How radicalization happens to them and us

Mohamed Merah: Jujitsu Politics in France

Sarkozy's reaction to terrorism builds terror tomorrow.

Mohamed Merah killed seven French citizens, including soldiers and Jewish children. Was Merah a lone wolf or was he connected with al-Qaeda? The answer isn’t clear but no matter because this is the wrong question. Whether or not Mohamed Merah was acting alone, the political power of his attacks depends on ‘jujitsu politics.’

Terrorism is the warfare--and the politics--of the weak. Terrorists are usually the apex of a much larger pyramid of people who identify with the same group or cause. At the pyramid’s base, many who sympathize with the cause do not approve of attacks on civilians. Higher in the pyramid are those who justify terrorist violence for the cause, but do not act in support of their judgment. Terrorists rely on the pyramid for cover, information, material support, and new recruits.

Terrorists and the state they attack are therefore part of a dynamic political competition over time. The terrorists aim to wear out the state and its supporters to get what they want. The state aims to deter or win over the pyramid of sympathizers and supporters on which the terrorists depend.

Many terrorists recognize that they can use the dynamics of this competition to their advantage. An outrageous attack on the people or symbols of a state can elicit a state response that will do for the terrorists what they cannot do for themselves: mobilize inactive terrorist sympathizers to active support for terrorism.

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In this jujitsu politics, the terrorists use the strength of the state against the state. All that is needed is a state response that misses at least some terrorists and strikes at least some inactive sympathizers. This kind of mistake is called “collateral damage,” and, from the terrorists’ point of view, the more the better.

French President Sarkozy does not understand the logic of jujitsu politics. Or he sees the political advantage of attacking Islamists as greater than the cost of mobilizing new jihadists among French Muslims. He has ordered a round-up of French “Islamists”—nineteen so far. “A police source said that authorities had up to 100 suspected Islamist radicals in their sights and Sarkozy said Friday’s operation was only the start” (

Al Qaeda is a failing organization, with resources and personnel diminished by constant pressure from Western security and military forces. The death of Usama bin Laden is more important as a symbol of organizational decline than as an example of Western power. But failure can be transformed to victory if Western security forces round up a hundred Muslims with radical ideas every time one Muslim is moved to radical action.


Clark McCauley, Ph.D., is Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. more...

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