Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence

Anthony McIntyre 🔖 Democracy and Security, 5:169–171, 2009. Vol. 5, No. 2, Jun 2009: In the preface to this book, the author Dipak K. Gupta reveals that he hails from “a long line of terrorists and their adversaries.”1 More importantly when he arrived at college in Calcutta he aligned himself with the Naxalite group which over the following decades was labelled a “terrorist” organization. He did not remain long and, when he left, he sought to bleed the political content from his motivation for having become involved to begin with. The need to belong and the sense of physical security that membership of a violent group afforded came to form the impulse to join up. The bond of esprit d’corp rather than the ideological glue of a political community held those in the movement together. In this study Gupta overcomes a strong reluctance to use the term “terrorism.” He knows its pejorative impact and how it smothers intellectual investigation while distorting public understanding. Crucially, he accepts that excluded from its rubric is “by far the largest source of civilian death in the world: governments.”2 Recent evidence reinforcing this contention can be found in the assault on Gaza by the state of Israel. Political violence has its own pulling power. Since 9/11, terrorism literature has witnessed massive exponential growth. This comes in spite of the RAND Corporation’s findings which purport to show that since 1970 there have been on average 375 deaths a year worldwide from terrorism. Gupta contextualizes this by pointing out that the casualties are about 50 more than the amount of people who drown in bathtubs in the US alone every year. For all the supposed proliferation of terrorist groups this work suggests that terrorist organizations are like small businesses—90% of them ceasing to exist or operate in the early years of their existence. There is plenty of hype-induced literature and fascination but despite it Gupta believes public understanding remains bereft of a theoretical structure for understanding the motivations behind terrorism. This is what much of his work addresses: the reasons people become involved in “terrorist” organizations. This process is immediately preferred over politics: “the question of how one gets involved is far more interesting and instructive than wanting to know why.”3 There is a growing body of writers observing insurrectionary groups who build a mosaic of reasons as to why a person decides to become involved with a guerrilla group. In some cases their output is used to undermine the legitimacy of the armed actions carried out by insurgents by purporting to show that the calculations of the individuals involved were not political. Counterinsurgency strategists quickly latch on to this type of argument to make propaganda to undermine the insurgencies they seek to combat. But this is no reason to refrain from critical engagement with the professed reasons of those who take up arms. Otherwise society will simply be bombarded with propaganda from the insurgent camp trying to cloak both the cause they fight for and the actions they take in pursuit of their chosen Holy Grail. In pursuing this engagement one of Gupta’s crucial objectives is to show that terrorism is an altruistic act rather than the simple self-serving activity favoured by economic and rational choice theorists. He states that the only common thread binding the diverse acts of terrorism together is their professed claim to be striving to attain a common good for their community. Where this may be said to be true it must come from terrorism as a political community rather than terrorism being the end result of the behaviour of those who need to belong. This is where a serious tension slips into the work. Altruism appears not to figure in the motivations for joining even where it might later appear in the rationale of those who do join. It might be more useful to think of terrorism within a more structural framework. This permits conceptualizing it for the most part as a response to state violence rather than an act of altruism. To use Helder Camara’s term, a “spiral of violence” mushrooms and magnetizes people to it out of circumstance rather than conviction. Most “terrorists” fight against rather than for. This is why in the end so many individual guerrillas readily, in some cases eagerly, embrace outcomes which the ideological goals of the movement they belonged to bear no or little resemblance to. Moreover, Gupta’s discussion on altruism in the opening chapter of the book is a meandering one which concludes little other than that people have a mixture of motives. Profiling a terrorist is “such an impossible task. In their motivations terrorists remain indistinguishable from all of us.”4 This prompts exasperation in the reader who waded through 63 pages of profiling only to discover this. For terrorism to work most efficiently, in the perspective of Gupta, it must be driven by “political entrepreneurs” who “connect the dots” for their followers and frame the issues that people are concerned about. Without the agency of the political entrepreneur terrorism will remain docked in the port of wishful thinking. Yet if entrepreneurs are so crucial it would be a relatively simple matter for modern states faced with a terrorist problem to resort to the colonial military logic of “shoot the big bugger at the front in the turban.” Why bother devising anything more complex? Another attenuation in the reliance of the political entrepreneur is to be found in the author’s citing of the work of Daniel Goldhagen to support his case that under such entrepreneurship an entire country became “Germany’s Willing Executioners.” Yet the extent to which such a claim can be validated has been rigorously challenged by Ruth Bettina Bern and Norman Finkelstone inter alia almost from the time Goldhagen’s work was first published in 1996. Gupta further claims that every insurgent movement large or small starts with an idea offered by a leader which then inspires a multitude. This seems an over simplistic view of conflict. In the case of the IRA, leaders followed with ideas events that were already happening on the ground. This pries open a critique that when Gupta journeys outside the realm of his model to test how it stands against facts on the ground the weaknesses are exposed. Where he may be more assured on his home territory of the Naxalites, he underachieves in his examination of the IRA. The notion that people join the IRA out of fear of those in it does not gel with the experience of academics who have either spoken to IRA members or who were themselves members. Whatever about the compromised-induced deficiency of IRA internal security policy, the organization based much of its security screening on weeding out the weak. And a person in the ranks out of fear was considered quite weak and therefore a risk to the organization. Gupta also characterized the Northern Irish conflict as “sectarian bloodshed.”5 This is an inadequate characterization of the IRA campaign. The killing of around a thousand British security personnel should alert researchers to the folly of superficial labelling. Referring to a much publicized 1992 IRA operation as the “night of the long rifles” when in fact it was known as the “night of the long knives” reveals a lack of familiarity with the Northern conflict. Nor in that operation did the IRA target the INLA, but a group called the IPLO. “Long rifle” was a pejorative term used by northern republicans to describe other republicans residing or hiding out in the part of the country where there was no British presence. Ultimately, this work provides food for thought. Refreshingly it does not slip into the strategic cul de sac of arguing that the only response to terrorism is a draconian military one. It also rubbishes the link that governments endlessly conjure between organized crime and political terrorism. But it does not provide the understanding suggested in its title. Terrorism and political violence to the degree that they were clouded before reading this book remain firmly ensconced behind the haze upon finishing it. Notes 1. D. K. Gupta, Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence: The Life Cycle of Birth, Growth, Transformation, and Demise (London: Routledge, 2008), xiv. 2. Ibid., 9. 3. Ibid., xviii. 4. Ibid., 63. 5. Ibid., 127. Dipak K. Gupta: Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence: The Life Cycle of Birth, Growth, Transformation, and Demise (London: Routledge, 2008).


  1. Interesting post, hard for a dead-brain like me to read, but worth it. What you wrote-

    "In the case of the IRA, leaders followed with ideas events that were already happening on the ground."

    that rang true to me and coming from someone like you it was good to read.

  2. I am somewhat contemptuous of most academics who look at why people join a freedom struggle, as I have no confidence they are any more independent minded than the rest of us, indeed many are in the pay of the governments we oppose.

    There is no mystery why people join organization's like the French resistance, IRA or the Taliban, the Indian write Pankaj Mishra sums up the reason perfectly here,


    I had seen enough of Afghanistan outside their (British army--MH) compound to know that their endeavours, though well-intentioned and vigorous, were rendered futile by the fact they had come, and were largely seen, as invaders in a country notoriously hostile to foreign armies.

    More confirmation came on the afternoon I joined one of their frequent patrols to the city. As our armoured jeep left the British compound, the soldiers quickly lost their easy amiability; the outside world suddenly seemed full of unseen threats. They drove very fast, cutting through the slow-moving traffic with the help of some furious honking and co-pilots who forced all other vehicles out of their way.

    You had to look back to notice the rage of the Afghan donkey cart drivers bullied off the tarmac and into the dusty verge where they struggled to rein in their distressed animals.

    Later in Kabul, and then in eastern Afghanistan, where I saw the bigger and more heavily armed Nato and US convoys from the fearful perspective of a pedestrian, it was even clearer that a single patrol could lose hearts and minds arduously won over many months.

    The daily humiliations of a prolonged military occupation, among which aggressive driving ranked well below the destruction of entire villages from the air, had become as intolerable as the oppressions of the Taliban to ordinary Afghans; and the western politicians who claimed to be making progress by sending out soldiers to distribute candy and footballs to Afghan children had themselves turned into political infants.

  3. Appropos of this most important column and the insights of the author, which I share in general and rarely find in print anywhere else these days, is anyone willing to help me in learning the facts of the armed resistance in the recent chapter of the "Troubles" in the North? I realize that there is a possibility of actual danger in some levels of comment. Can I start by asking for comment on the accuracy of Ed Moloney's "Secret History of the IRA", and/or any better reference to the real history of the era's militant activists?

  4. Moloney's would be an accurate and well researched account. No one book explains the Provisional IRA but if you were to pick one to enhance understanding it would be that one.