Scholar of political terrorism and key figure in UN efforts to prevent it challenges conventional wisdom on extremist groups.
As a historian and later a United Nations official, Alex P. Schmid has studied terrorism and political violence in too many places and for too long to be distracted by the post-9/11 views of think tanks, military planners, or people dubbed "terrorism experts" by their news-industry employers. He has little use for the newly conventional view of Al Qaeda as a "network" that, according to some commentators, has to be countered by a network. He notes that for all the "rhetoric" about cyberterrorism, no incident corresponding to that label has ever occurred. He says that Al Qaeda's supposed drug-trafficking activities have never been established with any publicly available proof and that, as far as he can observe, the group's reach extends to 21 countries—not to the 65 or 100-plus countries frequently alluded to by the press.
"Many of these concepts that are thrown into the discussion--'fourth generation warfare' [is another]--these are fashion products that have probably not very long life expectancy. But there they are, and they confuse the public and keep the experts busy. So much for that," remarked Schmid during a question period following his April 10 talk, hosted by the UCLA School of Public Affairs and co-sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.
How well this no-nonsense approach has served Schmid at the UN's offices in Vienna, Austria, where he has served as the officer in charge of the UN Terrorism Prevention Branch since 1999, is hard if not impossible to know. As Schmid pointed out, the nature of prevention is such that success cannot really be measured; when he was in charge of conflict prevention, he said, no one asked him how many wars he had averted.
But the more important point, stressed early in his talk, is that the UN takes on its portion of the task with approximately one-tenth of one percent of the $191 billion spent (by 191 countries) to combat terrorism in 2005.
"We have to account only for that small part of effectiveness," he said.
However, Schmid understands that the UN has both a symbolic role and certain "comparative advantages" in diplomacy and coordination. He said that it works to shape common legal regimes and to promote the kinds of state reforms likely to remove the impetus for political violence. He referred to the world body as a "moral watchdog," in spite of some evident limitations, including a reluctance to condemn many forms of political violence carried out directly by states. Although Schmid has his own widely cited definitions of terrorism, UN members have been unable to settle on the character of the phenomenon they seek collectively to prevent.
Much of the UN terrorism prevention office's efforts go to bringing states into compliance with UN Resolution 1373 (pdf), passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States. Countries that have either complied fully with the more than 70 requirements set out there or resisted doing so are few compared with those that are on their way to compliance, according to Schmid.
Schmid's broad recommendations for dealing with terrorism included efforts to give hope to people with specific grievances, though he said that poverty and even humiliation cannot be shown to cause the problem. He noted "a huge misunderstanding between those self-appointed, would-be liberators and the masses."
He also said that governments must give citizens realistic expectations of the threats facing them and refrain from overreacting to terrorist incidents. Professor Emeritus of Political Science David C. Rapoport, who offered the last of three UCLA faculty introductions of Schmid, observed that Schmid's work over the years had demonstrated the pitfalls of heavy-handed retaliation by governments.
Schmid called for an "early detection system" to identify likely terrorist groups even as they take shape. He said that the groups have reasonably predictable "life cycles," with a strong emphasis on ideology and the cause only early on. Like other crime organizations, they spend roughly two years on preparation while they commit petty offenses, Schmid said. However, he dismissed the notion that terrorists were eager to cooperate with already established criminal organizations, noting their need to avoid infiltration and betrayal by outsiders. Instead, terrorist groups may develop "in-house organized crime capabilities."
One simple reason that the problem is widespread, he observed, is that the bar to entry is low. "A hammer can be used by every child," Schmid said, so for some political fanatics all problems resemble nails.
Schmid has taught and conducted research in many European and Latin American countries, as well as the United States. He is Swiss by birth and Dutch by naturalization and lives in Austria. He is best known among scholars for the social science reference work Political Terrorism (1983, later revised).
Published: Tuesday, April 11, 2006