Friday 22 Feb 2019 | 21:13 | SYDNEY
Friday 22 Feb 2019 | 21:13 | SYDNEY

Financial crisis: Lessons for terrorists?


Sam Roggeveen


22 October 2008 10:53

Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post thinks so:

If you wanted to destabilize a country, wouldn't this be an excellent time to do it? If Country X's stock market can crash after the publication of a single article in an obscure newspaper, think what might happen if someone conducted a systematic campaign against Country X. And if you can imagine this, so can others.

Actually, Applebaum names political opposition movements and foreign enemies among those who could use such tactics, but why not terrorists? It remains something of a mystery why terrorists continue to focus so much on causing death and physical destruction, and largely fail to use tactics that would undermine institutions.

One argument is that terrorists avoid such attacks because there is no way to verify that they actually undertook them. Al Qaeda might claim responsibility for a 'systems attack' that caused the collapse of a country's banks, but who would believe them? Even if it was true, it might be unverifiable, since the damage could have been caused by other factors.

Groups like the IRA or Hizballah craved attribution for their attacks. Indeed, IRA tactics reached the point where police or the media were sometimes alerted in advance where a bomb had been planted, to allow for evacuation and media coverage. The attack itself became secondary to the demonstration effect.

But if the aim of the terrorist group (or lone terrorist) is to create maximum chaos, that logic no longer holds. And what perhaps distinguishes modern terrorist groups from those such as the IRA is precisely this appetite for chaos for its own sake. Al Qaeda, you could argue, does not want a limited political settlement but to create a 'state of terror' in which terrorism deligitimises the state systems we live in, and makes it more difficult for citizens of free societies to exercise free choice. Comments welcome via the Email the Editor button below.

It's not yet clear to me that al Qaeda is in fact fundamentally different in this way, or whether it is just a modern incarnation of a Hizballah-style group with limited political ambitions.