The blog Pearsall’s Books has been on a roll lately, with demographic studies, editorial analyses, and its trademark book reviews. Here, for instance, is a perceptive column Pearsall analyzes by Jason Burke in Sunday’s Guardian Observer about the lifecycle of terrorist movements.
Historically, this first attack usually prompts the state security machine, after a short delay or period of indecision, to swing into action. Repressive legislation is introduced, intelligence agencies boosted and key militant leaders are killed or imprisoned. This results in more indiscriminate, brutal violence as the terrorist movement, leaderless and rudderless, mutates and fragments. With resources scarce and security high, soft targets are favoured.
What follows is crucial. Egypt and Algeria suffered Islamic militancies in the early 1990s that followed the above pattern. After nearly a decade of increasing horror, they peaked in grotesque violence. In Algeria, more than 100,000 died. But rather than boost the militants, this had the opposite effect. Public support for extremists collapsed; the ‘martyrs’ became ‘murderers’. Reviled by former supporters, the militants became easy prey for security agencies. Now, only a criminalised rump of violent men remains in both countries. Movements that once threatened the existence of the state are effectively finished. And the critical factor throughout was the support of the bombers’ own constituency.
The insurgency labelled ‘al-Qaeda’ fits this paradigm in many respects. The spectacular attack (9/11), then the response (the Patriot and anti-terrorist Acts, Guantánamo Bay). The degrading of the leadership (the invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of arrests ), now a brutal, indiscriminate phase as individuals buy into a hate-filled ideology (Madrid, the Beslan school massacre, London) and conduct freelance operations.
It may be argued that, as Algeria and Egypt (and Northern Ireland and the Basques) were on a national scale and the ‘al-Qaeda insurgency’ spans the globe, we are in untrodden territory. But I believe the basic conclusions drawn from smaller-scale examples remain valid. No one can claim, given the diversity of this attack’s victims, that they were striking simply at the West. The casualties, in our wonderfully varied city, are as globalised as the ideology that caused them. This is a global militant movement working to an agenda that can inspire or repel anywhere on the planet.