At, Nitasha Kaul considers how we may or may not be able to contextualize the motivations and strategies of terrorists:

How do people become violent terrorists? In practical terms, terrorists may be motivated by many things—money, obligation, and ideological indoctrination among them. But there is no successful terrorist who is not able to combine that motivation with strategy. A terrorist attack requires a string of very complicated strategic operations with very many unknowns and unpredictables. A person or group of persons who engage in such activity with whatever aim are by definition required to be ‘intelligent’ about their surroundings. It is wrong to think, as some people do, that terrorism is an emotional response to injustice. Poetry is an emotional response to injustice, not terrorism. Terrorists are moved by hatred. This hatred is not an emotional state of being, it has been transmogrified into a cold and calculated steely determination for a purpose. The alchemy by which a legitimate human emotional response is magnified and petrified, transformed and solidified into a wholly illegitimate reaction—that alchemy deserves investigation. In particular, there are two necessary ingredients in this alchemy. One, the power of concepts. Two, the significance of co-ordinated strategy. Al-Qaeda types are adept at both.

Governments, academia, policymaking prize simple answers. They are confronted with problems, they turn to ‘experts’ (security experts, development experts etc), they value instrumental, practical, utilitarian solutions suggested by the specialists who can show a politician a diagram with arrows that lead back and forth. This is the logic of closed systems—if this, then that. The world is an open system. Spectacular Acts of Terrorism are complex situations. By complex situations I mean those where definitions overlap, familiar empirical referents do not work, and one where a certain degree of outsiderness is essential to be able to put the story together and make the connexions. This requires not just the logic of chess with pre-set moves, but a recognition of systems-level randomness.

Read the full post here, and see today’s off the cuff feature, which revisits the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.