Bruce Hoffman's well-written book provides useful insights into the tactics and technologies used by terrorist groups and the historical evolution of terrorism. As a result, the book is very much worth reading. On the other hand, Hoffman's definition of terrorism, typology of terrorist groups, and treatment of terrorists' potential use of weapons of mass destruction leaves something to be desired.
The author begins by devoting a whole chapter to defining terrorism. Normally, books that devote that much space to defining subject matter are sleep-inducing. Yet such a lengthy discussion is probably warranted in the case of terrorism. As Hoffman points out, everyone agrees that "terrorism is a pejorative term" but no consensus exists on what acts and what groups of people arc included therein. He quotes Brian Jenkins, a noted authority on terrorism, who states that "if one party can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral viewpoint." For example, the Nazis attempted to label as terrorists the groups resisting Germany's occupation of their lands. That example illustrates that the cliché "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter" has some validity.
But shouldn't the definition of terrorism focus on what tactics and methods are used in the attacks? Brian Jenkins and others argue that terrorism should be defined "by the nature of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of their cause." Hoffman is not entirely satisfied with this solution because he says that it "plays into the hands of terrorists and their apologists" (even though he has not yet finished defining the term "terrorist"). The author notes that Third World groups claim that condemnations of terrorism inherently favor the strong over the weak. They maintain that people who are trying to liberate themselves from foreign oppression, exploitation and human-rights abuses have a right to use any means available to them. In fact, they argue that they have little choice but to undertake dramatic acts of indiscriminate violence to publicize their cause because they have little firepower and few resources compared to the security forces of nation states. In contrast, Hoffman notes that established powers like the NATO nations often identify with the victims in classifying violent acts as terrorism. Although the author conducts an excellent discussion of all points of view, he implicitly sides with the established powers.
Hoffman rejects Jenkins's simple definition because it equates the intentional destruction of civilian populations by governments - for example, the Luftwaffe's air raids on Warsaw and Coventry, allied firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and even the "mutual assured destruction" nuclear doctrine of Russia and the United States, which targets civilian populations -with similar acts by sub-state groups labeled as terrorists. Even though Hoffman admits that governments have caused many more civilian deaths over the years than sub-state groups, he argues that a qualitative difference exists between the two types of attacks. He maintains that rules of war exist (as codified in the Geneva and Hague conventions) that protect non-combatants from attack. Hoffman acknowledges that governments have violated such rules by intentionally attacking civilians. but says that those incidents are called "war crimes" and can be punished using admittedly flawed and imperfect international and national judicial remedies. But he contends that the "fundamental raisons d’être of international terrorism is a refusal to be bound by such rules of warfare and codes of conduct." Thus, he implies that governments occasionally deviate from the rules of war, but that such conduct is fundamental to the practices of sub-state groups that perpetrate terrorism.
Hoffman is being very selective in his use of the word terrorism. He apparently believes that governments cannot be accused of terrorism because they can be punished by war-crimes trials. But most terrorists would claim that they are fighting a long-term "war" against oppression and injustice. Furthermore, individuals and groups that have committed terrorist acts can also be brought to justice. In fact, it may be easier to bring individuals or groups to justice than government leaders. In the Pan Am 103 incident, some chance exists of bringing to justice the two Libyan intelligence agents that allegedly perpetrated the state-sponsored act, but no one is talking about trying Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi for the incident. Thus, Hoffman's conclusion seems to be that governments are evil only sometimes, but terrorists are evil by nature.
In fact, the definition that Hoffman ultimately settles on excludes governments. The author states that terrorism is:
- political in its aims;
- violent or threatens violence;
- designed to have psychological repercussions beyond the immediate target;
- conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure;
- perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.
The lack of consensus on a definition of terrorism and the great effort expended by Hoffman to arrive at this one imply that defining terrorism is difficult and complex, but it may not need to be. No one can take the adverse moral connotation out of the word "terrorism." Therefore, Hoffman would be wise to follow Jenkins's general orientation, which focuses on the act of violence rather than the perpetrators or the political cause they are promoting. The best definition of terrorism might be: a direct act of politically motivated violence (or threat of violence) by an individual, group or government that intentionally targets innocent civilians to have psychological effects beyond the immediate targets. (Falling outside that definition are violent acts against military or governmental targets that result in unintentional collateral civilian casualties.) Thus, any individual, group or government that tries to instill terror in an innocent civilian population should be said to have committed a "terrorist" act. A sub-state group blowing up a crowded market with a crude bomb should be in the same category as a government that saturation bombs the cities of its enemies during a war. We should not let governments off the hook just because they are established entities in the international system, while sub-state groups are not. Conversely, sub-state groups that strike only military or governmental targets should not be regarded as terrorists.
Hoffman shows his bias by admitting that the armed forces of governments have been responsible for more death and destruction than terrorist groups could ever hope to, but then excludes governmental terrorism from his study. That bias does not, however, negate the author' contribution. If Hoffman had dropped the value-laden term "terrorism" and used the term "sub guerilla warfare," he would have more accurately described what he was studying. (Henceforth, I will make this substitution of terms.) In his study, he includes some sub guerrilla groups that did intentionally target innocent civilians and some that did not. His study did not cover any direct government actions (except government sponsorship of sub-guerrilla groups), whether or not they intentionally targeted civilians.
The author docs an excellent job of distinguishing between sub-guerrilla activity (which he labeled "terrorism") and guerilla warfare. He notes that although guerillas often use the same tactics as sub-guerrillas (for example, assassinations, bombings of public places, hostage-taking), guerillas are a larger group of individuals that function in the open, function as a military unit and attack enemy military forces, and seize and hold territory (sub-guerrilla groups avoid all of those tactics). In short, sub-guerrilla groups have fewer resources and arc weaker than guerilla groups.
Once the reader gets past the definitional problem (which is rampant in other works in the field, including my own, but should not be ignored), the book provides much useful information on the nature, tactics, targets and future of sub-guerrilla warfare. The author's chapter on ways that sub-guerrilla groups manipulate the media was very insightful. Particularly cogent was his observation that the way the media covers sub-guerrilla attacks - especially coverage that focuses on the human-interest aspects (for example, the emotions of the relatives of hostages) - makes it easier for the attacker to manipulate events and severely constrains government options to respond to the attack. He also shows that sub-guerrilla attacks many times fail to engender the sympathy of the wider public, but they do instill fear sometimes bordering on the irrational (for example, one terrorist incident, although unlikely to recur, can cause mass cancellations of trips overseas, etc.).
Hoffman does make one important assertion about the media and sub-guerrilla warfare that needs some comment:
Throughout the following thirty years [starting in 1968], terrorists have attacked American citizens and interests more often than any other country's. While there are various reasons why terrorists find American targets so attractive, a salient consideration has always been the unparalleled opportunities for publicity and exposure that terrorists the world over know they will get from the extensive U.S. news media.
Although the "American news media's worldwide predominance" might be a factor in attacks against its citizens and interests, America is attacked primarily for another reason. The United States is a global superpower and the only nation that currently conducts military interventions regularly outside its own region. Even President Clinton and the U.S. Defense Science Board have admitted a strong historical correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. The historical record provides ample evidence of this strong correlation.
Hoffman, like many authors, focuses on the nature, tactics and targets of sub-guerrilla groups but pays insufficient attention to their motives for launching violent attacks. Despite their frequent use of reprehensible tactics, some of those groups may have legitimate grievances that spur their violent acts. The author explores the nature of sub-guerrilla groups by putting them into four categories: right wing, left-wing ideological, ethno-nationalist/separatist, and religious. This typology is useful, but it often masks the motivation behind attacks. For example, Hoffman notes that the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants in 1979 marked the advent of religious terrorism. Yet the militants attacked the U.S. embassy because the United States had long supported the despotic government of the shah. Usama bin Laden is an Islamic fundamentalist, but he attacks U.S. targets because of U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and U.S. support for Israel. The Islamic fundamentalists who tried to topple the World Trade Center did so in retaliation for U.S. policies in the Middle East. Those groups have not attacked U.S. citizens and property because the United States is not an Islamic country. The groups may be religious, but they are attacking U.S. foreign policy.
Hoffman also notes that religious sub-guerrilla groups may have fewer compunctions about inflicting heavy casualties, making their use of weapons of mass destruction more likely. The author argues correctly that with the increased willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, many of the rules of "terrorism" may need to be rewritten (Brian Jenkins' premise that "terrorists" want many people watching, but only a few dead). Hoffman's argument that an era of casualty escalation may be upon us - as groups compete to attract more media attention by causing more death and destruction or by using weapons of mass destruction - is very insightful. Yet for such an important topic, Hoffman disappointingly devotes only a few pages to the potential use of weapons of mass destruction by sub-guerrilla groups and ignores the broader implications of this threat that are so crucial.
Before sub-guerrilla groups had the technology and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, they were merely pinpricks to the great powers. The groups could cause a few deaths and some fear among the populations of the most powerful states. Now the strategic environment has shifted dramatically. Even the weakest actor on the international stage - the sub-guerrilla group - can directly attack the homeland of a great power and inflict casualties equivalent to that of a major war. Even a superpower like the United States is very vulnerable and should reduce the motivation for such retaliatory sub-guerrilla attacks by confining its use of force overseas to the defense of a very narrow set of vital interests.