Ronald Payne, one time Middle Eastern correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph newspaper, internationally renowned author and expert on terrorism. (UK)
It is a widely accepted fact that the history of human civilization is full of violence. Moreover, some scholars attribute first instances of terrorism to Biblical times. Which landmark events in the history of mankind do you associate with terrorism?
Well, the way I see it is that in the beginning everybody was a terrorist. In the barbarous Dark Ages, life was described by Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, as 'nasty, brutish and short'. And that was the top and bottom of it. People survived by killing, by inspiring terror in their neighbours and in their families, and the origins of our civilisation are undoubtedly lost in brutality. In fact, the whole process of civilisation has been trying to convert human beings into being gentler, kinder and more reasonable. With a certain degree of success, sometimes more than in other times. That said, terrorism deployed as a weapon of war, which is what it has become, goes back very far into history. I think it depends where you choose to start history.
I choose to start the history of terrorism at around the end of the first millennium. We had then a flourishing Arab empire which had already conquered a great part of the known world through faith in the prophet Mohammed and the way he preached the word of God. At that time there was in the Arabian peninsula a very sinister figure who has much in common with terrorists as we know them now. His name was Hassan ibn Sabha, and he deliberately set up a training camp for terrorists who would use the chosen form of assassination. In fact the word 'assassinate' is derived from that because it comes from the drug 'hashish', and an assassin was somebody who was filled with hashish. The word for a professional killer is derived from the word for somebody who takes the drug.
In his training camp, which was a pretty tough place called the 'Eagle's Nest' in a place in Arabia called 'Allamout", he trained his killer squads, as we'd call them now, in how best to assassinate people of whom he did not approve. He had a cunning psychological trick which perhaps could be emulated in modern terrorism training. After they (his acolytes) had had a rough time in this 'boot camp' learning how to kill and live hard, they were taken under the influence of hashish dreams to a kind of pleasure palace which gave them what he described as a foretaste or paradise. There were running waters, it was a land flowing with milk and honey, beautiful virgins who awaited the attentions of these active young men who'd been trained to kill. This was a foretaste of paradise to encourage them to further their efforts and they were further promised that if they were successful in terrorising the enemies of the Old Man of the Mountains, as he became known, that they would eventually achieve this happy state of heaven overflowing with girls who were forever virgins. To my mind, that is the origin of modern terrorism.
In your opinion, are the roots of terrorism political and religious or is terrorism rooted in human nature?
It is rooted in human nature without doubt. The things that trigger it, that set off bouts of terrorism can be either political or religious or both. There's nothing to keep religion out of politics or politics out of religion: they both work together. I think that as terrorism developed in its post-modernist form - and here we skip forward (we do a "fast forward") from the first millennium to late in the second millennium to the late 19th century -there we find a revival of terrorism and the revival of destroying or creating power becomes political. By this time, men and women are more interested in politics than they are in religion, and therefore the inspiration of the late 19th century (and I'm now thinking in terms of the anarchists, of Bakunin, for example) of a number of groups who became active towards the late 19th century, they were intent on changing the power structure in Europe by creating the kind of terror which would persuade politicians to act in a different manner. I suppose the outstanding example of this kind of terrorism is Gavrilo Princip, who was the man who assassinated the Archduke in Sarajevo in Yugoslavia in 1914, as we all know, an event which eventually precipitated the outbreak of the First World War. Because of course the Archduke had died at the hands of an assassin, who was a terrorist fighting for Serbian independence actually - which most people forgot very soon afterwards because they became much more involved in the fighting between Germany, Russia, the Western alliance of the British, French finally the Americans who came in. There was an act of terrorism that had appalling consequences for the whole western world, from the Atlantic to the Urals. This is perhaps a lesson for us all. We need to remember that just one act of terrorism can have all manner of consequences which the people who perpetrate that act of terror do not intend (the law of unexpected consequences), I'm sure that when he killed the Archduke the young student in Sarajevo wasn't thinking in terms of a World War, he was thinking of doing something to try and liberate or to "make a nation" of the people to whom he belonged.
In what ways is the contemporary terrorism different from that of the past?
I think post-modern terrorism (as it's been called) is different from the earlier forms, not in style or in methods which are always the same - they involve killing, and terrifying people, or sometimes just terrifying them by the threat to kill them. What has changed is the globalisation of people and politics and events. So that an event now in the world we live in becomes known much more quickly to a much larger audience than ever before. Our Old Man of the Mountains could arrange an assassination which might have grave consequences in the Arabian peninsula, but which would be totally unheard of in Europe, in the other societies in the western world, because news travelled more slowly, because events were much less likely to affect people in other countries, other than in one where they've taken place.
So there's no doubt now that this has affected not only what happens but it's also affected the techniques of terrorists. They're conscious of this and they like to play to a big audience in the same way that a man who makes a movie in Hollywood wants it to be seen by as many people as possible throughout the world to make him richer. In the same way a terrorist wants his deed to be known everywhere throughout the world because the more he can attract the public by these events, the more people will be terrified and the more it will increase his power. It's been said that if a terrorist commits an act that kills one person, that is enough to terrify 1,000 people. If you multiply that, if you play with the figures, you can say that by killing 100 people now in the right and eye-catching kind of way, for example, flying an aeroplane into a large business block of offices, that by killing a hundred people you can affect millions of people throughout the world. One act of terror can make itself known everywhere throughout the world. Indeed, the attack on the Twin high-rise Towers in the United States in New York is a fine example of that. It shows how one act of terrorism can shock everybody world-wide.
Not, and this is perhaps reassuring, not that this really increases the power of the terrorists. Osama Bin Laden may be pleased with what he did, but though it terrified people terribly, it looks as if it may be responsible for the downfall and destruction of his terrorist organisation. These things are not all pointing in one direction
So, you don't think that the journalists are actually helping the terrorists by spreading the news and terrifying the population even more?
No, I don't. It's my belief that the more information circulates the more people are prepared to take a sensible view, I think secrecy is much more dangerous. If you prevented news leaking about the events in New York, the effect would have been much more sinister, because it would have been exaggerated. You cannot hide things forever, the more you try to keep them secret the more they spread and the more terrifying their effect. It's sometimes irritating to see television cameras in particular playing the terrorists game by giving them more publicity than they deserve, but I think that in the long run it does not work to the advantage of the terrorists.
What are the major events in the history of terrorism in the UK and the USA?
Well, there's a great difference between the two countries although there are many similarities between Great Britain and the United States. There is one fundamental difference: London is the centre of an old empire, it was inevitable that in the dying stages of that empire (which began after the Second World War), that independence movements should break out in what had been the colonies in Africa and Asia, controlled by the British. Indeed it had been inevitable in the century before that the old part of the empire, the Australians and the Canadians, should have decided that they wanted to run their affairs independently of the British who were their origin. Of course, the pioneer in escaping from the British was indeed the United States in the 18th century - it broke away from the government by London, over a matter of taxation, incidentally.
The British therefore were used to the idea of independence wars, which inevitably involved terrorism. From the end of the Second World War onwards, the British were accustomed to terrorism against our administrations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In the Middle East, in particular, a peculiar position had arisen as a result of the First World War. The British held a mandate to rule over Palestine, a business which was enormously complicated by the decision equally made in London to allow the Jews to set up their own independent state in the same area, with its Head Quarters in Jerusalem, a place jam-packed with holy places for at least two of the world's major religions. In Palestine the British were the victims of two kinds of terrorism: one committed by the Arabs who wanted independence who were happy to kill and assassinate members of the British Forces and administration, equally so were the incoming Israelis who were also committing acts of terrorism against the British. A man who was later Prime Minister of Israel, indeed, was a member of a terrorist organisation called the Stern Gang (The Israeli prime minister in the Stern Gang was Menahem Begin) which murdered the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem, which murdered the United Nations representative in Palestine also. The British, for more than half a century, have been beset in the Middle East by two conflicting forms of terrorism. They've had terrorists trying to persuade them to get the hell out of Palestine, they've had Israeli terrorists trying to persuade them to get out for a different reason.
On top of that, the British experience of terrorism, which seems endless, was further complicated by the Irish problem. The Republic of Ireland, which became independent earlier in the century, spawned the Irish Republican Army, which was a terrorist organisation devoted to the idea of driving the British out of Ulster, that is, the six provinces of Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. So the Irish terrorists have occupied the British for the best part of half a century. Mercifully this is a war which looks like coming to an end, but it had a great effect on British life and also had the beneficial effect of training the authorities, the police and the army in how best to deal with terrorism.
That was an experience which the United Sates did not have, though let me remarkably state that other European countries have the same problems. France, for example, had the same problem with its Algerian possessions, which spawned a kind of terrorism in France. There were also a number of other kinds of terrorism in Europe, which were less nationalistic, and perhaps we could deal with that in the second leg of the question.
Did Europe experience any form of terrorism? It's not a problem confined to the USA, is it?
No. The kind of terrorism manifesting itself in Europe was rather different in form. It was a student revolt. Developed from a student revolt, first of all oddly enough across the Atlantic in California in Berkeley. From there it spread to Europe. In Berkeley (California) it was spawned by the war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement, which became a left-wing student movement becoming an anti-capitalist movement and an attack on the military organisation of the USA. This spread into Europe by way of Germany, where the Baader Meinhof gang sprang up (a man called Andreas Baader, and his girlfriend, a woman called Meinhof). They were too an offcut from the student revolution, they were intellectuals, they were not classically left wing, but extreme left wing people in their thoughts. Very anti-capitalist, they hated the smug, successful Western society and were determined to overthrow it. They railed against the military industrial complex, which was the great villain of the time, the "globalisation" of the late 60-s, and they tried to accomplish their own goals by murdering various capitalists, by street demonstrations, by setting fire to multiple stores, by committing arson, by creating mayhem. They also teamed up with the early Palestinian terrorists to start hijacking aircraft to draw world attention to the Palestinian cause. That was a very powerful combination of terrorism. The Palestinian terrorism developed and became more and more bloodthirsty until it provoked a reaction from the Western powers. However, the student revolution did not live up to its early expectation, although there were French groups that joined in, there were Scandinavians also that joined with them in their enterprises, it was not a sustainable kind of terrorism. Although they caused what looked like a revolution in Paris in 1968, the student revolutions finally withered away. Many of them have now become respectable ministers in modern democratic society, though they are still, to my mind, tainted by their revolutionary origins. What I think was proved was that terrorism, which is based on nationalistic motives, to "liberate a country", to set up an independent form of government in a colony, that is powerful and endures. Whereas an intellectual terrorist movement tends to wither away, they don't have the stomach for it and their achievements are small in comparison with their nationalistic comrades.
Why wasn't the USA ready to face these drastic terrorist attacks?
Well, the reason for that is the history of the United States. It's one of the few fortunate countries, which within the last 200 years has not found itself being a scene of a foreign war. There has been neither in the British Isles, nor in America, an invasion, the occupation of the country by a foreign army. In the rest of Europe, foreign armies have trampled over almost every country I can think of: France, Germany, Russia, the whole of Eastern Europe has been a victim of this. It reminds me of a survivor of the battle of Waterloo, when asked what had happened to him, he replied: "I was wounded, I was lying in a corner and every villain in Europe with a horse and a sword galloped over me." Now, that is true of most of the countries in Europe. The United States has escaped all that. It's been involved in wars, it's fought a terrible civil war, but never has a foreign army invaded. This has produced a desirable state of security within the country. People felt they were safe from such dire threats which have affected almost everybody else in the world.
Therefore they thought they might with luck be immune to the modern form of warfare known as terrorism. That feeling was reinforced by the fact that they have a very efficient police force, the FBI, which has been very successful in its war against crime, and the CIA with its enviable reputation as a secret service designed to protect the country from foreign threats. Americans had begun to believe they were immune from terrorism. They should have known better, because they've had many dire warnings. There was, for example, the attempt earlier to blow up the World Trade Center, which investigations by the CIA and the FBI have proved conclusively was the work of Arab terrorists, and heavily implicated Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Quaeda terrorist network. There were lessons which were neglected there. Certainly they've been warned by writers on terrorism in the USA that worse was to come, and that they should be on the lookout. They felt so confident in their own safety, and they've paid for that complacency very dearly.
That said, this was a spectacular new form of terrorism, and it's very difficult to see what could have been done to prevent it when you didn't know it was coming. The great advantage terrorists always have over civilised states is that they are the ones with the initiative. They are the ones who can strike out of a clear sky. They are the ones who don't have to worry about protecting things. All they have to worry about is choosing a spectacular target. I think it's slightly unfair to say that Americans weren't prepared for it, they weren't expecting it… and nobody was expecting this kind of attack.
What are the top priority measures to combat international terrorism?
I think on a practical day-to-day level, the most satisfactory way of combating terrorism is to improve physical security. You need to improve intelligence, to know more about your enemy. You can accomplish quite a lot by improving physical security, by keeping closer watch at airports, by having more people on the ground, like police forces and security services, but there's a limit to what that can achieve. The terrorists always have the initiative, and the only way to seize this from them is to have good intelligence; to know where their Head Quarters are, who are the people hiding them, who are the people financing them, who are the people that stand to profit from what they do. The best conceivable form of anti-terrorism is to have double agents within the ranks of terrorist groups. If any country had had the good fortune to have a double agent in the camp of Mr. Bin Laden, who could report to his outside masters what was being planned, how people were thinking, then some of these deeds could have been prevented. That's the best possible solution - what they call human intelligence.
Secondary to that is technical intelligence, stuff gathered by listening in to conversations of terrorist leaders electronically, by satellites, by monitoring mobile telephones, satellite telephones, by keeping an eye on the airwaves. A great deal is being done in this area, in the Western World and in Russia too, and I think that is the most rewarding thing in the long term.
So, there are three aspects: one is physical security, making it more difficult for terrorists to hijack airplanes, to plant bombs, and so on. The second one is to gather intelligence, and that is the most important thing of all: to know more about them, to understand what they are doing, and catch them before they carry out their wicked deeds. There is a third element, which is lateral thinking and dirty tricks. You can get at them by hitting at the people who finance them, you can do nasty things with their bank accounts, you can trace the movement of their money, you can make them stop transferring money, and they do need a lot of money to mount operations. When you've done all these things (these are the pillars of anti-terrorist activity), the final thing is the resolve of the defending powers, the resolve to exchange information, and to have a will, finally, to go in and do something about it. To use conventional weapons, as the Americans have been doing in Afghanistan, it is an obvious way of helping to destroy the rogue government that supports a terrorist network. And I think that's an important lesson to be learned for the future.
The reaction to terrorist attacks of September 11th has been extremely diverse. Among other things there have appeared a number of black humour Websites on the subject as well as numerous computer games and "politically incorrect" animations. What do you think about it?
Well, I enjoy anything that's politically incorrect. I think that's the start of the fun of the thing. There's no reason why we shouldn't laugh at terrorists in the same way as we laugh at anything else. If you're frightened of it, you get relief by laughing at it, so I think that's just healthy and absolutely fine. So far as the movies are concerned, it's always seemed to me that those of us who spend time studying terrorists (and I've met some horrible terrorists in my time), talking to them and studying them it's often occurred to me that I could easily plan terrorist attacks of kinds that would astonish people, and it's not hard to think of these things. I've always been very careful in my writing and in my words not to suggest anything that might trigger off somebody else's idea of a new way of achieving terrorism. There is a million of different ways to do it, and the more you study it, the more anti-terrorists think how easy it would be… and there's no reason why we should help them: their horrible minds are fertile enough at invention for them not to be dependent on our help and not to be dependent on movies. I think some movie scripts have gone over the top, as movie scripts always do. There was one I saw on TV recently about the kidnap of the American president on Air Force One, the presidential plane. It was a fun movie, and everyone enjoyed it, but would it give Bin Laden any ideas to seize Air Force One and President Bush? I think that people, by and large, are clever enough to sort out fact from fiction.
Legendary director Robert Altman says that "Hollywood action films have served as a source of inspiration to terrorists. The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies". Do you think terrorists are getting inspiration from Hollywood films?
I don't think Hollywood is clever enough to come up with anything terribly brilliant. I can think of much more devastating things than Hollywood has managed to come up with, and I don't think they've ever come up with any sensational ideas.
Do you think America might lose the media war?
I'm always doubtful about the 'media war' people talk about, because I don't think it's very important really. I know the media - as I'm part of it, I suppose I should be worried about it - but I'm not. I think a lot of nonsense is talked about this. It's not in the end the 'media war' that decides anything. It's a foolish concept. Countries and people make propaganda, but in the end propaganda doesn't matter, it's bullets that count, it's bullets and bombs that count, not what appears on TV screens or in newspapers. We as journalists always believe that we are masters of the world and know everything, but that's palpably untrue. People always rail about how we are losing the propaganda war, but losing or winning that kind of war doesn't really have any fearful consequences. Nobody in their right mind is going to be in favour of terrorists; they may be afraid of them, and perhaps the media helps this, but I think the propaganda war is a false worry. My own view is expressed by a Russian general of the 18th century Suvorov: 'The bullet is blind, only the bayonet is intelligent.'
Some researchers predict that "America is in danger of losing this war because of political correctness. "If we can't identify who the enemy is - and, in fact, refuse to do so - haven't we lost already?" - could you comment on this statement?
Yes. I think that's something that was true until very recently. I think it's no longer true, and the reason for that is the war against Bin Laden has in fact helped to change the American view of political correctness. Indeed, at the beginning there were fears that the whole conduct of the campaign against Bin Laden might be affected by the fact that it would offend Islam, that it would offend Islamic people throughout the world. People spoke of millions of Muslims, assuming at the time that all those millions of nice respectable people would throw their full weight behind this one ridiculous terrorist leader. Now what has happened, thanks to the resolute action of the American administration, is that America has found an enemy. The enemy was waiting to be discovered, and the immediate enemy was the Taleban government of Afghanistan, which by lending its support to Bin Laden and his terrorist network had clearly placed itself as the number one enemy of the western world. Something happened that differentiated this campaign from all the other campaigns against terrorism: we were always rather cautious about identifying an enemy in case we should be trying to be friendly with them, but now we've got a real enemy, quite as good as Hitler's Third Reich, and it's an enemy you can bomb, identify and destroy. You can also encourage other people within Afghanistan to destroy this evil government and the terrorism movement that it supports. So in fact the wheel has come full circle: another form of political correctness has been imposed on us by terrorist action, and that form is that the Afghan regime, the Taleban and Bin Laden's terrorist groups are the new enemy against whom we can deploy any weapon we want with the general approbation of the public at large. So I think political correctness need not worry us. It may have an effect on general political correctness in which we can eventually say "yes, OK, we respect other people's religions, Islam is fine, as long as it's practiced by Islamic people who behave in a reasonable and civilised way, but if they don't respect our way of doing things, why should we respect bearded mullahs - who are, after all, false prophets of their own religion'? We have a perfect justification for saying to them: "If you are so convinced that Heaven awaits the martyr, why do you not become martyrs yourselves… and we're quite happy to help you along the journey."
The greatest concern of the world community is finding effective ways of defeating terrorism. In your opinion, can we hope that one day we will win the War on Terror?
It's a difficult question to answer, and I think you have to consider it in a tactical way. I think there are many battles we shall win - indeed, I think we're winning a significant battle at this moment. There have been victories over terrorism in this century, there have been cases - I'm thinking in particular of the Irish Republican Army, which has been fought to a standstill by the British and finally decided to resort to negotiations, and it looks as if the negotiated settlement of many anxieties is now coming to pass, and they have finally renounced terrorism. So it is possible to win battles. There have been cases in the past where we've won significant battles against terrorists. Now, whether this will finally result in the kind of victory which the western allies and Russia inflicted on the regime of Adolf Hitler, in the Second World War, in other words whether that kind of 'total' victory can be achieved, I beg leave to doubt very strongly. I think that no, it is almost literally a war without end and that we shall have to get used to the idea that although in various sectors we have finished off the terrorists, new forms of terrorism will manifest themselves somewhere else. The world community is like the fire brigade, it will put out a big conflagration in Afghanistan now, but that will barely be achieved before some other bush fire breaks out in another part of the woods. So I think we are doomed to a war without end, but one in which we can take pride in achieving many victories along the way.
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