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Caleb Carr: Islamist Terrorists Target Us When They Smell Fear

Caleb Carr, in the WSJ (7-19-05):

[Mr. Carr is author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians," and "The Alienist." He teaches military history at Bard.]

... Thorough profiling demands that we also study the victims [of terrorist attacks as well as the terrorists themselves], who in cases of terrorism are whole societies. The point is not to see those societies as they actually are, but as the planners of the outrage saw them. In this particular case, we must try to understand why a terrorist group associated to at least a degree with al Qaeda was suddenly inspired to move beyond the general desire of that organization's leadership to punish Britain; why, that is, such an affiliate became overwhelmingly convinced that at this particular moment, British citizens were not only deserving of the usual terrorist brand of ritualized bloodshed, but would prove, more importantly, willing to gratify al Qaeda's demands in the wake of the bombings. What had these Islamist organizers seen, as they stalked through the land that had so unwisely given them asylum, that convinced not only them, but their young acolytes, that the time had come for a more-than-rhetorical assault on Britain's people?

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These questions will not be answered by focusing on the grievances by which the terrorists later claimed to have been propelled: The sociopath's motivations are revealed in his behavior, not in his grandiose self-justifications. Therefore, we must put the issue of the timing of the bombings into the context of the series of similar crimes that have been committed by al Qaeda and its subordinates during the long and deadly spree that they have pursued since the 1990s. Only a few examples from al Qaeda's catalogue of outrages resemble the London attack, in specific purpose and method, enough to be of real use in establishing this pattern. These few are: the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; the bombings of a synagogue, the British consulate, and a Western bank in Istanbul in November 2003; and the Madrid bombings in March 2004. What common elements can we establish among these societies at the given moments that they were victimized?

Of paramount interest is the fact that each nation had recently exhibited a weakening public determination to aggressively meet the rising challenge of Islamist terrorism. Consider the U.S. of 2001: The Clinton administration had left behind a record of essentially ignoring those few terrorism analysts who asserted that full-fledged military action against al Qaeda's Afghan training bases, backed by the possibility of military strikes against other terrorist sponsor states, was the only truly effective method of preventing an eventual attack within U.S. borders. President Clinton himself, we now know, at times favored such decisive moves; but opposition from various members of his cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and finally (as well as most importantly) a general public that would not or could not confront the true extent of the Islamist problem generally, and al Qaeda specifically, forced him to confine his responses to occasional and counterproductive bombings -- even as the death toll from al Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests abroad rose dramatically. Correctly sensing that the new president, George W. Bush, was treating the terrorist threat with a similar attitude of denial, al Qaeda's Hamburg-based subsidiaries launched the 9/11 operation.

Turkey, for its part, had taken the dramatic step of withdrawing its cooperation with the invasion of Iraq in early 2003. This move had drastically reduced the number of troops that the U.S. could bring to bear quickly on the operation, and may have colored the entire course of the war. Turkish leaders explained their decision by citing concerns about their nation's role in the region, as well as by saying that they did not trust the Kurds not to try to take advantage of the invasion. Perhaps so; but reports persisted that the Turkish government was worried about revenge attacks by Muslim extremists, along exactly the lines that (in a seeming paradox) did occur in November. Once again, an attempt to deal with the terrorist problem through avoidance only produced savage assaults.

In Spain, during March 2004, a similar public wish to avoid any forceful confrontation with terrorism prevailed, but for entirely different reasons: Spain had joined the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, which, after enjoying dramatic early success, ran into a buzz-saw of bitter resistance organized by Saddam loyalists, Iraqis angered by occupation, and foreign Islamist terrorists (many trained and supplied by al Qaeda's network). The majority of the Spanish public had never supported participation in the invasion; and the Iraqi insurgency's viciousness only made them more committed to adopt a neutral stance in the global war on terror generally. But Spain was also, at that time, facing an election, and a bizarre component of that contest were warnings issued by an obscure Islamist group (later connected to al Qaeda) which stated that the Spanish people's failure to elect a candidate who would withdraw troops from Iraq would result in attacks against them. As election day neared, it seemed likely that voters would comply; yet despite -- or in fact because of -- this cooperative posture, the terrorists detonated a particularly cruel series of bombs aboard commuter trains in Madrid just days before the voting. We may never know how much the victory of the antiwar Socialist candidate was prompted by the attacks; what we do know is that Spain's posture of pre-election submission did not save her citizens, and that after the election, when the new government did obey the Islamists' demand that they withdraw troops from Iraq, the terrorists ultimately announced that not even this move could guarantee Spain's future safety.

In all of these examples, then, the "trigger" for terrorist action was not any newly adopted Western posture of force and defiance. Rather, it was a deepening of the targeted public's wish to deal with terrorism through avoidance and accommodation, a mass descent into the psychological belief, so often disproved by history, that if we only leave vicious attackers alone, they will leave us alone. It is hardly surprising that by actively trying -- or merely indicating that they wished -- to bury their collective heads in the sand, the societies were led not to peace but to more violent attacks. Al Qaeda and terrorist groups in general have tended to press their campaigns of violence against civilians in areas where they have sensed disunity and a lack of forceful opposition. In the manner of clinical sociopaths, they seem to "smell fear" -- and to find in it, not any inspiration to show mercy or accept accommodation, but a compulsion to torment all the more vigorously those who exude it.

When the situation is viewed through this lens of victim profiling (never to be confused with "blaming the victim"), we can begin to see why al Qaeda's leaders and affiliates evidently began to think themselves capable of breaking an alliance that once withstood the assaults of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. For a widespread psychological phenomenon has gained strength in Britain in recent years, coming to a crescendo in the last few months. In political and editorial writings, but perhaps even more tellingly in the mass entertainment media to which the young bombers were reportedly heavily exposed, many Britons have subscribed to a new narrative of the post-9/11 world, one in which the U.K. is portrayed, not as a willing partner in the invasion of Afghanistan, nor as the author of much of the incorrect and/or deceptive intelligence that so rallied support in the West for invading Iraq, but rather as the largely innocent tool of a nefarious U.S., one whose government has been "bullied" by Washington. In this remarkably distorted yet equally powerful version of events, Britain emerges as a nation that would, if its leaders would only obey the true will of its people, display greater concern with such benevolent programs as ameliorating world hunger and climate degradation, and far less with combating terrorism. Indeed, they are only involved in the latter, runs the new "history," because of Tony Blair's obliging participation in Mr. Bush's oil-propelled policies.

Nations that experience collective psychological crises frequently attempt such reinventions, just as do individuals. By revising the facts surrounding irrationally violent incidents so that they themselves are somehow made responsible for them, victims often seek to exert some kind of control over if, when, and how their tormentors will inflict their random cruelty. But what British citizens who have participated in this revision of the historical record do not realize -- just as Americans in 2001, Turks in 2003, and Spaniards in 2004 did not -- is that showing fear and self-disparagement in the face of al Qaeda's threats only marks the society in question as a suitable candidate for attack. Sociopaths revel most in assaulting terrified, submissive victims; and a Britain so concerned with avoiding attack that its ordinarily wise citizenry would give voice to the kind of simplistic thinking expressed in the media in recent months evidently fit that description to an extent irresistible to al Qaeda's minions within its borders.

In this light, the trigger for the London bombings was far less the presence of British troops in Iraq, and far more the media circus that surrounded protestors outside the G-8 summit, as well as the utterances of musical and other celebrities during the "Live 8" performances in support of an end to world hunger, many of whom allowed their declarations to bleed over from understandable economic and political sentiments into dangerously blatant statements of opposition to the Iraq war, the global war on terrorism, and the U.S. generally. ...