The message of bombs

Unless a group claims outright responsibility for them, the task of dealing with terror bombs has to begin with deciphering the message they are meant to convey or the scenario they are trying to create. We must assume that terrorists intend not only to scare or sow panic but, more importantly, to deliver a message.  This is a task that has become very difficult because terrorists today seldom claim authorship of their deed.

The police know that the message can usually be read from the nature of the target, the places where the incidents occur, the mode of execution, and the magnitude of the harm that is inflicted.  All of these imply some calculation in the performance of what may appear as senseless acts.  From a study of the methods used, investigators might deduce the objectives of these violent performances.

Understanding these objectives would allow the rest of us to deal with these threats to public safety more effectively.

The deciphering of the meaning and intention of these acts is crucial, yet it is often hampered by the tendency of public officials and opinion leaders to use these events to score quick political points against their favorite enemies.  They think that serious analysis of terrorist messages implies a tacit recognition of their validity.  Those who attempt to understand its possible roots or to locate it in a broader context are sometimes criticized as rationalizing terrorism.  It often seems that the only permitted response to terrorism is to condemn its cowardliness and to highlight the injury it causes to innocent victims. Yet all this means little to terrorists unless, in mobilizing public opinion against them, we have an idea of who they are, what objectives they represent, and who their audience is.

The most stupid thing we can do is to jump to conclusions and to launch preemptive actions with the end in view of taking control of the situation.  In the case of the Zamboanga and Metro Manila bombings that have killed and injured many innocent people, for instance, the obvious suspects are the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf or other Muslim militants who may be seeking to divert the government’s attention from the massive military campaign now being launched against various armed groups in Mindanao. It is difficult to tell if these are the same elements that bombed the LRT in December 2000.  That particular incident has not been sufficiently explained either even if some arrests had been made.

The Islamic fundamentalist hand of the al-Qaeda seems so easy to spot in these times, yet no coherent account of the motives that guide it has been presented nor has the existence of the al-Qaeda as a worldwide clandestine network been convincingly established.  We have been operating on the basis of a picture of the world that has been pieced together from the fears, prejudices, and strategic interests of official America.  Our security officials appear to have uncritically adopted this view, based on a presumed identity of interests with the US.  In the process, we may have put ourselves precisely in that situation where we become suitable targets of those who oppose US global policies.

Even so, a coordinated al-Qaeda conspiracy in the region seems to me farfetched.  I would not presume any necessary connection between the Bali bombing in Indonesia and the recent bombings in the Philippines.  The situations in the two countries are not comparable, and therefore the objectives of the bombings could be very different.

The Bali bombing targeted a predominantly Western crowd of tourists on a holiday in a part of Indonesia that is not Muslim.  It is the first time that foreign tourists have been singled out for attack anywhere in Indonesia.  The message seems clear: free Indonesia from the corruption engendered by Western modernity and tourism.  This is a message that has been gaining resonance among young Indonesians in the last 20 years, when Islamic revivalism began to assume the place previously occupied by Sukarno’s secular nationalism.  Its objective seems to be to provoke more overt foreign intervention in Indonesia and thus consolidate and radicalize the country’s Islamic community.

Except for the Zamboanga City incident, which killed an American soldier and wounded another, the bombings in the Philippines do not seem to convey the same anti-foreign message.  The victims in Manila are all ordinary civilians.  The objective seems to be not so much to deliver a message as to create a situation.  The question to ask is: Who benefits from such a situation?  As I pointed out earlier, it seems logical for those under tremendous military pressure to attempt to disperse the forces running after them by setting off explosions elsewhere.

That said, one cannot help being reminded of the situation just before Martial Law when adventurous forces from the right and the left appeared to be running on parallel tracks to produce political instability.  The right saw it as a prelude to martial law and the left viewed it as setting the stage for an insurrectionary situation.  I think Martial Law benefited the right and strengthened the armed left, but sacrificed a whole generation.

One never knows what new forces and players events like these beget, or what consequences they produce in the long term.  What is sure is that the pressure from the globalization of America’s war will exacerbate the fault lines of weak societies.  And some of them will implode in the process.


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