The dust has settled now at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. I am not going to list the numbers of dead or expand upon the horror of it all; it is an all too common occurrence for there to be anything significant to add. I won’t give you a detailed explanation of who al-Shabab is; one can tune in to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera or Russia Today for the spectrum of views on that.

I rather want to ask a simple question: Does terrorism actually work? Do terrorists achieve anything significant and enduring or are they simply angry little bullies who are seemingly incapable of affecting constructive and lasting change in any other meaningful way?

Terror attacks are an attempt to project power. They gather publicity for a cause; to get a seat at a table and to give an agenda some air time on global media. A terrorist, freedom fighter or indoctrinated murderer, depending on your viewpoint, is a peculiar animal that believes that his or her socio-political vision for the future supersedes your right to life. They believe that your death is worth a few minutes of coverage on a major TV channel. You are cheap meat, a number, a means to an end.

There is, however, an intractable problem with the methods employed by the agents of terror: this special brand of lunacy is far too common and becoming more so over the past decade. Oddly increasing incidence of terror attacks is, in my opinion, weakening terrorism as a force for change.

On any one day, bombs go off in Iraq, police are shot in Afghanistan, shopping malls are attacked, trains are bombed, car bombs are planted and detonated and so the cycle repeats. A fascinating tool to understand this madness is available here at the University of Maryland. They have compiled data from every terrorist attack since 1970 in every country on the planet totalling a disconcerting 98 000 discrete events. The database does not include failed plots and already we average a staggering 8.66 events per day between 1970 and 2011! We should all be too scared to leave the house.

Further pottering about on this absorbing chart reveals some other interesting info. Here are some of my highlights:

• Terrorists love to attack civilians. The top 3 targets in descending order are private citizens, businesses and then general government. Military and police targets come in 4th and 5th respectively presumably since they might actually fight back.

• South Asia (mainly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) experiences more incidents of terrorism than the Middle East (up to and including 2007 – I suspect this may have changed by 2013). South and Central America dominated this category in the 1980’s and early 1990’s while Western Europe surprisingly dominated the 1970’s with the highest rates terror activity in the world.

• Methods used for terrorist attacks seem fairly constant over the past three decades. The most popular technique for inflicting terror is and always has been bombing followed closely by armed attack and assassination. Assassination has plummeted in popularity after being quite common from the 1970’s through to the mid 1990’s.

• The overall number of incidents globally rose quite linearly from a low of around 600 events per year in 1970 to a peak of over 5 000 events per year in the early 1990’s. They then plummeted dramatically to average around 1 200 events per year between 1996 and 2001 before rising sharply again to over 5 500 events per year in 2007.

A notable level of terror fatigue has developed in response to the increasing number of incidents since 2001. Endless bombings and shootings all seem to blend into one. The market is flooded with acts of terror and the merchants are many. It now takes a spectacular effort just to get noticed in the world of insurgency and mayhem.

I would therefore argue that terror as a tactic to achieve an outcome is becoming an increasingly ineffective tool. The fact is that terror seldom benefits the terrorist individual or group that actuates it in the long term. Did Bin Laden or al-Qaeda benefit from 9/11? They got a few years of fame and a war they thought they wanted until it erased their broad support, uprooted their base of operations, dismantled their command structures, disabled their ability to communicate as an organisation, wiped out their leadership culminating in the brazen assassination of Osama Bin Laden and drove them deep into the Afghan caves.

The al-Qaeda core is now defunct, forced to project their world view through a sketchy online rag called Inspire Magazine and a few angry little “franchises”. The current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, regularly begs ideologically aligned strangers to pick up and carry on with what they are no longer able to do themselves. Their acts of extreme terror provoked a response that greatly diminished their ability to project their world view.

9/11 was possibly the biggest terror event witnessed in the modern era. Did it materially change anything in the hierarchy of Western world power at which it was aimed? Did the US fall? Did they leave the Middle East as al-Qaeda demanded or did they invade it? Is Al-Qaeda bigger or smaller a decade later? 9/11 sparked wars that destroyed al-Qaeda’s home bases, toppled an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy and a few dictatorships. The Middle East was thrown into turmoil from which has yet to recover but the world carried on and the oil flowed while al-Qaeda downsized and scuttled for cover.

If Hamas successfully strikes at Israel in a tactically meaningful way, Israel dismantles the organisation with targeted assassinations and surgical air strikes. After each act of terror, a weakened Hamas must rebuild and their world audience gets that little bit more jaded and bored with the incessant cycles of pointless and impotent rocket firing. Together with Hezbollah, Hamas are now little more than useful proxies for states like Iran needing someone to do their provoking for them.

The Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo that gassed people with saran in a Tokyo subway in 1995 has pottered along since then amounting to nothing, under continuous surveillance and relegated to the fringes where they belong. Nobody really knows or cares what they stand for any more.

The Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion comprised of Ingush and Chechen separatists invaded a school in Beslan and in front of the world’s cameras they murdered hundreds of children. What has become of their agenda? Did they get their independence? Did murdering Russian children further or hamper their movement? Did Russia capitulate and invite them to reshape the politics of their region? No, Russian troops shot them all.

Al-Shabab, the perpetrators of the Kenyan mall attack are in the process of being reduced to a similar level of obscurity. Southern Somalia, once hospitable, is under attack by Kenyan forces from the south and by the Somali government from the north because al-Shabab got too active in the terror game. They have been driven from former bases in towns and cities and there is infighting between their commanders punctuated by assassinations and defections.

I suspect this mall attack is likely the last you will hear from al-Shabab on a large scale for a long time after the Western backed Kenyan backlash, which is now sure to come. Kenya’s Somali community was a huge source of funding which will now be immeasurably harder for al-Shabab to access. They can look forward to dwindling funds, a shortage of friends and predator drones that will revel in the fact that the leadership has been consolidated making a strike that much more lethal to the organisation.

One might, at this point, be tempted to point to examples of a positive outcome such as that of the ANC in South Africa. The ANC’s militant wing waged a campaign of terror, bombing civilians in bars and Wimpy outlets and now the political party is the ruling party. The KLA waged a terror campaign in Kosovo and elements of that organisation now rule the former Serbian province free of Serbian control.

In both cases, however, greater global events defined the final outcomes while the acts of terror impeded progress instead of helping it. The ANC rules South Africa because the Berlin wall fell and not because they killed holiday makers in Amanzimtoti or landmined rural roads. The KLA won Kosovo because Nato wanted to deprive Russia of an ally and place a military base in the ex Soviet periphery at a key time in the game of chess between those two powers. The IRA had to shelve their bombing and violence before progress could be made in Ireland and Britain is still there. Farc has been fighting in Colombia with no results for decades.

So why do these organisations persist when it is clear that murdering unarmed civilians simply does not reliably bring results? In most cases, it actually brings the opposite of results. It ensures a steady decline of the effectiveness and relevance of the organisation proportional to the magnitude of each passing act of violence. Who cares about Pagad? The Boeremag? The PLO? The Baader-Meinhoff group? Who even remembers them besides those who senselessly lost loved ones?

Terrorism is becoming anachronistic. Today’s audience has matured, evolved and hardened. People die on buses, in markets and on trains in elevated numbers but no significant, lasting change is affected. It is a tragedy for the individual which should not be minimised but society is largely unaffected, moved rather by global politics and the shifting of real power. The problem with resorting to terror is that should you actually prevail, you will need to come out of your hiding place and present yourself to the world. If you have committed acts that preclude you from doing this, the entire exercise seems rather futile.

Change will be forged via more powerful and more relevant means in the future. Economics. Smart manipulations of people’s attitudes on social media. Global communication. The democratic power of large numbers of people aligned in their thinking. Powerful individuals, NGOs and corporations with global reach, funding and political will. Science is changing the world. TED is changing the world. Khan Academy is changing the world. Facebook, Google, Apple, Space X and Whatsapp are meaningfully changing the world. Al-Shabab quite frankly is not.

The marginal and violent radical of the future will become easier and easier to isolate and track. To express one must connect. By connecting one leaves a trail. The larger the group, the bigger the footprint they leave and the target they present. The bigger the threat to a powerful entity, the bigger the proportional response will be. The bigger you get the harder it is to hide. Terrorism is self-limiting. The end of privacy may inconvenience the individual but it terrorises the terrorist.

While militant elements cling to their views and perform acts of terror, they can expect increasing isolation, marginalisation and a growing reduction in tolerance from those with real power. Al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and Hamas are essentially groups of people who ultimately lack the creativity to affect change in a modern and meaningful manner. They achieve nothing besides sound-bite news and medium-scale home wrecking. These organisations have no strategically significant impact when you review the broad geopolitical picture. Are they players? Yes. At some level they spark dialogue and move armies. Can they force the outcome that they desire? Almost never.

Terrorist organisations find themselves at a crossroads; caught in a Catch22: to achieve change and further their agendas they need to provoke the great powers of the world. These powers are better equipped to deal a cheap and effective death blow to a terrorist group than ever before. Terrorists must oppose states like the US, Britain, Germany, Israel, India, Pakistan or Kenya with resources, armies, intelligence agencies, refined technologies and a mandate to rule. They will retaliate.

Treating people like livestock does not produce results it seems. One hopes that it might eventually occur to those that make a living out of the misery of others that it might be time to evolve a new set of strategies that actually work in our modern age.


  • The human brain is made of atoms. Atoms consist primarily of empty space. It is fair to say, therefore, that my head is basically empty. That will please those of you who disagree with what I say until it dawns on you that your head is empty too. So, based on the undeniable fact that our heads are fundamentally comprised of emptiness, is anything we think or say of any real value? Probably not. Remember that next time you are fuming at some point of view contrary to your own. There is no debate that is not worth having. No subject should ever be off limits.


Grant Walliser

The human brain is made of atoms. Atoms consist primarily of empty space. It is fair to say, therefore, that my head is basically empty. That will please those of you who disagree with what I say until...

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