The history of terrorism in pursuit of political aims is as long as history itself.
However, the past two decades have witnessed important, and needless to say worrying, developments in what could be seen as a zoological version of political activism.
The old versions saw disgruntled individuals assassinating powerful enemies. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by 53 senators led by his closest friends Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Nizam al-Mulk The powerful Grand Vizir of Seljuks in Iran suffered the same fate at the hands of 18 Nizari “hashasheen” (assassins) including a Russian slave. The Qajar Nasseredin Shah was dispatched with a single bullet while mumbling “Son of a Donkey!”
In time, terrorism was further simplified to consist of throwing a grenade at the Tsar’s golden droshky in Petrograd, shooting at the grand duke on a bridge in Sarajevo or, as Joseph Conrad showed in his famous novel “Under the Western Eyes”, planting a time-bomb in a crowded street in London.
Fast forward to the 20th century, using Semtex to blow up cafes, cinemas and restaurants in French-occupied Algiers or Saigon under Ngo Dinh Diem became textbook cases of political terror. Later, we witnessed scores of attacks in the form of hijacking passenger aircraft or cruise ships, the seizing of hostages, random shootings on passengers on trains and on people attending a concert.
To these must be added attacks on embassies, metro stations, and newspaper offices, in a dozen cities across the globe, and suicide operations costing the lives of hundreds of US and French troops in Lebanon. Finally, the 9/11 attack on New York and Washington D.C. provided a crescendo in that pulrimilennial tradition of terror if only by its sheer scale.
Yet all those versions of terror followed what in his essay “Poetics” Aristotle describes as the three unities a tragedian ought to observe: unity of action, time and place.
In musical terms that could amount to chamber music or, even better, the Indo-Persian one-track style of composing known as “dastgah” in which a monochord theme is insisted upon free of melodic variations.
Then on 28 November 2008 an Indian terror group calling itself “Mujahedin of the Deccan” (later exposed as Lashkar Tayyiba or Army the Purified Ones) invented a new kind of terrorist operation, one which in an article I wrote for the London Daily Telegraph the day after, I designated as “symphonic terror.”
In the Indian city of Bombay (Mumbai), the composers of this new form of terror ignored Aristotle’s three unities. They broke the unity of action by launching 12 different operations including amphibious landings, random shootings, seizing of hostages and exploding time-bombs. Unity of time was broken by spreading then operations over two days. Unity of place, too, was broken as attacks came on dozens of locations across the seaside megacity of 20 million inhabitants.
Involved in the campaign, a mixture of classical military and standard terrorist operations, were over 200 men who had placed explosives at selected points. But there were also gunmen operating in classic military style by seizing control of territory at symbolically significant locations along with hostages. Then there were militants prepared to kill, and be killed, in grenade attacks against security forces.
At the same time, the attackers distributed a large number of tracts justifying their operation by claiming they were fighting to free the part of Kashmir still under Indian rule. These included the citation: “Permission is given to those who were attacked, for they were wronged, and God is able to grant them victory, those who were driven out of their homes unfairly, only because they said, ‘Our Lord is God.'”.
Interestingly, it was later discovered that the Indian Intelligence had been informed of the attack but, no believing such an innovative operation possible, had ignored the warning. For Indian Intelligence, terrorism meant a small group of gunmen attacking police post in faraway Kashmir as a prelude to their inevitable journey to heaven.
Regardless of the obvious contextual differences between the Mumbai events and the 7 October attack on Israeli kibbutz by Hamas, the two operations share the same symphonic characteristic mentioned above.
If anything Hamas composed its symphony on an even grander scale by adding rocket, missile and drone attacks, deploying airborne units and using flanking moves from the sea. Here, we saw a variety of themes developed at the same time, at times in apparent contradiction with one another but eventually coming together in a grand deadly finale.
The Mumbai events could be seen as terrorism using elements of classical warfare while the 7 October attack may look more like a military operation with standard themes woven in filigree.
A new form of militarized terror or a variety of warfare using elements of terrorism?
It is too early to know whether the Hamas attack will end up producing the same result that the Mumbai operation had.
The Mumbai operation forced India to abandon its tit for-tat policy regarding its armed opponents, that is to say liquidating only those who carried out any given attack. In an interview I did in 1996 for Asharq Al-Awsat with Indian Premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee he said “opponents” always trained, armed and sent around 2,000 “terrorists” to India. “We kill them bit by bit but they are quickly replaced by others,” he said.
The Mumbai attack, changed that approach as India, after 2008, decided to go for a no-holds-bar strategy, trying to wipe out all the “enemy groups” where they were located.
Using terror operations on a small scale is an effective means of making life difficult for a much stronger opponent and may even force it to offer some concessions. But grand dramatic attacks such as 9/11 against the US, the Mumbai campaign and the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel raise the stakes to symphonic level that those targeted cannot simply grin and bear it.
9/11 forced the US to invade Afghanistan and destroy al-Qaeda something it had not contemplated doing even after the massacre of 241 marines in Lebanon. After the Mumbai attacks, India made sure something like that could never happen again.
In those cases an initial victory for the attacker proved to be a prelude to his annihilation.
Between 2008 and 2023, prior to 7 October, Hamas had carried out scores of “3 unities” style attacks on with Israel responding in similar low-intensity counter-attacks, both engaged in a slow but bearable danse macabre.
7 October stopped that and started a new movement in a symphony whose finale is hard to predict.