Terrorism cannot be defeated with force alone

Terrorism cannot be defeated with force alone
The stock response to terrorist attacks is increasing surveillance and restricting freedoms, rather than addressing the root causes. That tactic will never win.
4 min read
27 Jan, 2015
Treating terrorism as just another crime will never beat it [AF/Getty]

The effects of the attack on Charlie Hebdo will continue to reverberate for a long time. Governments in Europe and the Arab world have reacted by strengthening their laws and defences against the terrorist threat.

These measures essentially increase spying and intelligence gathering, and will inevitably lead to further restrictions on freedoms, as has happened before after a terrorist attack. They also lead to more suspicion of Muslims, especially in cities in the West with large Muslim populations.

This approach does not encourage the protection of Muslims against knee-jerk accusations. Indeed, the underlying assumption governing their work has not changed for decades, namely that terrorism is linked to radical Islam.

This view leads them to only skate on the surface of what is a deep and complex phenomenon, and neglect the roots that feed extremism and encourage acts of violence.

Extremism does not necessarily lead to terrorism. Words and thoughts are not the same as deeds. Extremist views do not become extremist actions by default, with the ease that that the security agencies believe is possible.

Terrorism is not a cause in and of itself. It is a means to an end - legitimate or otherwise. There is no proof that religious groups are more willing to engage in terrorism than the non-religious.

     Terrorism is not a cause in and of itself. It is a means to an end - legitimate or otherwise.

The social and political environment in which groups live, and the context in which attacks take place, are much more important than ideology, no matter how radical. They modify behaviour and push some to break the law and resort to violence.

Combating terrorism cannot be limited to the tactics used with ordinary criminal violence. Terrorism, unlike criminal acts, cannot be seen in isolation from politics. To do so offers no solution.Criminal violence is usually the result of selfish desires, and a criminal if often is deterred by the penalty for breaking the law, and if the price is higher than the gain they expect.

Terrorism is the result of a worldview, and a terrorist may see themselves as a representative of the community for whose sake he sacrifices himself, expecting this community to validate him and recognise him as a hero.

For this reason, security measures based on surveillance and punishment may deter would-be criminals, but not those who willing to die for a cause they believe in, even if that cause is obvious to others to be deluded.

Terrorists, therefore, cannot be deterred without modifying their beliefs.

The roots of terrorism

Terrorism has no specific habitat. It is a form of asymmetrical warfare used by actors from all religions, places, and times. It has been a tactic used by revolutionary movements for centuries - for example the assassination of monarchs or heads of state, and leaders of political groups.

It has been used by liberation movements that did not have the means to fight regular armies of their colonial foes.

Terrorism is also sometimes used by governments against secret opposition groups or rebellions threatening their stability, or against other governments. In the Middle East, state terrorism was used to subdue whole populations. Regimes created intelligence services and paramilitary groups who terrorised the people with fear, violence and imprisonment to keep them in their place.

     Terrorism as a form of government lead to terrorism as a form of protest.

Such regimes used weapons of war, even chemical weapons in the case of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, to suppress social revolts. Regimes sponsored cross-border terrorism attacks to destabilise their regional enemies, in lieu of full war.

Terrorism as a form of government lead to terrorism as a form of protest, by groups who found all other doors to political change shut. Terrorism, therefore, has become the essence of political life in these parts.

There is no way to build any effective strategy to fight terrorism without comprehending political motives and the climate in which extremist ideas and terrorist schemes grow. Ther must be profound analysis of the crises that drive them, the impasse in the societies that nurture them and makes the thought of violence the only way to move ahead.

Without doing so, security services are playing catch-up all the time. They will never be able to eliminate terrorism, and drain the ideological and political swamp from which it spawns.

As long as they deal with terrorism as a crime linked to individual deviancy, rather than from the perspective of social and political crises, they will fight a losing battle.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.