Terrorism in the Age of the Market State

I wanted to take a moment to share this with you today. The following comes from Stratfor, the influential subscription service that covers geopolitics in all its many forms. Normally behind a “pay wall”, I have permission to republish, so I am offering it to you as food for thought.

Terrorism in the Age of the Market State
June 19, 2016


Editor’s Note: In 2008, Stratfor contributor and editorial board member Philip Bobbitt, widely considered a leader in the field of international security, published Terror and Consent, which argued that every era of constitutional order is afflicted by its own unique brand of terrorism. Jay Ogilvy, who chairs Stratfor’s editorial board, sat down with Bobbitt to discuss the current incarnation of terrorism in light of the Orlando shootings.

Jay Ogilvy: In my earlier column introducing Philip Bobbitt, I gave much less attention to his book, Terror and Consent, than to two of his other books. For obvious reasons, it’s time we give Terror and Consent the attention it deserves. And it deserves quite a lot. In his cover story review in The New York Times’ “Sunday Book Review,” Niall Ferguson calls it, “quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 — indeed, since the end of the cold war.”

Like Bobbitt’s earlier book, The Shield of Achilles, the argument of Terror and Consent is based on his reading of Western history since France’s King Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494. According to Bobbitt, the centuries since have seen a succession of different constitutional orders, from the Machiavellian princely state, through the dynastic kingly state, the aristocratic territorial state, the imperial state nation and the industrial nation state to what Bobbitt calls the informational market state, which is just now emerging. Each constitutional order has its own epochal war, and the treaties that conclude those wars determine the terms on which the following constitutional order will be built.

What Terror and Consent adds to this already magisterial construction is another column in a vast matrix of correspondences, this time with respect to terrorism. It turns out, not altogether surprisingly once one has caught the Hegelian sweep of Bobbitt’s thinking, that each of the epochs has its own brand of terrorism. Understanding this historicity of terrorism is important for, like those apocryphal generals who always prepare for the last war, we fight yesterday’s terrorism at our peril.

Over the centuries, the nature of terrorism morphs in part because of advances in technology, from knives and pitchforks to weapons of mass destruction. But more profoundly, the nature of terrorism flexes to the structure of each new constitutional order. “In each era, terrorism derives its ideology in reaction to the raison d’etre of the dominant constitutional order, at the same time negating and rejecting that form’s unique ideology but mimicking the form’s structural characteristics.”

So, for example, in the kingly state, the state and the monarch are joined as one: L’etat c’est moi. And the form of terrorism that typifies the era of the kingly state is piracy perpetrated by sea captains who regard themselves, vis-à-vis the states arrayed against them, as enjoying all the sovereignty of kings.

Bobbitt summarizes the relationships between constitutional orders and their corresponding terrorisms as follows:

“So it was that princely states coexisted with fanatically religious mercenaries, kingly states flourished in the golden age of piracy, territorial states vied with the private armies of commercial consortia for overseas revenues and investments, imperial state nations struggled with international anarchists, and nation states attempted to suppress national liberation movements. And so it will be when the market state finds it has generated a terrorism that negates the very individual choice that the State exalts, and puts in service of that negation the networked, decentralized, outsourcing global methods characteristic of the market state itself.”

And so it has come to pass in Orlando. As many commentators have remarked, the choice of a gay bar as the target represented an attack on the kind of individual liberty that is so prized in the market state. As Frank Bruni put it on the op-ed page of The New York Times:

“This was no more an attack just on L.G.B.T. people than the bloodshed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an attack solely on satirists. Both were attacks on freedom itself. Both took aim at societies that, at their best, integrate and celebrate diverse points of view, diverse systems of belief, diverse ways to love.”

Bobbitt acknowledges that these are early days for the market state, which itself could unfold in several different forms. On the very first page of his text, Bobbitt calls out three different wars on terror: “an attempt to preempt attacks by global, networked terrorists; a struggle to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and the worldwide endeavor to protect civilians from natural catastrophes.” In light of the mass killings by so-called “lone wolf” shooters from Sandy Hook and San Bernardino to Orlando, I asked Professor Bobbitt whether or not we should consider a fourth war against terror.

Here is his reply:

Philip Bobbitt: As we search to find a successful method of preventing terrorist attacks like the one in Orlando, it might be worthwhile to visit one of the common myths that arise in the wake of such atrocities. This is the myth of the “lone wolf.”

Last December, U.S. President Barack Obama observed that,

“… the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack we saw at Fort Hood in 2009, in Chattanooga earlier this year and now San Bernardino.”

This is unquestionably true, and much credit must be given to the FBI and the intelligence services for the fact that the United States has not suffered the kinds of attacks we saw in Paris. We should be very wary, however, about claims — which seem invariably to come quickly after a shooting — that the terrorist was “self-radicalized” and operated essentially alone.

The myth of the lone wolf is that of the killer who is inspired by a terrorist group’s ideology but is not under its operational control. As one commentator put it,

“Because lone wolves operate on their own, their personal agendas often mix with those of the terrorist group they claim to serve. In San Bernardino, the killers struck at a holiday party at the county health department where one of them worked, not exactly the center of the Crusader effort to dominate the Middle East.”

In fact, it seems very unlikely that the San Bernardino murders were the result of the twisted psychological problems of an unhappy couple. The fact that the killings occurred at a civil service office, which might imply a workplace shooting, was actually much more likely to have been a target of opportunity once the imploring calls for action coming from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave the killers an emergency directive to act. This is confirmed by the enormous arsenal amassed by the killers, and the various quotidian acts they undertook in the days before the shooting — buying groceries, getting movie tickets and so on. And, as is almost always the case, once the lives of the killers are scrutinized, we invariably find recent trips to terrorist centers abroad. In the case of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooters, it was Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In the case of the Chattanooga killer, it was Jordan. In the case of the Boston Marathon terrorists, it was Dagestan. In the case of Omar Mateen, the Orlando mass murderer, it was Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the father of the Chattanooga terrorist was himself on a terrorist watch list. The Tsarnaev brothers were on a watch list and had been interviewed by the FBI. Mateen was interviewed three times by the FBI. His father is a prominent Afghan political figure who urges acceptance of the Taliban. Being on a terrorist watch list, being interviewed by the FBI, traveling through war-torn areas where terrorist groups are prominent: These are not the characteristics of the misfits and loners who attack classrooms. Moreover, following the Islamic State’s recent battlefield setbacks, the Islamic State commander responsible for attacks outside the Middle East called on supporters to carry out killings in the United States during the holy month of Ramadan, which began June 5.

The myth of the lone wolf depends on the comforting distinction between “Islamic State-inspired” and “Islamic State-directed” attacks. The lone wolf, we are told, lacks those links with the terrorist network that would tip off the authorities. In an unfortunate lapse of logic, many people are inclined to conclude that if such links are not immediately apparent, the killer is a lone wolf: Lone wolves lack links, so if a terrorist lacks links, he is a lone wolf.

But the image of the isolated and unhappy youth, mesmerized by messages and violent videos on the Internet, the “self-radicalized” terrorist is an extremely unlikely occurrence. The vast majority of radicalized individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialization prior to becoming indoctrinated online. The Internet does not, in fact, radicalize in isolation of other factors, and it is not operating on isolated individuals when these people take up violence. Search engines rarely provide links to content that supports Islamist indoctrination. The Internet’s role is less about initiating the radicalization process than acting as a facilitator for educating and indoctrinating people who have already been recruited.

It is comforting to tell ourselves that someone like Mateen is merely hateful and pathetic, and not a component of some grandiose plot.” But it is deeply misleading if the precedents of the past decade are any guide, and it ultimately will be enervating to our strategies. After all, the self-radicalized lone wolf will always get through. What’s the point of expending much energy fruitlessly trying to stop him? And thus, support for more aggressive investigations and surveillance will naturally ebb; what good would they be against the lone wolf?

I was living in London at the time of the 7/7 terrorist attacks. The newspapers the next day were full of assessments and claims that the terrorist group was “local” and had no links with larger terrorist networks abroad. I cautioned at the time that this conclusion was premature, and therefore I was not surprised when the martyrdom videos surfaced. It may be recalled that the fourth member of the terrorist team did not execute his bombing mission on the underground as did the other three. His explosives went off while he was riding some miles away on the upper deck of a bus. Is it really so far-fetched to think that the telephone call to the cellphone that triggered the explosion was made by someone who didn’t want the conspirator to survive? Yet we are discomforted by the possibility of the networks to which these terrorists are attached.

Yesterday, by contrast, a vibrant and popular member of the British Parliament was murdered in her constituency by a deranged man. He seems to have been politically motivated — he reportedly shouted “Britain First” several times during the attack — but he was not politically active. His profile is a familiar one: raised apart from his natural parents, living alone for many years with a grandparent who is now deceased, helpful to neighbors though quiet. One knows the newspaper quotes from relatives: “I am struggling to believe what has happened. He is not violent and is not all that political. I don’t even know who he votes for. He has a history of mental illness.” Or from neighbors: “All this is totally at odds with the man we thought we knew. He was a quiet guy, you would not think it of him. There was no reason to think he would be capable of something like this.” This man, though he committed an act that will have significant political repercussions, was no terrorist. And though he acted alone, he was not the mythical lone wolf. More a wounded creature, I would say. For Americans, the murder of Britain’s Jo Cox is likely to remind us of the attempted killing of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a meeting in her constituency. The assassin actually killed six other people in the attack. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was only sentenced when the forcible administration of antipsychotic drugs brought him to a state in which the trial judge reversed an earlier ruling and held him competent for trial. What he shared with Cox’s murderer was a generalized if incoherent hatred of government and an apparently nonviolent personality.

Ogilvy: Professor Bobbitt, one more question please: In your book, you devote a great deal of attention to the danger of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the prevention of the proliferation of these weapons is one of your three wars on terror. But the weapon of choice in all of the attacks over the past several years is the assault rifle. Would you care to comment?

Bobbitt: These are very different problems, the terrorist malcontent and the wounded loner, though they may raise common policy issues like gun control. Where they really differ, however, is in their future access to weapons of mass destruction, which is one more reason to be wary of the lone wolf myth. The assault rifle was the weapon of choice for both the Giffords assassin and Mateen. But the men who sought to kill a U.S. congresswoman and a British lawmaker were not capable of the planning involved in a quasi-military attack. That wasn’t the case with Mateen. If he had had access to more formidable weapons, weapons a terrorist network could devise and deliver, one can only imagine the destruction he might have caused.

Terrorism in the Age of the Market State is republished with permission of Stratfor.”


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1 Response to Terrorism in the Age of the Market State

  1. Hallie says:

    The lone wolf may indeed be acting alone, as his (usually male) act reflects narcissism, rather than religious fanaticism. Even the WALL STREET JOURNAL commented on this last week. Reading the article, I felt that I could have written it — years ago. Basically ISIS is a bunch of mediocre guys (and a few girls) searching for validation. The guy at Orlando bombarded the web with pictures of selfies. He was promised fame — “from zero to hero.” It reminds me of the saying, “Death is a small price to pay for immortality.”

    In many ways I see many of the left-wingers on campus and elsewhere in a similar light. They are essentially fragile people tragically misplaced. They really don’t belong there — lacking the academic or intellectual skills — but would rather blame everyone around them. I predict suicide in their future. They will, directly or indirectly, self-destruct.

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