The Business of Terrorism

Terrorism is the mark of our decade, in the way the Great Depression characterized the 1930’s and the Cold War marked the 1960’s, for each of these  periods represent how events affect different aspects of living, from politics to family relationships, changing the being of the United States and the world.

However, regardless of its importance as a world threat and the studies it prompts, terrorism still stands misunderstood for the most part. Scholars try to label it, some based upon its sociological roots, others by the military and political responses that terrorism produces–everything in an effort to vanquish terrorism for the good of the world. Scholars have been too fascinated by the complexities that terrorism entails in its roots and its war.  Here lies the problem of the insolvability of terrorism, for it cannot be deconstructed by questioning only its origins or its outcomes–the phenomenon itself, its structure and functioning, must be comprehended in order to be solved. This means that terrorism must be understood as a perverted offspring of precisely what it attacks: capitalism. Terrorism, when examined thoroughly, works like a capitalist economy in which emotions, ideas, people, and violence are the factors–a system that can be bankrupted.

Definitions & Types

Terrorism is defined as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion[1].” With this definition, the term terrorist can then be applied to individuals, organizations, and states, for cases of all these three can be found today, throughout history, and in common life: a robber is a terrorist when wielding a gun; a corporation is terrorist when threatening to fire all its employees if they request better wages; a country is terrorist when invading other nations or violating the privacy and rights of its own citizens (difference that distinguishes imperialistic from totalitarian states[2]). Anyone can be a terrorist.

Nevertheless, the notion of terrorist, at least in the general opinion, falls more into the category of paramilitary organization, with very defined characteristics after the event of 9/11[3] in the United States. In other words, the present concept of terrorist implies clandestineness, radicalism, hatred, opposition to mainstream ideas such as capitalism, and acts of violence; all belonging to an organization or group of rebels with a leader but members without clear identities–the epitome: Al-Qaeda, a protean enemy[4].

The Phenomenon

The biggest mistake regarding the solution of terrorism has been studying and treating it in fragments. Rather than examined as a phenomenon of its own, terrorism has been analyzed considering only its origins, or the military countermeasures it prompts. Knowing its sociological groundings (poverty,  historical cultural differences) is extremely important to explain why terrorism happens–but this doesn’t explain fully how it happens. On the other hand, focusing on the countermeasure, specially the ones of military nature, adds nothing to the understanding of terrorism, maybe except for making clear the adaptability of terrorists and their unorthodox methodologies when compared to the discipline and precision of the military (for instance, bombing what appears to be random or innocent targets at haphazard times), which makes terrorism hard to predict, detect, and destroy[5].

The best way to explain and understand terrorism is as economic (from the Greek oikos = house; and nomos = law, management; and defined as “3b: of, relating to, or based on the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”[6]). Not only as an economic phenomenon per se, but specifically replicating capitalism (“an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”[7]) which has emotions, hatred, and violence as commodities and capital, divisions of terrorist labor, markets of followers and victims, a corporative structure, market exchange and competition, and the darker side of human nature as primary cause of the phenomenon (besides the aforementioned sociological origins)–with each of these factors constructing how terrorism happens.

Human Nature

The possibility of terrorism arises from people themselves, for people become the victimized consumers of terror or the merchants of such strife. Violence and hatred are part of the human condition as much as association is inherent to homo sapiens–all being crucial elements and prerequisites of the present phenomenon of organized terrorism.

Terrorist organizations exist and function first off because of the human capacity for sympathy and desire for mutual sympathy[8]. This capacity refers to the inherent tendency of people to identify, to “feel” what others manifest to feel, while at the same time desiring that others sympathize in return. Sympathy, thence, allows association to occur among people depending on their shared emotions, likes, and dislikes, working for both sides in the terrorist system: people sympathize with either direct terrorist attack victims (9/11 casualties, for example), or collateral victims of the process (e.g. feeling sorry for children in the Middle East or Guantanamo detainees); whereas terrorists not only group according to their sympathetic ties, but whole organizations link and cooperate because of this too. As unfortunate as it may be, it appears that mutual sympathy works best in its negative facet, since people find it easier to sympathize with those who share their dislikes than with those who share their likes. Hate is just a better common ground for mutual sympathy–the friend of my friend might be my friend, but the enemy of my enemy is my best friend.

This human polarization and mutual antagonism can be (and has been) examined throughout history mainly as the constant clash of classes[9], epitomizing  this we/they mentality. Just like in the social struggles of the past, terrorism is about a confrontation between a minority and a majority. However, terrorism transposes or subverts the usual roles, for the minority is no elite exerting political power over the majority, but a minority fighting the rest with the sole force of terror.

The we/they sentiment and its derived actions consequently are enhanced by other two elements of the human condition: religion and alienation. Religion gets manipulated into radicalized ideologies aimed at justifying terrorism and encouraging the terrorists, instead of providing the intended spiritual amelioration of the injustices of life. The opium of the masses[10] is transformed into the coke of terrorists. Simultaneously, this radicalization offers a way for the ultimate we/they detachment by means of alienation[11]. It is easier for terrorists to commit their attacks against impersonal targets or undesired infidels, devoid of human traits to which they might sympathize, than against fellow humans. Alienating also affects the terrorists, for these render themselves as mere tools (e.g. suicide-bombers) or serfs to a bigger cause–terrorism dehumanizes[12] everyone involved, appropriating them as cogs of the system.


Another human condition is that of being laboring creatures[13]. To truck, barter, and trade are as natural to people as it is to sympathize and associate. Labor, in the case of terrorism, is equalized to the endeavors it entails, from promotion and planning to execution of violent acts. In fact, following this work process is how a division of labor[14] develops among the terrorists, which prompts the specialization (or “professionalization”[15]) of the members and the establishment of corporative structures within their groups.

If labor shapes up a person’s identity (“you are what you do”[16]), and labor is confused or merged with terrorist activities, then it is only reasonable for terrorists to devote and define themselves to and through their roles within the organization. Therefore, the evolution of terrorists into professionals is simply a result of practice and experience, which translates into a specialization of members and leaders of the terrorist organizations who improve their work by making it more efficient in the matters of executing acts of violence, spreading ideologies, and instigating fear.

Capitals & Products

Terrorist works, regardless of magnitude, produce fear through violence, with the surplus values[17] of hate increase and propaganda for their cause. These abstract products are, at the same time, the capitals with which terrorism operates. Compared to capitalism and its material operators, this design of terrorism renders violence as the currency of the system, ideologies (specially hatred) as the capital to be invested by the leaders to gain supporters, and fear as the final product aimed for victims to consume. Terrorists are nothing more than merchant-manufacturers[18] of terror, striving to get maximum output of produced fear and profitable, propagandistic strife, through the most efficient input of violence, as prompted by the ideologies and achieved through successful, specialized terrorist work–this is how the phenomenon happens.


While the products and capitals of terrorism are abstract, the markets[19] in which these operate are instantiated by people, just as the markets of material commodities in a capitalist system. Persons function both as consumers and as producers in the markets of supply and demand. Again, terrorism causes an objectification[20] of people not as actors but as parts of a system.

Terrorism has two clear-cut markets that function parallel to each other: one of victims, and another one of supporters. In the victims’ market, the supply consists of violence by the terrorist, which becomes fear consumed by the victims. The case of the supporters’ market is slightly different: the terrorist leaders supply ideologies, which turn into the hatred consumed by the terrorists and supporters, which then translates later into terrorist work intended to supply the victims’ market.

Victims and supporters thus can be expanded as any other market–a feature that terrorists exploit by adapting ideologies according to what suits the prospective supporters (for instance, switching from abhorring the United States to loathing all of Western culture[21]), or by finding new targets to attack (either new in location or due to vulnerability) in the case of potential victims.

Exchange & Competition

Expanding markets mean two things regardless of nature (capitalist or otherwise): first, that the success of expansion depends on the innovations[22]  (technologies or techniques) developed for and applied to such mission; and second, that markets have a finite capacity of expansion for there is a finite number of people to captivate. These prerogatives set the ground for exchange and competition among terrorist organizations.

Since techniques and technologies not only transform the way to deal with the markets but can also signify the control these assets[23], it is reasonable that terrorist organizations collaborate with each other, exchanging techniques and intelligence in an international black market[24] in which terrorists of different backgrounds have the common goal of improving and innovating. Upgrades like the switch from suicide-bombers to car-bombs or the development of internet-based terrorist networks exemplify how new technologies can enhance victimization and terrorist operations.

On the other hand, terrorist organizations have to compete in the matter of garnering supporters, beating the enemy and rival organizations–in other words, turning more people towards their cause than any other, different or against it. For example, terrorist organizations in Iraq have to compete for support of the population depending on their Shia or Sunii background, while also downplaying any type of empathy that U.S. troops might inspire among the Iraqi people. Terrorism doesn’t allow monopolies, not even state ones[25], for there will always be some sort of rebellious opposition to totalitarian or imperialistic powers–terrorism happens precisely as a skirmish of such uneven forces.

Franchising Fear

The maximum expression of terrorism as an emulation of a capitalist economy, and main evidence of its full development as a phenomenon of its own, is when terrorist leaders, outshone by the organizations they lead, cease to be the figure heads, for this means that these have become completely corporative.

Another symptom of this corporatism can be found in the cell-design of most terrorist organizations, in which terrorist teams can operate on their own, following principles of the organization in their missions rather than commands from the leaders (management). In a sense, terrorist cells are franchises which belong to an organization but that do not depend on it to function. Franchises allow a corporation to keep existing and working even when the head is removed; in the case of terrorism, franchises also mean more independence for the members and broader potentiality of terrorist action–conditions that make the phenomenon much harder to predict and resolve.

Bankrupting the Business

Despite appropriating and perverting the strengths and foundations of capitalism, the phenomenon of terrorism inevitably inherits also the weaknesses–meaning it can fail and bankrupt too. The solution to terrorism, therefore, is not a war that relies entirely upon military tactics, but upon a comprehensive strategy that tackles all the operating factors hereby examined.

First, terrorist capitals must be downsized. If a capitalist system gets disrupted without enough currency flow or without enough resources, then, military action must prevent and reduce the violence inflicted, constraining the victims’ market, while avoiding any wrongful execution of these measures in order not to contribute to the terrorist propaganda and rather constrain the supporters’ market.

Second, any sort of retaliation and prosecution should not be aimed at the figureheads or managerial leaders with an established profile, for their removal has more downsides than benefits. While their deposition or capture can be good for morale and propaganda, in reality it prompts either the rise of a worse, more brutal leader, or the sublimation of the organization into a headless corporation, harder to identify and combat. The existence of a terrorist front man assures at least some stability and characterization of the terrorist group.

Ultimately, terrorism can be regarded as another of capitalism’s downturns, a bastardized variation applied to war and politics, in which radicalism, violence, and hatred are the gears and oil in the terrorist capital machinery–a system that, when understood, can be broken to terror out of business.

Works Cited

[1]Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

[2] Chomsky, Noam.  “The New War Against Terror.” 9/11. Massachusetts: Seven Stories Press, 2001.

[3]Derrida, Jacques. “9/11 and Global Terrorism.” Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Ed. Borradori, Giovanna. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001.

[4] Stern, Jessica. “The Protean Enemy.” Foreign Affairs. 2003.

[5]Stern, Jessica. “The Protean Enemy.” Foreign Affairs. 2003.

[6]Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

[7]Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

[8] Smith, Adam. “Of Sympathy” and “Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy”. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Volume I, Part I, Section I, Chapters 1 & 2. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1974.

[9] Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[10] Marx, Karl. “Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[11]Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophy Manuscripts.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[12]Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1976.

[13]Marx, Karl. “The Capital.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[14]Smith, Adam. “Of the Division of Labor.” An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Book I, Chapter 1. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1976.

[15]Stern, Jessica. “The Protean Enemy.” Foreign Affairs. 2003.

[16] Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994..

[17]Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[18]Smith, Adam.  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1976.

[19]Smith, Adam. “On Systems of Political Economy” An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Book IV. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1976.

[20] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophy Manuscripts.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[21]Stern, Jessica. “The Protean Enemy.” Foreign Affairs. 2003.

[22]Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indiana: Liberty Press, 1976.

[23]Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” Selected Writings. Indiana: Hackett, 1994.

[24]Stern, Jessica. “The Protean Enemy.” Foreign Affairs. 2003.

[25] Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1975.

·   Chomsky, Noam. “On America, Peace and War.” Interventions. 2001.

·   Chomsky, Noam. “On Terrorism.” Jump Arts Journal. January, 2004.

·   Chomsaky, Noam. “International Terrorism: Image and Reality.” Western State Terrorism. Ed. George, Alexander. Routledge. December, 1991.

·   Lewis, Bernard. “Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East.” Foreign Affairs 2005.

·   Eland, Ivan. “It’s What We Do.” American Prospect. January, 2006.

·   Pape, Robert A. “The Wrong Strategy Against the Next Generation.” Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Chicago: Random House, 2005.

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