Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism and the corresponding academic field of terrorism studies have been filling the headlines and cover-stories of newspapers and provided opening stories for news shows on TV. Not one day goes by without reference in the media to terrorist groups, a new terror attack or the question of how the West should respond to this threat. Despite the attention the subject gets in the media, the work of Terrorism Studies scholars is often disregarded in popular debates. While government and other officials are engaging in constant conversation with the scholars and their findings, citizens as a whole find themselves surrounded by popular notions of ‘the War on Terror’, but are rarely given information about the origins and dynamics of the groups engaging in terrorist acts.
In his 2009 book Radical, Religious and Violent: The new Economics of Terrorism, Eli Berman makes a valuable exploration into the dynamics of what he calls the ‘Hamas Model’ of terrorist organisations. Hamas is a group that was founded as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation founded in Egypt and aimed at providing crucial services to Muslims in both a material and spiritual sense. In Palestine, Hamas ran schools, hospitals and mosques: it was essentially a social service provider. Neither the founder of the organisation, its staff or people making use of its services had the intention to support the global jihad. In other words, in the beginning Hamas was a benign organisation aimed at relieving the socio-economic hardships faced by Palestinian Muslims.
How then does a social service provider, in essence very similar to the Red Cross and other relief organisations, turn to become one of the most active and effective terrorist organisations in the world? Berman’s explanation is twofold. The turn to violence can be explained with the experiences of the Intifada in the 1980s. In order to stay relevant and not lose popular support vis-a-vis Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Front. Fatah is Palestine’s major secular political party, founded by Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the PLO) and others, the organisation had to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and support the violent uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation. A militia was founded and until this day continues to engage in violent acts against Israel. The second part of Berman’s explanation concerns the effectiveness of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. He argues that it has been so successful precisely because of its continued role as a social service provider. This ensures Hamas has a network of supporters in its service users, who also constitute a pool of potential recruits. The social service branch of Hamas is the foundation on which its roof- the militia- is built upon and grew out of, and it makes the organisation as a whole very resilient in terms of popular support and easy replacement of members.
While this model does not apply to every terrorist organisation, it does provide a starting point for re-thinking certain key points in counter-terrorism strategy. Firstly, if organisations start out as and continue to act as social service providers, the accepted definition of a terrorist organisation might need re-thinking. Is Hamas a terrorist organisation or a social organisation with a violent branch? Or maybe a social organisation, which happens to also engage in political struggle through violence? It is important to understand its nature, especially in communications with those reliant on Hamas’ services: labelling an organisation terroristic, while it continues to school my children and care for my sick husband, will likely close down the conversation before it has even really started. It is important to be careful about the words that are used, especially in local counter-terrorism activities.
Secondly, leaving definitions and linguistics aside, knowing that some organisations generate support through social service provision opens new opportunities for long-term counter-terrorism activities.
In order to weaken the organisational resilience and the robust network of Hamas and similar organisations, it is vital to engage in competition with these organisations. Building schools and hospitals is often regarded as a nation-building, as opposed to counter-terrorism, activity.
However, Berman’s findings suggest that it is possible to make a real impact on these organisations by providing social services to those in need and thereby diminishing the support network that bolsters the organisation. This is also true for circumstances that require immediate response. For instance, during an earthquake or a similar natural catastrophe, radical Muslims are, according to Berman, often the first on the scene, a long time before any humanitarian response has been thought out by the government or the international community. This enables those with a violent agenda not only to stay relevant, but to play an important part in their societies. The resulting popular support associated with the organisations members (if not their cause) is surely not in the interest of counter-terrorism work.
Lastly, the Hamas model calls into question the value of interventions and sanctions. Removing leaders or governments that are not deemed suitable for the West’s purpose risks creating a vacuum for social service provision which may be filled by violent organisations. The same applies to sanctions. Sanctions can be a legitimate tool of coercion in international politics, however if the burden of such sanctions are passed on to a country’s citizens in the form of cuts to education, health care and other services, it is entirely possible that they drive people in the arms of those who provide such services outside of the government framework.
Linda Schlegel is an student of MA Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.
PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.