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Last Updated: 04/05/2006
The Challenges of Terrorism
Benjamin Hess

Benjamin Hess conducted an interview with Dr. Edward Moxon-Browne about several issues related to terrorism. Dr. Moxon-Browne is the Director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of Limerick in Ireland. He has also taught at the Queens University of Belfast, Northern Ireland. His research interests include the Basque conflict in Spain and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. He recently taught “The Nature of International Terrorism” in the International Peace Studies program at the University for Peace.

Benjamin Hess: There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. How would you define terrorism?

Dr. Edward Moxon-Browne: It is very difficult to define terrorism and there are as many definitions as commentators. A short and simple definition would be ‘the threat or use of violence for political purposes’.

BH: Why did you become interested in studying terrorism?
EM-B: From the early 1970s, I was teaching political science at the Queens University of Belfast and although my principal responsibility was to lecture on European integration, it was a time when there was a very high level of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, mainly involving the Provisional IRA. And as I was interested in politics, it was difficult not to be inquisitive about the motivations behind atrocities which were occurring on an almost daily basis. Although the university was something of an oasis in the midst of the conflict, we could not isolate ourselves completely from the violence of the city around us and two of my colleagues on the faculty were assassinated for their political views. Interestingly, each of them represented opposite sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was also clear that the lives of students were being affected deeply by the trauma that some of them experienced because they were living in areas of the city that were directly affected by the terrorist violence.

BH: What motivates someone to become a terrorist?

EM-B: The motivations of terrorists are very difficult to pin down, and if anyone had a clear answer to that question, they would probably be a millionaire! We can assume that most terrorists have a deep sense of grievance, either because they or their immediate family have been affected by the political situation in which they find themselves. In addition, they may be individuals who may feel responsible for, and very sensitive to, a sense of grievance held by the community to which they belong. That community may be religious or ethnic, and individuals may also belong to a generation that feels alienated by the regime in which it is living.

BH: How has terrorism evolved from a historical perspective?

EM-B: I believe that terrorism is as old as history and there are many examples of terrorism in the ancient world. However, terrorism as we understand it today is a product of modernization and industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, in that modern societies are complex in a number of different ways and, therefore, are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. For example, communications – of the transport kind and of the Internet variety - make it easy for terrorists to strike at the heart of the modern state as well as communicate with each other on a global scale. We live in an age of globalization and this makes it easy for ideas to be transmitted quickly around the world, which means that grievances experienced in one part of world may be replicated and emulated by other groups in a very short space of time.

BH: Do you believe that terrorism is fundamentally changing? What roles have religion and ethnicity played in this change?

EM-B: I think that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we have seen a shift from ideological terrorism, which is exemplified by Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the Red Brigades in Italy, to a more political and ethnic type of terrorism sometimes with religious pretexts and motives.

BH: What are the biggest challenges that nation-states face when confronting terrorism?

EM-B: States face two challenges in the modern world. One is the fact that because of the Internet, information can be passed very quickly between states and between individuals within states. This is very difficult for states to prevent, because they don’t have better access to Internet than terrorists themselves. Therefore, the element of surprise is something that modern governments find difficult to counter. The second problem that modern democracies face is how to protect civil liberties at the same time that they guarantee the security of citizens. There is a fine line between not infringing civil liberties while protecting the security of citizens, which is an equally important responsibility of a democratic government.

BH: Has terrorism ever been successful? If so, how might this change how policymakers or terrorists act?

EM-B: It is often easy to assume that terrorism has been successful, because we see the political changes taking place during or after period of violence. It would be wrong to conclude that terror is ever completely successful because of the price that must be paid in terms of human life, human misery, and financial costs. But political parties that advocate change in peaceful ways are sometimes unconsciously assisted by terrorist actions. Political parties that advocate change can take advantage of the fact that governments take notice of their objectives because of violence, but the credit should be given to those who advocate peaceful change.

Governments must be sure that when they make political concessions, they do it in a way that does not comfort terrorist groups but rewards those who follow a peaceful path rather than a violent path. This is not easy to do, but governments should reward those who follow the rule of law.

As far as terrorists are concerned, the fact that violence can produce political change should not lull terrorists into false comfort. Terrorists should be aware that the counterproductive effects of terrorism may be even greater than some of the benefits. Examples are the recent ceasefire in the Basque region, which comes at the end of more than 30 year of terrorism, but most of the terrorist attacks came after major political changes were made in 1975. Therefore, it would be wrong to conclude that the increased autonomy granted to the Basque region is the because of ETA. Rather, the credit should go to other political organizations which used nonviolence in opposition to ETA since its foundation nearly forty years ago.

BH: In order for a democratic government to successfully defeat terrorists, do citizens of that state have to sacrifice civil liberties?

EM-B: Unfortunately, it is true that in the fight against terrorism, governments may need to suspend or reduce civil liberties for a short period of time. However, when they do that, they must make it clear that the reduction is temporary and proportionate to the threat that terrorists pose to democracy in that particular country. If the government needs to suspend or reduce civil liberties for a long period of time, it means that it has lost the battle, because it should be apparent to citizens that any state which is legitimate and has the widespread support of the population should not need to resort to emergency measures for an excessive length of time. The battle between terrorists and the government is a battle for the minds and hearts of population, and the government should win in the end. If it does not, it means that there is something defective about that political system.

Benjamin Hess is a Master's candidate, studying International Peace Studies at the University for Peace.