Building a strategic response to Islamist terrorism

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Last month saw the first anniversary of the terrorist attach on London Bridge. A great deal of time and effort has been put into counter-terrorism in the since then.

And on the information available, we must say that the investment has been paying off: police report that 13 attacks have been prevented, and there are 500 live counter-terror investigations at any one time. But no amount of surveillance and de-radicalization initiatives can prevent all attacks. Some individuals will always slip through the cracks. And when they do, we will have to bear the costs.


So is there nothing we can do? Must we resign ourselves that such attacks are now just a fact of life? The answer, I believe must be a firm “No”. And to see why, we need a bit of historical perspective.

While terrorism has steadily become a normal fact of our news diet, a quick look at the statistics regarding the number of attacks, the number of deaths, and the geographical spread of incidents show that Western Europe and the UK in particular are far safer now than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nor are we talking about a return to the fore of historical terror trends. The terrorism then was not Islamist. It was Irish nationalist, Basque separatist, neo-Fascist, anarchist, as well as state-sponsored terrorism, typically pursuing political aims in the Cold War.

If we choose to do the hard, unpopular things now, we will be able to count in years the time before this wave of terrorism ebbs away

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Old causes

What is interesting about this is that nowadays, despite the emergence of Islamist terrorism, we hear nothing about the old causes of terrorism. In other words, all those historical waves of terrorism have, for lack of a better word, been resolved.

If we hope to quell this wave of terrorism, we must attempt to do the same – to resolve its underlying causes. The excellent work done by our security and intelligence services in preventing individual attacks must not be underplayed.

Hundreds of lives have been saved and it is because of their diligent work that we have not come to accept attacks such as the one in Manchester and London as a new normal. But this reactive response is merely tactical: what we need is a strategic response.

A strategic response to Islamist terrorism must draw from the lessons of past, resolved waves of terrorism. State-sponsored terrorism in Europe has died out with the Cold War: the cause of that wave of terrorism was geopolitical rivalry. Once the cause has been removed with the collapse of the USSR, the attacks have naturally gone away.

Irish nationalist terrorism was (largely) resolved with the Good Friday Agreement. It turns out that a diplomatic settlement can produce results where decades of stationing armies on the streets cannot. The same can be said about the Basque situation, and a parallel can be drawn to the ongoing diplomatic negotiations between the FARC rebels and the government in Colombia.

This is something Israel might want to look into, seeing as bombing Palestinian territories does not seem to produce much in the way of long-term solutions to the constant stream of terror attacks coming from Palestinian groups.

Neo-fascist and anarchist terrorism has ebbed with the popularity of those ideologies, as well as with an increase in the levels of education of the general population, and increasing restrictions on the access to weapons and explosives, especially to unstable individuals, across the continent.

There are many lessons to be learned there for the United States, which, despite its obsession with “Islamic terrorism”, is seeing many more attacks with many more victims from domestic far-right and white supremacist actors.

Root cases

So what are the root causes of Islamist terrorism today, and what can we do to tackle them?

1. Islamist ideology: an inevitable fact about terrorism is that it has political aims. Those political aims are underpinned by an ideology, as indeed has been the case for all the historical waves of terrorism mentioned above. And, inevitably, as the ideology wanes in popularity, so does the threat from its particular brand of terrorism. The growth of Islamist ideology is not an organic, natural trend. It is the promotion of this poisonous vision of Islam.

2. Marginalisation of immigrant communities: the Islamist ideology promoted by the extremist is an ideology of division and “eternal conflict” between “true” Muslims and everyone else. That ideology finds fertile ground in Western Europe precisely because it resonates with the experience of separation and marginalisation that many young men and women live through in the ethnically and religiously segregated urban ghettos of the West. We need to start thinking seriously about robust, and perhaps even illiberal solutions to this problem such as compulsory mixed schooling, social housing allocation that deliberately mixes communities, and social policies which put the onus and responsibility on native populations as well as the immigrant populations for the latter’s integration in our societies. Most migrants to our countries, first-, second-, event third-generation, would dearly love to be integrate as full members of our societies, but often find a cold reception from segments of the native populations. So long as we allow that to happen, we cannot be surprised that some individuals from migrant background fail to integrate and do not feel they have a stake in our society – or indeed, that Islamist or other sectarian ideologies resonate with them.

3. Media handling of terror incidents: we live in celebrity-obsessed societies. And for a short while, we treat the perpetrators of such attacks to the same kind of notoriety that we would the C-list celebrities who have done something “naughty” this week. In today’s media environment, anyone can have their 5 minutes of fame. But let us not reward those who commit atrocities with those 5 minutes of fame. A rather more appropriate, and effective approach would be to impose a punishment of oubliette on the perpetrators: report that a terror attack has happened, celebrate the lives of the victims, and impose a blanket ban on “the human story” of the attacker himself. That analysis is to be done by security experts and academics, not by a frenzied press and their ghoulish fascination with deranged individuals. And if the “patriotic” press does not choose the censor itself, then there is a good argument for an external agency to censor them in the interest of deterring future incidents.

Of course, there are more things we can do and it will take years before we can reap the rewards of our efforts. But if we choose to do the hard, unpopular things now, we will be able to count in years the time before this wave of terrorism ebbs away. If we do not, we may well count that time in decades, and in thousands of innocent lives.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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