One Step Behind: Understanding the Shape of Terrorism

Terrorism, with its many forms, has the same general shape. Bombings, hostage taking, assassinations, and armed attacks are all perpetuated for religious, political, or ideological goals - sometimes, a combination of all three...

Terrorism, with its many forms, has the same general shape. Bombings, hostage taking, assassinations, and armed attacks are all perpetuated for religious, political, or ideological goals - sometimes, a combination of all three. The threat of violence, stemming from the root word 'violate', is used as a tactic of coercion to create fear in the minds of civilians, and lead to concessions from the societies in which they belong. Recent shootings in Paris' Charlie Hebdo magazine are no different. The policies of governments towards counter-terrorism measures, however, have often been reactive, rather than proactive. This may be about to change.

A key example lies in Belgium, where counter-terrorism operations foiled a major jihadist plot to attack police stations by using surveillance techniques to monitor suspicious groups. Authorities have stated that Belgium is home to approximately 300 Belgians who have travelled to Syria. This number is doubled in the United Kingdom, where 600 people have left to join ranks with jihadist fighters. The success of the pre-emptive response in Belgium has lent strength to both Barack Obama and David Cameron's recent public statements that surveillance techniques against terrorism should be amplified, allowing for the infiltration of online material available through WhatsApp, Blackberry Messenger (BBM), and Google.

Despite similarities in nature of terrorist strategy, more information is necessary for a shift in policy response, and a recognition that multiple root factors of terrorism must be addressed simultaneously. It is well known in academic circles, for example, that the root causes of terrorism stem from political discontent, social instability, and perceived grievance such as hatred, humiliation, and desire for revenge. The latter could help explain the attack against Charlie Hebdo: its offices have been subject to grave and unreasonable threats after a spoof issue in 2011 featured a caricature of Prophet Muhammad on its cover. Such an attack illustrates the distance between France's religion and its state - besides the drawing of Prophet Muhammad, the wearing of the hijab has been highly controversial in France since as early as 1989.

Government responses to terrorist tactics have focused mainly on type of suicide attack. Terrorist attacks on airports, for example, have been met with policy responses focusing on increasing flying security regulations and screenings. Responses to the 7th July London bombings concentrated on monitoring devices, homemade bombs, and tracking personal belongings, as well as amplified frisking and on-the-spot searches. Responses by governments, therefore, have fixated on addressing the effects of the attack, rather than the cause. Comments by Andrew Parker, head of the MI5 in the United Kingdom, warned that there is a growing gap between an increasing threat of terrorism and a decreasing availability of capabilities to address it. Across the globe, responses have prioritized information and intelligence in relation to breakouts or terrorist plots. India's reaction to its 2008 attacks, for example, included an increased demand for self-defense, with private security firms pushing for the right to be armed. It is important in the long-term, however, to focus on challenging Islamist extremism as an ideology to increase our overall capabilities in addressing any threat of terrorist violence.

Rather than the delayed strategy of modifying actions to fit terrorist events, it may be more effective to focus on a civil society approach. Quilliam's focus on challenging extremism of all kinds recognizes that the shape of terrorism is less important than its component roots. It would be vital for France, as it would be for other nations such as Belgium and the United Kingdom, to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties. Most current terrorism measures punish suspected intent - which cannot be predicted accurately - without challenging the ideology behind this intent or its narrative. Quilliam believes that democracy will only defeat extremism coupling 'legal tolerance' when it comes to extremist views, with 'civil intolerance' in implementing counter-extremism training and education at the grassroots level. Otherwise, one step forward will take us two steps back.

Nikita Malik is a researcher at Quilliam, the world's first counter extremism think tank. Follow her on Twitter on @nixmalik.


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