Salon posted an interesting article on terrorism last Tuesday, an interview with Michele Zanini, an expert on terrorism. (I almost wrote "a terrorist expert," but that doesn't quite mean the same thing.)
I had spent much of Tuesday thinking about the goals of terrorists and of these terrorists in particular; for the last roleplaying game I ran, I spent a while trying to work out what my fictional terrorists' goals in committing terrorist acts were, and couldn't quite figure it out. On Tuesday, before seeing the above article, I finally got the division straight in my head between two kinds of terrorists:
- Those whose goal is to force a government to the bargaining table (that is, those who have an agenda they want to achieve, and who use terrorism to force those in power to listen). For these people, it's essential to take credit for an attack because that's how you achieve your goal.
- Those whose goal is to disrupt or destroy the government, who would just as soon not take credit publicly.
(Mya pointed out that there can be another class, perhaps overlapping with the first two: terrorist acts whose goal is to impress people who agree with the terrorists, causing such people to give the terrorists support and money. Every time a particular organization can do something effective, I bet it brings more people and funding to their cause.)
The article suggests that my first category is kind of old-school terrorism, and my second is more the way more organizations operate now. The article talks about bin Laden's organization as falling somewhere in between my two categories: their goal (whether or not they were responsible for last week's events) isn't necessarily to bring down the US government, just to batter it so much that it accedes to the attackers' will. It does seem to me, though, that for that approach to be effective, the government in question needs to know who's attacking it. If this sort of attack had happened during the Vietnam War and nobody took credit for it, it would be hard to be certain that the goal was to get us to withdraw from Vietnam...
One nitpick about the article: the terrorism expert says, "Apocalyptic scenarios have been drawn up in past, but no one believed it would happen. And this surpasses anything that anyone imagined." I don't buy either of those statements, but particularly not the second one. The backpack-nuke scenario is way scarier, and I'm a little surprised (though of course relieved) that it hasn't happened yet. My understanding is that the only really difficult parts would be obtaining the plutonium and getting it into the US.