Istanbul, Could It Happen Anywhere? No.

Istanbul, Could It Happen Anywhere? No. July 1, 2016

A day after the bombings in the airport in Istanbul the BBC Newsclaster breathless bloviated, “It could have happened anywhere, Paris, London, Vienna, Stockholm.” What utter rubbish.

In the Graben, at the center of the city in Vienna, is the Plague Monument. Basically a rather unattractive column of baroque excess erected as a prayer of thanks to God for the end of the plague. Austria, indeed Europe, has many such monuments, chapels, and churches. (My favorite is the Cholera Chapel and next to it the Cholera Cafe) In the 14th century nobody knew where the plague came from, where it would arise next, and how long it would go on. So they did what they could to appease (if they thought it was judgment) or implore (if they thought he’d been napping) an essentially capricious God.

We don’t do that any more. Or we shouldn’t. Yet when it comes to terrorism we seem to be thrown back into our medieval minds. We act as if ISIS and its affiliates and imitators are somehow omnipresent in our world, ready like the plague to just appear with a bomb or an automatic rifle. Or worse, we associate the attacks with religion and that old sense of capricious judgment or indifference found among the servants of God. (For the servant is not greater than the master, and the acolytes of the divine have rarely been more consistent than the God they worship.) It just isn’t the case that these attacks are the result of religious capriciousness.

Every terrorist attack has a specific set of actors, motivators, directors, facilitators, and triggers. These things happen for a reason, even if they seem unreasonable to us. And because they happen for a reason there are reasons that they cannot just “happen anywhere.” They can only happen when and where the factors above direct them to happen. And that is as true of Orlando as it is of Istanbul. They happened because a person or persons was motivated to act, was directed to a particular target, got material help, and was set in motion.

These events had a rational, and preventing them requires rational inquiry into the sources of the actors, motivators, direction, facilitators, and triggers. And that is true even if, like the BBC news reader, one don’t personally understand how terrorism works. Most people don’t know how their car works, but they have the common sense to know that when it quits working you call a mechanic, not a priest. “Jesus Take the Wheel” makes a good pop song but is a stupid strategy for avoiding accidents, even as a last resort.

When we understand this we can understand how irrational it is to believe that this abstract thing called “Islam” is the source of the actors, motivators, directors, facilitators and triggers of terrorist actions. Its like saying that the plague is caused by “bad air” out of which pestilence arises by spontaneous generation. Its not just wrong, its wrong in a way that keeps us from ever being right.

So, knowing that the terrorist bombing in Istanbul was carried out by Muslims, lets ask rationally whether “Islam” explains them.

Trigger. Not a few commentators have noted that the Istanbul happened in the month of Ramadan, the fasting month in Islam. So maybe that triggered this attack? First there is no evidence. No one has taken responsibility. And assuming it was ISIS they have launched other terrorist attacks at different times in the Islamic year. Ramadan, with its communal gatherings, provides many “soft” targets for terrorists, but it has no effect on airports. On the other hand we know that the current Turkish government has enemies for whom shifts in Turkish politics and policy, and more broadly NATO and US policy, could make such at attack propitious. That seems the most rational line of inquiry into the trigger. (I note that there are now reports that ISIS has encouraged Ramadan attacks, leaving open the question of whether the fasting month triggered this and the attacks that followed in Dhaka, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia. Two problems arise for analysis. One, that ISIS hasn’t taken credit, and two that attacks in Baghdad are so common that determining a specific trigger event is almost impossible.)

Facilitators. Well in Turkey the human facilitators were almost certainly Muslim. But that is also true of the government the terrorists attacked. It doesn’t even nail it down to say they were “radical Islamists since the government of Turkey arguable falls into that category. It is pretty clear that Islam means so many different things to different people that it won’t guide a search for the facilitators of terrorism. On the other hand finding persons who had access to certain bomb making materials and expertise in making bombs could narrow things down considerably. And those people could be of any religion – given that Erdogan has plenty of non-Muslim enemies.

Directors. Again, almost certainly Muslim. But then it was Muslim travel agents who directed many of the passengers to the airport to catch a plane that day. You find the mind behind the airport attack by looking at those persons and groups for whom such an attack is useful not by looking at their religion. The most immediate effect of the attack is to hurt tourism, and thus the Turkish economy. Secondarily it makes Erdogan look incapable in his role as leader. So it appears likely that the directors are those with political goals aided by a weakened economy and a weakened leader. If the directors had been defined by their religion it seems more likely that they would have directed their bombers to the mosques and madrassas of their enemies, or perhaps churches or synagogues – as has happened in Pakistan.

Motivators. Islam is most prominently paraded as a motivator of terrorism, but this is the least likely possibility from a rational perspective. Islam is relatively rich, as are Christianity and other religions, in identifying enemies of the faith and how to deal with them. But airports, religious pilgrims, business travelers, and tourists are not among the identified enemies of the faith in Islam. Even a highly distorted reading of classical Islamic law, the only kind that would allow for targeting non-combatants, doesn’t allow for just random killing. So the motivation must come from either the political motivations arising out of Islam, or the inner psychological compulsion of the attackers. The former motivations are identical to all groups seeking political power, and the latter identical to all suicidal psychopaths. Religious identity doesn’t help us. (An article discussing this with more nuance is found at

Actors. Well, since it was Turkey they were almost certain Muslim. But does Islam as a religion produce terrorists? Only in the sense the Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism do as well. In the US over the last several decades most terrorists have been white Christian men, giving the lie to the suggestion that keeping Muslims out will make us safer from terrorism. As pointed out in the article mentioned above, until the last two decades it was the Hindu Tamil Tigers who launched the most suicide terrorist attacks. And we shouldn’t forget the anarchist Red Brigade in Europe. I  recently received, from the US State Department, an alert about a renewal of IRA terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and the UK. It isn’t even hard to find terrorists from the other religions as well. Labeling the terrorists as Muslim is both correct and meaningless from the standpoint of preventing terrorism.

Hopefully this brief descent into rational analysis hasn’t been too boring. It really only points to the fact that in every case the prevention of terrorism requires the deployment of persons with expertise in all kinds of intelligence gathering, psychology, political analysis, IT, economics, military strategy, and so on. It may even require experts in the ways that various aspects of Islam are used by the facilitators and directors of terrorism to recruit and motivate actors, but even that expertise will be more psychological than religious.

And hopefully it makes clear why it really could not happen anywhere. Terrorism isn’t a visitation from a capricious deity. It is a political method by which individuals and groups attain distinctive goals that can be rationally understood. Terrorism happens when, and only when, the necessary vectors align. When we realize this, and give up the last vestiges of medieval irrationality and fear, we might actually begin to put an end to it.

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