothy McVeigh parked a truck full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, fashioned into a bomb, in font of a government building in Oklahoma City and detonated it. The resulting explosion collapsed nearly an entire side of the nine-story building and killed 168 people. What largely seemed to motivate him was a fear of the government revoking Second Amendment rights to firearms, which only intensified after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas – a 50 day government siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound after allegations of stockpiling firearms – (during which McVeigh traveled to Waco and sold bumper stickers expressing support for the Branch Davidians). It was the tragic results of this standoff that seemed to be the catalyst for McVeigh’s violent actions. Indeed it was the FBI and ATF’s handling of the Branch Davidian incident that caused McVeigh to target the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which housed offices from both agencies.

Finally there are the recent 2011 attacks in Norway, perpetrated by Norwegian Anders Breivik. On July 22nd, 2011 Breivik bombed a government building home to the offices of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other prominent members of the left-wing Labour Party in Oslo, Norway’s capitol. The attacker then traveled to a nearby island that was host to a camp for young members also of the ruling left-wing party. Once there he proceeded to kill the campers using an automatic rifle and a pistol. In all, his attack killed 87 people that day before he surrendered to authorities and was arrested. The goal of his attacks was made apparent by a manifesto and power point presentation he made before carrying them out. Breivik saw liberal European governments as being infiltrated by people he referred to as Marxists and ‘multiculturalists’. Because of them, Breivik perceived European culture and Christendom as being threatened by Muslim immigration. Therefore he believed that his actions would be a call to arms for other Christians and immigration opponents to rise up and oppose liberal governments and their immigration policies around Europe.

Tactics and Targets of Right-Wing Terrorism

Right wing terrorism is characterized by attacks aimed at liberal-democratic governments and minority groups within them. Groups and individuals within these movements carry out attacks that are generally aimed at two kinds of targets. First many try and achieve some sort of political or social change involving the expulsion or degradation of immigrants and minorities in order to preserve a perceived cultural, racial, or social order. This was the case with all the groups that carried out the European bombings in 1980 and the attacks by Anders Breivik. The groups that perpetrated the Italian, German, and French bombings were neo-Nazi organizations aiming to discourage immigration to their countries or intimidate Jews living within them. Breivik saw liberal governments as allowing Muslim immigration to destroy western European religion and culture, and therefore attacked a government building and a left leaning political party’s youth camp.

Second, they employ terrorism to combat liberal governments that they see as following undesirable liberal policies or infringing upon their perceived rights as a citizen. While the full motivations were hard to glean from his convoluted political views, Timothy McVeigh mostly fell into this category. He thought the United States was in decline and that the government was to blame. He also greatly feared having his right to firearms being taken away, hence his disgust at the government’s treatment of the Branch Davidians, which eventually led to his desire to attack a government target in the hopes of catalyzing some sort of change.

As can be seen from the history, the most deadly right wing terror attacks utilize explosives in the form of improvised bombs and, in some cases, small arms. However, looking at only the major attacks belies the whole story. Dozens of attacks or attempted attacks occur every year but are minor enough to be left out of most mainstream news media reports. A list of dozens of attacks and plots since July 1995 has been compiled recently by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The attacks listed range from militia members and affiliates setting fire to IRS buildings in protest of tax codes to the attempted bombing of a Martin Luther King Junior Day parade by neo-Nazis. The full list can be found at SPLCenter.org. This illustrates that while major attacks are the biggest threat from right-wing terrorism, smaller attacks occur with shocking frequency and therefore need to be taken into account as well.

The Threat

While the small to medium sized attacks are important to address, it is the acts of major violence that are truly concerning, particularly since the perpetrators in a large portion of the events have been individuals and not groups or organizations. One or two men working without any other outside help have carried out the two deadliest right-wing terrorist attacks in the last twenty years. Anders Breivik claims that he was in contact with other ‘cells’ but so far no evidence has come to light to confirm that claim. It looks much more plausible that he acted as a “lone wolf”, in the same way that McVeigh and his accomplice did. This is particularly disturbing in that such lone attackers are extremely difficult to identify and stop before they act. Therefore, these right-wing “lone wolfs” pose the largest danger.

How to Respond to Right-Wing Terrorism

The best policy responses to combat right-wing terrorism are similar to those of other forms of domestic terrorism. Traditional policing and investigating go a long way in dealing with groups that attract extremist elements. Monitoring organizations that have a history or reputation for violence, such as the KKK or neo-Fascists, and then investigating those that may be making plans to carry out attacks reduce the chances of those groups successfully carrying out violent plans.

Individuals are much harder to detect and therefore harder to stop. Promoting vigilance on the part of the general population can help counterterrorist officials to spot an attack before it happens. As the analysis think tank, Startfor, has stated in some of its work on the subject, federal agencies like the FBI alone are not well enough staffed to notice every sign of a potential terrorist plotting an attack. It is therefore up to local police and, even more importantly, citizens to be on the watch for such activities.

It is also important to regulate the kinds of materials that terrorist can use in attacks. Both the Oklahoma City Bombing and Oslo attacks utilized bombs fashioned from ammonium nitrate fertilizer (which is commonly used by farmers and landscapers). It is for this reason that the current U.S. administration has recently undertaken steps to regulate the sale of large quantities of ammonium nitrate. As well, Breivik used “dum-dum” bullets in his attack on the summer camp. These bullets are designed to break apart inside the body and cause massive internal damage. Large quantities of this sort of ammunition should also be regulated to prevent future tragedies.

Looking forward, it is critical to note that anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise in many European countries. Even though some governments have responded to the anti-immigrant atmosphere by adopting more conservative policies, these opinions are still causes for concern. If radicals who share the views of Breivik feel that change has not occurred fast enough or to their liking, more acts of violence may follow.  This changing landscape in the West will need to be monitored in order to prevent future tragedies.

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Our two previous posts in this series (Types of Terrorism and Causes of Terrorism) have broadly outlined the different kinds of terrorism and some of its causes. This post will focus on one kind specifically that the general media often overlook. Eco-terrorism is today one of the most threatening forms of terrorism that the United States faces. Carried out not by foreigners but by citizens within America’s own borders, eco-terrorism has been used over the past decade through hundreds of attacks responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of damage across the U.S. 

History of Eco-Terrorism

Eco-terrorism has been around the UK since at least the late 1960s, migrating to the United States around a decade later. Over time eco-terrorism has grown into two primary sister organizations, The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and The Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The origins of ALF lie in British activists, who, in a non-violent manner, attempted to disrupt foxhunts in the late 1960s. From these activists came a more hardcore group willing to use violent tactics against those they see as harming animals. This group, called The Band of Mercy became one of the original implementers of fire bombing as a tactic first used at a research center in 1974. After two years the group’s most dedicated members created ALF. Around 1979 the movement migrated to the U.S., first with “liberation” actions aimed at releasing lab animals that then spread and grew into more violent actions, such as arson. Between 1979 and 1993 there were 313 such actions carried out by ALF and other related groups.

The Earth Liberation Front came about under similar circumstances. It evolved out of a group called Earth First! created in 1979.  Earth First!’s actions ranged from peaceful, such as “tree sitting”, to more violent, like “tree spiking” in which nails are placed in trees so that they create shrapnel when hit with chainsaws by loggers. In 1992, similar to the formation of ALF, several more radical members in favor of the more violent tactics created ELF. Throughout the 1990’s ELF carried out attacks in coordination with ALF, as well as its own towards the end of the decade.

Since their creation, ALF, ELF, and the offshoot organizations that have appeared with them have continued to use violence against property as a means of coercing corporations and the government into following actions more in line with their environmental philosophies. During a 2004 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee the then Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI stated that around 1,100 criminal acts with damages estimated at $110 million had been carried out in the United States by such organizations since 1976.

Tactics and Targets of Eco-Terrorism

On their websites both the ELF and ALF have stated three primary goals:

  • Educate the public about actions against animals or the environment that ELF/ALF perceive as immoral.
  • Carry out attacks that bring about economic damage to those who they see as taking any such actions.
  • Take all precautions possible to make sure that no animal “human or non-human” are injured.

In order to achieve their goal of inflicting economic damage in order to coerce, eco-terrorists commonly employ three kinds of actions. Most frequently vandalism is used in the form of spray painting slogans or breaking windows. According to the ELF’s own “Diary of Actions” on its website many of their early activities consisted mainly of gluing door locks and spray-painting messages at targets such as gas stations or fast food chains. Almost just as frequently, and to greater effect, these groups employ arson against structures that they see as detrimental to animals or the environment. The most notable of these actions were the attacks on Vail Ski Resort, Colorado in 1998 that cause around $26 million in damages and the 2003 burning of a La Jolla, California condominium complex with damages near $50 million. Finally sabotage is used to disrupt economic activity by damaging property ranging from equipment to buildings. ELF’s action diary describes a number of these in which vehicles at construction sites are rendered unusable in order to slow or halt housing developments perceived as urban sprawl.

The Threat

To date there have been no known fatalities from eco-terrorist attacks within the U.S. or U.K. These organizations tend to focus on property destruction in the hopes that their economic impact will deter the sort of behavior they oppose. However, these groups, or at least individuals within them, have threatened in the past to use violence against human targets. In 2003 the anonymous perpetrator taking responsibility for bombing a California company involved with animal research ended their message with “… There will be no quarter given, no half measures taken. You might be able to protect your buildings, but can you protect the homes of every employee?” The risk of these groups, or individuals, deciding to escalate their violent actions to include attacking civilians is therefore plausible.

Many of the people within these groups hold philosophical beliefs that oppose capitalism and modernization. Some also believe that human civilization should shift back to pre-industrial times as to preserve the environment. This could lead to individuals holding these beliefs to pursue more extreme tactics aimed at curbing population growth or causing mass damage to markets in an attempt to fight capitalism, which they see as detrimental to the environment.

Finally, as many within these movements oppose non-green energy sources, they may attempt to attack nuclear power facilities, which could lead to loss of life and major repercussions for surrounding areas. In 1989 four members of Earth First!, including one of its founders, were arrested by the FBI on charges of conspiracy to sabotage nuclear facilities. With the recent gulf oil spill and disaster at the Fukashima nuclear plant in Japan, eco-terrorists may see energy companies and infrastructure as a bigger threat to the environment than ever, thereby making them a bigger target.

Policy Responses to Eco-Terrorism 

The main difficulty in responding to groups like the ALF or ELF is their lack of a hierarchical structure. They have set themselves up as a cell structure in which each part of the group works independently of the others, often with no contact between them and no knowledge from one cell to the next. According to the organizations’ web sites, to join, an individual only needs to organize a cell and carry out an attack. However, this is also their weakness. As Jones and Eilstrup-Sangiovanni argue in “Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks”, cell networks are less effective than hierarchical organizations because they have little to no central planning causing a lack of direction by more experienced operatives and poor dissemination of information. As well, cells tend to exhibit poor decision-making capabilities due to the lack of clear authority or leadership and therefore take excessive risks. Finally, such small group structures can lead to factions with their own ideologies that may splinter off.

While the lack of centralized leadership makes these movements hard to take down as a whole, it also makes them easier to catch individually. One of the original American eco-terrorists, John Hanna in an interview with a supporter, responds when asked how he got caught for some of his 70s arson activities: “Good old-fashioned investigative techniques…”. While seemingly simplistic, such policing techniques are the best ones to use in the face of such a decentralized domestic terrorist organization. Since these groups are decentralized, underfunded, and under trained they are also prone to mistakes. These mistakes can be exploited by investigators at the FBI, and subsequent arrests result in causing the collapse of individual cells.

Therefore the best way to respond to domestic eco-terrorism is to provide law enforcement, particularly federal law enforcement, with enough resources so that they may concentrate on individual cells that form and carry out attacks. Target hardening is also a good response for businesses and other targets of these groups. Better security, fire retardant structures, and other such measures will make it more difficult for them to be attacked and will minimize damage done when they are.

Want to know more?

An excellent documentary has been released on ELF and we highly recommend it. You can find If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front on Amazon here.

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Political Roots of China’s Degradation – Judith Shapiro

China’s Transformations is a collection of essays that cover many of the current debates surrounding China’s rise. This is our summary of the second essay within the book.

Judith Shapiro explores the link between human suffering and environmental degradation while examining the Mao years (50).

Shapiro also seeks to explore the political connections between human rights and the environment (52).

The concern over the deteriorating environment has lead to an increasingly evident need to pay attention to connection between the environment and human rights.  Environmentalists and human rights activists are pursuing the same goals.  This is in contrast to the historical perception that these agendas are often in conflict with one another (53).

The Three Gorges Dam project illustrates this conflict. By its completion in 2006, roughly 2 million people were relocated, the world’s largest forced relocation in history. Many were denied fair compensation during the relocation. Generally, payments were withheld altogether or residents were compensated with poor land. Corrupt officials smothered a petition against the damn project and detained community leaders (51-52).

While the China’s constitution guarantees many rights such as free speech and freedom of association, this is usually denied in practice (53).

For local communities, the distinction between environmentalism and human rights activism is irrelevant (53).

In China, environmentalists must stay within their own sphere so as to not attract the fury of the state. Recycling, picking up trash, and promoting energy conservation are acceptable but linking these to human suffering results in termination of the organization by the government. Human rights activists typically work underground or outside of the country (54).

Shapiro notes that the resolution of environmental degradation and human rights can only be effectively solved with the liberalization of public discourse and abating fears of government retribution (54).

Public awareness of environmental degradation has grown over the years but this is secondary to economic growth for the government (55).

A growing frustration towards corrupt officials who work with the industries that pollute the land has resulted in an increase in protests. Petitioning government officials to expose corruption can be popular but brings its own risk such as intimidation by thugs and detainment by the corrupt official (56-57).

A lack of information impedes movements in support of the environment and human rights issues (58).

Some of the patterns seen today by the environment and human rights are still a reflection of the Mao years. Campaigns like the anti-rightist movement of 1957 and the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960 persecuted intellectuals and prevented them from providing vital insights and knowledge that China could have used today (59-60).

Mao believed the environment to be an obstacle that must be tamed to the needs of man. Maoist thought claimed tht tat revolutionary fervor could overcome any obstacle, whether that be the environment, humans, or the heavens (61).

Pursuit of these goals led to relocation of several thousands of people to inhospitable areas in order to make room for development. Additionally, deforestation of mountainous regions sometimes led to loss of topsoil, siltation of rivers, and even changes in rainfall patterns (61).

Scientists and experts were either forced to comply with Mao’s orders or placed into reeducation camps. This repression of intellectual freedom led to an insurmountable amount of human suffering that was both environmentally and ecologically destructive (61).

Since Mao’s death in 1976, the government has granted greater economic freedom and rights. However, this has led to an even more acute problem of environmental protection due to the pursuit of profit. There is speculation whether China’s opening to the west will result in even greater degradation, especially given increasing demand for energy and resources (62-63).

Ultimately there must be active and open participation by Chinese citizens to resolve the issues that plague China (62-65).

Our Response

Shapiro’s article does well explaining the dichotomous yet symbiotic relationship between human and environmental rights. While seemingly paradoxical at first, this is a relationship that can only be possible in China due to the government’s strict separation of human and environmental rights. The need for a more open and liberal forum in China for the public is also a very important theme  if China ever wants these issues to be effectively handled.  Both Judith Shapiro’s examinations of the state of environmentalism in China and her analysis of the Mao Zedong era provides an expansive context of the issues that face China today.

This article works well in that Shapiro covers a variety of different topics. She covers everything from environmental NGO rules, regulation and behavior, the political dangers of mixing human and environmental issues in China, and provides important historical context for the discussion. Shapiro’s paper (like many of the article and essay’s in China’s Transformations) should be viewed as an introduction or a primer to these issues; not necessarily an in depth review. Before the Deluge:  The Vanishing World of the Yangtze Three Gorges is an excellent introduction to the environmental costs which Shapirp talks about in her article.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese history, her inclusion of Mao era policies and environmental impacts may seem to come out of left field but can be seen as appropriate. Not only does it give background to the discussion at hand but also acknowledges the fact that Mao still retains a level of influence in China today. As mentioned earlier however, the primary use of this book is meant as an introduction to these topics and the Mao era has left such an indelible mark on Chinese identity and culture today that to ignore it would be an enormous grievance.

If you’d like an excellent primer on the social conditions in China, we highly recommend buying China’s Transformations: The Story Behind the Headlines on Amazon.

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Causes of Terrorism

In our Types of Terrorism post we laid out the different kinds of terrorism that exist. Here we discuss the causes of terrorism, or more specifically, why people become terrorists. In order to combat terrorism, we must first understand the drivers of terrorism. Identifying these drivers allows policy makers to target terrorism at its root causes rather than fight those who have already become radicalized.

The causes of terrorism have been under much debate. There is evidence for and against every reason on this list however, more often than not, it is a combination of several that lead to terrorism. Below are the most common causes cited by leaders in the counterterrorism field.

Causes of Terrorism


The desire of a population to break away from a government or ruling power and create a state of their own can cause the formation of terrorist groups. In the 20th century this was seen often times with regions or states attempting to gain independence from their colonial era masters. However, as Bruce Hoffman points out in Inside Terrorism, ethno-nationalist terrorism had been around decades before even the First World War. Perhaps the most notable of these groups, formed before and after WWII and inspired by the weakening of imperial powers, was the Jewish Irgun Avai Le’umi who fought British rule in Palestine so as to attain the creation of a Jewish state.

Today Hamas is one of the most active ethno-nationalist driven groups carrying out suicide bombings and attacks against the state of Israel with the goal of creating a Palestinian state. Chechen terrorist organizations are also ethno-nationalists for their attacks against the government and people of Russia in the attempt to form their own state.

Within many countries around the globe minority groups exist wishing to garner some form of independence, if not their own state altogether. Therefore ethno-nationalism will continue to be a significant source of terrorism. It is important to recognize this and counter it with more politically inclusive processes that can mitigate the grievances of minority groups, though some will inevitably continue to employ terrorism until they achieve their desired independent nation.

Alienation /Discrimination

Several authors on terrorism have pointed to a sense of alienation felt by diasporas, particularly those living in Europe as a driver of terrorism. Many times these groups face discrimination in the countries they reside, leading to further feelings of isolation. They commonly move from poorer countries, particularly Muslim states in the case of Europe, to wealthier ones to go to school or find work. As Marc Sageman discusses in his book Understanding Terror Networks, once in these countries they begin to feel alienated. The new host nation is substantially different than their own culture, and is usually much less community oriented. This causes alienated individuals to seek out communities with cultures like their home countries or others like themselves. These groups may become jaded towards society around them as they don’t fit in and feel excluded. Growing sentiments of discrimination can lead groups to look to more conservative, and eventually, extremist ideologies.

The Hamburg Cell, consisting of two of the pilots in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a perfect example of this. The cell included a number of expatriate Muslims studying in Germany who sought out other conservative Muslims to band together when they felt homesick in a Western society that was alien to them. This started them down the trail of radicalization as they became more jaded with the world around them.

Robert Leiken also discusses this phenomenon in his paper Europe’s Angry Muslims. Leiken points to both “outsiders,” Muslims who immigrated in order to study or seek asylum, and “insiders,” second or third generation Muslims in Europe. These groups are subjected to discriminatory social policies, such as the headscarf law in France, that then cause them to become radicalized.

The problem here, particularly in the case of Europe, is that many of these expatriates who become radicalized due to alienation from being in a foreign society also hold European passports and thus can travel within Europe with increased ease, as well as enter the U.S. much easier than non-Europeans. Therefore they pose not only a threat to Europe, but also to the United States.


Perhaps the most commonly held belief today is that terrorism is caused by religion. Though it is not the main cause for terrorism, religion does play a significant role in driving some forms of it. As Hoffman points out in Inside Terrorism, from the Thugs of ancient India that killed to terrorize in the name of the god Kali to the Jewish Zealots who cut the throats of Romans in public to combat their occupation of Israel, religion (in conjunction with political/ethno-nationalist drivers) has long been a factor of terrorism.

Today religion as a part of terrorism has been mainly attributed to Islamic fundamentalism (though other examples, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, also exist). As Sageman describes: “The global Salafi jihad is a world wide religious revivalist movement with the goal of reestablishing past Muslim glory in a great Islamist state stretching from Morocco to the Philippines, eliminating present national boundaries.”

As a driver of terrorism, the true danger that religious doctrine poses is its encouragement of attacks that are more violent in nature than other types of terrorism. By being promised rewards in the afterlife, terrorists are more likely to carry out suicide bombings and other such “all in” tactics that are harder to defend against.

Socio-Economic Status

Terrorists may also be driven by a sense of relative depravation and lack of upward mobility within society. Globalization and the modern media have given the ‘have nots’ an acute awareness of their situation compared to the ‘haves’. As Omer Taspinar states in Fighting Radicalism, Not “Terrorism,” “Globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities available elsewhere. This leads to frustration, victimization, and humiliation among growing cohorts of urbanized, undereducated, and unemployed Muslim youth who are able to make comparisons across countries.” Seeing the economic differences between themselves and the Western world can infuriate some in underdeveloped countries, increasing tension and hostilities. This allows terrorist organizations to gain attention and entry to societies that have felt wronged by these perceived social injustices.

Unfortunately the only real way to mitigate this is through economic development of the community, country, and region, but that takes time. For the foreseeable future there will always be those that are disgruntled by the comparison of living standards of the wealthy around the world versus their own, opening the doors to frustration and anger.  Thus, this driver is remarkably hard to combat as globalization allows for more mechanisms of comparison between varying global socio-economic levels.

Political Grievances

A lack of political inclusiveness in states or grievances against a certain political order may cause individuals to join or create terrorist groups. Left and right wing terrorists often seek to a political system. As well, many in nations with authoritarian regimes lack avenues for dissent.  Frustrated expressions of political will can turn to violence as an alternative to exclusive political systems. While somewhat similar to ethno-nationalist/separatist causes, these political grievances are not born from the desire to create a new state but to change the order within the current one.

In his piece, Taspinar describes this as a political dimension to relative depravation. In this light he sees political Islam as a reaction to such oppressive governments and its Western supporters. With the knowledge that other people around the world live in representative governments, the anger only grows among those who live without such political representation, leading disillusioned individuals into the arms of terrorism.

The implication here is that Western governments, in their support of repressive authoritarian regimes for their own national interest, have essentially made themselves targets of terrorism of an angered populace within these regimes, acting out violently as the only alternative to political expression.

The Accidental Guerrilla

Finally, there is the theory put forth about the “accidental guerrilla” by David Kilcullen. Kilcullen describes it as such: A terrorist organization moves into an area with poor government or that is conflict ridden (he uses Al Qaeda specifically), then uses this safe haven to spread their ideologies to other areas and as a base to carry out violent acts. When outside forces then intervene to deal with the threat posed to them by this group, this causes the local population to reject the ‘foreign invaders’ and ally with the terrorist group, thus creating more terrorists and popular support for terrorist movements. The cases of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq to counter Al Qaeda are the obvious examples here.

This theory poses strong questions about the viability of direct intervention in pursuit of terrorist groups by Western countries, and whether it causes more harm than good.

Further Readings:

While the information here gives a useful overview of the causes of terrorism, there is a large amount of literature out there regarding terrorism and its causes. The following are some good books and essays for further reading.


• Inside Terrorism – Bruce Hoffman

• The Accidental Guerrilla – David Kilcullen

• Understanding Terror Networks – Marc Sageman


• Rebuilding Weak States – Eizenstat, Porter, and Weinstein

• Using the Internet to Uncover Terrorism’s Root Causes – Joshua Sinai

• Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror – Michael Mousseau

Fighting Radicalism, Not ‘”Terrorism”: Root Causes of an International Actor Redefined – Omer Taspinar

• Europe’s Angry Muslims – Robert Leiken

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Trouble-Makers or Truth-Sayers – Martin Fackler

In the essay “Trouble-Makers or Truth-Sayers,” Martin Fackler recounts his time in China as a foreign journalist. While reporting on a nightclub fire in China, Fackler reveals the antagonistic relationship between the foreign press and the Chinese government as well as the characteristics of a state that is still struggling to adjust to a rising economy.

Ordinary Chinese citizens are characterized as being frustrated at a government that appears to be either corrupt or indifferent toward their concerns. A heavily censored state-run media has also lead to many of these citizens to distrust the government further, often supporting or seeking out foreign journalists as “agents of truth” (34).

China pushes the status of foreign journalists to the extreme in that they are often under strict surveillance, harassed, and coerced with “blatant attempts at intimidation” at times. Officially, foreign journalists are permitted to work without intrusion unless they violate government regulation that prohibits foreign journals from covering topics that endanger the national interest. In practice however, any reporter working on a politically sensitive topic is likely to be kept close under watch (33-39).

This antagonism also becomes apparent between the government and the Chinese people. Fackler notes that there is a polarity of ordinary Chinese people when interviewed by foreign journalists, condemning them for slander as well as embracing them as “agents of truth” (34).

While contacting people for information in China has gotten easier, officials and citizens alike are still reluctant to cooperate and provide the simplest facts. In part, the difficulty in cooperation is because China has had a history of a unilateral party system in which bureaucrats have ruled with an iron-fist. Disseminating any information that can be deemed slanderous has the potential of jail time or political suicide (37).

Another factor that contributes to this resistance is that people still remember the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Mao forced political dissidents or enemies to “confess” crimes of being an anti-revolutionary and were often beaten and humiliated, which has been termed “struggle sessions” (37).

Since 1979, officials have become progressively more selective in who they choose to put under surveillance, generally paying attention to those who are covering sensitive political topics. It is not uncommon to have cops in ordinary clothes shadow a correspondent or their contacts (34-35).

A strong solidarity has formed among foreign journalists in China more so than any other country that has produced a strong sense of “Us vs. Them” mentality towards the government. This relationship has resulted in a negative feedback loop, where  the government perceives the foreign press as overtly critical and slandering the party’s name whereas the press sees the government as an obstruction to the truth (47-48)

In casting a hardline tone towards both its citizens and foreign reporters, the government has experienced backlash in the form of a critical foreign press and a resentful population. This is in conjunction with inefficient services, and a general lack of safety (45-46).

Fackler argues that in order for this cycle to end, the Chinese government must move away from its repressive policies to a more technocratic rule. There are two Chinas. One is the modernized, urban version that the world has come to expect. The other is characterized by severe inefficiency through bureaucracy that lacks freedom of the press. In this way, Fackler hopes that China’s economic success will not be tarnished by the lack of political freedoms (48).


Seen as both an entertainment and an informative piece, Fackler’s article blurs the line between journalism and fiction.

As an entertainment piece, his account of trying to evade the Chinese government all in the name of truth paints an almost Orwellian story for the reader. In this world, an inept yet intrusive government constantly monitors the privacy and information of the public. While escaping the city late at night and submitting himself to the possibility of roadside bandits that inhabit China’s highways, Fackler is contacted by a random stranger from Israel who believes they are related. The absurdity of the situation of being attacked by bandits, chased by government officials, and talking to someone from Israel about family relations makes for an entertaining read.

The reader gains a new perspective of China from the eyes of a foreign correspondent, a view that is not usually realized by mainstream media. Entertaining and clever in how he weaves this information into the story, overall Fackler does a good job in explaining the distrust that continues on between the government, its people, and the foreign correspondents that report on these issues.

This does tend to blur the line of what is reality and what is fiction. Do Fackler’s attempts to entertain the audience for a good read get in the way of reality? China is notorious for keeping the flow of information tight and to Fackler’s credit, he does point out that things are slowly being liberalized in terms of information. My main issue however is that his writing style makes it difficult to determine where reality ends and story begins.

A major issue with the article involved Fackler’s main plot point. Throughout the article he recounts his experience of reporting on a recent nightclub fire. State-owned newspapers claimed the death toll was roughly 300 but later Fackler finds the number to actually be less than 100. Fackler never properly explains why the number is grossly exaggerated. The story as a whole exemplifies the distrust and anger Chinese citizens are feeling towards the government. But why the state would exaggerate the number so greatly is never explicitly explained and contradicts the country’s need to maintain the image of a maturing, growing economy.

If you’d like an excellent primer on the social conditions in China, we highly recommend buying China’s Transformations: The Story Behind the Headlines on Amazon.

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Social Experiments to Fight Poverty – Esther Duflo

Esther Duflo is a French economist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Specializing in development economics, Duflo focuses on the causes of poverty, as well as practical and effective solutions to eradicate it. In her most recent TED Talk, Duflo questions the impact of aid. While it is unlikely that we will ever know if aid is helping or hurting developing countries overall, there are certain small scale projects that have been proven to be effective. In her presentation, Duflo addresses questions of how to immunize, how to stop malaria and how to send children to school. Ultimately, she uses random control trials to answer these questions and demonstrate proven solutions.

Our Notes

Esther Duflo begins her presentation with an alarming statistic: approximately 9 million children under the age of five die every year; each day 25,000 children die of preventable causes. She then explains that lack of aid is not to blame for this problem. Rather, she suggests, it is improper and ineffectual allocation of aid.

Her first experiment looks at how to immunize. She asserts that immunizations are the cheapest way to save a child’s life. Although large sums of money are devoted for this cause, approximately 25 million children a year are not getting their necessary immunizations. According to Duflo, this is a “last mile problem”—the necessary technology exists, the necessary infrastructure is in place, but for some reason immunizations are still not happening. To understand why, Duflo examines Kajakistan.

In Kajakistan vaccinations are available and free, however, only 1 % of children are fully immunized. One reason is that people do not fully understand the benefits of vaccinations. Another reason is that there is a problem in going from attention to action. People know the vaccines are available but they continue to put it off and eventually it never gets done. To solve this problem, it is critical to make vaccinations accessible and provide people with a reason to go get the vaccine now. In Kajakistan, a random control trial was done of 134 villages. To make immunizations easier, monthly camps were established where children could come to receive their vaccinations. To encourage people to act now, incentives were added (1 kilo of lentil per immunization). The results were astonishing; coupling the monthly camps with incentives lead to a 32 % increase in the number of immunized children in the region.

Next, Duflo examined how to stop Malaria, the leading cause of mortality in children under five. Bed nets are an effective solution to mitigating this problem. They are inexpensive and provide contagion benefits for whole communities.  Duflo argues that society should subsidize bed nets—make them free or even pay people to use them. This, however, brings up an important problem: if bed nets are free, people will not value them, and may use them for other purposes like fishing nets. Duflo examined a random control trial in Kenya to present an effective solution to this problem.

In this experiment, vouchers for bed nets were distributed. Some individuals received the bed nets for free; others received some level of discount. The results, however, demonstrated that when people have to pay, even a discounted price, the coverage rate decreases. The trial also illustrated that if people have bed nets, they will use them even if they received them for free. In the long term, the results showed that people who received free bed nets were more likely to purchase additional bed nets in the future.

In her final experiment, Duflo looked at the most effective ways to get children into school. Many potential solutions to this problem were tested including increasing teachers, providing meals, providing uniforms, giving scholarships, building more schools, ect. However, the most effective results came from simply informing individuals about the benefits of education and de-worming children at school in localities where worms are prevalent. On the other hand, the least effective results occurred when parents were bribed.

After explaining how aid can be effective in a very scientific matter, Duflo commented on another issue—why it is so difficult to raise funds for poverty. Poverty is invisible, huge in scope, and many are unconvinced of whether or not aid really works. Duflo asserts, however, that aid is effective in some circumstances. Thus, aid should be directed to these small, effective projects in order to make a noticeable and positive difference.

Our Response

Esther Duflo takes an interesting approach to assessing the impact of aid. Her use of random control trials provides solid evidence that aid does work if implemented correctly. While Duflo does acknowledge that policy that works in one area might not work in another, this point is worth highlighting. Wide variations in culture, tradition, and ideology exist in the developing world. These variations will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find one solution that works everywhere or will achieve the same degree of success in multiple areas.

Additionally, Duflo fails to discuss the problem of delivery in her talk. She presents an overly optimistic view of governments in the developing world. She seems to overlook that in developing countries, especially when there is a presence of corruption, help does not reach the segment of population most in need. In some instances, when there is an increase of government revenues from foreign aid, rent-seeking behavior may increase and productive public spending may actually decrease. Jacob Svensson highlights this problem in his report Foreign Aid and Rent Seeking. He explains that if implemented incorrectly, foreign aid may actually lead to decreased provisions of public goods.

Additionally, it is important to look at whom aid is being delivered to—is it being given to the central government, local government, or to individuals? Research has demonstrated that aid given to women is more effective in poverty reduction than aid given to the male head of the household. Women are more likely than men to allocate their income on necessities and distribute funds evenly throughout the family (See: Fighting Poverty in Developing Countries: Should the Focus be on Households or Women?).

Finally, Duflo focuses on saving the life of a child in her presentation but seems to overlook the larger institutional problems in implementing successful aid. Education is definitely an important part of poverty reduction but without infrastructure and a stable society in place, the benefits of education cannot be fully reaped.  In a country with little infrastructure, an unstable society, and a poor economy, it is likely that the educated will flee and there will be a “brain drain, see “Brain Drain and Economic Growth: Theory and Evidence” Ultimately, this could make the society worse off than it was to begin with. Similarly, when there is a lack of infrastructure, small-scale projects may be hard to implement. For example, malaria drugs are available but there may be no health system to distribute or administer these vital drugs. Without macro-level, institutional changes, the benefits of small scale projects cannot be fully realized.

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Types Of Terrorism

It is common today for people to hear the word terrorism and immediately think of al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists. While Islamic extremism does contribute to certain types of terrorism, there are many other forms as well, all with their own characteristics and challenges for policy makers. These types commonly overlap to describe single terrorist organizations but are useful in providing a way of differentiating what these groups will target and what motivates them.

Defining these groups helps us to understand necessary responses to each form of terrorism. Here are several of the most common types of terrorism, examples of each, and countermeasures that can be used to combat them.


For this article terrorism is defined as: The use of violence to physically and psychologically terrorize a population by an individual or a group in order to draw attention to a cause, enact political change, or gain political power.

State Terrorism

State terrorism is the systematic use of terror by a government in order to control its population. Not to be confused with state sponsored terrorism, where states sponsor terrorist groups, state terrorism is entirely carried out by the group holding power in a country and not a non-governmental organization. It is the original form of terrorism. The 1793 French Revolution and the thousands of executions that resulted are often cited as the first instance of state terrorism, though rulers have plausibly been using it for centuries to control their subjects.

Examples: The aforementioned French Revolution is the most prominent example, however state terrorism is wide spread. Just about every dictator in history has arguably utilized state terrorism as a way of controlling his or her populations. For more contemporary examples one could look to the use of violence by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds or even the suppression of democratic protestors in Syria.

Religious Terrorism

Terrorism can be motivated by religious ideologies and grievances. Religious terrorism is particularly dangerous due to the fanaticism of those who practice it and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Religious terrorists are more likely to use “all in” tactics such as suicide bombings. This is made possible by religious teachings used to justify and even encourage this kind of self-sacrifice. Bruce Hoffman discuss religious terrorism at length in his book Inside Terrorism.

Examples: Al-Qaeda is perhaps the most prominent example of a group that can be characterized as religious terrorists. As well religious terrorism has a long history from Catholic-Protestant violence in Ireland to Muslim-Hindu tensions in Pakistan and India.

Right Wing Terrorism

This type of terrorism aims to combat liberal governments and preserve traditional social orders. Right Wing terrorism is commonly characterized by militias and gangs; many times these groups are racially motivated and aim to marginalize minorities within a state.

Examples: Modern right wing terrorist groups include the Klu Klux Klan and Neo-Fascists. Many such groups are present not only in the U.S. but also in Germany, Russia, and others. Foreign Affairs has published an article titled A Nazi Legacy: Right-Wing Extremism In Postwar Germany.

Left Wing Terrorism

These groups seek to overthrow capitalist democracies and establish socialist or communist governments in their place. They want to attack the established system in order to do away with class distinction. While these groups still exist they are not as prominent as they were during the Cold War.

Examples: The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front in Turkey, Revolutionary Organization 17 November in Greece, and The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) are all current examples of left wing terrorist groups.

Pathological Terrorism

This describes the use of terrorism by individuals who utilize such strategies for the sheer joy of terrorizing others. Pathological terrorists often operate alone rather in groups like the others on this list and often are not true ‘terrorists’ as they lack any well-defined political motive.

Examples: Pathological terrorism is most commonly seen in school shootings and serial killing scenarios. The shootings at Columbine High School and of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords all serve as examples of pathological terrorism since those who carried them out sought to use violence to terrorize for their own pleasure.

Issue Oriented Terrorism

This type of terrorism is carried out for the purpose of advancing a specific issue. Commonly these issues are social in nature or deal with the environment. Here this definition is used to include environmental terrorism.

Examples: The bombings of abortion clinics and the assault of whaling ships are the best examples of issue-oriented terrorism. Perhaps the best documented example of an ecoterror group is the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) due to their attacks on ski resorts and logging operations. A summary of ecoterrorism can be found here.

Separatist Terrorism

Separatists seek to cause fragmentation within a country and establishment a new state. This type of terrorism is typical of minorities within a nation-state that desire their own, commonly due to discrimination from the majority group.

Examples: The most prominent examples are the ETA Basque separatists in Spain, the Chechen terrorists in Chechnya, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, and the Quebec Liberation Front in Canada.


This term originally refers to organizations that gain funds through the sale of drugs. It can also deal with the use of violence by those groups or gangs designed to make the sale of their drugs easier. Check out this article for more information

Examples: The cartels in Mexico have carried out beheadings, mass burials, and other severe acts of violence. Many times this violence is carried out to intimidate populations into not cooperating with authorities. Pablo Escobar also enacted the assassinations of Colombian politicians during the height of his power in order to intimidate the government into not interfering with his drug trafficking activity.


Terrorism is a complex phenomenon for policy makers and so are the responses. Some strategies are more usefully for dealing with specific types of terrorism than others.

When combating religious terrorism, coordinating with religious leaders and building a relationship with them will encourage better cooperation. Treating all the members of a religious group as if they are terrorists will only alienate that group and make them more prone to violence in retaliation.

Similarly, separatist terrorism can be combated with more inclusive political processes that allow outlets for political dissent.

Since narco-terrorism and right wing terrorism is usually characterized by gangs, a concentration on regular policing is the most advantageous.

Taking out leaders and members of terrorist networks with specific skills is always a good approach for combating terrorism in general. Targeting terrorist funding is also a crucial strategy.

Finally, facilitating the exit of individual low-level terrorists from these networks and easing their peaceful reintegration back into society is an important step in ending terrorism.

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Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment – Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent

MacDonald and Parent argue that decreased military spending and less ambitious foreign policy is the best course of action for a major power in decline. By following a policy of retrenchment, a state can mitigate the effects of its decline and, in some cases, even regain its former status. Retrenchment is defined as a policy in which a state moderates and draws down its foreign policy ambitions in order to respond to a relative decline in power. Military spending cuts, reduced foreign commitments, and moderate foreign policy goals are characteristic of retrenchment.

Our Notes

The authors present three main arguments:

  1. When declining in power, most states go into “peaceful retrenchment,” drawing down military commitments and relying more on allies.
  2. In the majority of cases, knowing a state’s rate of relative economic decline explains the degree to which it retrenches.
  3. The rate of decline also dictates what form the retrenchment takes for a country.

Opponents of retrenchment believe that nations must continue to support their overseas commitments in order to retain credibility. However, they overestimate the importance of such credibility.

Declining great powers should not attempt to engage in war to stave off their decline, this would only hurt them even further as it incurs more debt.

The argument that retrenchment is hard to achieve due to domestic opposition is flawed because it assumes special interest groups always lobby for more expansive foreign policy and actually have the power to control policy.

As great states feel their power fading, they tend to involve themselves less in grand strategic interests in order to mitigate that loss of power.

States facing decline should adopt a policy of retrenchment within a short time frame. The rate of decline should dictate the degree of and characteristics that the retrenchment takes.

The data set used by the authors starts in 1870 and involves eighteen cases of decline. The subject countries in these cases are Russia, France, the UK, Germany, and Japan.

In at least eleven of these cases, and at most fifteen, the country facing acute decline adopted retrenchment. They decreased military personnel, spent less aggressively on defense, and were less likely to initiate militarized disputes. The more severe the decline, the more aggressively the state pursued alliances.

When these findings are applied to U.S.-Sino relations, it suggests that the United States will draw back its military spending and rely more on allies to take over regional leadership. In East Asia the U.S. should be able to decrease its presence without emboldening China due to their important economic relationship. Adopting a strategy of retrenchment will lead to fewer American troops in East Asia and less provocation relations, lowering the risk of conflict with China.

Our Response

The most glaring flaw in the paper’s argument is the lack of diversity in its research. Only five countries make up the list of retrenchment examples, the United Kingdom alone accounts for seven of the eighteen examples. It is possible that UK policymakers learned from the past mistakes of their predecessors and decided to take the retrenchment approach. This could provide support for the claim that retrenchment is the desired path, however it hurts the assertion that retrenchment is how states in decline usually react to their situation.

Four out of ten instances where a state undertook a policy of medium to high entrenchment are examples taken from the UK. If, as this suggests, a small group of states were indeed learning from policy errors, then the degree to which states actually entrench is less than the authors claim. Therefore the statistics in this study may have more to do with a few states learning from past mistakes rather than a natural trend towards retrenchment for declining states.

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Taxi to the Dark Side – The Story of American Torture

Taxi to the Dark Side is an in-depth look at the United States’ use of torture in the War on Terror that won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film looks at the issue through the case of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar who died from treatment he received while in U.S. custody. The piece uses this as a jumping point to further explore how torture was encouraged by the Bush Administration and then used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film carries the message that torture is an unacceptable practice and that the U.S. has engaged in it during its War on Terror, resulting in major costs to the U.S.’ moral high ground. It advocates the abolition of torture as a U.S. method of gaining information.



Our Notes

On December 1st 2002, an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar was taken into custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it occupied a former Soviet air base in Bagram. This base was then used as an interrogation center to determine if a detainee was of high value. On December 5th 2002 this is where Dilawar was brought.

At the time Dilawar was believed to be the triggerman in a rocket attack. Five days after he was brought to Bagram, Dilawar was found unconscious in his cell. After trying to apply medical assistance he was declared dead by one of the base’s doctors.

Dilawar was not the first death at that prison. A week before another detainee died after beatings he received there led to a blood clot in his lungs.

The preliminary investigation into Dilawar’s death found that he had large bruises all over his body. However it did not conclude that his death was a result of how he was treated at the prison. The opinion of the soldiers who worked there was that the investigation was rushed so as to not draw attention.

At the prison detainees would be shackled to the ceiling and forced to stand for long periods of time. The report written after both deaths there did not mention this treatment and concluded that both men had died of natural causes.

The officer in charge of interrogations at the prison, Captain Woods, was awarded the bronze star for valor soon after Dilawar’s death. She was later reassigned to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq following the invasion.

Abu Ghraib was one of Saddam Hussein’s former prisons and torture centers.

One sergeant recalls being told by his superiors that the prisoners were less than dogs, making them seem subhuman.

Military leaders from generals all the way to Donald Rumsfeld claimed at the time of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal that the actions there were the work of just a ‘few bad apples’.

The military police who ran the prison claimed that they were ordered to humiliate the prisoners for interrogation purposes. The film shows photos of prisoners being made to sit on top of each other naked and perform masturbation.

In her testimony for the abuse investigations, Captain Woods said that she felt pressured to produce intelligence and that led her to use dogs, nudity, stress positions, and other unauthorized techniques in order to get that information. She also claimed that use of the ‘Bagram model’ had approval from her superiors. However, there is no record of any responses to her requests for authorization to use harsher interrogation techniques.

Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005 states that there have to be rules to restrict foot soldiers during war to keep them from crossing the line. In war, with all its horrors, it becomes hard to see ones moral clearly. He also says that the Bush Administration created an environment that encouraged abuse because it put pressure on people to produce intelligence.

When the film was made, 105 people had died in U.S. detention. Thirty-seven were classified as homicides.

Carlata Gaul, a New York Times journalist in Afghanistan, found Dilawar’s family who showed her the papers that were given to them by the U.S. Army along with Dilawar’s body. The pathologist who filled out the documents classified the death as a homicide. The documents also sate that blunt force trauma to the legs had led to Dilawar’s death by complicating an already present coronary artery disease condition. When Gaul asked General McNeill if prisoners had received any blunt force trauma, he answered that he had no information indicating that.

After the New York Times investigation and the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. military stepped up its investigation of the Dilawar case and began to charge soldiers with abuse and homicide.

Some of the soldiers interviewed claimed that they had poor training for interrogation and that they did not know the ground rules and were pressured to come up with information.

Interviewed soldiers who were assigned to prisons say that officers who toured the facilities had to have known the harsh practices being used there. As well, many high up officers would call daily to check on the progress of interrogations of certain detainees.

The coroner found that Dilawar’s legs had been “pulpified” from the beatings he received. In a video that surfaced during the investigation, the top army lawyer for forces in Afghanistan can be seen describing how detainees should be hit in the legs if they were uncooperative. The coroner also said that if Dilawar had lived, it would have been necessary to amputate his legs.

The investigation never looked into superior officers and whether or not they ordered the abuse of detainees at Bagram. Only one officer was charged in the entire case and those charges were later dismissed. The investigation focused only on the soldiers.

Cheney was one of the strongest proponents in the administration of harsher interrogation techniques.

The Geneva Conventions, which came about as a result of the atrocities that occurred in WWII, give rights to prisoners of war. However, members of the Bush Administration made legal arguments that said terrorists did not count under the Geneva Conventions. They gave the CIA and Special Forces legal cover to use tactics that were previously illegal in interrogations. They only prohibited extreme measures that resulted in death, organ failure, or impairment of bodily functions.

The soldiers interviewed said that they had never been talked to about the Geneva Conventions.

High value detainees were shipped to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld approved new psychological interrogation techniques. How exactly the techniques would be applied was ambiguous.

Sleep depravation, isolation, and sensory depravation were all used on detainees. Female interrogators also would touch detainees in order to make them uncomfortable. As well, detainees were made to perform acts insinuating homosexuality and dog tricks in order to further degrade them. These were used because these are all cultural taboos that are particularly insulting to an Arab man.

Sensory depravation was used because it was found to be particularly effective during studies in the 60s and 70s. In this way, the Administration circumvented the definition of torture by not inflicting physical pain on the detainees. These techniques went on to be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were voices, such as Alberto Mora the General Council to the Navy, within the Administration that called for an end to the abuse. Those calls went unheeded.

Very few detainees were actually arrested by U.S. and coalition forces. Ninety-three percent are turned over to the U.S. by indigenous warlords, militias, and local fighters looking for rewards.

Two and a half years after the first detainee went to Guantanamo Bay, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees have a right to challenge their detention. However, the new tribunals that have been set up to allow these challenges are not effective or fair. Most of the time detainees are not allowed to know what they are accused of or what information the government has against them.

Torture is an ineffective means of gathering intelligence as people will say whatever they think their torturer wants to hear to make it stop. This was the case with one high value detainee who, while being water-boarded, claimed that Saddam Hussein had trained Al Qaeda. This information was then used to build up the invasion of Iraq, but later turned out to be false.

The scenario of torture being necessary to stop an imminent attack is often used (the ticking time bomb theory). However, there has never been a case in which a detainee has information on an imminent attack.

CIA methods for interrogation include: water boarding, forced nudity, and forced standing for up to forty hours.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the detentions and interrogation of detainees should be governed by the Geneva Convention.

Bush Administration officials have not been, and some even prevented from being, tried for war crimes relating to torture and abuse. But soldiers have been tried and punished for it.

As of September 11th 2006, the number of detainees has reached over 83,000. None of them have been brought to trial.

This use of torture only creates future terrorists as it outrages Arabs and Muslims as well as those who experience it.

Bottom Line

Taxi to the Dark Side is a compelling, albeit one sided, look at the United States’ use of torture in the War on Terror. It will appeal strongly to an audience who saw the U.S. as going down a path of moral turpitude during the Bush era. However, the information presented only tells one side of the story and anyone looking for the whole picture will have to find that information elsewhere.

Our Response

Taxi to the Dark Side is a well-made film and makes the viewer think about one of the biggest moral questions of the War on Terror. However, it makes no attempt to look at the issue from all perspectives. The question of whether or not torture actually produces valuable intelligence is poorly explored and is dismissed with merely anecdotal accounts. This is a hole in the film’s argument against torture. When one looks at the literature on interrogation practices, particularly the Intelligence Science Board Study on Educing Information (PDF), it becomes clear that this area is severely lacking in research and discourse. Little meaningful research that addresses the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of various interrogation practices has been undertaken, making it impossible to give definitive statements on their effectiveness. The film would have done well to address this lack of research and mention some alternatives to the practices it condemns. For example, the aforementioned Educing Information study at one point suggests training a specific division of interrogators rather than trying to train all personnel for the task. This could diminish the lack of experience that the film portrays as a leading cause for some of the abuses. Again, the piece’s failure to explore such alternatives and to simply dismiss coercive interrogation practices without looking critically at their effectiveness, or at least pointing to the lack of research regarding this issue, lessens the veracity of its argument.

The film also piles the blame almost solely on the Bush Administration. The director even seems to try and absolve the soldiers who carried out the actual acts in certain parts of the film. While the Administration is largely responsible for creating an environment that encouraged torture and its cover-up, the soldiers who did the torturing cannot be wholly innocent. There were no recorded direct orders to torture anyone and therefore the carrying out of torture was not a forced act.

Finally, while quick to criticize the holding of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay and other centers, the film does not provide insight as to what should be done with them. Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to shut the facility down, the complexities of the issue have proved to be a hindrance to achieving that goal. Many detainees cannot be simply sent back to their home country as they would be treated poorly. Some of the innocent detainees have proven hard to release since few countries want to take them. It is also nearly impossible to convince any American community to take former detainees, considering the amount of fear mongering prevalent in the media and blog sphere. These issues were made clear in an Economist article written soon after Obama’s inauguration when the issue was heating up. The point is that while some of these detainees may be innocent, the situation is not as simple as just letting them go.

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