Few words strike more fear into the hearts of communities across the globe than the phrase “terror attack”. Mass harm caused by individuals suffering from mental illness or brainwashed by extreme ideologies paints a dark image of destruction and chaos. Terrorism is terrifyingly effective – the political and cultural fallout from communities that experience this devastation can be shattering. Attacks on children can destroy families, attacks on landmarks can cripple countries, and the indiscriminate violence often sees the lives of innocent civilians as the primary targets. While the term itself originated in the late 18th century in a turbulent France, it’s use is well documented in eras both before and after the French Revolution.
It is worth noting that being a terrorist is simply defined as doing harm to others to fulfill a political, ideological or religious objective. Qualifying as a terrorist does not require an affiliation with an extremist organization or a set nationality. Lone wolf terrorism has re-emerged in recent years as a more popular form, with individuals often claiming affiliation to specific organizations or ideologies, but little to no evidence being found to tie them directly.
Depending where you live, the risks of terrorism affecting your daily life, either by disrupting the flow of resources, destroying infrastructure or directly harming a loved one, vary drastically based on geographic proximity to active combatants. In the last decade, the highest number of terror attacks and fatalities from attacks have been seen in the Middle East region, with Iraq topping the list and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen all following within the top seven. Countries like Nigeria have seen devastation enacted both in the form of direct attacks on communities and the capturing of oil fields in the Northern regions, ensuring that lives are lost and the national economy is crippled as a result of military action.
But the impacts of terrorism are now felt well beyond the borders of one nation. IS has been accused of waging ‘cultural war’ with the launch of propaganda and recruitment campaigns that know no boundaries. Russia and China’s daring misinformation campaigns have blurred the lines between subjective opinion and historical fact regarding both the Ukraine and the Nine Dash line. As citizens of all nationalities leave their respective nations to fight for extremists, homegrown terrorists attack cultural and educational institutions and entire nations are destabilized while being consumed by warring factions, the question remains: how do we stop them?
The answer is twofold: Commitment to combatting terrorism must result in swift and surgical action to cut malignant ideologies from the Earth. Cancerous extremism, allowed to prosper, only breeds further terror. But addressing the root causes of not why individuals commit terrible crimes, rather the systemic problems that drove them to identify with extremism, is a key to preventing the growth of the next generation of terrorists.
Regarding military action, the battle is increasingly fought beyond the frontier. Coordination by organizations with potential recruits is conducted virtually, often via established social media and messaging platforms. Intelligence services require controlled (overseen by a judicial framework) access to this data in order to make the strategic, on-the-ground decisions that have a direct cost of human life. Committing ground and air forces is essential in the fight, but the purchase of equipment should be matched with investment into cyber security to better track potential extremists and infiltrate online communities. A renewed focus on investment into intelligence infrastructure, while politically problematic, is required to deal with the current generation of extremists who are armed with access and reach, previously unknown weapons in the fanatic’s arsenal.
Focusing on eradication of current groups is important, but addressing the root causes behind why an individual identifies with any group seeking to actively incite violence as a means to an end is arguably equally important. Groups urge lone wolves to carry out attacks when they themselves are too weak, or lack a presence, in a set area. Attacks by individuals claiming affiliation to organizations are not necessarily evidence of a foothold being secured, but confusingly can be indications of the exact opposite. Strengthening the relationships between law enforcement, community members and individuals who feel isolated is fundamental in the struggle to preventing the spread of extremist ideology. This can take the form of building support within communities by actively conducting equity and outreach efforts to marginalized or minority groups (past success stories include outreach campaigns by law enforcement officers to Muslim communities). Fostering a culture of greater resilience amongst communities is equally crucial. The fact remains that the public’s fear of terrorism, specifically conducted by jihadist extremists, remains high despite the extremely low statistical probability of this happening and harming any one person. Highlighting that positive relationships between ethnic communities are necessary for public safety is the first step in moving towards a world that reduces attacks instead of displacing them.
There are also economic factors that push individuals, specifically young men, into extremists ideologies as well. Young men across the globe who have historically enjoyed positions of privilege now face a downward spiral of economic uncertainty. The sons of shop owners, manufacturers and bureaucrats see a world where their wives are their economic equals and where once-solid career prospects no longer offer stability. The underlying resentment that has slowly bubbled has manifested as frustration at a world that emasculates them at every turn (often by not providing employment opportunities, not providing prospects for marriage, delaying an ability to be financially or residentially independent from their families). As the Western world claimed to have ushered in an era of success for all, the individual remains, feeling left behind, angry and ignored – therefore vulnerable and susceptible to being swayed by arguments of fighting “righteously for a cause greater than themselves”.
But the difficulty remains that no terrorist attack happens in a vacuum. Completed to further a religious or political aim, terrorists have a knack for selecting targets with a degree of emotional significance, be they mainstays of a city skyline or murdered children whose faces are then seared into our memories. Attacks yield emotional responses – often disproportional in an objective cost-benefit analysis of damage wrought. And because they hit us at home, at the very core of our lives by attacking symbols of the principles we hold most dear, we view a vow to eradicate entire ideologies as proportional, despite the unrealistic claim that an idea or a frustration can be bombed out of existence.
Any terrorist attack hitting the Western world strikes two core areas: the safety of citizens and the liberal values that underpin our societies. Holding onto those values, of free speech, tolerance and respect for all, is fundamental in combatting terrorism, as is ensuring that a world is created where the risk of falling victim to the siren song of fanaticism is lessened. A better, safer world is within reach – we must ensure that we do not destroy the one we have in our quest to reach it.