Conflicts and Complexity

October 9, 2017
By Sundeep Waslekar

John, Lord Alderdice delivered a public lecture on conflicts and complexity in the chapel of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, in the last week of September 2017. It provided a fresh new approach to the understanding of terrorism, at a time when all wars on terror in different parts of the world are failing to produce any results. Even though Alderdice chose a chapel as a venue for his lecture, he is a practitioner and not a preacher. He was engaged in the Northern Ireland peace process and was elected first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He has also headed Liberal International, an international federation of almost 100 Liberal parties in the world. He is very much a man of realpolitik and despite a Professorship at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and a Senior Research Fellowship at Oxford, he is not an ivory tower academic. Unfortunately, the text of his lecture is not yet available, but he draws substantially from a two-part essay he recently published in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, an academic journal that is also available on-line.

Alderdice challenges the prevailing linear thinking on fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism, which was best summarised by an officer of FBI in conversation with him about the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre: “These people were persuaded of an extreme way of thinking, a distortion of Muslim teachings which we call Islamic fundamentalism. They then became politicized, probably some kind of indoctrination by extremists who were anti-West and anti-American, and then were persuaded to get involved in terrorism.”

The same logic is offered to describe the ISIS (or Islamic State or Daesh) recruits. If we accept this logic, the response is to annihilate such fundamentalist thinking through “war on terror” or “combating violent extremism” or “combating (Islamic) extremism”. The operational strategies may range from bombing the hideouts of terrorists, placing ban on suspects, contacting them through social media to persuade them to shift from an extremist version of religion to a moderate one, and inter-faith dialogue to promote understanding between religions. These strategies ignore the fact that the Islamist terrorists have almost never attacked great religious symbols of Christianity like the Vatican or the Westminster Abbey (though they have on a few occasions attacked synagogues and Egypt’s Coptic churches). Their targets are the nerve centre of modern social and economic life such as markets, rock concerts, school buses, railway stations, airports and the symbols of modern military power such as the Pentagon.

Alderdice is therefore correct in assuming that the “clash of civilizations” mind-set based on linear thinking is misplaced. Moreover, terrorism has not been confined to Islamist groups, though they have been dominating the scene in the last one and half decades. Earlier, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Nepal, Peru, Colombia and many countries in Africa have experienced terrorism driven by Marxist, anarchist or ethnic agendas. If we go further back in time, we may recall how the southern states of the United States, Germany, Italy and Spain have suffered from racist and anarchist terrorism in the post Second World War period. Therefore, Islamist fundamentalism leading to radicalization and then to terrorism is a simplistic way of analysing terrorism with a narrow focus on one expression of terrorism in one and a half decades in recent history.

He also explains that the current ‘law and order’ mind-set of punishing individual terrorists does not diminish terrorism as a phenomenon. I am sure he is not arguing that the specific perpetrators of crime should not punished, but that an approach that is limited ‘crime and punishment’ is ineffective. We need a systemic approach. He gives the example of lung cancer. “When we are confronted with lung cancer we do not try to identify why a particular cell has become uncontrollably mitotic rather than any other cell. Instead we deal with the problem at a different systematic level with surgery, radio and chemo-therapy, and most importantly persuading population not to smoke.”

The systemic approach requires understanding the problem at a group level. Terrorists are willing to take and give life because they feel that they are trying to seek justice for their community, whether in national, regional or global space. They amalgamate in their mind their individual grievances with the grievances of a larger community. Therefore, the Moroccan or Tunisian migrants in Europe are willing to undertake terrorist acts as they blend their own relative deprivation in the European society with marginalisation of the Islamic countries in the global power structure to the extent that some of these countries are bombed by a Western coalition, even though the actual countries bombed by the US and its allies may be Iraq and Syria rather than Morocco and Tunisia. In this situation, religion gives a psychological link between the individual and the collective. This is a new phenomenon. In the past, the Palestinian, Kashmiri, Moro groups justified violence in their regional ethnic, sub-nationalist and political context, even though they followed the Islamic faith. It is only after the rise of Al Qaeda that they have readjusted their discourse with the ideology of the International Islamic Front founded by Osama bin Laden. For these terrorist groups, in the past, the collective was a regional community; now it is a global community. In either case, it is about a collective. That is why educated engineers get attracted to ISIS as much as uneducated school drop-outs do. If each one of them is addressed either through combat or moral persuasion, there will be many more who will surface from nowhere. The weakening of Al Qaeda gave rise to ISIS. The dismantling of ISIS will give rise to another group. So long as a symbol for unity exists, whether it is the war in Syria or the plight of Rohingya community in Burma, terrorism in the name of Islamist cause will spread, with new groups being formed and a new set of individuals joining them. Only a systemic approach will help deconstruct terror.  Such an approach will have to take into account historic relationships between communities, present circumstances and dreams and aspirations for future.

It is not that the first time that someone has mentioned a ‘systemic’ approach. Following the 9/11 attacks, several theories of development deficit and democratic deficit as causes of radicalisation were articulated. Economic measures and the strengthening of democratic institutions were advocated as an answer. In reality, when the Palestinians elected Hamas, sanctions were announced. When the Turkish people elected the AK Party, which was highly committed to European Union membership as its greatest goal in the early years of government, it faced an adverse propaganda campaign, which eventually drove it to the politics of the Middle East with catastrophic implications for the country and the region, and also Europe. Alderdice goes deeper than development and democratic deficit to analyse an entire community’s feeling of ‘humiliation, disrespect and unfairness’. In 2007, I had described this as a “dignity deficit” in a paper published by the Strategic Foresight Group. Alderdice explains, using different terms, that the dignity deficit in fact matters more than democratic and development deficit in understanding the phenomenon of terrorism.

The dignity deficit rises not only due to the rejection of electoral preferences of the Islamic countries but also for many other reasons. In 2003, during a visit to Washington DC, I met a businessman of Sudanese origin. He was personally very successful as the head of a multinational corporation. He asked me if I had seen the way the television was showing the examination of Saddam Hussein’s teeth by an American doctor. I had indeed seen this, as had millions of people. Then, in a chilling voice, he said: “In 10-12 years from now, a new terrorist organisation will come up in Iraq and nearby areas made of boys in their late teens and early twenties. They will kill Western nationals and their sympathisers in the most brutal way and advertise their killings the world over. They will not negotiate. It will be more vicious than Al Qaeda, more dangerous than anything you can imagine.” I never saw him again, but in the last three years I often remembered this conversation. He had then explained that attacking Saddam Hussein even though there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was one issue. But humiliating him on television sent a message to the 6-7 year old boys who would in their subconscious mind remember it until they became 18-20 years old and capable of using guns. He was no academic, but a businessman constantly interacting with common people in the Middle East and he sensed that the propaganda machine of 2003 in Washington DC had risked the world of 2013.

Lord Alderdice argued in his public lecture that a collective sense of humiliation often leads to psychological regression and the lines between within and without, and between the present and past are erased. People feel that past is now and what happened to someone else is happening to me. It is a case of dissolution of the group and individual minds leading to the willingness to kill and be killed. Once such dissolution happens, there is no fear of death. When several people from an entire community experience such dissolution, it is not possible to predict who would cross the line from rationality of choice to devotion to the cause of community. It can take years or months, but it can also take a few weeks if some incident triggers a latent feeling of humiliation and disrespect from the subconscious mind.

Scott Atran calls the abdication of rational choices, devotion to “sacred values”, as Alderdice explained in his lecture. In any terrorist group, some members are motivated by a combination of rational factors such as financial and political advantages combined with devotion to their sacred values, while some are only and always committed to sacred values. The former respond to initiatives of the state, both carrot and stick, and to the fortunes of their organisation. The latter take pride in embracing death which they treat as the supreme sacrifice for their devotion.  In 2017, when ISIS showed signs of weakening in Iraq and Syria, several fighters returned to their home countries but those believing in sacred values remained in the main theatre of war. Of those who returned, some surrendered before the state with the hope of starting a new life, while those still committed to their goal went underground and obtained guns and heavy vehicles to launch a new series of terrorist attacks on civilian targets in Europe.

The spread of terrorism, with an objective of systemic overthrow, is rooted in the collective sense of humiliation of a community and of deep unfairness in the way it has been treated.   The reasons may seem real or unreal, and there are both historic and current reasons.  The result is the devotion of some members of the community to what they consider their most core values, which generate a constant, though erratic flow of young men willing to give up their lives in order to destroy not only life but also the life system of what they consider “the Other”. Understanding this complex phenomenon is the first step in deconstructing and not merely countering terrorism.

If we understand complexity and the phenomenon of dissolution of communities where several lines of consciousness are blurred, we can hope to find solutions. This involves restoring mutual respect between communities in conflict, structuring political institutions to permit new and fair power relationships, the mediation of conflict, and creating shared stakes in the future. Alderdice gives examples of the peace building in Northern Ireland and post-apartheid South Africa. In his papers in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, he also mentions Peru and Nepal. We may add the agreement between FARC and the Colombian government in future, something I don’t recall his mentioning in his public lecture though I know he is involved there too.

This model of complexity science can be understood as understanding relationships in all their richness and unpredictability.  Conflict resolution in this model is based on rebuilding relationships in various forms rather than in secret deals between the leaders of the protagonists. That is why the Northern Ireland and South African peace processes seem sustainable whereas the Oslo Process between Israel and Palestine has collapsed. The South African example shows that secret talks may be used as initial ice-breakers, but they must soon be transformed into an exercise of restructuring relationships with a ‘buy-in’ by the entire community.

This is a totally new approach when the current linear approaches of interpreting terrorism have failed. But it has a major limitation. It can potentially address the collective sense of humiliation and deep unfairness experienced by a community. But it doesn’t deal with a situation where state actors play an obstructive role that makes it impossible for a community to reassess its rational choices and sacred values.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Ireland was possible because there was no third state playing an obstructive role. Had the Republic of Ireland provided territory, finance and other resources to the PIRA, it would have been difficult to have any dialogue between the communities in Northern Ireland. In fact, in the talks, Irish and British governments were both on the same side rather than on opposing sides.   They collaborated to facilitate a peaceful outcome. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 made this possible.

In the case of South Africa, Peru, FARC talks in Colombia and Maoist talks in Nepal, there was no third state party with an active vested interest in strengthening terrorism in order to undermine the restructuring of relationships.

In Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990s, in the conflict between Bosnians and Serbs, the regime in neighbouring Serbia provided means of combat to the Serbs of Bosnia/Herzegovina to besiege Sarajevo and organise massacres of the Bosnian people in Sarajevo and other places in the country.

In Jammu and Kashmir, I found on some occasions that the leaders of all Kashmiri movements and representatives of all major political parties in India, including those in the government and opposition, were inclined to have secret as well as open talks to build mutual trust and new relationships. But the Kashmiri leaders faced threats of extreme nature from an outside state machinery forcing me to abort talks at the eleventh hour. The rare ‘windows of opportunity’ opened after a long time were shut in a few minutes.

An important factor in dealing with Al Qaeda and ISIS and their regional counterparts is that they receive support from various state actors, either directly or indirectly though intelligence agencies, influential elements outside the formal state apparatus, and deliberate neglect of their actions by some of the state agencies. The global theatre of conflict in the name of Islamic jihad is a combination of complex psychological dissolution of community, blended with rational choices made by states interested in aggrandising their interest in a rational and cold-blooded manner. This has created the appearance of a global psychological conflict.

In the framework of a global psychological conflict, it is not only some of the Islamic communities in Iraq, Syria and migrant pockets in Belgium, France, UK or France that have been dissolved. Hitler and Milosevic have proved that democracy can be used for legitimising accession to power and then used to produce violent conflicts and even wars.  There is presently a growing indication of partial dissolution of the communities on the far right of the political spectrum, creating a divide between ‘us and them’ and blurring the lines between past and present, using the democratic processes to seize control of the state apparatus in their countries and use it to accentuate conflict.  

This has produced an era of competitive extremism, making it difficult to find solutions such as the ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Colombia. The Dayton Agreement is perhaps the only example, with all its limitations and potential risks, where an effort was made to address the role of the state actors but it is not clear to what extent the relationships between communities have been restructured. Even today, when one travels only a few miles outside Sarajevo, there is a very vibrant display of the flags of Republika Srpska, reminding of the days of “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere in the world, the obstructive role of state actors is making peace agreements difficult.

It is therefore necessary to build on the complexity model of Lord Alderdice to account for the role of states playing an obstructive role in undermining peace processes - in fact, arming one side against the other to accentuate the disequilibrium. It is an urgent a task for a practitioner and a professor, especially when the Doomsday Clock is ticking at two and half minutes to midnight and the Nobel Prize committee has signalled that the risk of nuclear war is still there.


The papers by Lord Alderdice referred to above as being published in ‘Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy’ have now been made available by Routledge/Taylor & Francis for free and open access at –

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