Terror in Mumbai: the same old, same old

Claims that the attacks represent a new form of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ are infused with historical amnesia and fearmongering.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Major terrorist outrages, such as 9/11 and now Mumbai, are frequently followed by dire predictions that the world will never be the same again.

Time and again, the public is told that since 9/11 the world has changed, and we now live in a New Era of Terrorism. Similarly, after the terrible events in Mumbai, numerous commentators hinted that the world had entered a new phase of terror. ‘With the attacks in Mumbai, Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) has entered a new phase’, noted one American observer. Others claimed that the attack on Mumbai represented a new strategy that ‘brought together a diverse combination of terrorist activities in order to maximise the effect of their operation’.

However, experience shows that such claims about a ‘new age of terror’ or a ‘new phase of terrorism’ are usually symptomatic of a fundamental misreading of the situation. More depressingly, such claims distract communities from facing up to the real threats that confront them.

The fantasy of new terrorism

Numerous observers claim that the ‘new’ tactics and strategy of global terrorism represent a break with the practices of the past. This is historical amnesia. Indeed, the idea that some manifestation of terrorism is ‘new’ is as old as the 100-year-long debate about terrorism itself.

One British police officer reported in 1898 that ‘murderous organisations have increased in size and scope; they are more daring, they are served by the most terrible weapons offered by modern science, and the world is nowadays threatened by new forces which… may someday wreak universal destruction’. In 1970, after a series of domestic terror incidents, the US News and World Report observed that ‘officials and citizens all across the country are wondering if the United States is entering a new and highly dangerous era’. Five years later, Newsweek characterised 1975 as the ‘Year of Terror’.

‘If this is an age of terror, then it has become all the more important for us to understand exactly what it is that terrorism means’, wrote American historian David Fromkin in 1975. Fromkin also believed that the world was confronting a new type of terrorism and was concerned that its ‘novelty’ had ‘not been perceived’. ‘True, other ages have suffered from crime and outrage, but what we are experiencing today goes beyond such things’, he warned. Like many commentators around today, he fretted over the powerful technology that was available to the terrorist of the mid-Seventies, believing that ‘the bazooka, the plastic bomb, the submachine, and perhaps, over the horizon, the nuclear mini-bomb’ had led to a ‘transformation’ that ‘enabled terrorism to enter the political arena on a new scale’.

By the late 1990s, the idea that terrorism had become a qualitatively new threat was an integral part of the security doctrine of the United States. The US government’s 1997 Annual Defense Report argued that the terror threat had ‘changed markedly in recent years’.

This periodic discovery that terrorism represents a new and unprecedented danger is driven by an impulse to dramatise the terror threat. It is a confused response, which distracts attention from understanding the real level of danger, and which unwittingly and unhelpfully amplifies the threat of terrorism. Today, doom-mongering about terrorists with dirty bombs, chemical and biological agents and other catastrophic weapons has become so common that it is easy to forget that the real threat is far more mundane. The terrorists in Mumbai used old-fashioned ruthless guerrilla tactics, relying on an element of stealth and surprise. The weapons they used – guns and grenades – were far from hi-tech.

It is worth remembering that the terrorists responsible for 9/11 relied on Stanley knives and aircraft to accomplish their deed. And at a time when security experts are dreaming about global terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction, the world is confronted with the revival of old-fashioned piracy off the shores of Somalia. Pirates using speedboats, like zealots randomly shooting at pedestrians in Mumbai, are enough of a problem without inventing apocalyptic scenarios, too.

The contrast between the real and fantasy threat of terrorism was captured well during the Mumbai outrage. On the very day that Mumbai came under attack from small groups of mobile gunmen, newspaper headlines in the UK warned the public that terrorists might infect Britain with bird flu. This scenario was contained in a report published by the Institute of Public Policy Research’s Commission of National Security for the Twenty-First Century. According to this fantasy document, the threat from pandemic diseases such as SARS and Avian Flu is growing all the time – and because of inadequate preparation, ‘a serious disease outbreak or bio-terrorism incident in the next 18 months could tip the global economy from serious recession into global depression’.

In line with Hollywood’s fantasy plots, the report invited us to imagine the possibility of a terrorist purchasing ‘genes for use in engineering of an existing and dangerous pathogen into a more virulent strain’.

So what is ‘new’ about the new terrorism?

There is very little that is genuinely ‘new’ about terrorism today. Those devoted to political violence have always sought to use the latest technologies in order to maximise their destructive impact. More than three decades ago, in 1972, a group of terrorists belonging to a right-wing sect called the Order of the Rising Sun were arrested after they were found to be in possession of a large quantity of epidemic typhus pathogens, with which they wanted to poison the water supplies of cities in the Mid West of the US. Nor is there anything new in official concern about the proliferation of WMD. For almost a half a century, officials have been discussing how to deal with a catastrophic terrorist attack – yet in all this time, there is little empirical evidence that there has been a qualitative transformation in the terror threat.

The one event that observers continually point to as proof of our New Era of Terrorism is the attempt by members of the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, to launch a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Although this millenarian sect did seek to cause mass casualties in Tokyo, fortunately, due to its inability to design an effective delivery system, only 12 passengers lost their lives. In one sense, the failure of the release of sarin in Tokyo can be interpreted as a good news story. It points to, as one writer puts it, ‘the difficulties in developing, producing and deploying biological agents’. It is worth noting that although Aum Shinrikyo was a relatively sophisticated organisation, with access to scientific expertise and significant financial resources, it still failed to realise its objectives. One important assessment of this incident concluded that ‘the probability of a major biological attack by either a state or a sophisticated terrorist group seems remote’.

Nevertheless, the Aum Shinrikyo incident was quickly seized upon as the harbinger of a new era of catastrophic terrorism. In the US, the Senate Armed Services Committee launched its own inquest into the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. Leading American politicians treated the incident almost as an attack on the US itself. Senator Richard Lugar said Americans had ‘every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear, chemical, or biological terrorism’. Subsequently, numerous studies insisted that the Tokyo attack represented the ‘crossing of a previously unthinkable line’ and showed that WMDs were ‘within the technical reach of sophisticated terrorist organisations’.

John Gearson, writing on ‘the nature of modern terrorism’, notes that after the Tokyo incident, ‘the way in which terrorism was understood changed forever’: ‘Terrorists had achieved the unthinkable and were now able to pose threats to states that previously only other states had.’ After Tokyo, terrorism ‘was said to have made a qualitative leap’ since for the first time a terrorist organisation was prepared to discharge materials of mass destruction . But more than a decade after the Aum Shinrikyo attack, it is clear that this assessment is entirely anticipatory in character. The evidence so far indicates that those keen to inflict violence on civilians still use more conventional weapons to create mass casualties.

Superficially, 9/11 might be interpreted as confirmation of the ‘catastrophic terrorism’ thesis. Yet one of the principal defining features of the ‘new terrorism’ – the use of WMDs – was conspicuously absent during 9/11. As John Mueller wrote in his book on terrorism scares, Overblown: ‘Not only were the 9/11 [attacks] remarkably low-tech, but they were something that could have happened long ago: both skyscrapers and airplanes have been around for a century now. In addition the potential for destruction on that magnitude is hardly new: any band of fanatical, well-trained, and lucky terrorists could have sunk or scuttled the Titanic and killed thousands.’

In retrospect, it is clear that the destruction of the World Trade Center was the outcome of tactics that have been deployed by terrorists for a very long time. As Gearson observes: ‘Instead of technologically sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, the superterrorists of 11 September utilised the long-established terrorist approach of careful planning, simple tactics and operational surprises to effect the most stunning terrorist “spectacular” in history.’ The violence inflicted on Mumbai is also a textbook example of careful coordination and operational surprises.

One of the most persuasive arguments used to distinguish the ‘new terrorism’ from traditional forms of terrorism is the claim that, today, terrorism is far more brutal, destructive and indiscriminate in its attitude towards human life. Specialists frequently counterpose the traditional terrorist, who was relatively selective in his choice of targets, to today’s perpetrator of catastrophic acts of mass casualty. However, this argument has been also restated since at least the 1970s. After noting that insurgent groups were historically selective in their choice of targets, a commentary written in the aftermath of the Palestinian attack on passengers at the Lod Airport reported that ‘most “revolutionaries” now… seem to consider indiscriminate slaughter a primary tactic and one of which they are proud’. The author added said ‘it is clear that such groups would not be deterred from nuclear terrorism by the fact that thousands of innocent and uninvolved people might die’.

Acts of apparently indiscriminate violence have a long history. As Alexander Spencer noted, ‘indiscriminate mass-casualty attacks have long been a characteristic of terrorism’. He gives numerous examples, such as the simultaneous bombings of the US and French barracks in Lebanon in 1983, which resulted in the deaths of 367 people; the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people; and the bombing of an Air India plane by a Sikh group, which resulted in 329 deaths.

At first sight, it is far from evident what has changed about terrorism. Virtually every characteristic associated with this new breed of destructive behaviour has been linked with terrorism in the past. However, the very fact that contemporary terrorism is perceived as ‘new’, uniquely dangerous and the greatest threat to global stability renders it a distinct phenomenon. What is most important about terrorism, as a social phenomenon, is how society responds to it. And the more dangerous that terrorism is perceived to be, the more dangerous it becomes. The impact of terrorism is determined by the way society reacts. If 10 to 15 armed men are turned into a new breed of super-terrorists, then society sends out the signal that it is powerless to deal with relatively routine acts of organised violence. Such a response only encourages further acts of violence; it inadvertently serves as an invitation to be terrorised. And that is one compelling reason why we should not make a drama out of a crisis.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill suggested the Mumbai attackers’ nihilistic ideas were born in the West – as illustrated by the terrorist attacks on London and Glasgow in 2007 – and wondered, in 2006, if Mumbai was targeted because it is modern. Tim Black reported on how vulnerability is the watchword of the ‘war on terror’ and listened to author Faisal Devji telling a London audience that bin Laden has a lot in common with Gandhi. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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