Fighting terrorism. A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

Fighting Terrorism: What Terrorists Want

Picture of Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Fighting terrorism is about more than a tough response. In fact, the tougher your response, the happier the terrorists may be.

“A Savage War of Peace” by Alistair Horne

In 1989-91 I worked on counter-terrorism policy in the Foreign Office. I visited the Security Service – the UK’s domestic security service, sometimes known as MI5. A woman colleague commended to me “A Savage War of Peace“. She said it set out the philosophical and practical underpinnings of terrorism; and the challenges of confronting it. I found the book a revelation – particularly its analysis of what terrorists really want.

Fighting terrorism: what terrorists want

What are terrorists seeking to achieve when they commit acts of violence that most people would consider barbaric or inhuman? According to “A Savage War of Peace”, they have one overriding goal. This is to draw as severe a reaction as possible from those they are attacking.

That’s right: those committing terrorist acts want to provoke governments into lashing out – “striking back” at the terrorists. Maybe even “a war on terror”. Does that sound familiar?

The terrorists believe that the more governments lash out, the more they will discredit themselves. They calculate that retaliation by governments will not defeat – or even weaken – the terrorists. Rather, retaliation will make the terrorists stronger, by making more people support them.

In the end, the terrorists hope that one of two things will happen. One is that the country becomes ungovernable, so those the terrorists support can seize power. This happened, for example, at the end of the war in Algeria in 1962. France simply left.

The other possible outcome is that governments fighting terrorism lose energy, and popular support. The costs of their campaigns become too high. This happened, for example, when the United States and its allies left Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021.

I tend to agree with my MI5 colleague. Anyone seeking to “fight terrorism” should read A Savage War of Peace. In may be about a war you’ve never heard of, decades ago. But it is strikingly relevant to fighting terrorism today.

Here is some background, with quotes from the book.

National Liberation Army, Algeria 1958. Fighting terrorism?

National Liberation Army, Algeria 1958 – Author Zdravko Pečar (From Wikipedia)

The Phillipeville Massacres

In 1954 the “National Liberation Front” (French acronym: FLN) launched a series of attacks to eject the colonial power, France, from the territory of Algeria. The French government responded militarily. The Minister of the Interior was François Mitterand, later French President. He said: “I will not agree to negotiate with the enemies of the homeland. The only negotiation is war.”

By mid-1955, French military action had weakened the FLN. In response an FLN leader, Zhigoud, initiated in August 1955 a series of massacres of European settlers, known as Pieds-Noirs, including gruesome atrocities against old women and babies. These became known as the Phillipeville Massacres.

The French authorities said 71 European civilians, 21 Algerian civilians and 31 law enforcement officers died. In response, French military forces and Pieds-Noirs vigilantes killed several thousand Algerians. Estimates range from an official French death toll of 1,273 to FLN claims of 12,000.

Result of the Massacres

The result of the August events was to create an irreparable divide between the European and native Algerian communities. Some more moderate FLN leaders denounced the FLN’s murders and mutilations. They also criticised the high number of native Algerian deaths during, and in reprisal for, the massacres. But the radicalisation of both sides that followed put paid to any possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Two examples:

  • 61 prominent Algerian Muslim politicians, who had previously adopted moderate positions, changed sides. They wrote that, as a result of the repression against Muslims after the massacres , most Algerians now supported independence.
  • Albert Camus had previously been sympathetic to the condition of native Algerians. But the massacre of European children appalled him. He wrote: “If I can understand and admire freedom fighters, I have only disgust for murderers of women and children.”

The French reprisals, and use of torture in the war, fuelled support for Algerian independence. The 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” highlighted the moral ambiguities of atrocities by both sides. The British Film Institute describe it as one of cinema’s greatest political masterpieces.

Fighting terrorism: understanding your opponent

In “The Savage War of Peace”, Alistair Horne explores the philosophical and political underpinnings of terrorism. His analysis is dark, yet – potentially – illuminating for those who believe that understanding your opponent is important in fighting terrorism. Here are some examples.

  • The strategy for modern terrorism was recently well defined by the Brazilian guerrilla leader, Carlos Marighela, before he was hunted down and killed [in 1969]. Marighela said: “It is necessary to turn political crisis into armed conflict by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the political situation of the country into a military situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.”
  • Machiavelli’s axiom, “An enemy should be destroyed or bought – and never made a martyr.”
  • The sinister dictum, “one corpse in a jacket is worth more than twenty in uniform” was a favourite of Abane’s [an FLN leader]
  • [After a bombing] Says the hardened Massu [French general who endorsed torture]: “I can still see that beautiful young girl of eighteen with both legs blown off lying unconscious, her hair stained with blood.” [And French general Salan:] “There were still fragments of feet in the slippers of the young dancers… One had to have seen such a spectacle to understand our reactions towards these assassins.”

How terrorism becomes normalised

What about the reactions to such horrific attacks? Horne’s analysis rings true today:

  • Outrages of terrorism by the FLN such as Melouza and the Algiers bombings would indeed produce a momentary revulsion in the United States, but the eventual reaction would perversely, somehow end up as one of irritation against France as being responsible for the war in which such horrors could take place…

How reprisals feed violence

Horne explains at length the brutalisation of the French troops and how this led to escalation:

  • As the war went on, what became almost worse than hatred was the indifference that grew in the army towards the hunting down and killing of fellaghas [partisans]; it was an indifference, experienced by troops of many another nation in similar situations, that also spread to embrace the… cases where innocent civilians were shot in error by frightened, angry or trigger-happy soldiers… At a village near Palestro a pied noir postman, employed there for twenty-five years and liked by everyone, is found with his throat cut. The next day two Muslims are sitting at a cafe table, quite innocently. Getting up, the younger one is nearly run over by a French jeep. His friend goes to pick him up. The private in the jeep waves his automatic at the older Muslim. It goes off, “by mistake”, hitting the man in the stomach. The jeep drives off rapidly, for fear of attracting trouble in the Muslim quarter, and leaving the mortally-wounded man in the road. A detachment of auxiliaries now arrives and, in a state of nervousness because of recent killings, assumes the victim to have been shot by the FLN. Next, a truck loaded with “Loyal” Muslim mine-workers comes past. Terrified by a recent lynching in the nearby village, they recognise in the demeanour of the auxiliaries “that sort of excess of fever and physical fury which overtakes the European population of any village, when exasperated by a series of assassinations by the fellagha”. So the driver of the Muslim truck panics, and drives off at full speed. The auxiliaries fire at it, inaccurately. A further army vehicle arrives on the scene and its occupants are informed by the auxiliaries that the Muslim truck just passed was full of FLN and had been responsible for the shooting of the man lying in the road. The truck is overtaken and, refusing to halt, shot up. All its occupants are killed – but, strangely enough, not a weapon is found. Meanwhile the culprit has reported the shooting “accident” to his commanding officer. In recording the episode, however, regimental headquarters decides that awkwardness would be avoided if it were stated that arms had been found in the shot-up truck. So the final communique reads: “Yesterday at… the occupants of a truck machine-gunned passers-by, miraculously only wounding one.”

“Fighting terrorism”: On torture

The Algerian civil war was notable for the controversial use of torture – also highlighted in “The Battle of Algiers”. After a French officer has refused to use torture, he reflects:

  • If you once get into the torture business, you’re lost… Understand this, fear was the basis of it all. All our so-called civilisation is covered with a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French, even the Germans, are not torturers by nature. But when you see the throats of your copains slit, then the varnish disappears.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 disturbing evidence emerged of US troops engaging in torture at the Abu Ghraib prison. In 2014 the blog “War on the Rocks”, citing “the ongoing debate about torture in America’s war against jihadists” published a lengthy excerpt about torture from “A Savage War of Peace”.

Prison, democracy, and terrorism

Finally, three quotations on the challenges facing democracies fighting terrorism.

  • The capture of the minds of the young, and indeed the very young, has to be one of the primary objectives of any revolution.
  • Prison – so revolutionaries from the early Bolsheviks onwards have discovered – provides the best of schools.
  • [De Gaulle] suffered from the lesson… that peoples who have been waiting for their independence for a century, fighting for it for a generation, can afford to sit out a presidential term, or a year or two in the life of an old man in a hurry; that he who lasts the longest wins; that, sadly, with the impatience of democracies and their volatile voters, committed to electoral contortions every four or five years, the extremist generally triumphs over the moderate.

Fighting terrorism: in summary

When a horrific terrorist attack has taken place, it is hard – or impossible – to resist calls for vengeance. People who have lost loved ones understandably want something to happen. Wise people argue that to do nothing shows weakness, and will encourage more attacks. The fact that a tough response may delight the terrorists may not seem sufficient justification to hold back.

A couple of people have said that none of this applies to the current situation between Israel and those organisations, or countries, who deny Israel’s right to exist; since here, no compromise is possible. Thoughts welcome.

The point of this post is simply to highlight that history shows many examples of revenge attacks, following terrorist outrages, that simply made things worse.

What to do next

Be cautious about anyone who suggests easy solutions to complex problems – including those who think that “fighting terrorism” simply requires firm action.

If you’ve enjoyed this post you may want to look at my other political posts (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site); or browse my books.

You may also listen to a podcast of this post.


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4 Responses

  1. As usual, Leigh, your wise words are very apt, the more so because they come from your long experience in international relations.

    You have already opened up the subject of my comment: that Hamas has no objective other than the destruction of Israel and Jews: negotiation is not an option. The idea of ‘decolonisation’ that is currently being floated in some media (not by you) is a false analogy. Unlike France in Algeria or US/UK in Afghanistan, Israel isn’t going anywhere.

    I shall certainly read the book you recommend.

  2. It is good to understand the motivations of terrorists. It is not simple to stop them. But they must be continually blocked such as their missiles being shot down before they reach their targets. It is also an information war so their crimes must be publicized and people who support their genocide must be arrested or heavily fined or both.

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