Can a single terrorist attack bring down a state?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Traditionally we think that the aim of terrorism is to inspire terror in civilian populations and governments through acts of violence in order to create the conditions whereby a society and its government change some policy or other in accordance to the perpetrators’ world view.

But it seems that such an understanding of terrorism might be too clever by half. It assumes that the terrorists have some kind of stake in the survival and continuation of the society or government they are attacking. Sometimes this is the case. But when it comes to the kind of millenarian nihilists that you have in ISIS, that most certainly doesn’t apply.

And why bother to get a government to see things your way, when you can simply destroy the entire apparatus of state and use the ensuing chaos as an excellent opportunity to recruit new members to your cause and expand you reach and power.

Tunisia was considered the Arab Spring’s success story, and the only country that has produced a stable and plausibly democratic government in the aftermath of the wave of rebellions that has swept over the Arab world. But just as we speak, its ruling party is about to implode and the conflict between the remnants of the Ben Ali government and those who led the uprising looks likely to flare up once again.

The new terrorism is now aiming for the state. How many of the artificial states in the Middle East will survive the coming years, we can only wait and see

Azeem Ibrahim

The immediate reason for this is that the current president of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, has just promoted his son to the position of vice-president of his party, Nidaa, and that the Essebsi are becoming uncomfortably close to the Islamist political forces in Tunisia, something that the majority of the staunchly secular Nidaa party members are bitterly opposed to. A protest against what many see as the establishment of dynastic power within the Nidaa party has been broken by a violent response from the Essebsi faction, and their opponents now look set to form a splinter party. This would remove Nidaa from its position of parliamentary dominance, and effectively hand over power to the Islamist opposition.

Game of thrones

But the fundamental problem is not the game of thrones that Tunisian politicians are playing with each other. It is what is fueling this game and their ambitions: popular discontent and a sense of imminent danger to the new political order established in the wake of the Tunisian Arab Spring. And that was caused by the really poor performance of the economy recently. Which can, in this country so reliant on tourism, be traced back to the terror attacks in March and the infamous Sousse attacks in June where 30 Britons were killed.

Tourism accounted for 6.5% of GDP in the country, and employed as much as 11.5% of the working population. And most of that has all but dried up overnight, after the attacks. Politicking is one thing. And a stable and economically successful society can generally safely ignore the foibles of power-grabbing politicians. But a volatile society on the edge of economic breakdown is another proposition altogether. And people can be expected to take up arms and fight for whatever cause they think will aid them, as they have done only so recently with the Arab Spring in 2010.

In this case, a single attack has ended up putting an enormous strain on a fragile state, and right now we can but hope and pray that the situation does not degenerate any further. And we will need to do the same with Egypt, where the recent suspected terror attack on the Russian tourist plane returning from Sharm el-Shaikh looks set to kill the tourism industry there.

Some observers noted that this was exactly the strategy that Osama bin Laden originally pursued by targeting the World Trade Centre in the 9/11 Attacks. Whether you believe that or not is rather besides the point, though. What matters is that targeted terror attacks on key economic sectors, especially economic sectors that are so susceptible to these kinds of attacks such as the tourism industry, are enough to destabilize an economy. And that in turn is enough to break a fragile state. In the wake of the Arab Spring, many, many states in the Middle East are fragile and susceptible to such simple, strategic attacks. And for ISIS and other similar or affiliated groups, the calculation is simple: why bother mounting long, dragged out guerrilla campaigns against trained militaries in the region, when you can achieve a much more profound effect with a single, calculated strike against a soft target? The new terrorism is now aiming for the state. How many of the artificial states in the Middle East will survive the coming years, we can only wait and see.


Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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