With the recent release of documents seized at the hide-out of Osama Bin Laden and reports of a plot foiled in Yemen, much has been said about the potential resurgence of Al-Qaeda through its affiliated networks and independent cells or individuals operating throughout the world. In sum, the focus of the discussion has been that it is time for the West to ‘think again’ - in other words not to underestimate the threat. More importantly, this anniversary is the right time to put terrorism into perspective.
Following a decade during which authorities have tracked networks and operational links between individuals and groups, the capacity of large terrorist organizations to carry out mass-casualty attacks has decreased. The main terrorist threat in the West now comes increasingly from independent individuals who are often detached from wider society and who primarily intend to carry out low-tech attack on soft targets. Their motivations are often personal and local, hidden underneath vaguely defined and grander aspirations or justifications for their violent acts. Undoubtedly, the problem of terrorism still exists. These days, terrorist tactics are primarily used in the Middle East and South Asia, where over 80% of attacks take place. Yet terrorism is not the biggest security challenge that western governments face today.
If you live in the West, and as suggested by Prof Richard Jackson, you are still more likely to be killed by bathtubs and toilets, vending machines, insects, animals, DIY, alcohol, lightning, hospitals, car or even yourself. And this obviously does not include the tens of millions of deaths caused every year by poverty, global warming, cancer, smoking, HIV, guns, hurricanes, or war. This list might look ridiculous but the point is this: security strategies should be based on a rational, evidence-based assessment of what the threats and risks are, and not perceptions of them.
There are a number of reservations to be voiced about this evidence-based view, including 1)The impact of terrorism is not just a physical one; it is primarily psychological; 2) Terrorism is a low probability risk but one with potential high impact; 3) There have not been any terrorist attack in the UK since 2005 and a number of plots have been disrupted, which must mean that UK counter-terrorism policies are working; 4) Terrorists might not be attacking Western interests directly in the West, but they certainly are abroad.
On the first reservation: the use of surprise, unexpected and indiscriminate violence is unquestionably a shock, but the power multiplier that terrorists look for through these tactics can be mitigated by a balanced, reasonable and coherent response by governments. In sum, governments can and should seek to mitigate the psychological impact of terrorism, because overreaction simply plays into the hands of terrorism.
While the second reservation is a fair statement to make, the very nature of the terrorism threat does not mean that governments’ counter-terrorism spending should overshadow other important policies against organized crime, cyber security or other ongoing military conflicts, or essential policies for social and economic development, political engagement and public health. Instead of focusing resources on predictable events, the last decade has been marked by a disproportionate focus on unpredictable ones, first and foremost terrorist attacks. As Dr Bill Durodié suggests, ‘Is it possible that our fears about Osama bin Laden and his acolytes tell us rather more about ourselves and our attitudes to unexpected risks, than about the enemies we now face?’ The government is not the only stakeholder who has a responsibility in presenting the problem in a proportionate and constructive manner. The media and academia have a significant influence in public perceptions, and the fact that ‘between 2001 and 2007, one new book on terrorism was published in English every six hours’ or that ‘over 32,000 scholarly articles have discussed cyber-terrorism, and yet 0 people have been killed by it’ are certainly a sign of a need for change.
Thirdly, it is important to note that the ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’. Just because there have not been any terrorist attacks in the UK firstly does not mean that one won’t occur soon. Additionally and more importantly, the success of counter-terrorism policies should not only be measured by the low number of terrorist attacks effectively carried out but also by the unintended consequences these policies produce. The cost of the ‘global war on terror’ – estimated at up to $4tn of US spending alone by Brown University – represents a huge sum not invested in other pressing policy areas and emerging risks. The long-lasting social implications of counter-terrorism policies, including social exclusion and inequalities, discrimination and the decrease in civil liberties, must also be taken into account when assessing the ‘success’ of counter-terrorism.
Finally, terrorism does still exist. More importantly, terrorist tactics are still being used – in 2011, 608 IED attacks were carried out per month in 99 countries. However, low-tech, indiscriminate terrorist tactics have been used for a long time to fight against more militarily and technologically capable opponents. And describing all such attacks across the world under the same all-encompassing term of terrorism hinders the capacity of governments and populations to look beyond the remarkable nature of the problem and into the drivers behind these acts as well as the bigger strategic picture.
Technically, no government in the world can prevent every single small attack, especially when attempted by one single individual. However, what governments can and should do is to: 1) Make counter-terrorism ‘boring’ – with a low-key and discreet approach which tackles the problem of terrorism like a criminal one, and which aims to tame and mitigate the spectacular components of terrorism can be very beneficial; 2) Ensure that crisis management operations are quick, effective and measured, as was the response of the French RAID to Mohammed Merah’s shootings in Toulouse and Montauban; 3) Produce political statements and reactions to attacks that appease fear rather than encourage it. For long-term benefits, governments should ensure that their security policies are non-discriminatory, based on fairness, tolerance and the rule-of-law and avoid inflammatory language and policies, or in the words of Jens Stoltenberg following the attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in July 2011: ‘the response to violence is more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation." These words should be the key lesson to learn from the 9/11 decade.
Benoît Gomis is a Researcher in International Security at Chatham House and a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group.