Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Varieties of terrorist experience

Uwe Backes' Bleierne Jahre: Baader-Meinhof und danach [The Leaden Years: Baader-Meinhof and After] was published in 1991, near the end of the 23-year active career of the Baader-Meinhof Gang of the title (Rote Armee Fraktion, or RAF) and at a time when far-right terrorism was beginning to emerge as a more signficant problem for unifed Germany.

In light of recent polemics over domestic terrorism in the United States, it's useful to see the subject discussed in a different context, from a different time and at a point where both far-right and far-left terrorism were active problems of comparable significance. In a table displaying incidents of left- and rightwing terrorism in the German Federal Republic (BRD; West Germany) from 1968-1989, the left version exceeded the right version for each year in the comparison, with far-right terrorism becoming noticeably more active from 1980 on. Leftwing incidents also increased during that period.

But numerical comparisons can only tell us so much. The year during that period in which terrorism had the most significant political effect in the BRD was 1977, the year in which the RAF kidnapped and eventually "executed" Hanns Martin Schleyer, the head of the BRD's employers' association, which eventually involved the kidnapping of a Lufthansa flight by Palestinian terrorists acting in solidarity with the RAF, and the prison suicides of the RAF's two main leaders, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ennslin. That year was the high-point of the terror that the RAF's actions were designed to inspire and the period in which the German government was under the greatest pressure to step outside its own legal bounds in the fight against the RAF.

So not all acts of terrorism are equal in their political impact. And not all terrorists are equal in terms of their motivations.

Backes devotes his longest chapter to biographies of terrorists, including Baader and Ennslin, the other two main RAF founders Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof, Bommi Baumann of a leftwing terrorist group Bewegung 2.Juni, Hans-Joachim Klein of the RAF, and neo-Nazi Odfried Hepp. He then summarizes his research on these and other "terrorist careers".

In the BRD during the period under study, the active terrorists had been most between roughly 20 and 40, with leftwing groups composed more of people near the same age and rightwing ones having a wider spread. Left groups had more female terrorists, right ones were almost exclusively male. Most were from prosperous families. Some kind of serious disruptions in their families' lives was a common factor, e.g., a missing father, divorce.

Among the three leading leftwing terrorist groups in the BRD - RAF, Bewegung 2.Juni and the Revolutionäre Zelle (RZ) - a disproportionate number came from Protestant families. Gudrun Ennslin's father was a Protestant minister. Backes speculates that a Protestant emphasis on the notion that correct belief will make everything right may have played a particular role.

Students composed a large portion of the left terrorists, and liberal arts studies like sociology, education and psychology were especially well represented. Members of far-right terrorist groups tended to have less than the average education compared to other Germans their age. For both groups, a period between completing their education and becoming established in a working career was the most likely period of recruitment.

Backes also describes the evolution of organizational forms of extremist groups involved in violence during the 1980s toward more "autonomous" forms, small groups working together in general but loose coordination with like-minded militants. As violent fringe groups in the US and other countries were discovering around the same time, a decentralized, loosely-knit form of organization is a different kind of challenge to the authorities than a centralized organization. Even in the RAF, the group evolved from a centrally-directed form under the original founding members to a more decentralized mode of operation over time. The "third generation" of the RAF active in the 1980s and 1990s were more successful in evading capture. And even now, their identities are less well known that those of the "first" and "second generations". And developing communications technology allows for even more diffuse methods of operation.

He uses a pyramid diagram of the type that management writers are so fond of employing to illustrate the political environment of the RAF, which could also be applied to other groups, as well. A circle diagram would probably be even more appropriate, particularly for the later, more decentralized forms of organization. There was at any given time a hard core of active, violent militants who were involved in actions against persons (kidnappings, assassinations, bank robberies). There was a larger group around the core who were also involved in violence but concetrated on violence against things, objects like buildings, in actions that were designed to have symbolic value rather than hurt people. These could be seen as two parts of the hard core group. In the first and second RAF "generations", the hard core was particularly isolated because they had given up their identities and had to concentrate most of their energy on securing money, weapons and identities papers of various kinds. The hard core of the "third generation" apparently mostly kept their own identities so they didn't have to rely on high-risk activities like robbery and kidnapping to finance their terrorism.

There was a militant group outside the illegals that would engage in smaller violent actions, like throwing rocks during demonstrations or more minor vandalism. This group weren't necessarily all living in the "underground". Then there was a larger group of active sympathizers who were engaged in agitation and propaganda.

These particular environments are vitally important to understanding not only these groups from 20 or 30 years ago but domestic terrorist groups today, as well. Even when the violent actions take the form of seeming "lone wolf" attacks, they are operating in a particular political and psychological environment. Including those who suffering from actual mental illness, which is the "lone nut" script into which the American press tries to squeeze any and all incidents of far-right terrorism. The path to violent action and the selection of targets operate within that larger framework. A leftwing terrorist is not likely to try to assassinate an abortion provider. A neo-Nazi is more likely to shoot up a crowd in a Holocaust museum than to attack a white racist TV commentator.

Recruitment into the hard core of violent militants also typically takes place from the related political circle of activists. That may seem obvious, but it's an important fact. If the broader context of sympathizers is reduced, then the potential for recruiting new violent activists is decreased. But that also means that neither authorities nor those in civil society concerned to reduce the domestic terrorist potential can simply ignore the terrorists' political goals and environment, any more than they can ignore their personal psychology, their choice of weaponry or their criminal modus operandi.

I'll quote Backes' concluding lines here, which focus on the role of fanaticism and the Good vs. Evil Manichean mindset in the phenomenon of terrorism (my translation from the German):

[Terrorism graphically demonstrates the power of extremist ideologies. Marxism, anarchism and nationalism are the names of the intellectual drugs that dull the political perception, offer seemingly definitive answers to all problems and satisfy the longing for "great" objectives. From the unconditional commitment to the only "just" thing, the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed in the past. Where the belief on the absolute rightness of one's own conviction gains ground, tolerance and liberality are seen as unforgiveable weaknesses. For the achievement of the highest goals, any means appears appropriate. Here outcrop the totalitarian roots of terrorism in constitutional democratic states.]
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