By Jonathan Hicks (2014-15)
Analysis of ‘Colombian Rebels Hijack Plane and Kidnap Senator’
This New York Times article was published on the 21st of February 2002 and is entitled “Colombian Rebels Hijack Plane and Kidnap Senator.” It describes an act of political violence perpetrated on the same day by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.) The FARC is a paramilitary group involved in the ongoing Colombian conflict. The group has persistently carried out kidnappings and extortion in the last twenty years and is heavily connected to the illegal narcotics trade in Colombia. The article gives details of the attack, saying that the rebels hijacked a domestic flight carrying 30 passengers, landed it near the rural town of Hobo, and then fled with Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem Turbay, leaving the remaining passengers unharmed. The article goes on to detail previous attacks carried out by the FARC and covers President Andrés Pastrana’s decision to end peace talks with the FARC, which he announced on a televised address hours after the incident. The report adopts a formal tone and mainly focuses on Mr.Pastrana’s comments regarding the incident, serving mainly to reiterate his views to their American readership by echoing his sentiment that “Now no one believes in their [FARC’s] willingness to reach peace.” The article also includes victim testimonies from the Turbay family and from an anonymous passenger who said “They told us if we moved we would be killed.” It makes no attempt to explain the possible reasons for the kidnapping and portrays the FARC as purely criminal and subversive and the Colombian government as a promoter of peace.
In my analysis of this report, I will first assess to what extent the FARC can be described as a ‘terrorist’ organisation with regard to definitional issues, before considering the specific incident in the report in this way. I will then move to a discussion of what caused the FARC to commit this act in light of a range of factors including context and social factors. I will end with an analysis of the conflict since this incident, assessing both the effectiveness of this act towards FARC’s goals and the counterterrorism methods employed by the Colombian government.
Who are the FARC? Are they ‘terrorists’?
A major question to be considered in the analysis of this incident is that of whether the FARC are terrorists. The term ‘terrorist’ is a highly uncertain categorisation, and there is no unanimously agreed definition of a ‘terrorist’ incident or movement. The label of ‘terrorist’ is also pejorative in modern discourse, and naming an actor or movement as such is a form of condemnation. The FARC have been labelled as a terrorist organisation by the US Department of State in their document ‘Country Reports on Terrorism 2013’ but others have neglected to do so, including the New York Times, which consistently refers to FARC as ‘rebels’ or ‘guerrillas’ in the article. The decision of whether to describe an incident as terrorism is heavily influenced by one’s perspective and worldview, and this creates definitional problems in the study of terrorism.
Particularly relevant in the case of the FARC is the issue of whether a group are terrorists or freedom fighters. In the context of Colombia, the FARC is a left-wing political and military dissident force which claims to fight for the country’s rural poor. It must be recognised that the FARC is acting against the Colombian government as a result of the repression of agrarian movements in the 1930s and 1940s, which it was born out of, and it has continued to champion leftist policies such as land reform and healthcare for peasants. As such the FARC may be contextualised as part of the “New Left Wave” of terrorism theorised by David C. Rapoport.The FARC’s ideology also contains anti-imperialist tones against the influence of the USA in Colombia, especially under the auspices of “Plan Colombia.” Indeed, the USA is so involved in the region that Hugo Chávez has described it as “The Israel of Latin America.” With this in mind, the FARC may be classified as a national liberation movement by some, but as a terrorist organisation by others.
In my view, the FARC is a subnational organisation which, over the course of its existence, has engaged in activity which may be described as ‘terrorist’ in pursuit of its aims. The FARC are revolutionary dissidents who have adopted terrorism as a tactic in their struggle against the government. The incident outlined in the article is a case of revolutionary terrorism, as it is a “threat of political violence aimed at effecting complete revolutionary change.”In kidnapping Senator Turbay, the FARC were engaging in a series of similar acts aimed at threatening and weakening the government of Colombia in order to effect regime change. Being driven by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the FARC have a fairly clear vision of the society they wish to create in the form of communism.
In recent years, the FARC have also engaged in what might be labelled criminal terrorism. In rural areas of Colombia, they have been known to operate protection rackets and are involved in the country’s lucrative narcotics trade. Indeed, many of the FARC’s members appear to be involved in the organisation simply for employment, as a way of elevating them economically above the rural peasantry. Whilst this can be described simply as criminal narco-terrorism, which Martin has outlined as the use of drug trafficking to advance the objectives of certain governments and terrorist organizations, it appears to be a more complex movement because of its political aims which are still retained to some extent. Bruce Hoffman has identified a “gray area phenomenon” within terrorism which the FARC appears to be a part of. The gray area involves “threats to the stability of nation states by non-state actors…” and is used to describe “violence affecting immense regions or urban areas where control has shifted from legitimate governments to new half-political, half-criminal powers.”Therefore the FARC may use terrorist methods in pursuit of either their political or criminal aims.
In the case of this hijacking and kidnapping, it seems that the FARC were acting in pursuit of their political aims, using terrorist tactics and threats of violence to weaken the government. The ideology involved here is what distinguishes it from a criminal act, as it seeks to disseminate terror in wider audiences.
Why adopt Terrorism?
I will now analyse the causes of terrorism in this instance, and in the wider case of the FARC, paying attention to contextual setting, as well as considering group-level explanations and applying the theoretical model constructed by Martha Crenshaw.
As already mentioned, the FARC are revolutionary dissidents influenced by Marxism-Leninism. This ideology expresses the view that the capitalist society being opposed will not be toppled unless a “push” is initiated by a vanguard organisation.In the case of Colombia, the FARC views itself as this organisation, and the adoption of terrorism is a tool with which to push their agenda. The processes which lead towards radicalisation of this kind are examined by McCauley and Moskalenko, who describe the terrorists within a radicalised group as the “apex of a pyramid.”The terrorists who executed this attack are therefore the most radicalised representation of a wider group of sympathisers who feel oppressed as a result of inequality and state repression. The origins of the FARC may be explained by means of the theory of group radicalisation known as “condensation.” The FARC emerged from the Communist Party of Colombia during a time when the government was waging war against leftist subversives.Many Marxist activists were deterred by this government action but, founded in 1966; the FARC can be seen as the “tiny fraction of the original protest group” which “has condensed into a highly radicalized group that goes underground as a terrorist cell.”Since then the FARC has grown significantly into a radicalised group which regularly carries out attacks against the state, often in retaliation to government acts, thereby creating a cycle of violence. For example, shortly after its creation, the FARC burned down a court building in the town of Inza where insurgents had been prosecuted.
In relation to this particular incident, factors leading towards terrorism identified by Crenshaw may be applied. Firstly, some preconditions were necessary for this incident to occur. One is modernisation, which creates opportunities and vulnerabilities in society for terrorists to take advantage of.In this case, the attack took place on an Aires airlines plane, a particularly vulnerable form of modern travel, and also a source of publicity for the FARC, as the attack was witnessed by the remaining passengers and reported in the media. Moreover, modern communications allowed for the dissemination of the ideology which the FARC is motivated by, and they can be seen as one movement in a series of Marxist-Leninist groups which appeared in Latin America in the New Left Wave inspired by the transmission of Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. One precondition particularly relevant to this act of terrorism is the government’s unwillingness to prevent terrorism, which Crenshaw argues is the “most salient political factor in the category of permissive causes.”As outlined in the report, President Andrés Pastrana had granted the FARC a safe haven in 1998, four years before the attack took place. This was an exercise of trust on the government’s part, and it indicated a cessation in government action to combat the FARC. The FARC, it appears, used this area to strengthen its forces (which the report claims number 17,000 men), and the absence of adequate prevention can be seen as a permissive cause of this incident, as it may have otherwise been stopped by the state.
Crenshaw goes on to outline direct causes of terrorism, the first being “concrete grievances among an identifiable subgroup of a larger population.”In the case of Colombia, the FARC originated among the rural poor, and it is clear that there are concrete grievances among this group, especially when compared to the urban elites of Colombia, income inequality and poverty remain very high by OECD standards.Certainly in its early form, the FARC can be seen as a response to lack of political participation, another factor identified by Crenshaw, as leftist groups were ostracized from mainstream politics. This cause is evidenced by the failure of the FARC’s attempt to join mainstream politics in 1985. After creating a new political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), the FARC gained encouraging results in the 1985 congressional elections, but their campaign was thwarted by right-wing paramilitaries who assassinated 2,000-4,000 UP supporters and leaders between 1986 and the early 1990s. As Chris Lee argues, this led the FARC to “conclude that there was no room in the Colombian political landscape for the left.”This explains to some extent the decision by FARC to resort to terrorism following the UP debacle, as they were excluded from the ‘legitimate’ avenues of expression. This also explains their choice of target in this instance, a member of the government which they oppose, perhaps as a protest against the political mainstream. The FARC have done this before. As detailed in the article, they have kidnapped and killed other members of the Turbay family, all of whom were involved in the government of Colombia. As aforementioned, the FARC’s use of terrorism in this instance was designed to gain an audience. In addition to gaining the wider public’s attention through the media, this attack specifically caught the attention of the government, signalled by President Pastrana’s statement on it. Another possible strategic aim of this act was to demoralise government officials. In the same year, 2002, the FARC kidnapped four other senior lawmakers of the Colombian government, hoping to destabilise the administrative authority of the state.
So, Crenshaw’s model applies to the hijacking and kidnapping described in the report as it can be seen that preconditions such as modernisation and government passivity were implicit causes, and concrete grievances and political exclusion were direct causes. The exact nature of the attack can be explained as a rational choice by the terrorists to gain attention and disrupt government.
Success of the FARC’s strategy
In this section I will analyse to what extent the FARC achieved their aims through this act of terror. Initially, it would appear that they were partly successful in their attempt to gain attention, as this act was reported in the mainstream media. However, it is one of a string of attacks which inspired a backlash from the Colombian public, as protests were held against the FARC in Bogotá in 2008. It is estimated that these protests attracted between 500,000 and 2 million people, prompting the president at the time to declare a “universal denunciation of the FARC.”As well as turning the urban public of Colombia against the FARC, the attack also provoked a tough government response against the organisation. As is stated in the report, this attack was instrumental in President Pastrana’s decision to break off peace talks with the FARC. This meant a shift to repressive measures in conjunction with the US, as President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002, who promised to clamp down on FARC’s activites. It can be argued that attacks such as these are what prompted the US to initiate this plan, which involved widespread military action against the FARC and funding for the flailing government. By 2006, $4.6 billion had been given in aid to Colombia, 75% of which took the form of military or police aid.This has led to a significant decrease in the power and influence of the FARC in Colombia, and the group is now considering engaging once again in peace talks instead of carrying out further terrorist action.
From the perspective of the Colombian government, it may appear that their strategy for counterterrorism, that of repression, has succeeded. To an extent this is true, as the FARC has been hit by the increased military activity in the country. However, as argued by Rochlin, it has failed to “address the root causes of insurgency in the country that centre on profound economic inequity and violent political exclusion.”It can be argued that this is why terrorism by the FARC has not completely ceased in Colombia. Indeed, a kidnapping of a senior General occurred as recent as November 2014, which the Guardian has claimed put the “future of the process to end the country’s 50-year-old war in jeopardy.”Therefore it can be seen that the while Pastrana government failed to quell the FARC’s terrorism by pure diplomacy and leniency, the Uribe government and its successors have also failed to stop terror attacks completely by repressive measures. This appears to be because neither counterterrorism strategy addresses the root cause of the FARC’s activity. This is an argument advanced by Mark Juergensmeyer, who has claimed that violence does not solve the issue of terrorism, and that instead governments should focus on communication and addressing the issues behind the violence.This method of counterterrorism has been used in other nations and has proved successful by underpinning support for terrorist groups, such as in Peru, where social reform in the early nineties undercut peasant support for the Shining Path terror group.
Therefore, the act of terror described in this report failed to considerably advance the cause of the FARC, and in fact led to their further repression by turning public opinion against them and encouraging a US-funded government to crack down on their activities. By doing this, the government have weakened the FARC, but have also failed to eradicate them because they have not addressed the fundamental issue of inequality which sustains support for the FARC.
In conclusion, the FARC is a dissident revolutionary organisation which champions a Marxist-Leninist worldview and has frequently adopted terrorist methods in pursuit of its goals. It is part of a “gray area” of groups which are half-criminal and half-political in their activity, and depending on perspective, may be viewed as a terrorist group or a national liberation movement. The FARC may be viewed as a condensed and radicalised segment of a wider disaffected group of leftists in Colombia. Using Crenshaw’s model, we can see that certain preconditions such as modernisation and government weakness were contributing causes of the attack, and that direct causes included unaddressed grievances and political exclusion. When assessing the success of the FARC’s attack in context and in retrospect, it is clear that it was far from successful and turned public opinion against them whilst also encouraging more repressive government measures. However, the FARC remain active to this day and this is because of successive failed counterterrorism strategies which do not address the root causes of the FARC’s support. It can be argued that if these causes, namely considerable inequality and poverty, were addressed, the FARC would lose both its support among the poor and its motivation to commit acts of terrorism.
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 David C. Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11”, Anthropoetics, vol.8 (1) (2002)
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 Luciana M. Fernandez, “Organized Crime and Terrorism: From the Cells towards Political Communication”, Terrorism and Poltical Violence, vol.21 (4) (2009): 599
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 Chris Lee, “The FARC and the Colombian Left: Time for a Political Solution?”, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 39 (28) (2012): 30
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 David C. Rapoport, (2002)
 Martha Crenshaw, (1981): 382
 Martha Crenshaw, (1981), 383.
 Isabelle Joumard and Juliana Londono Velez, “Income Inequality and Poverty in Colombia – The Role of the Labour Market”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, no.1036 (2013):5
 Martha Crenshaw, (1981), 384.
 Chris Lee, (2012): 31.
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 Michael E. O’Hanlon, “The Success Story in Colombia”, Brookings, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/09/24-colombia-success-ohanlon-petraeus [accessed 8th December 2014]
 Jim Rochlin, (2011): 726.
 Michael E. O’Hanlon, 2013
 Jim Rochlin, (2011):716
 Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Colombian President halts talks with FARC rebels after general kidnapped”, The Guardian, (2014), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/17/colombian-president-halts-farc-talks-after-general-kidnapped [accessed 8th December 2014]
 Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism”, Daedalus, vol. 136 (1) (2007): 38
 Gus Martin (2010), 492.