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Terrorism and Civil War. The state power in dire straits. By Peter Waldmann

Peter Waldmann: Terrorism and Civil War. The state power in dire straits. Munich: Gerling Akademie Verlag 2003, 270 p., 21.50 EUR

Reviewed by Jürgen Turek (translation of a review in the German journal Internationale Politik 10/03)


02.10.2003 · Reviewed by Jürgen Turek


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Eleven-nine, Djerba, Kosovo, Congo - all of these conflicts and clashes lead intensively to the question of the shape and intensity of politically motivated violence in the future. Peter Waldmann, an internationally recognized expert in terrorism, takes up this theme in his new book and focuses on two central conflict formations of the present and future: terrorism and civil war.

The starting point of his analysis is the establishment in a time of radical changes, in which we experience new practices and tactics of violence on the one hand but also the persistence of conventional violence patterns on the other hand. He identifies three essential structural changes which will influence the extent as well as the expression of social-political violence in the future: The loss of state power monopoly on the use of force by a delegation of security responsibilities on behalf of the state on tasks to privately organized enterprises or by takeover by non-governmental rivals; the rapid growth in population, which increase the tendency for violence among young people far above average in less developed countries in view of the hopelessness of their situation; and finally the globalization process taking place under unclear circumstances and positioning the Islamic against the Western world.

According to the author, it would altogether be difficult to reduce at first to a common denominator what exactly has to be understood by terrorism and civil wars. Therefore, he makes a distinction in these classic basic forms of political force and shows why, how and with which consequences terrorism and civil ware take place. For him the essential differences are the following: Terrorism would primarily be a symbolic violence, i.e. a violence producing a psychological effect. Terrorist units would be radical small groups trying to get numerous followers through extreme provocation of the mostly powerful opponent. Therefore, terror would base on "a complicated multistage calculation of violence escalation primarily concepted as a communication process reflecting an extreme imbalance of the conflict parties" (p. 17).

In contrast to this the balance of power in civil wars would be more consistent. Unlike terrorism, civil wars would not only require small highly organized units but also broader parts of the population indirectly or directly. Moreover, the sense of violence would not amount to nothing more than a symbolic purpose. Rather the violence involving instruments would be in the fore in civil wars: It is the weakening of the opponent and the dispute on his right to his territory and finally the refuge in flight in order to decisively strengthen the own supremacy within the common political unit.

According to Waldmann terrorism and civil wars also have common roots inspite of this differentiation. One root has something to do with the orientation towards a state framework, the other one with its relative openness for myths and images. Above all terrorism could be regarded as a form of force production, which is perfectly suitable for publicizing counter-ideologies and counter-symbols to the prevailing order through adequate images and myths.


The combat of old and new forms of violence in mind Waldmann explicitly proves himself to be protagonist related. It is true that it would be important to examine and to value the data for arming and logistics, for tactical remedies or ideological movements. But the real motor that establishes a coherent connection between these settings, would be the completely incalculable actors of violence themselves, "their volition, their toughness, their fantasy and their operational skill". Therefore, it would be inevitable to start with the imaginations and thoughts of the actors.

This also would include detailed and intimate knowledge of their terrorist organization, which quite often make psychological total demands on their members and which do not inevitably have to be organized decentralized or network-like like Al Khaïda. In view of organizations like Hamas, ETA, Farc or IRA Waldmann proves that they do not operate with plain structures without a clearly outlined command center but - as a rule - with a sharp hierarchical dichotomy of the particular organization.

Finally Waldmann turns to the chances of a violence control and the establishment of peaceful conditions. On balance his pessimistic result is: One will often have to be content with "second best" solutions. This view culminates in his thesis of the asymmetry of violence and peace dynamism. The question to put would be: How can small radical minorities often manage in a paradox teamwork to impose their will upon a war-weary majority and to enforce the continuation of the bloody conflict? This would not principally mean that the peace would not stand a chance against the conflict but bring it about, if a clear and - as the case may be - also militant decision would be necessary. That is to say: To achieve peace against the stirrers of conflict if necessary with force, or to separate the groups profoundly hating each other instead of hoping that they learn to tolerate each other within the framework of a multicultural society and to treat each other peacefully.

Even if one does not wish to follow the pessimistic results: Waldmann again presented an important publication that informs excellently about forms of action, reasons and backgrounds of political violence and, moreover, systematically settles the escalating debate about forms of violence.


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