Terrorism and the Developing World
James Putzel

 

Editors Introduction On October 12, 2001, one month and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Development Studies Institute, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, held a panel debate on the subject of terrorism and the developing world. Chaired by James Putzel, director of the Crisis States Programme at the LSE, it united a group of academics with unique perspectives on the roots of terror in the developing world, to consider the events of September 11 from a development-studies perspective.

In this feature, James Putzel introduces the terms of the debate by attempting to define the label "terrorism and the developing world." He sets out to consider central questions ranging from what gives rise to terrorist organizations in the developing world today, to why these organizations gain legitimacy in some communities and countries. He argues that terrorist action and the legitimization of terrorist activity can be traced to the work of individuals, non-state and state organizations throughout the developed and developing world.

James Putzel: I feel I must begin this session by expressing both our deepest sorrow and our deepest indignation over the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC, and our sympathy for all those who have lost someone dear to them. Nothing can justify such a horrendous act and I wish to echo the unqualified denunciation of those who perpetrated it, expressed by state and non-state leaders and religious authorities of every denomination throughout the world. At the same time, I know the whole room also feels deep sorrow over the lives that now are being lost among both refugees and civilian casualties as the full force of military might is brought to bear on Afghanistan.

We have been bold, or some might say foolish, in labelling this session "Terrorism" and the developing world. The term is much abused and since I am responsible for its use in this session let me tell you to what I am referring. I see as terrorist action any act of violence directed against civilian populations designed to strike fear, demoralisation and disorganisation into their midst--whether this be perpetrated by individuals, non-state organisations or state organisations, including military and police forces. Many of us abhor and oppose any kind of violence--war in particular-- and recognise these acts as blights on our civilisation, which we must work to bring to an end by seeking out their causes and designing remedies, and doing so through systems of law at local, national and international levels. Terrorism, by definition, lies outside our laws and deserves our condemnation.

Despite our focus today on the developing world, terrorism is not a phenomenon that originated in today's developing world. Across Europe and North America, both state and non-state actors have committed acts of terror within their own boundaries or outside them throughout the last century and sadly, still in our new century. The term itself emerged out of the French revolution where terror was used by the state to consolidate its political authority. We think of Nazi Germany and, more recently, Serbia; we think of the contending sides in Northern Ireland. We think of the acts of terror perpetrated by Japanese forces throughout Asia in the second world war, but also the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps the most brutal acts in recorded history designed to strike terror in the hearts of a nation.

In our session, among the central questions we are asking is what gives rise to terrorist organisations and activities in the developing world today, and why do they gain legitimacy in some communities and countries? This is a complex issue and still requires considerable research and analysis. I would like to put some propositions to you.

First, I would suggest that the increased terrorist activity emerging from organisations outside the state is a consequence of the weakening of state organisations: states unable to steer their people out of poverty and increased inequality or to arrest destructive corruption; and state failures to rule by law and ensure security of the people and communities under their authority. States have been weakened in part by the negative impact of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, reducing their fiscal capacity and consequently their organisational capabilities--to manage economic development and to organise accountable armed and police forces. In many parts of Africa, states have collapsed, leaving room for the rise of armed organisations regularly employing terror to achieve their ends. In the Philippines and Indonesia, weak states have provided a fertile terrain for armed organisations to pursue politics through kidnappings, assassinations and other acts of terror.

States have also been weakened by internal political failures, which in themselves, I would suggest, constitute the second reason for the growth and increased support for organisations that use terror in pursuit of their political aims. There has been a decided decline in programmatic politics, in the pursuit of power through persuasion based on clear political-party platforms for governance and economic management. Worldwide, the realm of political organising has been denigrated--through past failures of ideologically driven programmes such as socialism, or the abuse of democratic pluralism and through a consistent attack on the principles of secular politics even in the world's most advanced democracies.

Politics is portrayed not as a noble pursuit, but as riddled with corruption and self-seeking individuals, where self-interested abuse of power is the norm. This has created in many societies a political vacuum that allows the rise of sectarian organisations and increases the appeal of fundamentalist tendencies within them. The instrumentalism that accompanies fundamentalism of all varieties opens the way to justify any means by its ultimate goals, and creates an environment in which terror can be seen as a legitimate means to pursue political objectives.

Finally, I would suggest that organisations that employ terror have gained legitimacy because of the often cynical, hypocritical and abusive exercise of power in the international realm by today's most developed democracies. Preaching the protection of rights at home, the military and intelligence organisations of the great powers have too often supported abusive regimes abroad if in doing so they gain strategic military advantage or access to natural resources.

The United States and other western powers supported Osama bin Laden and his networks when they mobilised forces to fight the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. For years the Afghan people have suffered regimes that abused basic human rights and left a population mired in poverty, while external powers have been more willing to send arms to one group or another rather than to address that suffering comprehensively. One policy is adopted towards the abuse of Kurdish people in Iraq, while another is adopted when the same abuse is carried out by Turkey. The long condition of statelessness and hopelessness among Palestinians tolerated by the international community has provided legitimacy to organisations within Palestine that have turned to terror to pursue the quest for statehood.

These western abuses of power and this neglect weaken the moral authority of our democratic states on the world scene, and creates a fertile terrain for organisations advocating terror and a rejection of the west, and the agenda of good government and democracy it promotes in the developing world.


This feature was taken from a panel debate held at the London School of Economics and Political Science on October 12, 2001. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.