Toward a phenomenology of terrorism: implications for research and policy
The central theme of this paper is that the phenomenology of perception can contribute to conceptualizing terrorism, in terms of both a research orientation and policy applications. This means that counter-terrorism needs to be grounded in a holistic perspective that has meaning from the point of view of those engaged in terrorism. A critique of the “war on terror” counter-terrorism practices is followed by a discussion of phenomenology and its implications for a holistic perception of counter-terrorism. Four cases are presented that show how a phenomenological approach can facilitate counter-terrorism study and policy.
Phenomenology and the problem of perception
The purpose of this paper is to consider counter-terrorism in terms of the “otherness” of terrorists or insurgents in a phenomenological sense. The central argument presented herein is that phenomenology can take terrorist “perceptions” and incorporate them into assessments useful for research purposes and practical policy development. It cedes to terrorists and their recruitment populations a morality and legitimacy of historical grievance. It recognizes that they carry values and meanings integral not only to themselves but also important to populations from which terrorists may be recruited—those likely to provide what Kilcullen  referred to as “accidental guerillas.” Below, we discuss the central elements of phenomenology, specifically Merleau Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, and identify applications to terrorism. Then, using the phenomenology of perception as a model of analysis, we review four terrorist narratives from a phenomenological perspective. Finally we discuss how to incorporate the phenomenology of perception in practical terms.
In this paper, we propose a phenomenological way of thinking about the counter-terror effort—one tied to ethnographic methods and cultural studies, and one aimed at embodying terrorists—by which we mean understanding them in terms of their language, their values, their historical traditions, and their grievances. This kind of approach, we believe, can provide an understanding of terrorist and insurgent appeal to local populations, and help to contest their political reach into local populations that provide shelter, recruits, and logistical support. This paper looks at the moral/ideological posture of the U.S. toward belligerents during the war on terror, then argues for a different way to proceed. The current moment is propitious for a re-thinking about who the belligerents are and how to understand and respond to them. This paper is consequently organized into three parts. Part 1 describes current counter terrorism efforts as a non-phenomenological enterprise, and failing for that reason. Part 2 presents the core elements of phenomenology and reviews the social science research on the phenomenology of terrorism. Part 3 presents four cases as examples of the benefits of a phenomenology of terrorism.
Part 1: terrorism as a non-phenomonological enterprise
Counter-terrorism as conceived and acted out by the U.S. today, we believe, is an enterprise that is non-phenomonological to a striking degree. Organizations and decision-makers tend to define terrorism in terms of existing organizational capacities or in terms of the highly moralistic blanket term “evil,” not in terms of actual threats and articulable belligerents. The most basic tenet of phenomenology—a practical understanding of the circumstances of terrorists—is not addressed. Instead, policy has focused on three decidedly non-phenomenological approaches to terrorism: (1) for organizations, terrorism is defined in terms of organizational missions and capacities rather than the actual nature of the terrorist threat, (2) the legislative and executive announcement and sustenance of a “war on terror” prevented the articulation of a clear enemy and associated meaningful response, and (3) the term “evil,” extensively used by the chief executive in the years following the infamous 9/11 attacks against the US, is a moral gloss that effectively prohibited a more careful consideration of the issues fomenting terrorism. Each of these three is considered below.
Terrorism definitions as organizational constructs
The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant/*/targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.
The term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism. .
Make no concession to terrorists and strike no deals.
Bring terrorists to justice for their crimes.
Isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism to force them to change their behavior.
Bolster the counter-terrorist capabilities of those countries that work with the United States and require assistance 
Cuba: Publicly opposes U.S. War on Terrorism; provides a safe haven for members of FARC, ETZ and ELN; maintains close relationship with Iran.1
Iran: Provides Hezbollah, HAMAS and other Palestinian Groups direct funding, training and weapons; plays a destabilizing role in Iraq; refuses to prosecute detained senior al Qaeda members.2
Sudan: Government hosted Osama bin Laden, senior leaders in the al Qaeda organization and other al Qaeda members in the 1990’s.3
Syria: Provides political and material support to Hezbollah, PIJ, PLFP and other Palestinian groups; possible link to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.4
These nations received the following sanctions; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.5
Of particular concern regarding this list is its failure of focus. It not only fragments counter-terror efforts among a wide swath of potential state enemies, it fails to focus on the specific enemy that caused 9/11—Al-Qaeda. Hence, today, the U.S. operates with a broad list of “terrorist-sponsor” states and against a substantial list of terrorist organizations, diffusing the focus on al-Qaeda.
Bureaucratic definitions also promote organizational loyalties. In the aftermath of 9/11, a frequently cited problem with national security was the failure to ‘connect the dots, which referred to the lack of communication between agencies charged with security. Some of this failure was associated with historical tendencies of security organizations to keep information internal and secret. Understood in terms of bureaucratic loyalties, this tendency would be anticipated in all organizational cases. This tendency toward secrecy is reinforced by the extensive use of security clearances at many levels of government, concealing a great deal of information behind a security cloak.
Definitions, when they are developed at the governmental level, consequently reflect the interests of the definer—the U.S. in the above example, while conveying scant useful information about specific terrorist threats. It is a definition that tells us nothing about terrorism in any sort of concrete practical way, instead only providing a basis for governmental action.
A “War” on terrorism as a moral gloss
Second, the vocabulary of a “war” on terrorism, with a focus on the “evil” and “cowardly” terrorists, represents a stunning failure of perspective into the nature and causes of terrorist belligerents. The language of the ‘war on terror’ has been dense in the media since the 9/11 attacks carried out by Al Qaeda inside the U.S.  The subsequent “war on terror” has been carried out by U.S. military and CIA operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and other less popularized locations. Yet, the “war” perspective of counter-terrorism has thus far failed to produce any long term military victory. This failure stems from difficulties in adapting to the physical and social terrain of the opposing belligerents. The physical terrain has facilitated asymmetries favorable to those belligerents - for instance, the use of highly lethal yet inexpensive IEDs to attack U.S. convoys has favored insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the geography marked by long, open routes over dirt road surfaces where surface clutter is normal.
The social terrain has also been successfully challenged by insurgents. As Kilcullen  has noted, terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan have solved the riddle of U.S. power. Through long-term infiltration of local populations, they have co-opted the terrain on which the contest takes place. In Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has moved into the villages, taken wives and become family members and religious leaders among local populations. They are, as Kilcullen suggested, winning the “hearts” of the Afghan people by becoming part of the cultural fabric, and they are winning their minds with a permanent presence that intimidates anyone suspected of working with the U.S. government or its allies. U.S. efforts have largely failed, not for a fault of kinetic military superiority, but because they have ineffectively competed with insurgents on this unfamiliar and contested ideological and cultural turf. The U.S., simply put, has failed to understand its enemy.
The war on terror: international belligerents as “evil” regimes
The “war on terror” can be dated from September, 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda affiliates carried out successful attacks inside the U.S., to March 31, 2009, when Secretary of State Clinton announced that the Obama administration would cease using that phrase. Yet, kinetic military and CIA actions continue between the U.S. and belligerents in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq, with looming threats in Syria and Iran and in several other African nations. It is clear that, though the terminology has changed, contestation and strife between all belligerents continues across the “war on terror” geographic terrain
We also remember 64 passengers on a hijacked plane; those men and women, boys and girls who fell into the hands of evildoers, and also died here exactly one month ago. The hijackers were instruments of evil who died in vain. Behind them is a cult of evil which seeks to harm the innocent and thrives on human suffering. ..
The word “evil,” a powerful rhetorical device aimed at the mobilization of support for wartime policy, has expressed moral outrage and rallied public support around significant military intervention into Afghanistan. However, the word “evil,” when connected to a “war on terror,” has suffered two important limitations: (1) it failed to distinguish among different terrorist groups or to address differences between a terrorist group and their recruitable populations, hence confusing the actual perpetrators of 9/11 with local and state entities in Afghanistan and later to Iraq, and (2) when extended to the “axis of evil” it created the illusion of state-based belligerents, further focusing U.S. efforts away from the actual 9/11 perpetrators. Indeed, the outcome of this way of thinking about terrorists—through the moral prism of “axis of evil”—was a stunning inability to focus on the actual 9/11 belligerents.
In response to the events of 9/11, the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, with the Taliban declared as the principal belligerent, and then shifted to Iraq, with Hussein declared as the principal belligerent. There is a sense that the U.S. mission wandered about in search of an enemy that would be recognized as “evil” and fit its “war on terror” rather than focus on the 9/11 belligerents—that group of Al-Qaeda operators affiliated with Osama Bin-Laden and who acted against the U.S. The focus on state entities as “evil” has infused the counter-terror policy of the U.S. Department of State, who has developed policy aimed at “sub national” entities. However, the focus of policy has been on state entities. Because those entities are conceived in terms of nations, acting against those entities has tended to propel the U.S. into kinetic military and CIA-contracted actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, and to identify “terrorist states” as principals in its counter-terror policies.
By conflating sub- or supra-national terrorism with states, even if under the guise of “state sponsorship”, the U.S. associates and alienates terrorists and their recruitable populations, who may have no interest in being a threat to the U.S.
Our attention to the 9/11 belligerent, al-Qaeda, has lost its focus, and has permitted that enemy to expand its reach internationally.
The U.S. military has found itself embroiled in conflicts with belligerents unrelated to terrorism against the U.S.
What is needed is a strategy for counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency that focuses on threats, but does not overreach, misidentify enemies, and diffuse its power in the process. Phenomenology, where we next turn, provides such a way to reconceptualize our relationships across the Middle East, our current base of conflict, and more broadly, develop a holistic perception about international threats and their potential reach into local empathetic populations.
Part 2. the phenomenological perspective
Phenomenology is a philosophy of social science focused on the practical understanding of the social world [15, 29, 50, 63]. Husserl (1859–1938) developed phenomenology in the universities of Freiburg and Gottingen in Germany in the late 1800s . Phenomenology, he argued, provided insight into a philosophical question central to philosophy—how can meaning exist in a material world? Meaning, he asserted, existed neither in the physical world, nor solely in the mind, but in an inseparable relationship between the two. One’s meaning—what we refer to in this paper as a groups’ “perceptions”—are bound to ones’ historical circumstances and the social traditions of those who share and similarly interpret that history.
Husserl called a person’s particular perspective their “natural attitude.” The natural attitude represented those who shared local meanings organized into a particular, historically based world views. Any study of people, he asserted, could only be correctly understood in terms of their local meanings, not in terms of broad intellectual or value-based schema imported by observers [30, 31, 50].
Maurice Merleau-Ponty  defined phenomenology as the study of essences that included a description of the human experience. Merleau-Ponty’s perspective grants and appreciates different perceptions of knowledge in any given situation and this gives bearing on what can be understood at the individual and group level [25, 26, 27, 28, 72, 73] Merleau-Ponty argues that experience is the primary source of knowledge, and that sensory perceptions produce knowledge. Perception is defined as a system of meanings by which a phenomenal object in the social world is recognized .Therefore the phenomenology of perception describes contact with the social world and assigns meaning to what is perceived. In this view, perception is a process that includes sensation, interpretation, and reasoning. This means that the phenomenology of perception is concerned with how a phenomenon is perceived as reality by various actors and how that reality is interpreted, sensed, and rationalized.
When a behavior or act is labeled terrorist, the narrative of meaning for groups carrying out the act is delegitimized. Lost is the ability to understand the narrative in its historical context. In a word, anti-insurgents do not know the enemy, and cannot fully assess their ideological strengths and weaknesses.
Policy-makers fail to understand the way in which justifications for terrorist actions are grounded in a history of grievance—the way in which they are locally legitimized—hence are unprepared for other groups who might similarly justify their grievances and support their actions.
Policy-makers cannot adequately assess how a group’s ideas and actions will be perceived by sympathetic groups. Hence, we will not be able to assess how they can reach out to a broader audience in order to recruit more members, to find hiding places in a local or regional population, or how they mingle cultural traditions and find loyalty with sympathetic groups.
The phenomenology of counter-terrorism rebuilds the identity of the terrorist into a meaningful whole—an “other” who carries a fully developed way of thinking about the world and their purpose in it. It seeks to understand their local customs, traditions, and values. This approach emphasizes the importance of understanding the social world and everyday activities by those we define as terrorist. In a word, it legitimizes the need of “perception” to fully understand and counter terrorists/insurgent groups. This approach is consequently holistic in that it is grounded in the substantive realities of life and meaning as they are experienced by the terrorists’ perception of the social world.
A phenomenological perception facilitates the development of a “bridge” from philosophy to policy. Phenomenology assist in the comprehension of terrorism because of its relentless insistence on concrete, real world observation, married to the effort to see the world through the “other.” It is experiential, by which is meant that it finds the meanings of actions within individual or group experiences—what can be called their fields of meaning [20, 65]. By assessing fields of meaning, we can consequently develop a broader understanding of the terrorist enterprise, as it is carried out by particular groups, and from this, more comprehensively develop counter-strategies to limit the spread of terrorism.
Terrorists live in cultures and try to establish their own value systems and subcultures, both to justify themselves and proselytize. A sub-cultural approach would fall within an established form of reference for analysis of violent behavior, of which political violence would be a specific sub category.
Gustave Morf  noted the need to “deconstruct” the terrorist world-view, by which he meant the analysis of terrorist motivations in terms of their life circumstances. Morf carried out a comprehensive study of the FLQ terrorist network in Quebec, using extensive interviews of imprisoned FLQ members and content analysis of FLQ publications. His ‘deconstruction’ focused on understanding FLQ ideology, motivations and grievances. Using ethnographic research methods, Morf enabled the terrorists to define their world view, using their terminology. His grounded theoretical approach led to an understanding of the development of terrorist ideology, findings still studied in the current era .
Juergensmeyer, following Morf’s work, assessed the traditions of Christian Identity, Jewish Activist, violent jihadism, Sikhism, and Japanese cults in order to understand “the ideas and the communities of support that lie behind the [terrorist] acts rather than on the ‘terrorists’ who commit them” (: 7). Kellen  and Rapoport  have argued for the value of studying literature written by terrorists. Rapoport  “believes that the memoirs represent sentiments characteristic of particular groups.” Finally, Schalk  assessed sub-cultural differences as they are perceived by participants, by phenomenologically focusing on the role of gender and the division of labor between women fighters of the LTTE and leftist terrorist groups in Europe.
US. military-focused literature has begun to recognize the importance of phenomenological perception. Kilcullen , for instance, observed that ethnographic skills were essential to military unit and individual survival: “Know the people, the topography, economy, history, and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance…Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.” (: 114). Because of works such as Kilcullen’s, one finds that phenomenology is not abstract academic research, it is at the core of the counter-insurgents task and it is essential to survival. Indeed, ethnographic perspective is increasingly integrated into the command practices of Generals Petraeus and McChrystal in Afghanistan and Iraq [19, 57].
Gilles Kepel, distinguished Middle Eastern scholar, fluent in Arabic and familiar with Arab culture, presents an example of phenomenology’s contribution to developing an increased conception of terroristic threats. He describes the image of Osama bin Laden issuing communiqués from a cave. Without an understanding of Arab imagery this could be lost to a western observer. The cave, according to Kepel, represents a communiqué issued in “full costume, the epic story of the Hegira, or Flight to Mecca, which marked the beginning of the Islamic era in 622 CE” (: 77). Bin Laden’s clothing, mannerisms and other props give clear non-verbal cues about the message that he is attempting to communicate to the masses as well as those who are committed followers. This imagery would be lost or not even noticed if a phenomenological perception would be neglected.
The analysis of media, applying a phenomenological sensibility of the “other,” can also be used. Kepel , describing a communiqué from Bin Laden, discussed how Bin Laden’s use of a cave represented the epic story of the Hegira, or flight to Mecca, which marked the beginning of the Islamic era in 622 CE. In other words, the cave is the attempt to reach out to Islamic audiences with shared religious histories. His clothing, mannerisms, and props all communicate to followers that he is a common person—thus one of those who have a common history with the masses, not with the elite. This important imagery would be lost without a phenomenological sensibility.
The methods of phenomenology are the qualitative tools of social science, applied to counter insurgency. Communiqués, manuscripts, speeches, and cyber forms of communications provide important sources of data. They represent the efforts of terrorists to reach out to an audience with sympathetic ties or common grievances. It often contains characteristic vocabulary, the way in which that vocabulary is organized into world views, perceived grievances, motives, tactics, and symbols. They can be used to understand family and religious networks . Zaswahiri’s use of spiritual imagery, white supremists’ assertions of Zionism, McVeigh’s interpretations of Jeffersonian writings, and Aum’s world destructive ideology are all available in open source documents.
Interviews of local populations can be used to understand both differences and similarities between local populations and insurgents. Kilcullen  discussed McChrystal’s efforts to understand the way in which Al Qaeda acquired influence in Afghanistan. Prior to any major shifts in military strategy, Gen. McChrystal traveled through the country, meeting with local residents, discerning how Al Qaeda had gained a foothold in local politics and had inserted themselves into cultural dynamics . He noted that Al Qaeda had moved into local areas, married into families, taken positions of authority, and thus acquired legitimacy from which they could spread their terrorist ideology. McChrystal recognized from his interviews that kinetic actions, in and of themselves, would only delegitimize the attacker—in this case the U.S. and central government—and further the interests of Al Qaeda. This phenomenological approach has begun to change the way in which the military carries out counter-insurgency .
Part 3: four examples of the phenomenology of counter-terrorism
What is the group’s ideological perception? Perceptions contain both a history of specific events and values that give those events meaning. Some events carry powerful meanings, and these meanings will clash with out-group values. Conflicting values assign meanings that make the group’s history meaningful, provide coherence for open source intelligence, and enable insightful yet realistic policy.
What is the moral appeal of the group’s ideological perception to existing or potential ideological supporters? This is similar to (1) above, but focuses on justifications to a broader audience who currently is aligned or might support the group. How are the appeals phrased? The appeal needs to be reconstructed as closely to the intent and perception of the group of interest. It should be noted that the moral appeal of perceptions in conflict with each other may be constituted by the same facts, but contain sharply divergent “perceptions” .
Who are the audiences to which the group’s ideological ‘perception’ is marketed? Marketing ideological perception is directed to other groups who share similar histories and cultures. It should be noted that ideological perception, by its nature, carries the potential to mobilize resistance and conflict from perception targets. From an intelligence perspective, the group’s perception will be broad based, and is likely to implicitly carry sacrifices that many people will not want to take. Understanding how a group markets its perception may thus provide insight into countering the spread of the group’s ideas.
Who is perceived as the target for which terrorism has become the only reasonable answer? Who is the violence directed against? What did they specifically do, in the group’s terms, to justify belligerent acts? That is, what are its grievances and what is the relationship between grievances and the perceived targets?
Four narratives are presented below, each is presented as an example of this approach. These narratives are not exhaustive, but are intended to provide a preliminary sketch that suggests the power of an ethnographic approach as a counter-terrorism tool. The groups and narratives are: (1) Aum Shinrikyo - Terrorism as Salvation, (2) Timothy McVeigh - Terrorism as Patriotism (3) Earth Liberation Front - Terrorism as Liberation, and (4) Ayman Al-Zawahiri - Terrorism as Retribution.
Aum shinrikyo - terrorism as salvation
“It is time for you to carry out the plan of salvation. Let us prepare to meet our death without any regrets.” Shoko Asahara, message to followers in Japan and Russia 2 days after Sarin Attack .
On the morning of March 20, 1995 the religious Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo released 14 bags of manufactured Sarin on 5 different subway commuter trains in Tokyo. The resulting terrorist attack killed 12 Japanese morning commuters and injured approximately 5,000 persons [22, 58]. The attack was actually conducted as a diversionary tactic directed towards the Japanese Police as Aum was preparing for a more grandiose and lethal event. This attack brought global attention to the religious group lead by Asahara Shoko. Asahara Shoko was a charismatic leader who founded a new religion that he termed Aum Shinrikyo.
Group ideological perception
A core component of Asahara’s teaching centered around Armageddon, a war between the West and the enlightened spiritual world. The conflict would involve biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons . Asahara taught that the 1990’s were the last days and evil forces would soon clash to destroy each other. Only those that had been enlightened by Aum’s teaching would survive. The war would beckon a new age via the Messiah like prophecies by Asahara implemented by devoted global followers. These predictions coincided with Asahara’s failed House of Representative run in 1990 and the shame incurred by this loss. The failed political run led to Asahara’s withdrawal from mainstream appearances into underground activity . Asahara’s loss also precipitated a shift towards a more lethal ideology—an ideology that required destroying the world in order to save it.
The sarin attack coheres both logically and morally with the group’s historical traditions. The sarin attack is situated within a larger group perception. Asahara Shoko’s leadership was messianic: he convinced thousands that the world was quickly approaching an apocalyptic end and the means to attain salvation was to destroy those who were responsible. “We need a lot of weapons to prevent Armageddon and we must prepare them quickly” . Asahara developed a theology that justified murder as altruistic behavior, and he asserted that poa was kindness to the murdered persons by releasing them from incurring bad karma in this life . His religion involved a blend of Buddism, Hindism, New Ageism, and Christianity. Asahara perceived himself as the enlightened messiah, which was formally declared in a book titled Declaring Myself the Christ (1992).
According to the teachings of Asahara, the group was working towards a plan to create a weapons arsenal powerful enough to kill millions. Aum’s engineers and scientists were in the process of manufacturing AK-47’s in a 9 million dollar robotic factory and producing sarin in a 3.4 million dollar chemical facility, Satian-7. Asahara stated, “With the use of Sarin we shall eradicate major cities”. Group members had acquired a Russian Mi-17 twin turbine helicopter accompanied with an aerial spraying device as they were endeavoring to acquire more advanced weaponry including a nuclear device.
Perception moral appeal
Altruistic killing, or “poa,” was justified to its members to “save the world.” Thousands abandoned their careers and contributed their monetary assets and talents to world salvation—in this case, through mass murder [59, 70]. The members of the Aum Shinrikyo were convinced that Asahara was the messiah and the plan of destruction for salvation was a divine duty. Complete loyalty was required, and members were punished in order to ensure obedience in the name of righteous purification and justice .
The core ideas of the group were only understood after the attack and prosecution of the leadership. During the arrests, for instance, Yoshinobu Aoyama, head of Aum Shinrikyo Justice Ministry, stated that he believed that the group was being oppressed by the government “because we are the true religion that liberates people from the current mistaken world” . A prominent Aum member, Isoda, also called the “passionate disciple,” did not believe that Aum Shinrikyo was an organization committed to terrorism, and continued to believe that Asahara had acquired the supreme truth .
This new religion appealed to large segments of the Japanese population for two reasons. The first was his ability to create and establish religious credibility. Ashara met with the prominent leaders of Tibetan Buddhism before founding Aum Shinrikyo: Kahmtul Rinpoche, Kalu Rimpoche and the Dalai Lama . Ashara claimed that they had provided him with the required religious cloak to promulgate his religious beliefs. He published the details of meetings with these leaders, which legitimized his claim as a ‘new’ spiritual leader .
Second was the cultural-religious climate in Japan at the time of the group’s development. The group’s perception appeal derived its energy stemmed in significant part from the Second World War and its pernicious outcome for Japanese—the destruction through nuclear holocaust of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the strength of the group, and its continued broad anti-Western sentiments appealed to many different elements and groups in Japan. This dimension of Asahara’s ideological perception cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the anti-westernization sentiment in Japan that followed the Second World War.
For the majority of the Japanese population, religion has lost its authority. That is not to say that there are no Japanese in search of salvation; there are, but they are not always turning to conventional religions for deliverance. Instead, many are placing their faith in ‘new religions’ and in gurus who claim to be prophets.
The principal audience was the broader dissident populations in Japan and Russia who held a profound distrust of the West and a westernized Japan. Dissident populations included highly educated individuals. The five members of Aum Shinrikyo who released the toxic substance on the trains, for instance, included a cardiovascular surgeon, a graduate student in particle physics, two specialists in applied physics, and one in electronic engineering . All had previously left their professions, dedicated their lives, assets and families to follow Asahara Shoko. In 1995, at Aum’s organizational height, the group possessed assets that exceeded an estimated $1 billion and the group boasted some 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia [22, 70].
Members of Aum Shinrikyo came from a diverse demographic pool. Educated Japanese were drawn to Asahara’s ideology. Aum’s followers left their professions, depleted their savings, and lavished their talents on their new-found religion. The group was socially stratified, with a close inner circle of friends and trusted advisors, a second tier of individuals with scientific and technological expertise, and the third, largest tier of those who donated money, time, and labor to the cause . All of these members rejected the social conformist norms of Japanese society, associated themselves with a credible and highly intelligent ‘messiah,’ that they perceived granted them a path to enlightened spirituality.
Perception targets consisted of two major categories. The first is the West or non-Buddhist societies and the second refers to impure Buddhists—those who are not committed to the movement. Targets were defined in terms of a religious purification principle—those who are not purified according to Aum’s theology. Those not belonging to Aum were seen as barriers to a utopian society, thereby preventing restoring universal balance. The release of Sarin gas on subways started the war with Aum’s perception targets and was intended expand to globally in order to eliminate those deemed impure, thus ushering in world peace.
Timothy McVeigh: terrorism as patriotism
Timothy McVeigh “A shrink might look at what I have to say and decide—he is a psychopath or sociopath. He has no respect for human life at the Murrah Building-I did not do it for personal gain, I ease my mind in that. I did it for the larger good” (: 382)
At Oklahoma City on April 19th 1995, the largest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history destroyed the Murrah Federal Office Building. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed from the blast. Timothy McVeigh, the primary culprit, was soon apprehended, indicted, convicted, and 6 years later was executed in Indiana on June 11, 2001.
Group ideological perception
McVeigh perceived himself to be a patriot committed to the Constitution and the ideas of the United States founding fathers. Due to his ‘commitment,’ McVeigh never conveyed sympathy for those who died or indicated any remorse for his actions. It was reported that he smiled and often laughed during his trial, to the dismay of spectators. The following statement from McVeigh reveals that his motivation was tied into anti-federal government ideologies: “the people may be individually innocent, but they were guilty because they worked for the Evil Empire” (:166).
McVeigh resisted antisocial and psychotic labels from the outset, because he desired to be perceived as a lone solider fighting against a corrupt government [64, 69]. McVeigh had no prior criminal record, served honorably in the Army, was considered very intelligent, and even very personable . He was greatly influenced by the Turner Diaries, whose main character served as a model for McVeigh. The Turner Diaries’ author, William Pierce, warned about an impending extinction of the white race, where federal restrictions limited Constitution freedoms, which would eventually evolve into a race war. Anti federal governmental themes resonated with McVeigh and he sold copies of The Turner Diaries along with firearms at gun shows.
For those in the neo- Nazi and militia movements, the historical events that gave rise to McVeigh’s perceptions are compelling. McVeigh’s perception of governmental tyranny was influenced by the killing of Randy Weaver’s wife and son at Ruby Ridge, Idaho by federal agents and the deaths of Branch Davidian women and children at Waco, Texas. Moreover, the mantle of federal governance has never settled comfortably in the inter-mountain West of the U.S. Across the region, as well as in other parts of the U.S., a broad hostility to ‘big’ government is widely shared.
Perception moral appeal
The moral appeal of McVeigh’s perception was aimed at all American patriots, as he understood them to be and those that had a vendetta against the federal government. His appeal was aimed at an audience that supported how McVeigh framed the federal governmental as tyrannical. The day of the bombing, McVeigh wore a shirt with a quote from Thomas Jefferson “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The back of the shirt stated in Latin Sic Semper Tyrannis’ or “death to the tyrants” . In the escape car, he packed a white envelope specifically for law enforcement officers to find and report to the media. Inside the envelope, a bumper sticker read, “When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny.” He also included the pamphlet “the American response to tyranny” which equated the contemporary America militia movement with the revolutionary colonists. A copy of the Constitution was also enclosed with a note stating “obey the Constitution of the U.S. and we won’t shoot you” .
After standing trial, the jury recommended the death penalty. Before being sentenced, McVeigh quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis, he wrote, ‘our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example” (; 298). While in prison he continued to read anti-government material until the day of his execution. Until his death McVeigh viewed himself as a soldier, patriot and fighter for governmental reform [64, 69].
McVeigh’s specific affiliations at the time of his campaign were unclear, though Terry Nichols was found guilty of aiding him in the planning of the Murrah building attack. More broadly, his views corresponded to the American militia movement and are ideologically grounded in the neo-Nazi movement. The Turner Diaries, a source of his inspiration, is grounded in an upcoming race war and has an intensely anti-government racial narrative. The narrative has a broad appeal. In the current era, researchers have tracked members of both movements—the neo-Nazi and the militia—in every state in the United States.
The execution of McVeigh may well have accomplished what he sought - the martyrdom of an anti-government crusader. After death, he is an unassailable hero of both movements, a status he could never achieve in life. McVeigh’s death created a new and potent martyr symbol for the extreme right and may ultimately have substantial backfiring effects.
McVeigh’s target was the U.S. federal government, whom he often stated had been derailed from the Constitution and its founding vision. Federal agencies acting on behalf of the government were particularly loathsome. McVeigh was present at Waco during the governmental siege against Mt. Carmel and became embittered at the death of men, women, and children inside their compound by a fire set by federal agents [64, 69]. Mt. Carmel and Ruby Ridge legitimized his subsequent actions at the Murrah building:
I didn’t define the rules of engagement in this conflict. The rules, if not written down, are defined by the aggressor. It was brutal, no holds barred. Women and kids were killed at Waco and Ruby Ridge, You put back in the (government’s) faces exactly what they are giving out (: 166).
By 1994, McVeigh concluded that history was repeating itself, in the sense that the federal government was becoming like the British government during the pre-Revolutionary War. He selected the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City for two reasons: it was where the orders were given for Waco, and housed several Federal Agencies [46, 64, 69]. McVeigh planned the attack to coincide with the second anniversary of Waco, which was also the date of the opening battle of the Revolutionary War. April 19th, 1995 also marked the 220th Anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, widely celebrated as the shot heard round the world.
McVeigh believed that targeting federal agencies and destroying the Murrah Building would be another “shot heard around the world.” The destruction of the Murrah building would catapult him to a hero status, and would redirect the government to a Constitutional path. He compared his act to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: in spite of the large death toll, in the long term it would save American lives. He was convinced that destroying the Murrah Building would achieve the same outcome .
McVeigh’s actions have had a sobering effect on broad counter-terror efforts, particularly that of the FBI. The bombing at Oklahoma City gave recognition that home grown terrorism can have high lethality, even when carried out by ‘lone wolf’ operatives. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security, of which the FBI is a sub-organization, has been deemed as an area of potential terrorism. This, though more widely associated with the election of the first African American to the Presidency in the US, has provided the government with sense of the potential lethality of far right attacks than would have not been considered prior to McVeigh.
Earth liberation front: terrorism as liberation
Welcome to the struggle of all species to be free. We are the burning rage of this dying planet. The war of greed ravages the earth and species die out every day. We embrace social and deep ecology as a practical resistance movement. We have to show the enemy that we are serious about defending what is sacred. Beltane Communiqué, Earth Liberation Front, .6
Group ideological perception
Earth Liberation Front (ELF) traces its origin to Brighton England to the global environmental movement beginning with the group Earth First. Conflicts in 1992 within Earth First led to the formation of a splinter group, the Earth Liberation Front. The newly formed group was comprised of members who refused to abandon tactics which incorporated criminal acts to gain publicity and to assert their sense of justice. ELF maintained that the global population should become “ecocentric” placing the well-being of the environment ahead of natural comforts that cause environmental destruction .
The failure of peaceful protests to achieve environmental protections had disillusioned ELF members. A more militant brand of environmentalism emerged: According to the ideology of ELF, liberation was necessary for those who did not possess the power to liberate themselves from those intent on environmental violence . Craig Rosebraugh, ELF’s spokesman from 1998 to 2001, stated that “The threat to the life of the planet is so severe that political violence must be understood as a viable option” . By the 1990s the group asserted that ‘monkey wrenching’ a term used to describe arson, sabotage of logging construction equipment, tree spiking and other actions, should be carried out to liberate devices of capitalism perceived as damaging or threatening the natural environment .
Perception moral appeal
We must all act our consciousness and inflict economic harm upon all of those who are responsible for the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants. We encourage others to find a local Earth raper and make them pay for the damages they are inflicting on our communities and humanity’s chance of survival. Furriers, meat packers, bosses, developers, rich industry leaders are all Earth rapers. They all profit off the destruction of life and liberty (whether it be animal, natural world, or worker). A crime against one inhabitant of the Earth is a crime against the Earth. We must inflict economic sabotage on all Earth rapers if we are ever to stop the madness we live in. To do so is not a crime, it is a necessity .
Environmental liberation has become the moral appeal that legitimizes why members should engage in violence. The commitment to the cause of liberation is resolute, perceived as just and urgent. Craig Rosebraugh, noted as the voice for ELF stated:
The realization that what ELF and ALF are doing is correct. The realization that I support underground direct action aimed at destroying the capitalist ideology, and I want it to increase, dramatically. The realization that in my conscience I know that I am doing what is right .
There is no ELF structure; “it” is non-hierarchical and there is no centralized organization or leadership.
There is no “membership” in the Earth Liberation Front.
Any individuals who committed arson or any other illegal acts under the ELF name are individuals who choose to do so under the banner of ELF and do so only driven by their personal conscience.
ELF has found ideological support in a broad swath of related organizations committed to green and environmental technologies. There also is broad appeal among the population for many if its ideas, at least at the intellectual level. Abby’s desert experience  and tactical monkey-wrenching  has provided the founding perception, legitamation, and recommendations for decentralization of organizational structure. Abby’s writings continue to have a large and supportive readership, and provide a broad pro-environment constituency with appeal to the activities carried out by ELF.
During the 1990s North American group members of ELF concentrated their efforts on targeting the timber industry and violators of animal rights—perception targets. They combated both construction and housing that represented the expansion of suburbia into forested areas. They specifically targeted luxury homes, condominiums, and luxury vehicle dealerships . According to the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, destroyed or damaged property by ELF members from the years 1997–2000 approached a cost of 20 million dollars. An ELF spokesman claimed that: “Driving a hummer, a $50,000 GM tool for the rich getting 10 miles to the gallon—that is violence. Going in and torching those and getting rid of those is an act of liberation and should be applauded” (CBS Evening News, Los Angeles, Sept. 23, .)7
Ayman al-zawahiri: terrorism as retribution
“And as our commander, Shaykh Osama bin Laden (may Allah preserve him) told you, ‘As you bomb, you will be bombed, and as you kill, you will be killed’.” .
And I sent my greetings and those of my brothers to the Chechen people, in Jihad against the Russian Crusade for 400 years. O sons of Imam Shamil (Allah have mercy on him), know that you are not alone in confronting the Crusade against Islam. .
Al-Zawahiri returned to Egypt to witness the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 though he was not personally involved in the incident. He nevertheless supported the removal of Sadat because of his peace treaty with Israel and partnership with the West. He was imprisoned and tortured, and eventually released.
Group ideological perception
Al-Zawahiri perceives the existing political regimes across the Middle East as corrupt, fostering a tainted strain of Islam . He has sought to implement Sharia law in existing Muslim nations and extend it to non-Muslim nations to honor Allah. He perceives the west, particularly America, is responsible for conducting military and religious crusades against Islam. Indeed, he views contemporary Western incursions into Muslim lands as a continuation of conflicts extending back in time to the crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries . This, he argued, is demonstrated by America’s support for Israel, both invasions of Iraq, the placement of Western Military Forces in bases in Saudi Arabia, and the deaths of many tens of thousands of Muslim fighters and civilians through Western military intervention . Al-Zawahiri perceives the actions against the Islamic world as unjust, criminal, and devastating. Therefore Al Qaeda was formed to counter the West’s worldwide ideological movement.
Perception moral appeal
Al-Zawahiri has been a forceful critic of Western influence and its ‘assault’ on Islam. He has sought to appeal to the historical narratives that would rally the Muslim world. His (and al Qaeda’s) appeal has been to the masses, to awaken them from their ‘ignorance,’ to recognize the West’s influence across the region, to act against apostate governments, and thus to highlight the ‘perception’ of the world situation. In this regard, he has stated that:
I call upon Muslims everywhere to support their Mujahedeen brothers who are fought by America and its slaves because they chose the Shari’a of Islam over the law of robbery, bribery, corruption, wrongdoing, and being agents. Mujahedeen have to take vengeance against America until they believe in Allah Almighty who has the kingdoms of heaven and earth. Allah is a witness. I ask them not to hear any call to abandon the support of their assaulted brothers. .
Zawahiri’s audience are those individuals and groups that subscribe that a violent struggle against the ‘enemies’ of Allah and the Prophet Mohammad should be a 6th pillar of Islam. Requiring a violent struggle to be a sixth pillar of Islam makes it equal to the other five pillars: prayer, pilgrimage, profession of monotheism, fasting, and almsgiving. Zawahiri’ audiences are those which believe that holy war is an obligation for all true Muslims. The perception audience are those that seek to remove the influence of materialism and anti Islamic ‘isms’ from the Muslim world that they claim are a covert invasion to uproot Islamic culture, undermine the moral fabric of society/family, and encourage passivity [21, 47].8 Zawahiri’s message also appeals to a broader audience who perceives Muslim governmental officials as apostates and claim that these Muslims are really living in a state of ignorance of the ‘true’ faith . A call to purification through the use of violence against anything that attacks Islam is meant to reach an audience that views holy war as a way to distinguish themselves from apostate and passive Muslims they believe have tainted Islam.
“Do not allow the Americans, the British, the Australians, the Norwegians, and the other crusaders who killed your brothers in Iraq to live in your countries, enjoy their resources, and wreak havoc in them. Learn from your 19 brothers who attacked America in its planes in New York and Washington and caused it a tribulation that it never witnessed before and is still suffering from its injuries until today.” .
From a phenomenological lens, we see a group perception and moral appeal to a large Islamic audience justified by loyalty and fidelity to religious values. It has immense appeal in the Middle and Far East. Particularly troubling for contemporary U.S. policy in the region, is the narrative’s appeal to potential recruits. This appeal is based on one highly visible, concrete, and tangible fact: apostate U.S. troops are present in Islamic countries. Precisely those values that propelled our involvement—the evilness of Al-Qaeda and supportive state sponsors—are central to the growing influence of anti-Western insurgent support and the inability of the West to achieve notable military successes.
The “war on terrorism” is moribund. The Secretary of State unofficially but publicly dropped the term “war on terror” with reference to U.S. international policy in 2009. The policy implications of that change in terminology suggest a refocusing of US policy. However, the 10 years in which the U.S. engaged in the War on Terror on “evil” regimes has contributed to a loss of international support, the suspension of international treaty obligations in the pursuit and prosecution of “evil” terrorists, the collapse of military justice in the treatment of prisoners, the use of deeply flawed intelligence efforts for strategic military actions, the worldwide growth of Al-Qaeda as a movement, the growth of Iran’s influence across the region and as a potent regional challenger to the West, and a series of tactical counter-insurgency failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the list of failures—failures that we believe stem from the more profound failure to understand the belligerents and grasp their appeal to local populations—is nothing short of astonishing.
In the current era, international policy is in flux, and is marked by State Department efforts to re-engage internationally within the ambit of international relations. The moment is propitious for a reconsideration of how terrorism and insurgency should be conceived, and this paper is written in that spirit.
This paper has argued for a phenomenology of counter-terrorism based on detailed local knowledge of actors, places, and world-views. Phenomenology, with its emphasis on local understandings as understood from the point of view of the “other” is highly adaptable to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Local populations vulnerable to terrorist exploitation can be studied, their world views assessed, their sympathies to terrorists identified, their grievances recognized and addressed, and their vulnerabilities strengthened.
A phenomenology of counter-terrorism is grounded in strategic international policy that seeks to offset belligerent influence through anticipation and proactive diplomacy as well as military actions. With regard to military kinetic activity, it takes the Petraeusian position that less is more—one cannot kill one’s way out of counter-insurgency. Recognizing that terrorism is a conflict that requires a political solution, this paper is oriented to maximizing knowledge of insurgents and terrorists in order to disrupt their ability to gain and hold influence in resident populations. If a belligerent cannot acquire or sustain a foothold in sympathetic populations—if their legitimacy is undercut and local governments can maintain legitimacy—then the conflict will be won.
This paper ends with the recommendation of how to directly apply the phenomenology of perception. The most effective counter-insurgency methods are grounded in qualitative social science methods, for the straightforward reason that these methods are those most likely to provided a phenomenology of insurgencies. These methods are not simply academic exercises: Through the careful and grounded analysis of a group’s perception, their audience, their victims, and their narrative, one can inform policy.
The phenomenology of perception can be used to counter terrorist information wars designed to win the hearts and minds of local population. To combat what terrorists and insurgents perceive as a threat to their way of life, groups use propaganda in information wars. Propaganda is an effective communicative strategy that uses emotions to win over target audiences: Jacques Ellul, distinguished philosopher and sociologist, defines propaganda as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions or a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization” (; 61). Propaganda targeting intends to control the will, ideas, emotions, the conscious and unconscious of a target audience.
Propaganda is a strong arm tactic used in information wars. This tactic, recognized by military intelligence analysts, think tanks, and media scholars bombards the emotions of a target audience to force a viewpoint [22, 23, 52]. It is critical to note that it is how groups ideological perception is used in propaganda that matters is what makes this communicative technique effective. Events, situations, culture and history are crafted to show the recipients that ‘the other,’ is interpreting them negatively. Propagandists bombard the target audience with emotional perceptions intended to win hearts, minds, and change attitudes.
Effective propaganda mobilizes an audience. Mobilization is a prerequisite for revolution . Gaining popular support is arguably one of the most important functions of any political, religious or social movement [33, 39]. In order to carry out a revolution with the support of the people their hearts must be ‘won’ . Revolutions can begin with a small group of ideologues attempting to master the propaganda craft . Sometimes propaganda by word and deed is effective, thus turning terrorists or revolutionaries into governmental officials.
Outcomes are another way of looking at the value of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. This type of campaign implies that ‘perceptions’ should be a centerpiece. It also implies that the perspective of a population is significant; no matter what the size.9 Terrorists are also aware of the implications of waging a heart and mind campaign and are engaged in one of their own. Any group striving to wage war against an opponent knows how important winning the hearts of the local population is to meeting long range objectives. This is exactly why the Taliban have shifted their strategy in 2010.
In January 2010 Mullah Mohammad Omar, the pre and post 9/11 Taliban leader, began a ‘hearts’ campaign across northern Pakistan and Afghanistan . The centerpiece of Omar’s campaign is the use ideological perceptions injected into propaganda to create action. He desires to show Muslims in the region that they are being humiliated, overpowered or rejected by the west and apostate Muslims . Omar’s propaganda war seeks to maximize the perception of humiliation, poverty, a ‘crusader’ occupation and powerlessness to generate anger, rage and violence . These perceptions are precisely what propaganda analysts have described as powerful determinates of shaping public opinion and behavior .
Omar’s propaganda campaign is not fought with AK-47’s or Russian RPG’s. The objective is to awaken and motivate ideological perceptions in receptive audiences. The weapons are the internet, handbooks, mobile phones, pamphlets, websites and charismatic speakers. It is a war to win the minds and the hearts of the Afghan population and tribal leaders . Omar is attempting to show the perception of ‘honor’ in their cause while outlining the perception of shame of the ‘crusaders’ and ‘infidels’ . Omar intends to legitimize injustices against Muslims in such a way as to make the potential tribesman recruit angry enough to take action.
Effective or not, Omar is using perceptions to create enough emotional outrage in those who encounter his message to join, fund, donate or support Taliban efforts. If Omar is successful, the outcome would be significant. Increasing the ranks of the Taliban with increased funding and equipment would lead to a reciprocal response by U.S. and Coalition Forces to counter a surge both economically and militarily.
Applying the phenomenology of perception assists in understanding how to counter Omar’s ideological propaganda as it resonates with local populations. First it is critical to understand what and how grievances are being used in their propaganda. Second, countering the Taliban’s message through an effective disinformation campaign and the reduction of kinetic actions that give propaganda fodder to be used by the Taliban. Directly applying an expanded version of the phenomenological analysis of this study to Taliban propaganda accomplishes this task.
The “war on terror” policy was grounded in a moral suasion against “evil,” and its blunders are increasingly apparent. Needed is a reversal of course, not a self-justificatory morality, but an outwardly focused appraisal of insurgent history, culture and identity, morality and appeal to like groups. The language of the “evil other” cannot get us there—the language of phenomenology can. Such an approach shows promise to achieve that which has thus far eluded U.S. counter-insurgency efforts—success and an end to hostilities.
http://www.iiipublishing.com/elf.htm accessed Dec. 24, 2009.
The term ‘crusaders’ is used link a historic military campaign to a modern day enemy. Images of colonial occupation and the killing of Muslims in pre and post colonization from Europe to include the French in Algeria and the British in Egypt and the attempts to intervene with religious, cultural and political dimensions of the areas in which they occupied. It was not by chance that President Bush used the term ‘crusades’ to describe America’s global war on terrorism.
General McChrystal, the former U.S. Forces Commander in Afghanistan, understood the value of accessing the ‘hearts’ of the Afghan population and began his command with a listening tour of the Afghan population in 2009. Special Forces Major Gant’s Strategy of Winning the War One Tribe at a Time (2009), a plan devoted to winning the hearts of tribal leaders, was crafted from his experiences in Afghanistan of what is projected to work.
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