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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:31 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:31 | SYDNEY

Suppose they gave a terror attack and nobody came?



15 July 2008 14:55

Optus says the cause of a cable fault that shut down phone and internet connections in Queensland and some parts of New South Wales for four hours today is 'not yet known'.

Terrorists at present favour spectacular attacks that maximise loss of life, but as I've argued before, without access to nuclear weapons, that strategy will suffer from diminishing returns. So al Qaeda and its surrogates may shift to a strategy of mass disruption that targets things like communications infrastructure. I'm not suggesting there's been foul play in this case, but it's worth asking: how would we know if this had been a terrorist attack?

It's possible that the group responsible could claim responsibility, but that claim could be false. Or it might be true but unverifiable, since the damage could look like it was caused by vandals or a storm. Precisely because of such ambiguities, some analysts argue terrorists would not be attracted to these types of attacks.

Groups like the IRA or Hizballah craved attribution. Indeed, IRA tactics reached the point where police or the media were sometimes told to evacuate an area where a bomb had been planted. The attack itself became secondary to the demonstration effect of showing up the impotence of authorities.

But if the aim of the terrorist group (or lone terrorist) is to create maximum chaos, that logic no longer holds. I mentioned Philip Bobbitt's new book, Terror and Consent, in an earlier post, and one of his arguments is that what distinguishes modern terrorist groups from those such as the IRA is precisely this appetite for chaos for its own sake. Al Qaeda, says Bobbitt, does not want a limited political settlement but to create a 'state of terror' in which terrorism deligitimises the state systems we live in.

I'm finding this rigid distinction between old and new terrorism difficult, and I suspect there's less to it than Bobbitt would like. But I still heartily recommend the book.

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