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Treat terrorism like crime, not war

Treat terrorism like crime, not war

Earlier this week Anthony Bubalo suggested that a debate is needed about how to properly counter terrorism in liberal democracies, and more specifically how to achieve the proper balance between security and civil liberties when confronting violent extremism. This is part 1 of my response.

The post-9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism mostly, if not exclusively, of the Islamic-inspired sort.

In many liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of better security.

Some have gone so far as to speak of a 'war' on terrorism, arguing that Islamist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves as being at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a 'war' marshaled along cultural or civilizational lines, is mistaken.

The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Those who practice terrorism can then be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. [fold]

Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the state will not fall, society will not unravel and the social fabric will not tear. The consent of the majority will be maintained. If anything, the state and society will coalesce against the perpetrators.

But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the 'sucker ploy'. 

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets may be designed to punish or retaliate against the larger society, but they are also attempting to lure the target into taking security measures out of proportion to the threat. In other words, the weaker party commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case Western liberal democracies. 

The overreaction victimises the group from which the perpetrators are thought to come, and thus legitimises the grievances of the terrorists. Thus the democratic state plays into the hands of terrorists by expanding their struggle and providing grounds for recruitment. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al Qaeda's strategy from the beginning.

Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to security checks, mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest, and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated, reinforcing the al Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with the entire Muslim world.

Bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a global conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one of the pretexts for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating within it at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large-scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western countermeasures, al Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the online magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadists born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called 'lone wolf' attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the ISIS have given recruits the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home. With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the ISIS ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al Qaeda, there are plenty of returning jihadists to be concerned about, especially given the availability of soft targets in open societies.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Radford.

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