Visiting Faculty Member Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou assesses the explosion of political violence in modern era.
Dr Mohamedou gave a lunchtime lecture at Villa Barton yesterday discussing the history of terrorism and methods to better understand it drawing conclusions on its implications for the press and researchers.
Although the public has been barraged by images of public bombing in the Middle East over the past decade, Dr Mohamedou’s talk emphasised that terrorism is an age-old and complex phenomenon that has scarred many of the world’s regions over time and is constantly in flux.
Prefacing his talk, Dr Mohamedou stated that terrorism as a form of political violence has been with us throughout the history of civilization. He opened by looking at the origins of a more modern terrorism, going back 150 years, and dissected it into four generations of violence distinguished by different characteristics.
The first era was marked by targeted political assassinations, with the second being of a nationalistic nature. The third generation was the ideological terrorism of the 1970s and the fourth generation was religious. Although the evolution has never been completely uniform, these generations have all been brought in by changes in social dynamics and by technological innovation. The transformation of warfare between the world wars, increased international air travel, the invention of plastic explosives and the internet have all caused progressions in the methods terrorists use. In addition, motivations, ideology and locations have all morphed over time. In 1861, it was the assassination of the Russian Tsar but: “today it is someone with a g-mail account, an iPhone and a backpack wreaking havoc in a public square”.
He also pointed out that terrorism has only recently become automatically associated with Islamism. He said there is strong evidence that we are in a fifth generation of terrorism, a post-al Qaeda period, which is global, privatised and individualised. Criminal activity was once used to fund terrorism and now terrorism is beginning to be used to mask illicit business.
The new terrorism has been characterised by intensification in transnational activities. The September 11 bombings are a classic example of an operation that was planned, funded and carried out in different locations all over the world, Dr Mohamedou explained.
While older forms of terrorism were led by organised and hierarchical groups with police and military targets, the new political violence is fast adjusting, idiosyncratic and has a decentralised leadership structure. The goals of the new groups are open ended; Dr Mohamedou cited Osama Bin Laden’s recent references to climate change and floods in Pakistan in one of his audio addresses. Previous generations had a clear endgame like the liberation of a country from foreign occupation, he said.
Academic research is at an early stage in trying to fully grasp the challenges of terrorism, but Dr Mohamedou believes progress can be made by trying to go beyond the debate surrounding the definition of terrorism. The saying “your terrorist is my freedom fighter” sums up what has been stalling organisations like the United Nations from even defining terrorism. Dr Mohamedou has said elements of a definition exist such as the illegitimate use of violence, the targeting of civilians, and the causing of public disorder. He said for research initiatives to be able to gain ground in the field, they need to move beyond the definition and use sound social science methods to gather information. Many scholars are making significant advances in this area and he gave the example of a recent study that looked statistically at suicide bombers revealing that poverty and religion were not as significant motivations as would be expected.
As for implications for journalists, Dr Mohamedou said that the media needs to do a better job reporting the regionally and motivationally diverse aspects of terrorism. He suggested that the media look at terrorism in a more nuanced way to decipher its instable and changing nature.
Dr Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is a member of the Graduate Institute’s Visiting Faculty in its International History and Politics, and Development Studies academic units. He is also currently Visiting Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He has a PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York. He was previously Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in Mauritania and prior to that Associate Director of the Programme of Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University where he founded the Transnational and Non-State Armed Groups Project. From 1998-2004, he was Director of Research at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.
His major publications include the books Understanding Al Qaeda: The Transformation of War, and Iraq and the Second Gulf War: State-Building and Regime Security. In French, he has published Contre-croisade: origines et conséquences du 11 septembre.