Perspective and responding to terrorist violence

Tasneem Jamal

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 1 Spring 2015

Osama bin Laden “hit us where it would hurt the most—right in our sense of perspective” – David Rothkopf

The nature of groups that engage in terroristic violence, such as ISIS, has mutated in this second decade of the Great War on Terror. But the lessons to be drawn from the first decade’s responses continue to be ignored, with the costs ratchetting up in Iraq and Syria. Regaining a sense of perspective is a vital first step in recalibrating the response and lowering the costs.

Even Canada, a minor member in the United States-driven international military coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, seems to have lost sight of appropriate responses, both at home and overseas.

Commentators have addressed the issue of perspective and provide direction on how to respond to the current threats of violent extremism.

Don’t give in to fear and panic

The response to the terrorist threat, whether now or in the future, should follow the long-standing principle of ‘in all things moderation’…. The response must be calibrated carefully so as to optimally protect Canadians and Canadian interests while containing an often natural disposition of giving in to fear and panic.
We therefore have to avoid falling prey to the terrorist propaganda which would have people believe that this is a clash of civilizations or cultures or religions…. Our own response therefore has to be carefully modulated and very focused…And we have to be very careful in our use of language on these issues.

Over-reaction to terrorism, it should be remembered, is a fundamental objective of most terrorists in history. We should not accommodate their goals in this regard.

– James Judd


Let’s get a grip on what happened on 9/11

In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most—right in our sense of perspective.… Our ultimate victory will come as we get a grip back on reality.

– David Rothkopf

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there were grand assertions that “everything was different” and that the “world had changed.” We were forced to confront a bearded man in a cave spouting incomprehensible invective about crusaders and jihad, and reorient foreign policy in dramatic ways. But with 10 years’ hindsight, did the world actually change on that date? And what will Osama bin Laden’s historical legacy be?

The answer to both questions is: not much. It is my view that in a longer historical perspective, al-Qaida will be seen as a mere blip or diversion. Bin Laden got lucky that day and pulled off a devastating, made-for-media attack. The United States then overreacted, invading Iraq and making anti-Americanism a self-fulfilling prophecy.

– Francis Fukuyama


The “ROI” (Return on Investment) that bin Laden and his official and unofficial allies achieved in the GWOT [Great War on Terror] would gladden the heart of any graduate of the Harvard Business School. The 9/11 attack cost al Qaeda hundreds of thousands of dollars. The bill for America for the Iraqi and Afghani wars, plus its massive domestic spending on security, is probably close to $4 trillion to date and counting.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the GWOT was the failure by America in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan (and now Libya) to comprehend the cultures, languages, and histories of the places where they were fighting. The struggle in Afghanistan was, and is, a civil war among Pashtuns…. Worst of all, the constant reluctance of the western allies to admit that so called terrorists like the Taliban, had political as well as military objectives made efforts in these countries lopsided. The over-reliance on military personnel and military means of struggle severely hindered progress on the ground, particularly in Afghanistan.

The sad fact is that the GWOT was not worth the terrible fiscal and political damage it wrought, particularly in the world’s greatest democracy.
– Brian Flemming


Sooner or later we will have to talk to them

When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia. All of our historical experience tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, and yet every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them…. In fact, history suggests we don’t usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them.

We usually delay talking to armed groups too long, and as a result, a large number of people die unnecessarily…. Experience suggests the real risk lies in not talking.
Talking with terrorists and agreeing with them are not the same thing.

It is argued that their violence is based on religion, and so it is impossible to negotiate with them…. It is also said that because the aims of these groups are apocalyptic and their demands unnegotiable, it is impossible to treat with them…. But there is no evidence that religious armed groups are harder to engage than secular ones.

Every conflict is different; its causes are different and its solution will be different. But I have now studied most of the negotiations between armed groups and governments in the last 30 years…and there is clearly a pattern to what works and what does not. Above all, what these experiences demonstrate is that there isn’t really an alternative to talking to the terrorists if you want the conflict to end.
– Jonathan Powell


This includes talking to ISIS

Now we face the group that calls itself the Islamic State (Isis), the latest terrorists to confront us. And yet again we have met them with an emotional response based on the horror deliberately generated by their acts…. We need to work out a longer term strategy for dealing with whatever threat they pose, rather than opting once again for a kneejerk response to satisfy opinion polls. That strategy will certainly include security measures…. But we will also need to address the grievances of the Sunni community in Iraq and to separate out the ex-Baathists and the former members of Saddam’s army, who give the movement its real power, from the jihadis.

At some stage, we will need to negotiate with violent Islamic extremism, whether in this form or another one, if their ideas continue to have political support and we want to find a lasting solution to conflict in the region.

– Jonathan Powell


Putting a limit on remembering

Most wars do not end with one side gaining an absolute victory and thus being able to dictate the terms of the adversary’s physical as well as psychic surrender…. The long war against the jihadis will almost certainly end in a similarly ambiguous way with an unhappy compromise that denies definitive victory…. In short, there will be no closing of accounts, and sooner or later we shall just have to learn to live with that fact.

In the meantime, we would do well to consider the possibility that if our societies were to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that we now do on remembering, and if the option of forgetting were seen as at least as available as the duty of remembrance, then the peace that must come eventually might actually come sooner.

– David Rieff



Brian Flemming is a Canadian policy advisor, writer, and international lawyer.

Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

James Judd was director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2004 until 2009. In a major public speech in Toronto in 2007 Judd stated that governments and societies must keep in mind that terrorism is driven by “the aspirations and actions of a select group of individuals and groups.”

Jonathan Powell was the chief broker of the 2008 Northern Ireland peace agreement.

David Rieff, writer and policy analyst, is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.

David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine.



Flemming, Brian. 2011. Farewell to the GWOT: What we learned from the global war on terror. Policy paper, Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, September.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2011. The legacy of that terrible time will be less significant than we then feared. The Observer, September 11.

MacLeod, Ian. 2007. Too much secrecy helps terrorists. The Ottawa Citizen, January 27.

Powell, Jonathan. 2014. How to talk to terrorists. The Guardian, October 7.

Rieff, David. 2011. After 9/11: The limits of remembrance. Harper’s Magazine, August, pp. 47-50.

Rothkopf, David. 2011. The black hole of 9/11. Foreign Policy, August 29.


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