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Religion and Society

The Economy of Asymmetric and Global Fear

Strategies of terror /4. Behind an apparent unity of intentions, the world organises its defence against terrorist attacks in line with the following fundamental options: protection, prevention, and 'total war' (in particular the American approach). But faced with the scarce results and in order to really aim at the extinction of terrorism, it is necessary to addressanother possibility. This requires changes in mentality. Thus first of all a war of perception and ideas in line with the approach outlined here by a great French expert on military strategy.

Terrorism of an Islamic matrix like every form of terrorism is not an ideology or a strategy. It is a tactic and a technique, that is say an instrument used by its leaders to achieve specific political aims. Its strategies, tactics and techniques are separate from the political objectives that are pursued. Whereas the latter may be seen as being irrational, the former, instead, are of a cold rationality. As is the case with politics, it is necessary to make a distinction between declared objectives and real objectives. The strategic logic of terrorism lies in the rational use of irrationality both internally and externally. It is not, therefore, terrorism of a traditional kind. Generally, terrorists consider themselves heroes or martyrs of a just cause, the advance guards of a revolution designed to create a better world. For their puppet masters, on the other hand, the real objectives are usually different and more of this world. For example, Bin Laden wants to gain control of the power and the wealth of the Arab peninsula. In order to mobilise support 'against the Jews and the Crusaders and the Apostates' who are corrupting Islam, he uses the ideological stratagem of an Islamic revival through a return to the origins of Islam, that is to say to the original purity of the Koran and the shari'a (Islamic law). He thinks of the future looking at the past. He employs psychology and tradition to 'give water to the terrorist fish', for the purposes of recruitment and to obtain funds.


The psychological aspects are central in both the short and the long period. The terrorist attacks are designed not only to bring about losses, damage and panic but also to generate the enthusiasm of followers and to consolidate the power of the leadership. Transnational terrorism of an Islamic matrix has special characteristics, apart from its global diffusion, not only in Islamic countries but also in the Muslim diasporas in the West. It has a strong appeal of a religious character; it uses the re-Islamisation of Islam and the memories of a glorious past for a global project that is an alternative to globalisation, which is understood as the Westernisation or re-colonisation of the world; and it exploits the return of God in politics as an identity-based reaction against globalisation, modernisation etc. Its political objectives are unlimited or anyway not negotiable. There cannot be, therefore, either a functional strategy of deterrence (based upon overwhelming military superiority) or a military victory followed by a peace treaty of varying degrees of informality. The new terrorist threat has greatly reduced the importance of the enormous military technological superiority of the United States of America following the end of the Cold War which itself took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1). Victory over Islamic terrorism is to be achieved through reducing its dangerousness and its range.


In addition, like guerrilla warfare and every form of terrorism, Islamic terrorism is the 'masked' weapon of the poor and the weak against the strong. The point should be well understood: its area of recruitment is not only the refugee camps. This tactical characteristic that it possesses together with the instrument of 'rational irrationality' and technologisation allows terrorism to be used as an instrument in the strategy of wearing out its adversaries.


The actors of terrorism terrorist and direct or indirect supporters pursue different objectives. For example, those who finance terrorism pursue ends that are totally different from the aims of the leaders of terrorist networks. This is the case with current Islamic governments, which are inefficient and corrupt and which, in order to maintain power, look for a scapegoat in the West which is attributed with harbouring a plot against Islam, with seeking to divide the umma (mass of believers) within States and with aiming to achieve the exclusion of Islam from modernisation and globalisation.


Given that terrorism is an instrument by which to achieve political objectives that involves changing the nature of ends, the modalities with which the weapon of terror is used have also changed. Islamic terrorism aims to hit both soft objectives, the civil population or critical infrastructures, and also targets of a high symbolic value. Both are easier to attack by surprise, they are greater in number, and the lower level of surveillance involved allows detailed preparation of the attacks, which al-Qaeda usually engages in and which lasts months if not years (2). Hard targets are no longer aimed at for example, nuclear power stations and chemical centres and even less are police and military forces attacked: here there is a greater level of protection.


The great unknowns that terrorism presents and imposes today are principally of two kinds. The first concerns the effects of the costs that preventive measures, protection and security, which are created by States following terrorist attacks, have and will have 'on' (and 'for') globalisation and on 'the good of security' and above all else on individual freedoms. The second concerns the risk that terrorism of a conventional-catastrophic kind will be transformed into non-conventional apocalyptic terrorism through the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


'For' globalisation because contemporary terrorism sees its own possibilities of expansion and success as having been greatly increased by various new factors. First of all there are the new technologies which are able (above all when terrorists have weapons of mass destruction) to bestow upon individuals or small groups a destructive capacity which at one time was only possessed by governments.


Secondly, there is the vulnerability of modern societies and economies which is caused by the increasing porous character of frontiers and the interconnections of the various components of advanced societies and economies which, indeed, are the special characteristics of the globalised world. Systematic attacks on the critical points of the globalised economy could cause a world recession. The existing connections and forms of interdependence constitute a factor of strength and flexibility as regards the international economy but they are also a source of vulnerability. Indeed, they could amplify the damage caused by attacks and provoke a domino effect leading to an economic big bang at a world level, something, indeed, that is feared by Henry Kissinger (3). The impact will, above everything else, be indirect and due essentially to the consequences that globalisation has on those measures that involve the prevention of terrorism. That impact could, however, become direct were terrorists to come into possession of weapons of mass destruction.


In addition, when we consider the indirect damage caused by terrorism we should also consider that produced by security measures, in terms of delays caused by controls, restrictions of freedom of movement, and so forth. For example, the losses endured by the world economy following an increase of twenty minutes in boarding time for aeroplanes would amount to 120-150 milliard dollars a year, a figure equal to 0.4-0.5% of world GDP.


Lastly, information can amplify damage. In Western democracies, freedom of information is fundamental. And this freedom is both their strength and their vulnerability. Both the psychological and the economic effects of attacks are amplified by the mass media which always look for ways of increasing their audience share and thus their market value. As a result they deal in strong sensations and spectacular images. The management of institutional information, which is directed towards containing panic, assumes an importance that is almost equal to that of public diplomacy in international relations in the twenty-first century. But such information can only be effective in the presence of a solid culture of security.


In addition to the insecurity of not knowing where, how and when terrorists will attack (something that prevents a strategy of deterrence and containment), the strategic value of terrorism lies in the fact that the ratio between the costs of an attack and the costs of defence are enormously tilted towards the former. (4)The attack on the twin towers had costs that was less than a million dollars but it caused damage to the tune of fifty milliard dollars, to which should be added not only indirect damage (air transport etc.) but also the negative impact of the 'economy of fear' at a global level. (5)This last distorts the rationality of choices and depresses consumption and investments. Its effects are disruptive not least because the perception of vulnerability on the part of public opinion is far greater in relation to a highly improbable but spectacular and potentially catastrophic event than as regards a daily incident which is very frequent and with cumulative effects that are far greater than those of terrorist attacks. For example, the victims of 11 September were about three thousand in number but there are forty thousand deaths every year in the United States of America because of traffic accidents. Between the uncertainty of the terrorist threat and the costs of the internal security of a State there is a relationship of direct proportionality. Or rather, of a substantially exponential proportionality. Indeed, in response to the increase in uncertainty about terrorism, a State has to invest in proportionate terms much more in security. In addition, between terrorism and the State there exists a profound asymmetry. Whereas for terrorists it is sufficient to be 'lucky' once, States have to be 'lucky' every day to prevent attacks. This has led to a 'privatisation' of the 'good of security', (6) something which requires close cooperation between the public and the private sectors. Faced with the threat of terrorism, States generally opt for the defence of their own sensitive objectives. But in protecting an objective one generates the negative externality of making attacks on other objectives more probable (either less protected domestic objectives or, also, external objectives in other States). Today, security is almost a public good or a local public good. Moreover, the impossibility of protecting everything in a complete way means that the most effective defence is in reality an offensive or invasive attack on the root of terrorism: from an increase in the instrument of intelligence to the hunt for terrorists and the location of terrorist cells, to the attack on terrorist bases and networks, and on to the protection of frontiers, for example by impeding the formation of cells or their internal radicalisation.


The point should be well understood: States possess almost unlimited resources. Hitherto they have always prevailed over terrorism. Indeed, post-attack reconstruction has nearly always been an opportunity to increase productivity and stimulate growth. However, States cannot avoid sustaining the costs of a high request for security, something which has grown enormously after 11 September. (7)Indeed, their very legitimacy depends on their capacity to provide an adequate level of security to their citizens. Any failing here has very relevant implications. The results of the Spanish elections following the terrorist attack in Madrid of 11 March 2004 is a very clear example of this. And to do this, States not only introduce further limitations on civil freedoms and rights including, as the British prime minister Tony Blair declared implicitly on 5 August 2005, extra-judicial anti-terrorist actions but above all they tend to restore regulations, controls and limitations on freedoms of movement and transport that could, indeed, place globalisation in a state of crisis. This contrasts with deregulation and liberalisation, which are at one and the same time both the pre-conditions and the consequences of globalisation. (8)


To combat the damage to the economy caused by the attacks of 11 September, and above all the indirect damage, and to respond to the increase in the request for security, the United States of America adopted strongly expansive policies: the Fed injected vast quantities of money into the market and reduced interest rates; the government cut taxes; the defence budget and the budget for internal defence were notably increased, something that supported high technology industries; and the President himself exhorted the Americans to spend more. This was one of the most extraordinary monetary manoeuvres that has ever been carried out in history.


The operation was made possible by the extraordinary patriotic mobilisation of the United States of America and by the dominant position of the dollar. In Europe, a monetary manoeuvre such as that engaged in by America after 11 September would not have been practicable. The American Fed has a single political interlocutor, something which the European Central Bank does not possess. Attacks of a similar gravity in Europe would cause perhaps irreversible damage. For this reason as well we should not wait for such attacks to take place in order to adopt the necessary measures. An action involving stimulus on the part of the European Union to encourage States to strengthen security would be important. However, it is not possible to feel much optimism on this point given the institutional crisis that Europe is now experiencing because of increasing national egoism.


Let the point be well understood: the failure of the attacks in London on 7 and 21 July 2005 demonstrated that one can defeat terrorism and/or that one can limit its effects through the preventive strengthening of institutions and of intelligence and through a well directed mass media campaign.


A failure by the European Union in the field of reaction against a series of mega-terrorist attacks would lead to the disappearance of any prospect not only of a political Europe but also of a solidarity-inspired Europe, in addition to any opportunity for a new transatlantic pact.


The other unknown is the fact that the direct impact of terrorism on the economy would dramatically increase were the attacks of a non-conventional kind and carried out with weapons of mass destruction. In this case, the direct damage would no longer be 'precise', that is to say it would not affect circumscribed areas, with the accompanying possibility of being able concentrate aid and policies of reconstruction, as well as specific policies of prevention. The damage would not be limited to an area and could have long lasting effects. This would also take place in the eventuality of 'dirty bombs' which, although they would not cause a large number of victims and would only produce broad ranging contamination, could affect whole urban centres. They would require the evacuation of cities for long periods and the demolition of a third of the buildings of the contaminated zones (9). The subsequent decontamination would require a very long time and enormous costs.


Were the attempts to block the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to fail, transnational terrorism of an Islamic matrix could lead to a real and authentic war not only to wear down the adversary but also to annihilate Western societies and economies. No system of prevention and protection would be effective. It would not even be possible to engage in dissuasion or containment. The only defence possible would be the offensive use of military force in order to destroy the peril before it could express itself, as well as covert operations designed to neutralise the terrorist networks or at least to concentrate most forces and resources on their elimination.


Islamic (or Jihadist) terrorism is losing ground in terms of strength, pervasiveness and its appeal to the Islamic masses. This is the thesis advanced by Professor Gilles Kepel in his latest book (10). Towards the end of 2001 a document appeared on Internet under the title 'Knights under the Prophet's Banner'. This article, whose authorship was attributed to the Egyptian medical doctor al-Zawahiri, at the time the right hand man of bin Laden, may be considered a kind of RTA (Revolution in Terrorist Affairs). This document is a lucid attack on the strategy of the Jihad in the 1990s which was framed after the victory of the Mujaddin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. This victory had reawakened the Islamic spirit and given new vigour to the struggle against the historic enemy Israel. A strategy of the mobilisation of history, of religion and of hate was drawn up. It was strongly believed that a victory over Israel would have freed the world of Islam of its historic wound and raised up the values and the strength of Islam. This Jihadist strategy was flawed, as was its employment in Cecenia, Algeria and Egypt during the 1990s.


It was necessary to reconvert a strategy which up to the point had failed, and the new strategy was based upon a dual approach. On the one hand, there was the choice of the 'new enemy'. No longer Israel, the 'Little Satan', but also the United States of America, the 'Big Satan', or rather the entire West. And not only: to this was to be added the strategy of the 'nearby enemy'. In essential terms, it was no longer necessary to attack Israel in order to liberate the Islamic world, the authoritarian and corrupt Arab States which were compromised by their friendly relations with the West has also to be attacked. This was a strategy against 'the Jews, the Crusaders and the Apostates'. For that matter, the new strategy pre-supposes a use of propaganda and a 'spectacularisation' of terrorist attacks. The use of technology such as Internet and webcam to record and transmit messages has been an example of this new strategy. These messages are not only an attack on enemies but also and above all else messages with a strategic purpose (in code of various levels) for terrorist allies in order to secure their trust and respect, to increase their Islamic 'spirit' and to ensure recruitment and funds (11).


From 11 September to today this strategy has undergone notable transformations and mutations. States, and above all the European and American States that have been the victims of terrorist attacks, have chosen the 'culture of security' as an antidote to 'panic' about terrorism. From a strategy of mobilisation tout court, there has been a move today to a strategy of individual mobilisation involving a transnational network but with nationalistic and/or regionalistic connotations. No longer, therefore, the use of the Islamic masses but martyrdom operations through the use of kamikaze terrorists and well trained and highly educated and indoctrinated selected groups in order to achieve the strategic objective of the leaders of the terrorist groupings.


This new strategy is turning out to be a failure from all points of view. The terrorists, rather carrying on in the wake of the 'successes' of the attacks on the West, have only created chaos and destruction within Islam. They have generated a profound internal crisis, a fitna: no longer a transnational world war but a civil war within the heart of Islam carried forward by an invisible enemy, by a centrifugal force that threatens not only lives but also the holy conception itself of 'believer' through the fragmentation, disintegration and ruin of the Islamic community.


The presence of the United States of America in the Middle East region is intensifying the effects of the failure of Jihadist terrorism. Indeed, even though American policy in Iraq during the first stage of intervention was accompanied by errors, ingenuous persuasion and ideological beliefs such as that it would be sufficient to defeat Saddam Hussein to install democracy in Iraq or that the automatic stabilisation of Iraq would have led to a further automatic 'domino effect' in favour of democracy in the Middle East region this did not in the least mean that the strategy of terrorism was winning. Indeed, the 'holy warriors' with their strategic fall into civil war, which is leading them to kill more 'brothers than 'non-believers', has done nothing else but exasperate the spirits of Islam and generate internal conflict and discord. The consequence of this is that the Islamic regimes, rather than riding the terrorist wave to conquer power, are detaching themselves from terrorism. States such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Kuwait, Turkey, Dubai and Oman are 'draining the water from the terrorist fish' by choosing the United States of America as their 'guarantee' of security. Other States such as Iraq are under foreign occupation. Furthermore, although there is a strong anti-Americanism amongst the Iraqis, anti-Jihadist feelings are advancing rapidly.


And the picture does not stop there. The 'Apostate' regimes are turning out to be extremely resilient and aware of the dangers that they are running. Their choice in favour of the United States of America does not only arise from the contemporary failure underway of Jihadist terrorism but also from an aware choice substantially directed towards protection and future growth. For these States, the presence of the United States of America in the Middle East is not only a guarantee but also a 'life insurance policy'. But the point should be well understood: like every insurance policy it has to be 'paid for'.


The war on terrorism, like every other war, cannot have a military solution. Because the objectives are political, the solution must also be political in character. The American 'grand strategy, described in the NSS that was approved by President Bush in September 2002 and pronounced subsequently during his speeches on taking office for the second time and in his speech to the nation of January 2005 is directed towards the exportation of democracy, freedom and liberal capitalism so as to make Islam belong to modernisation and globalisation, from which, indeed, many Islamic States have excluded themselves.


The long term objective of the war against terror is to isolate terrorists so as to dry up their recruiting, their financingand (12)the numbers of their supporters and sympathisers. In the case of terrorism of an Islamic matrix, the ultimate objective of the West is to 'win over the hearts and minds' of the Muslim populations through the instruments of democratisation and modernisation. The West must, that is to say, isolate terrorism from the population. It must bring about the political and economic-social changes that are needed to extirpate its roots. This objective, it should be well understood, is in contrast with the interests of authoritarian regimes, even though they may be pro-American.


In this sense, the war against terrorism is a civil war within Islam where the West finds itself in the difficult condition of having to change regimes that are often favourable to it, which themselves are also threatened by terrorism, and of having very weak allies, given the weakness of liberal-democratic movements within the Muslim world. Building a democracy without democrats is an undertaking that is very far from being easy. But it is also the only possible way by which to ensure that terrorism is emarginated before it becomes too dangerous.



(1) M. Trajtemberg, Defence R&D in the Anti-Terrorist Era, Tel Aviv University, NBER and CEPR, August 24, 2005, presented at the conference Investire in sicurezza. La nuova economia della difesa nell'era del terrorismo ('Investing in Security. The New Defence Economy in the Era of Terrorism') held at the IMT, Lucca, 21 October 2005.



(2) Centro Studi di Geopolitica Economica (ed.), Sicurezza: le nuove frontiere Cultura, economia, politiche, tecnologie, Ricerca per Finmeccanica, F. Angeli, Milan, 2004, p. 45.



(3) H. Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.



(4) C. Jean, 'Terrorismo e catastrofi: l'impatto economico', Aspenian. 30, 2005, 225-241.



(5) C. Jean, Terrorismo suicida, Sala del Cenacolo, Rome, 2004.



(6) M. Trajtemberg, Defence R&D in the Anti-Terrorist Era, cit.



(7) C. Jean, 'Terrorismo e catastrofi', cit.



(8) P. Savona, Geopolitica Economica, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano, 2004.



(9) P. D. Zimmerman, 'Dirty Bombs The Threats Revisited', Defense Horizons n. 38, National Defense University, Fort McNeir, Washington DC, January 2004.



(10) G. Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, Harvard University Press, 2004.



(11) In addition, terrorism does not require enormous funds in order to support itself financially. And it is difficult to uncover these funds. First of all because terrorists often finance themselves through the direct taxation of immigrants often channelled through the Koranic schools or through a quota of the remittances of immigrants or more frequently through charities. The moving of money no longer takes place as it did before 11 September through the banking system but materially in the form of bank notes delivered by carriers.



(12) M. Fiocca, 'Mille rivoli, nessun fiume: come si finanzia il terrorismo', Aspenia n. 30, Rome, 2005, pp. 242-251.