Terrorism, the devil incarnate that plagues our societies today, is irredeemable as it takes unsuspecting, innocent lives. Combating terrorism should therefore be the priority of all governments, or should it? In this post, I aim to argue that the sentiment presented above is both a gullible and a counterproductive one against the backdrop of the fight against terrorism. I will first explain the nature and utility of terrorism (know thy enemy), then explain our weaknesses to it (know thyself) before shedding light on how we can win this war against terrorism.

Know thy enemy.

What is terrorism?

One thing I must clarify about the nature of terrorism is that terrorism is a method, not a living or established entity that we can conventionally wage war against. So if you scroll back up to the introduction where terrorism is seen as a “devil incarnate” in the common sentiment, you will realize that that is the misconception carried by many people. Terrorism cannot be treated the same as an organisation or a criminal, because doing so would result in a fundamentally flawed approach to “defeating” it. This is why knowing your enemy – knowing about what exactly is terrorism first – is extremely important. So what is terrorism? According to Oxford dictionary, terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims. In the modern context, however, the definition can be broadened to include religious and ideological aims on top of political ones. Is this definition consistent with the terrorism as we all know it? Violence and intimidation are definitely traits that we can all agree on, but political aims? What do we think, or assume, that terrorists are terrorizing us for? Is it for Allah? If so, then religious aims are conceivable. Ideological aims can be argued as political ones as the terrorists usually seek political reforms or changes that conform to their ideologies. What about aims that are purely political? They are possibly the biggest motivating factor behind terrorism in spite of what many may think, but how? Where exactly is the link?

The Political Usage of Terrorism is Ancient

Terrorism has always been a political strategy. It has been around for the longest time, conceivably since the 1st century AD. The first terrorist group was called the Sicarii, “a splinter group of Jewish Zealots who, in the decades preceding Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE, heavily opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and attempted to expel them and their sympathizers from the area. The Sicarii carried sicae, or small daggers, concealed in their cloaks. At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans and Hebrew Roman sympathizers alike, blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection. (Yes, to all gamers reading this, this is where Assassin’s Creed gets its inspiration from)” (“Sicarii”,2017). The aim was political as it was essentially a political resistance against the Roman Empire. The methods are definitely familiar, as it involves stabbing civilians. So terrorism as a political strategy is ancient. There is, additionally, one thing about terrorism that should be brought to light: it is a strategy that reveals weakness and desperation of the perpetrator.

Terrorism is a Strategy Borne Out of Weakness

Terrorism is a risky military strategy. It does not cause significant dent in the strength and ability of the enemy, but it provokes a response. If well-calculated, the enemy will misuse the undented ability to the terrorists’ advantage. The reward can be astounding, but it can also backfire really badly as provocation can easily result in retaliation against the terrorist group. However, the groups that resort to terrorism are often in the position of weakness, with little left to lose. With little to lose and much to gain through the method of terrorism, it is no wonder that terrorism is often adopted by groups that are weak and desperate. The Sicarii was a group that was militarily weak as it was dwarfed by the Roman Empire. Hamas is a militarily weak Palestinian resistance group that resorts to terrorism against the stronger Israel state. Terrorism, and guerilla warfare, is a common strategy adopted by the significantly weaker side to wage a war of attrition, lottery and self-destruction – all of which I will explain shortly. It is therefore a strategy borne out of weakness.

The Political Strategies of Modern Terrorism

The political strategy of modern terrorism remains fundamentally unchanged: to provoke and hope for a retaliation that can be taken advantage of. Putting it into the modern ISIS context, the strategy of terrorism works this way:

  1. Call for lone wolf attacks in the name of Islam
  2. The ones who attack are truly acting out of religious fanaticism (for Allah!), but they are just puppets. The puppeteer have bigger political objectives in mind.
  3. By deceiving the public that the group is inspired by religious fanaticism, Islamaphobia can be exacerbated.
  4. The theatrical nature of modern terrorism (destruction and collapse of World Trade Center, for example.), media lack of restraint to jump to sensationalising such theatrics for profit, and the tendency of politicians to capitalise on such opportunities to attack the incumbent for political gain (what is going on now against Theresa May in UK) combine to create an overreaction of the powerless public.
  5. An overreaction, especially during election period, forces the politicians to clamp down on Muslims, marginalizing the Muslims in the name of security.
  6. Increase in marginalization of Muslims means a greater pool of people who can be recruited as ISIS fighters in Syria or simply to be used as lone wolf attackers at home. This then feeds into a vicious cycle where more lone wolf attacks can be conducted, reinforcing this process from step 1. The reason why more people can be recruited from the marginalized group is that the marginalized have no place in society. Their resentment of that society for abandoning them combined with their lack of material wealth as a result of marginalization leads them to terrorism: the last bastion of hope for the weak and desperate.
  7. This also serves as a strategy to divide societies along the lines of religion and cause political instability over the issues of security. Political instability within a country can result in more squabbling and less action, and also weakens the western coalition or alliance against ISIS in the Middle East. This is because allied western countries will slowly deviate from the political center due to pressure by a populace that is increasingly viewing extreme measures against terrorism in positive light, resulting in stark differences of political opinions among the incumbents of different nations – Some to the far left, some to the far right, the remaining who are resilient remains at the center.

This is but one way in which terrorism can be used as a political strategy, one that is currently being employed in UK in the past weeks through the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks (and it worked quite well as the Tories, the incumbent party that was predicted to win a greater majority when Theresa May initially called for the snap election, has just lost its majority in the parliament). There are 3 other ways terrorism is acting as a political strategy: attrition, lottery and self-destruction.

Attrition works by provoking governments to finance more on anti-terrorism efforts. These efforts range from military invasion to intelligence services to security measures. Every taxpayer dollar spent on anti-terrorism is one taxpayer dollar that could be spent on more fruitful endeavors or on investment of the country’s future such as improving the social safety net for the poor or paying off government’s debt. Governments should really learn how to fill up their coffers to prepare for the future like the Singapore government does and use it for investment returns to fund future budgets – it is simply prudent to do so. Too bad, the other governments just can’t care beyond their own terms in office because they are just planning as they go – they have little interests in planning for the future to benefit the people, because it doesn’t matter if they prepare well for the future if they are not there to claim the credit for it. Due to this deficiency of governments, they succumb to the pressure by the populace to spend a disproportionately high amount of money on anti-terrorism efforts. One such example would be the infamous war on terror launched by USA in the wake of the 9/11 attack. “The direct economic losses of 9/11 amounted to tens of  billions of dollars, but the economic costs in the United States of the much enhanced security runs several times that.” (Mueller, 2005). Rationally speaking, that is a counterproductive decision, because that means that the US government is self-inflicting greater economic costs than what it is trying to prevent itself from. Many might be inclined to say that it isn’t just about economics, because lives are at stake here. That can be statistically refuted as well because the American invasion of Iraq following 9/11 claimed more lives than terrorism ever did in the last 100 years. “The war in Iraq resulted in the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis during its first 18 months alone. This could represent more fatalities that were inflicted by all terrorism, domestic and international, over the last century.”(Mueller, 2005). So which is the greater evil here, terrorism or our reaction to it? In any case, this is just the most prominent example of how terrorism can be a political strategy to bleed our countries to death, essentially waging a war of attrition by merely calling for lone wolf attacks that costs comparatively little to them – because the terrorists that they radicalized are mere human pawns to be sacrificed.

The strategy of modern terrorism also works as a form of lottery as the provocation of governments can sometimes cause them to misuse their strength in a way that miraculously benefits the terrorists. This might sound really dubious, but hear me out. Look at it this way: the terrorists have little to lose and much to gain when they inspire lone wolf attacks. On top of dividing societies, destabilizing governments and improving ease of recruitment, there is also a bonus: a chance to strike a lottery. An incident of such a lottery occurred in 1998. Two American embassies were bombed and Bill Clinton retaliated by bombing “some of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in Afghanistan which caused the afghan government, the Taliban, to renege on pledges to extradite the troublesome and egoistic bin laden to Saudi Arabia, made him into an international celebrity, essentially created his al-Qaeda organization by turning it into a magnet for funds and recruits, and converted the Taliban from reluctant hosts to allies and partners.”(Mueller, 2005). There is therefore some justification to the seemingly ridiculous claim that America created Al-Qaeda. The US government might not have intended it, but it did play a part by overreacting to terrorism.

Similar to the strategy of attrition, terrorists provoke countries to misuse its resources in ways that can be classified as self-destruction. However, instead of bleeding the country’s resources dry, it causes the country to dent its own strength while retaliating. One such example is as follows: “Outraged by a series of terrorist attacks and shelling perpetrated by Palestinian forces based in bordering Lebanon, the Israelis moved in with massive force in 1982. Many Arabs in southern Lebanon resented the Palestinian presence in their midst as much as the Israelis, and they welcomed the Israelis with flowers and smiles. But indiscriminate Israeli brutality and arrogance, in which Arab numerous villages were overrun and some 1900 civilians were killed in the first stages in the advance, quickly turned, as Sandra Mackey puts it, “a confederate against the Palestinians into a formidable adversary of the State of Israel.” The invasion did succeed in forcing most Palestinian fighters to flee the country, but within a year over 5000 had filtered back. By the time Israeli forces were withdrawn in 2000, vastly more Israelis among the occupying forces had been killed by harassing Arab attacks than had been killed by terrorists before 1982.”(Mueller, 2005).

The overall political strategies of terrorism can be succinctly summarized into an analogy by Yuval Noah Harari, “a terrorist is like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so small and weak. It cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? The fly finds a bull, gets into the ear of the bull and starts buzzing. The bull becomes so enraged that it loses its temper and destroys the china shop.”

The China shop is the country, the bull is the populace that do possess the ability to tear the country apart, and the bull will really overreact to a fly, just like how we often do overreact to terrorism.

Know thyself.

We are Overreacting to Terrorism

We are overreacting to terrorism. By comparing the number of casualties caused by terrorism and other occurrences, we will realize that our reactions are disproportionate to the impact. How impactful is terrorism? Obama rightly pointed out that more Americans die from accidents in bath tubs than by terrorism. That’s how statistically un-impactful terrorism is. To further emphasise this point, I would like to share what Yuval Noah Harari said: “More people commit suicide each year than the total number of deaths from war, crime and terrorism put together… it is safe to say that Macdonalds and Coca-Cola pose a far greater threats to your life than al Qaeda and the Islamic State…The chance that you will die from eating too much of Macdonalds is about a thousand times higher – and this is not an exaggeration, this is statistics – than the chance to be killed by some Islamic State’s terrorism attack.”(Yuval,2016). The top leading causes of fatalities and death in the world are cancer, heart diseases and diabetes. So are we reacting more to diseases, obesity and suicides than terrorism? Obviously not, and that’s why we are overreacting to terrorism. Of course, there are good reasons why terrorism just seems to grab our attention so much more than other causes of death.

The 3-Piece-Puzzle to Our Overreaction

We, the common populace, are very vulnerable to influences of the media, politics and the terrorists. Terrorism today is like a theatric or a play where the terrorists seek to always exit the stage in a BOOM so that it can create a lasting impression on the populace – we are their audience. As much as many do not want to admit it, the 9/11 attack was not notorious because of the higher-than-usual number of deaths it caused. Instead, it was the image of a plane crashing into the tall World Trade Centre and its blockbuster collapse that made it famous. Most people only know about the WTC being attacked, but not the Pentagon building being attacked at the same time because the Pentagon is a flat structure where its destruction would have no theatrical impact whatsoever. So here we have the first piece of the puzzle: the terrorists’ theatrical methods. The second piece of the puzzle is media’s sensationalism and over-publicity of terrorists’ attacks. The media sees the theatrical characteristic of the attacks and know that it would definitely sell well with its sensationalized articles and photos by appealing to people’s morals and emotions, so it flooded the news with terrorists’ acts, giving them free publicity and consequently feeding our anxiety. The last piece of the puzzle is political capitalisation of terrorism. Do you realize how politicians in recent years are becoming popular by talking about terrorism? I’m sure you do, unless you live in a cave. The topic of terrorism is the single-most overused yet effective bullet used by populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and James Corbyn (In recent Britain’s snap election) to attack the incumbent and pander to the people’s visceral fear of terrorism (thanks to the terrorists and the media). Although I must point out that terrorism is just one of many symptoms that are feeding our siege mentality against an increasingly globalised world. France remained resilient as Macron prevailed against Le Pen but her party has won a historical victory against its own past record. The same goes for the great loss of the Tories in the most recent UK snap election – great loss if we consider how much of an upper hand it had before the 3 strikes by the terrorists, which was why May called for a snap election in the first place. By having these populist politicians jumping onto the opportunity to feed our already well-fed and over-blown fears against the threat of terrorism, we have our last piece of the puzzle. This 3-piece-puzzle not only unveils how the 3 actors are unintentionally conspiring against us, the populace. More importantly, it is an integral understanding of our own weaknesses, so that we can finally figure out how to win this war against terrorism.

Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.

– Sun Tzu

Summary of facts thus far:

  1. Terrorism is a method
  2. It is ancient
  3. It is a method favored by the weak and desperate
  4. There are 4 general ways terrorism can be political strategies
  5. All 4 methods have an important ingredient in order to work: overreaction of the populace
  6. We are overreacting to terrorism, as proven by statistical data
  7. The reason why we overreact can be established by a 3-piece-puzzle or the 3 groups of self-interested conspirators

A Thousand Battles, a Thousand Victories

The fact that terrorism is both ancient and a method should shed light to our situation. It cannot be completely destroyed. If it can, it would have already been destroyed. So what is a method? A method is the characteristic of a mean to an end. We cannot destroy the method called terrorism for the same reason why we cannot destroy the method called peaceful negotiation. Destroying a method is logically impossible. All we can do is to make the situation less conducive for the method of terrorism by removing the favourable conditions of utilizing this method. It is a method favored by the weak and desperate – that’s one of the conditions. But what can we do about this? Absolutely nothing. That’s because human societies are fundamentally built on inequalities – not because it’s a human thing, but because it is what nature is. The ecosystem has a food chain and a hierarchy. Why? Because a system built on such inequalities is stable. Systems that are not stable cease to exist, it’s a natural selection of the systems. For human societies, we experimented with communism – a system that revolves around equality based on resource ownership – and it couldn’t last because its stability is dependent on ignorance. In the end, the unequal system of capitalism – a system that thrived on using inequality as a form of motivation – prevailed at the end of the Cold War in 1991. Inequality is something that will not go away anytime soon, at least until technology allows us to artificially create equalities without compromising stability. For now, let’s look at one other condition that can be removed. The 4 political methods of terrorism are dependent on our overreaction to it – THAT’S THE KEY. So how do we stop overreaction? The reason why we overreact can be summarized through the 3-piece-puzzle that I presented: terrorists’ theatrics, media’s over-publicity and sensationalism, political capitalisation by populist politicians. We can’t stop the theatrics because we can’t choose how the terrorists do things, but we can choose to see through the theatrics and look at the statistics or the numbers instead – those are the facts that belong to the objective reality. For the politicians? Just be sensible enough to vote rationally. Vote with your brain instead of your emotions. Your emotions should be reserved for more individualistic endeavors like love and friendship, it should not make decisions that can affect the livelihood of an entire nation. As for the media, If you are part of it, please dispense information and news responsibly. We should encourage more objective and proportionate journalism and news – report terrorism as it is, and stop flooding the news headline with terrorist attacks that take double-digit lives when an average of 20,822 people die from cancer everyday. Before we declare a war on terror, we should be declaring war on a bunch of other things such as car crashes or even bathroom fatalities. I’m just joking ok? Please don’t declare war on anything, wars are for bad people. As social media users, we can choose whether or not we want to click that share button on a piece of news that seems to be over-sensationalized or over-blown. Just make some effort to read it, if it seems well-cited and reliable, go ahead and share it on Facebook or retweet it on Twitter. If it seems dubious, be a responsible netizen and ignore it. Over-sensationalized pieces of news and populist politicians are the same as terrorism: if you give them attention and publicity, they will become popular and succeed; if you ignore them, they will lose their abilities to be seen as an effective method/news/political solution and thus they will slowly fade into oblivion. Of course, they will rear their ugly heads from time to time, but we just have wake up our ideas and ignore them every time the news outlets, politicians or the terrorists overstep their bound. Know thy emotionally vulnerable self, know thy overreaction-dependent enemy. A thousand battles with them as they continue to rear their ugly heads, a thousand victories won against terrorism.

Disclaimer: I’m not arguing for a complete disregard for terrorism, I am arguing for proportionate news reporting, political speeches on terrorism and populace’s reaction to it. Do not take my writing out of context.

Note: ISIS’s actions in Syria are classified as an insurgency. Only its attacks abroad are considered terrorism. Death tolls caused by ISIS in Syria cannot be considered deaths by terrorism. They should be treated as deaths by civil war.

Extra note: Singapore, my dear country, does not yet have a terrorist attack. I only ask that when the time comes (let’s face it, it probably will come), the opposition politicians will not be fear-mongers; the media will not over-report; and Singaporeans will not overreact. Yes, we must be vigilant, but there is a fine line between vigilance and melodramaticism.

Grammar vetted by: Cleo


Yuval Noah Harari (2016). Yuval Noah Harari on the Rise of Homo Deus [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ1yS9JIJKs


En.m.wikipedia.org. (2017). Sicarii. [online] Available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sicarii [Accessed 7 Jun. 2017].

Opinions and arguments inspired by:

Brandus, P. (2017). We overreact to terrorism for the same reason we’re bad at investing. [online] MarketWatch. Available at: https://www.google.com.sg/amp/www.marketwatch.com/amp/story/guid/D63D2F00-76AE-11E6-851A-08F338FE14C5 [Accessed 10 Jun. 2017].

Don’t give them what they want: terrorists should be starved of the oxygen of publicity, (2017). [Broadcast] IntelligenceSquared: IntelligenceSquared.

Harari, Y. (2017). Homo deus. Place of publication not identified: Vintage.

Kristof, N. (2016). Opinion | Overreacting to Terrorism?. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/opinion/terrorists-bathtubs-and-snakes.html?_r=0 [Accessed 10 Jun. 2017].

the Guardian. (2015). Yuval Noah Harari: the theatre of terror. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/31/terrorism-spectacle-how-states-respond-yuval-noah-harari-sapiens [Accessed 7 Jun. 2017].

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Written by: Jackson


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