• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Riddle of Terrorism

Rubenstein locates the sources of terrorism primarily among the “disaffected intelligentsia,” the “ambitious idealists without a creative ruling class to follow or a rebellious lower class to lead.” He argues that preconditions for terrorist action are created in periods of rapid, uneven economic development and the weakening of connections between social classes. When hopes for social transformation are shattered and there is no militant mass party to win the allegiance of the intelligentsia, then the conditions are propitious for the rise of terrorists. At such a time, members of the intelligentsia cannot play their customary and socially useful roles as intermediaries between the ruling and the lower classes. They turn to violence in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the masses whom they aspire to lead.

Where the mass organizations are not militant and the militants are not influential,” Rubenstein writes, “the stage is set for a terrorist response to economic and political crises.” Thus he observes that the Red Brigades emerged in Italy in the 1970s during a period of economic dislocation and at a time when the Communist party, abandoning radical politics, declared itself a party of moderate reform. In West Germany, Rubenstein argues, the Baader-Meinhof group emerged after the Social Democrats ceased to offer a clear alternative to the parties of the center and the right. In Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, a rapid expansion of the educated classes coincided with economic downturn. The failure to pursue opportunities for radical reform, according to Rubenstein, led members of the intelligentsia to look to violence in order to realize their radical political goals. Terrorists in this view, then, are lapsed reformers “sprung loose for violent action” by changing social conditions and the failure of radical politics. “Terrorism,” Rubenstein writes, “remains the violence of the intelligentsia.”

But Rubenstein finds no historical evidence that terrorism of the vanguard can by itself lead to power, or that there is a natural progression from small guerrilla bands to guerrilla armies, or from guerrilla armies to a mass revolutionary movement. Drawing on Trotsky and Lenin, he argues that social transformation or revolution requires political organization and education, and the mobilization of the masses on the basis of class interest, pitting class against class. In China, for example, peasant uprisings had occurred before Mao arrived in Hunan in 1927. He was, Rubenstein points out, able to organize the nucleus of the Red Army—already numbering twenty thousand in 1927—from local peasant recruits and mutinous Kuomintang soldiers. The Japanese occupation allowed Mao to extend the area under Communist control, establish civil administration, and prove the superiority of Communist rule to that of nationalists and the Japanese.

Always, Rubenstein argues, Mao engaged in political work, organizing the landless and the petty landholding peasants against the large landowners and warlords, and organizing the indigenous businessmen against the foreign or foreign-linked business community. However, those committed to small-scale violence or to guerrilla operations are precluded by the clandestine and conspiratorial nature of their activities from engaging in political organization. Unable to lead a mass movement, they are generally condemned to failure.

A generation of would-be Latin American revolutionaries who dreamed of reenacting the Chinese or Vietnamese experience by taking the nucleus of a guerrilla band into the hills failed to understand this fundamental lesson. In both China and Vietnam, terrorist activity was an adjunct to, not a substitute for, political work. In Cuba (and later in Nicaragua) a guerrilla army was able to take advantage of already widespread disaffection in the cities. Castro in any case came to power at the head of a national anti-Batista coalition with liberal support, not a revolutionary movement. Social revolution came later, after the Castro regime consolidated its power.

Terrorism has been more effective when linked to nationalist or ethnic movements, such as the PLO, because class interests can be subsumed, unity achieved, and group loyalties broadly mobilized against the foreign, national, or cultural enemy. But this very need to create broad coalitions, to concentrate on national unity rather than class interests, makes nationalist movements essentially conservative and causes them to veer to the right. Thus the PLO has abandoned the substance and retained only the rhetoric of its socialist program. “The principles of nationalism and social revolution,” Rubenstein remarks, “are ultimately incompatible.”

Rubenstein thus concludes that the answer to terrorism lies in politics, not in military retaliation or the explanations offered by experts in abnormal psychology or by the proponents of international conspiracy theories. “No solution to the problem of terrorism is conceivable,” he writes, “that does not reconnect politicized young adults to society by involving them in mass-based movements for change.” Rubenstein’s is a well-constructed argument, delivered with clarity and conviction.

It should be clear that he proposes an antidote to terrorism, not necessarily to political violence. On the contrary, he implies that mass violence frequently and often inevitably accompanies revolutionary change. He is certainly correct that broad-based movements, such as that of the Palestinians, are rooted in genuine social grievances and cannot be wished away. But I doubt he makes an equally convincing case for the West European terrorist movements of the 1960s, whose base of social support, in fact, proved very thin. There is still little evidence to challenge Laqueur’s conclusion that terrorism in Europe and America will remain a fringe activity so long as most people believe that change can be brought about through the political process.

Governments, moreover, have greater leverage against state-sponsored terrorism than Rubenstein believes. Contrary to popular belief, governments can, over the long term, make such measures as diplomatic isolation and denial of arms, technology, and markets work more effectively against state-sponsored terrorism than military retaliation. States such as Syria and Iran sponsor terrorism outside their own frontiers for a number of reasons: to satisfy the inclinations of constituencies at home, to extend spheres of political and cultural influence, to secure leverage against competing or threatening powers. All these factors apply, for example, not only in the case of Iranian and Syrian involvement in Lebanon, but in Indian involvement with the Bengalis of Pakistan and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But governments must also make rational calculations. If the losses incurred as a result of such involvement begin to outweigh the benefits, then governments will have to reconsider. The radical edge of Iraq’s foreign policy and its inclination to support the most radical of Palestinian terrorist groups were considerably blunted, for example, once the war with Iran made the Baath regime dependent on money from the conservative Persian Gulf oil states and on American diplomatic support.

Rubenstein thinks that radical mass movements based on class could be an alternative to ethnic-based mass movements. But is this a realistic possibility in much of the third world, where European (or Marxist) categories of class do not apply and the sense of individual and group identity and of personal worth is deeply imbedded in and expressed through religion, language, and ethnicity? One reason, perhaps, why clerics in Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon are proving so much more successful in mobilizing the masses than the secular intelligentsia is that the clerics appeal to a religious identity that has far more powerful attraction than any appeal to “class.” Moreover, where the majority in an ethnic group is socially and politically disadvantaged, as for example the Shi’ites in Lebanon, then ethnic-based movements are also about the politics of the underclass.

An underlying, and unexamined, assumption in Rubenstein’s book is that the linking of the intelligentsia and the masses somehow will lead to a kind of progressive politics. But what if the intelligentsia itself is divided and of many minds, and mass politics only produces another form of repressive rule? Consider Iran today. Members of one part of the formerly disaffected intelligentsia, along with the clerics (who must be considered part of the intelligentsia), are in power. Politicized young adults carry the guns and influence policy. Since the overthrow of the monarchy, the rich have been expropriated, lands have been seized, large sectors of the economy have been nationalized. At the same time, women as a group are persecuted, and political freedoms have been suppressed; those among the intelligentsia who profess a commitment to human rights, tolerance, and political liberties are under threat; and the state seeks to impose ideological and social norms to which all must conform. Instead of terrorism carried out by the few, a generalized terrorism is enforced in the name of the many. Does this represent a politics that can be easily labeled “radical” or “reactionary”? Or does it represent a curious but wholly predictable amalgam that grew out of an alliance between some elements of the intelligentsia and some elements of the mass of the people?

Finally, Rubenstein calls for an American policy designed “to uproot the causes of terrorism by putting an end to American-sponsored oppression of classes, nations, and ethnic communities, and by permitting young intellectuals to be reunited…with their people.” But it is not clear what changes he would like to see in American foreign policy, whether in Latin America, in the Middle East, or in Africa. Is it really within America’s capacity to permit “young intellectuals to be reunited…with their people” in third world countries? Can any outside power determine how the complexities of social and political conflict in alien lands and cultures should be worked out?

However, the strength of Rubenstein’s book is precisely that it is thought-provoking. It invites us to reexamine easy assumptions and to engage in debate. It brings an original perspective to a difficult problem and suggests an original response. This is an important book that deserves to be read and discussed.

Deep Throat,” the knowledgeable and unnamed source of numerous leads on the Watergate scandal, advised the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money.” This is what James Adams attempts to do in The Financing of Terror. The business of terror, he suggests, is also big business. The successful terrorist organization has learned to handle money as well as guns and, in its financial dealings, is likely to resemble a multinational corporation. Adams examines the finances of the PLO, the IRA, and two Colombian opposition organizations, M-19 and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Adams writes on a subject on which the documentation is necessarily thin. Most of his information on the size and sources of the revenues of these organizations, and on the uses to which they put their money, comes primarily from newspaper reports and material submitted to various congressional committees. The reliability of much of this information is itself difficult to determine. FARC has often been alleged to provide narcotics dealers in Colombia with protection, but we learn little more about FARC’s financial operations. Adams notes various ways in which FARC, the IRA, and similar organizations have traditionally raised money: kidnapping for ransom, selling protection, arm-twisting, smuggling, and activities on the borderline of legality. He is interesting on the commercial ventures of the IRA in Northern Ireland, particularly its taxi companies, for which, he writes, the IRA prepared the way by firebombing the Belfast bus system.

Adams’s most detailed knowledge and therefore his best chapters concern the finances of the PLO. He estimates current PLO assets, controlled through the agency of the Palestinian National Fund, at $2 billion and the total assets of all groups affiliated with the PLO at as much as $5 billion. But even these figures are mere estimates. More interesting is Adams’s attempt to show that, through careful investment and management, an organization like the PLO can become to a large degree financially self-sustaining. The PLO, he estimates, now obtains five-sixths of its annual expenditures of $600 million from its own operations. Some of its assets are in liquid funds and negotiable instruments, but it has also invested in factories, farms, the import-export business, and real estate. These investments provide revenues and jobs, and they make the PLO part of the local economy in which the enterprises are located. They give members of the organization valuable experience as managers and money men. The same could be said of the IRA enterprises, such as its taxi companies—although they are on a smaller scale and less successful. Adams tends to see something underhanded in all this; and because he too is concerned with the question of “What is to be done?” he argues for policies directed against the financial resources of terrorist organizations. “Destroy the economic base and a terrorist group will wither and die,” he writes. In the case of an organization like the PLO, Adams’s own evidence suggests that the task would be far from simple.

Indeed, from what little we really know, the PLO and the IRA seem to endure at least in part by minimizing financial dependence on their backers, developing community services and organizations, and creating links between their own followers and the larger community in which these followers are located. Much more needs to be known about the commercial side of the terror groups, however, and particularly their use of violence to advance their business interests.

Desmond McForan has sought to write a book on international terrorism along the lines of Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network. According to him, a pernicious triangle of forces aims at nothing less than the complete annihilation of Western civilization. Moscow directs this effort, the Palestine Liberation Organization provides the terrorist network that will destabilize the Western world, and Arab oil finances the operation. This relationship “has not been exposed until now.” A diagram on page 120, in which the three angles of a triangle are defined by the hammer and sickle, Arab oil, and a grenade-throwing Palestinian fighter, shows how this nefarious conspiracy works. Startling information, suitably highlighted in boldface type, appears on virtually every page. The reader will learn, for example, that the Soviet Union centrally coordinates the work of fifty different terrorist movements, with “two million trained and armed destabilisers.” KGB agents are manipulating this alliance of terror in democratic states. The ultimate battleground between the Western democracies and the Triangle of Terror is the Third World War.

Other “facts” readers might not easily find elsewhere are that Libya spends fully 70 percent of its oil income on the support of terrorism. One $12 billion arms shipment from the USSR to Libya in 1976 fanned the flames of chaos and revolution “across two-thirds of the entire globe.” It was actually George Habash of the PFLP who masterminded the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. Khomeini secretly supports Israel. Although Iranians “do not traditionally regard themselves as part of the Arab world,” Iran, if the table of contents is a guide, is an Arab country.

However, all is not lost. A postscript on the final page, dated April 21, 1986, and written after the US bombing of Libya, reports (in boldface type) that both the United States and England “have shed their ambivalence and have come down firmly against terrorism.” The European countries “are being dragged along in their wake.” The Western democracies must now “stand up to the anti-Western terrorists.” Western leaders must organize an “Anti-Terror Summit of world Pact leaders.” Among the measures they must adopt is one requiring all Shi’ites, Sikhs, and Palestinians to “stand guarantor and undergo thorough security screening” whenever one of their compatriots commits a terrorist act against a Western democracy. But the democracies must act quickly. Otherwise it will be too late.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print