The word “terrorism” no longer captures the threat we face

Posted: October 16, 2018 in Prospect
Tags: , ,

And another new piece (from last month now), this time for the magazine Prospect. Tries to answer a complicated issue about terrorism that I hope to explore through some bigger projects soon.

The word “terrorism” no longer captures the threat we face

Violent attacks look less and less like terrorism as we know it

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

We think of terrorism as acts of violence in advance of a cause. Yet, look at recent attacks in the west and it is often hard to discern much evidence of ideological adherence or links to specific terrorist groups. In fact, the question is whether what is happening can still be genuinely considered terrorism at all. And if this is where the threat picture has gone, what does it mean for our response?

The nature of the threat is changing, with individuals increasingly acting with their own motivations rather than direct guidance from terrorist leaders. You can interpret this in a number of ways. It may be the product of an effective security response, as intelligence agencies get better at disrupting networks. It is also possible that this is part of a grand strategic plan by the terrorist groups themselves. They see a tougher operational environment and push their networks in this more diffuse direction as a result. Or maybe it is more random than that, with terrorist ideology in the public space drawing all sorts to it.

To those at the receiving end, this can all seem semantic. If you are stabbed by someone, you do not really care about the exact reason for it. The victims in London Bridge, outside parliament, in Barcelona and in Trappes will not have been focussing on this.

Yet these attackers were acting with wildly different kinds of reasons: the London Bridge terrorists came from a broader network of violent Islamists long known to authorities; all of the others appear to be individuals with personal or psycho-social reasons rather than any strict ideological motivation. It is very clear that there was an ideological steer in one while in the other three, it seems as though individuals were just latching onto the ideology as a cover for something else going on in their lives.

What does this mean for security services? What does it mean for terrorist cells? And does the word “terrorism” even apply at all?

The immediate problem is to the counter-terrorists who are struggling to manage this situation using their traditional tools. If terrorists are no longer clearly driven, ideological individuals from networks but isolated citizens with anger issues and troubled pasts, how are you going to come across them prior to their attempted attack, with the set of tripwires based around traditional networks you are watching? Something made even harder if the weapons they are going to use are all around us, like knives or cars.

There is also a problem for terrorist groups, who will have ever-lessening control over the plotters. These isolated loners or small cells might be adopting the terrorist group’s garb and methodology, but it is not very clear that they are actually advancing the group’s goals. Not if it now looks like a random catch-all for a variety of human problems, rather than an organised group driven by a plan.

More broadly: if the terrorist group’s cause (or any cause) is not being advanced, then can it still really be considered terrorism? Or are we in fact looking at an expression of human behaviour which is not really ideological terrorism, but something else. Random violence. Human rage. Expressions of anger through demonstrative public acts.

And if this is the case, what is the relevance of the terrorist group in this discussion? Seen in this light, the group could become a red herring which is distracting us from the actual problem that we are facing.

Of course, there are clearly still terrorist groups advancing plots with devastating consequences. The attack in Manchester fits this profile, and no doubt others have been disrupted by effective security forces, both in the UK and abroad. But this is often not what the counter-terrorism officers in the police or MI5 are facing. They are instead finding their time consumed by cases like Salih Kater (the Westminster car attacker) or Niamur Rahman (the slightly shambolic young man who had plans to storm Downing Street with a bomb to decapitate the prime minister, in part to avenge the death of a relation who had fought with Islamic State).

Neither of these people should be excused for their horrendous behaviour, but we do need to ask some more fundamental questions about whether this is terrorism and whether we should be attributing the responsibility to terrorist groups. This clarity is important, as once we have it, we will be in a better place to prevent further loss of life.

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