Looking at recent events in Canada, the following analysis piece originally posted to Northshore Counter-Info argues that all movements and both State and non-State formations have used terrorism at various times. But is goes on to to argue that anarchists and autonomists should reject terrorism as both a failed strategy and on ethical grounds, while not allowing the State the ability to define the activity of resistance and social movements as terrorism.
Unfortunately, the word “terrorism” has been getting thrown around a lot in Ontario these past few months. Two attacks in Toronto, the “incel” van attack on April 23, 2018 and the Danforth mass shooting on July 22, have both been talked about as terrorism, though each by different people and for different reasons. It’s also a word that’s been applied to anarchists in Hamilton and to antifascists across the region in an attempt to delegitimize combative approaches to struggle.
Calling something terrorism is undeniably powerful, but the word is used in such widely different ways that it often seems to mean little more than, “I condemn this utterly.” Whether it’s being used loosely or specifically though, it has the function of setting the acts it describes as outside of reasonable consideration – it’s often paired with words like “senseless”, “incomprehensible”, or “unimaginable.”
But terrorism is a strategy that’s been used by almost all political tendencies at different times. As a strategy, it’s not desperate or insane, the way the specific attacks often appear; terrorism has specific goals and groups using it aren’t shy about articulating them. The goal of this text is to look at terrorism as a strategy, as a choice that rational people might make to achieve their goals. This gives us a stronger basis for rejecting it and also gets us beyond the shocked and decontextualized reactions we understandably have to scenes of violence, like the two attacks in Toronto.
As an anarchist, I am part of a political tradition that helped invent modern terrorism. I’m also part of a tradition that rejected terrorism over a hundred years ago and that continues to hold strong in refusing it and its practitioners today. The anarchist definition of terrorism is usually something like: indiscriminate violence carried out on a civilian population to advance a cause. Anarchist terrorists at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th carried out a huge number of bombing and gun attacks against groups of people they believed to be bourgeois. The most famous of these is Emile Henry’s bomb and pistol attack on the Cafe Terminus in Paris in 1894.
There were always anarchists (maybe even a majority) who rejected terrorism, and they argued against it. Their views gradually won out on the grounds that these attacks were counter-productive, that they, in their randomness, are authoritarian, and that simply there is no way of knowing the class position of each person in a crowded cafe, so the anarchist terrorists weren’t even doing what they claimed to be.
The anarchist definition of terrorism allows for a distinction between terrorism and targeted violence, such as assassination or attacks on the armed apparatus of the state. Such attacks by anarchists continued through the 1910s and 20s. Assassinating Archduke Ferdinand, or US president McKinley, or a factory owner during a strike are not terrorism under such a definition. This distinction played out more recently in the parcel bomb attacks carried out by the FAIi targeting high-ups in the European Union beginning in 2003. They were clear that these were assassination attempts, acts of revolutionary violence, not terrorism. However others argued that sending letter bombs is indiscriminate because it’s just going to hurt a random letter carrier or mail room employee, with no chance of actually making it to Angela Merkel. And groups like ITSii in Mexico dissociated themselves from anarchism (because of its “moralism”) when they started carrying out indiscriminate attacks.
Under this definition, the attacks on Canadian soldiers carried out in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in October 2014 that were claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) would not be terrorism, since they targeted soldiers, the armed apparatus of the state, not random Canadians. As well, the two attacks in Toronto would both be terrorismiii.
The Canadian state, however, has claimed the opposite, denouncing the targeted attacks on soldiers as terrorism and describing those against random people in Toronto in other termsiv. Similarly, the Canadian state insists on describing people who kill its soldiers in other countries as terrorists, notably in Afghanistan, even when they are engaged in conventional warfarev.
Officially, the Canadian state’s definition of terrorism is extremely broad – any act that seeks to intimidate people in the service of an ideology could be described this way. This broadest sense is what that bright light of the left, Hamilton city councilor Aidan Johnson, meant when he described anarchists as terrorists for breaking a bunch of windows on a rich street in early March 2018vi.
The powerful tend to mean two things when they choose to call something terrorism. One is that they consider those carrying out the actions to be beyond the realm of political consideration; their ideas matter only in as much as it proves the act was terrorism, but those ideas are rendered unthinkable by association. The other is that the terrorism label is tied to a set of legal structures that have been developed over the past two decades to severely punish political violence carried out by anyone other than a state. Which is ironic, because the word terrorism was coined to refer to the actions of states, notably The Terror in revolutionary France, but it has since evolved to mean literally any other kind of violencevii.
These days, terrorism as a strategy is mostly the domain of right-wing and fundamentalist groups. The two Toronto attacks are great examples of this, one carried out by an Alt-Right misogynist and the other by someone who seems to be a partisan of an Islamist group. By following the state’s lead and refusing to look at why groups might use terrorism as a strategy, we actually decrease our ability to resist the reactionary tendencies these attacks represent. For the state, this is convenient, as it makes it simply a matter of increased policing and social control, or in some places funneling people into de-radicalization programs. But if we want to actually oppose reactionary forces on a liberatory basis, we need to do better.
The two tendencies linked to the Toronto attacks, the North American far-Right and Islamism, seem to oppose each other, but the strategy of terrorism they both employ benefits each of them, regardless of which side carries out a given attack. And that’s not by accident.
The modern strategy of terrorism was most clearly articulated by the FLN during their fight against France’s colonial occupation of the territory known as Algeriaviii. They carried out violent, indiscriminate attacks against both natives and French citizens to fulfill two goals: to militarize and polarize the struggle by encouraging reprisals; and to gain leadership of that struggle through the strength of its armed wing and attacks against rivals. During the so-called independence struggle, the FLN killed many times more natives than they did French settlers, building a monopoly on violence within the opposition that made them a perfect state in waiting.
IS has clearly studied this experience. When they emerged militarily in Syria, they avoided conflict with the Syrian state, seeking instead to attack and dismantle rebel groupsix. They then tried to consolidate control over territory through mass killings and torture, which also allowed them to project strength externally. By encouraging and carrying out attacks against civilians in Western countries, they invited Western societies to react in ways that alienate their Muslim citizens, which polarizes conflict. It also helped them position themselves as the one true opponent of Western domination both internationally and in the Middle East specifically, consolidating their power.
In both Algeria and France, the FLN’s campaign of terrorism fed into a counter-movement of racist nationalists. These nationalists also produced a terrorist fringe that tried to control its respective movement, notably the OAS. The similarities to the present moment don’t need outlining – we shouldn’t be surprised that groups like PEGIDA and the World Coalition against Islam have dutifuly popped up in Canada in pace with rightist terror attacks like the 2017 Quebec City mosque shootingx. That far-right tendencies like the Incelsxi, linked to the van attack, have views on gender as reactionary as those of the Islamists is also not a surprise: the far-Right’s opposition to Islamism is a false one, a question of whose totalitarian nightmare world will survive, while acting as perfect foils for each others’ growth.
It is interesting that few in Canada are willing to say that both the van attack and the Danforth shooting were terrorism, and this seems to skew along political lines. Those more on the left, steeped in the discourse of antifascism, saw the van attacker’s parting Facebook post linking himself to both Incels and the military as proof that the attack was a conscious political act from a nihilisticaly anti-social corner of the far-Right They were also more likely to describe the Danforth shooting in terms of mental health and to be concerned about the possibility of a racist or Islamophobic backlash. Those more on the right, where discourse about Islamic terrorism is used to justify everything from immigration controls to cutting social services, took the IS claim of responsibility on the Danforth seriously. On the other hand, they were more likely to look at how society had failed the van attacker, condemning the act perhaps, but then tuning back in to Jordan Peterson talking about enforced monogamy (a perfect solution to involuntary celibacy)xii.
Both of these reactions have would have us shying away from an analysis of terrorism to a mere horror of violence coupled with a rejection of the associated ideology. The reactionary alt-right and Islamist ideologies are distinct from their choice to use terrorism and can’t be reduced to it. The far right is disgusting even when they aren’t doing mass killings, and indiscriminate killings are inhuman (as well authoritarian, cynical, and callous) regardless of who carries them out.
I do think it’s appropriate to be able to physically confront our enemies, to be prepared to go on the offensive, and to escalate social conflicts. Terrorism, however, serves only authoritarian ends. If I don’t want to militarize conflict, reduce possible forms of political engagement, or consolidate my power, then I definitely want to be clear about avoiding terrorism, (without even getting into the moral questions).
As well, the discourse of terrorism is a shield the powerful use to defend themselves. That means I need to be clear about what terrorism is in order to refuse to let politicians and business owners decide that breaking windows and setting off fireworks is morally equivalent to running people over in a van. Because if we let our enemies set the terms of our struggle using loaded language like terrorism (or violence for that matter), then we’ve lost before we’ve started.
We need to build offensive capabilities while also being able to defend the appropriateness of our actions. Looking to the long history of anarchists and other anti-authoritarian tendencies who have refused terrorism can give us tools for assessing what courses of action are fundamentally incompatible with our ideas. It can also be a reminder that simply because a certain action is scary or unpopular doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving of our solidarity.
If we are to use the word terrorism at all, we need to define it ourselves and be clear about our own politics and strategies. From there, we can build a stronger analysis of the various authoritarian tendencies, whether states, the far-right, or Islamists, that choose it as a strategy so that we may better counter their efforts.
iiThe acronym is from the Spanish Individualidades tendiendo a lo Salvaje, Individuals Tending Towards the Wild. This terrorist group is based in Mexico with offshoots in other countries. Although initially describing themselves as anarchists, they officially broke with anarchism because of criticism of their indiscriminate violence, sexism, and general bullshit. They have since carried out at least one attack targeting an anarchist space and continue to kill random people.
iii I realize with the Danforth shooting this is complex; although IS claimed responsibility and there are reports that the shooter had been active on IS-affiliated websites, this is disputed. The counter-narrative is about mental health. However, I would suggest there is no contradiction between these things – mental health clearly doesn’t stop someone from having strong political views and taking action on them, and they certainly don’t delegitimate a person’s opinions, even if those opinions are as foul as IS’ Islamism. It is very unlikely the shooter was directed by IS the way the 2016 shooters in Paris, France were, but then again neither were either of the two men involved in the killings of Canadian soldiers mentioned above. Although it’s uncertain, I do take the claim of responsibility seriously and think it’s worth analyzing in that light, even if later information shows it to be false.
iv It’s true that the shift federally from Harper’s Conservatives to Trudeau’s Liberals has involved the state being less invested in fear-mongering, though Trudeau didn’t hesitate to apply the label to the Edmonton attack in 2017.
vThe most famous example of this is the case of Omar Khadr, but it isn’t hard to find others
viOn the night of March 3rd, an anarchist demonstration in Hamilton smashed up a bunch of stuff in a wealthy neighbourhood. For a collection of texts about the incident and the ensuing charges: https://north-shore.info/2018/06/05/beyond-support-update-on-locke-st-defendant-and-a-proposal-for-beginning-to-organize-solidarity/
vii Other gross opportunists, like the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War and other so-called anti-imperialist groups, cynically take up this same use of the word terrorism when it suits them, for instance arguing that anyone with facial hair resisting the Assad regime in Syria is a terrorist while claiming that nothing done by the Russian, Iranian, or Syrian states could possibly be.
viiiThe FLN Front de Liberation Nationale or National Liberation Front, was an underground political party with a significant armed wing during the Algerian war of independence and has ruled the country, as various flavours of military dictatorship.
ixFor an excellent analysis of the Islamist counter-revolution in Syria, check out this excerpt of the book Burning Country: https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/burning-country-extract-on-islamisation/
xPEGIDA, acronym from the German Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. This anti-immigrant group started in Germany and chapters have popped up all over, including in Toronto where there are not infrequent rallies. The World Coalition against Islam is based in Calgary and recently tried and failed to have an openly racist rally in Toronto
xiShort for Involuntary Celibates, an online network of misogynists who blame women’s freedoms for society’s (and their own) problems