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October 10, 2012

What the Vikings can teach us about terrorism

(Continued)

MONTEREY, Calif. —

Just what are the conditions that allow ages of terror to emerge or re-emerge? O'Connell and I think there are three: favorable technologies, mobility and lack of international order.

Perhaps the greatest early technological enabler of terror was the swift, shallow-draft ship. The Vikings perfected this kind of vessel, which gave them great mobility — and the lack of international order of any sort during the Dark Ages gave them plenty of opportunities. That they used violence to cow their victims into submission all around the European littorals, and even deep into Russia, is best reflected in the common prayer of the time: "Lord spare us the fury of the Norsemen." Pirates ever since have done their best to emulate the Viking model, and have waxed or waned in tandem with technological advances or international developments that affected their relative mobility and the resolve of their opponents.

Two centuries ago, for example, as the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the age of steam was beginning, pirates from Barbary to the Far East suffered from lack of access to the emerging propulsion technology and, once the Royal Navy and its allies were free to police the "ocean commons," had to face formidable opposition from the new world order of its day. Piracy went into eclipse, and has since only flared up occasionally — the resurgence of Somalian sea predators (whose takings have declined by 90 percent this past year) being in part a function of the disorder in their homeland.

The astounding increase in acts of terrorism since the turn of the millennium — from 10 in 2000 to over 10,000 in 2006, according to State Department and National Counterterrorism Center figures — can be best understood in terms O'Connell and I suggest. At the technological level, the disruptive and destructive power of small groups has grown considerably — see how much damage the 19 attackers did on 9/11 by riding the rails of a key transportation technology of our time to turn civilian airliners into missiles. Further, cyberspace has proved a virtual haven for terrorists, who can recruit, raise funds, and plan operations on a global scale with a few secure clicks.

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