Why terrorists kill

I have just finished watching a very interesting film, the 2012 drama The Company You Keep.  Starring Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, Shia LaBoeuf and Julie Christie and based on a novel by Lem Dobbs, it tells the story of the Weather Underground (WU), a violent left wing group that came out the Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960s. Infused with anti-Vietnam War passion, these terrorists sought to create a revolutionary party that would overthrow the US government. WU would go on to carry out a number of bombings and bank robberies in which several people died.  The group fizzled out after the Vietnam War ended.

In the movie, Sarandon plays a character called Sharon Solarz who decides to give herself up after 30 years on the run.  She is interviewed in prison by a newspaper reporter (Shia LaBoeuf) and states the following:

“Most of us led very sheltered lives, we had no real relationship with violence…our government was murdering millions, and we could see…horrifying images, on the news… magazines..Well, we thought that sitting at home while your government committed genocide and doing nothing about it, that that was violence.”

I am careful not to ascribe too much to this excerpt in what is, after all, a work of fiction.  After all, the film has been criticised for portraying a terrorist group in a nostalgic light.  And yet there is something profound in this about terrorism.  It says something about why some people whom you would not expect to embrace violence in the end do exactly that.

Of all the “causes” put forward over the years and into today to explain terrorism (alienation, poverty, mental illness…) the one that seems to make people uncomfortable is grievance, the feeling that an injustice is being committed.  In other words, someone is getting the short end of the stick and no one is doing anything to address it.  If you look at any terrorist group you will see grievance, perceived or otherwise, at the core.

While in Denmark a few weeks ago I met up with a colleague, Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen – a researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies – and she said something very important.  She told me that if conflicts are not resolved by peaceful means, those affected by those conflicts sometimes resort to violence.  Examples are rife: Palestine, Kashmir, the southern Philippines, western China…

At its essence, conflict is about grievance: two or more sides cannot agree on an issue and one side usually gets the upper hand to impose its solution.  The subordinate side decides it has nothing to lose and violence – or terrorism – ensues.  I think that the WU saw themselves in this context.  The horror and disaster of the Vietnam War was felt by millions of Americans and many believed that peaceful protest was not working.  Hence the option to become violent.

(Years ago I interviewed a terrorist and asked him why he chose to become a terrorist to resolve the grievance he was passionate about.  Why did he not think that there were other – non violent – responses?  He looked at me and said that it was clear that peaceful approaches were useless and that only by killing people would his cause be noticed.)

I am not trying to oversimplify terrorism and am certainly not seeking to excuse or justify it: after all I spent 15 years at CSIS helping my colleagues combat it.  I have been trying to understand terrorism for decades and more specifically grasp why individuals become terrorists.  And I am left with this: if we continue to ignore grievance as a driver, either because we are backing the side of the party seen as the aggressor or because we cannot admit that sometimes our own policies exacerbate the violence, then we will continue to miss part of the problem.  After all, it took former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair more than a decade to acknowledge that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, in which his government played a major role, did in fact lead to more terrorism (not less) and the creation of Islamic State.

Bringing it back to Canada, every attack planned or executed here since 9/11 was justified by the perpetrators by citing Canadian foreign policy (in Afghanistan and Iraq).  Every single one.  I am not seeking to admonish Canadian governments for their decisions and their actions nor agree with the terrorists on why they were right to plan acts that kill, but it seems pretty obvious that there are those in our land who will resort to violence to resolve grievance.  Yes we must identify and stop them before they kill innocent people and yes we should charge and prosecute them under the law.  But we also must realise that grievance plays a role in violent radicalisation and terrorism and not dismiss it as fantasy or post hoc justification.  Beyond that, I am not sure what to say short of the need to find lasting solutions to conflict and thus remove one of the reasons for terrorism.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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