The impotence of terrorism

The horror of 9/11 taught us to view terrorism as a threat to our civilisation. That has blinded us to the weakness of its perpetrators.


The White House situation room during the raid that killed Bin Laden. There is something strange about the leaders of a superpower giving so much attention to small groups of zealots. (Source: Pete SouzaWhite House Flickr Feed)

This post is the first part of a multi-part series on the perils of overreacting to terrorism. Please check back in over the next fortnight for subsequent installments.

So, what are you arguing today?

That politicians, the media and the public all dramatically overstate the threat of terrorism. It is a tactic utilised by weak movements, not strong ones and we would be wise to pay it less heed.

Why do you think that?

Because we seem to have made a transnational assessment that terrorism and jihadism are matters of overriding importance.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 80% of Americans registered to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election considered terrorism as “very important” to their vote. That’s more than said the same of healthcare, education, immigration, the environment, or abortion. Only the economy registered as a greater concern.

Even terrorist attacks with modest casualties become a focus of attention to people living thousands of miles away. The day after the incident on Westminster Bridge that killed four people, my colleagues here in Korea felt compelled to ask me about it and to check I was OK. Had those four fatalities been caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol rather than a political ideology, I doubt they’d even have known that it happened. It would have been a local news story rather than an international one.

BBC new bulletins gave the recent attacks in Stockholm precedence over the US airstrikes on the Assad regime. President Xi Jingping sent condolences to the King of Sweden. In turn, the Swedish Prime Minister vowed that his country would not be ‘defeated’ and that Swedes would not be prevented from living ‘normal lives’. In many ways this is an admirable sentiment but the Prime Minister’s comments had the unfortunate impact of implying that a single guy driving a truck had put the survival of a nation of ten million people with a thirty thousand strong military into question.

Politicians seem unable to resist putting terrorism in these grave terms. The Swedish PM was trying to be reassuring and to indicate that his nation is stronger than the terrorists attacking it. Yet in the process, he framed their efforts as an existential threat to Sweden.

Many politicians are even less restrained.  George W. Bush responded to 9/11 by declaring that America was now at “war” with terrorism. Others have gone further still. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that this was not simply a war but ‘World War III’. Gingrich was an early endorser of Donald Trump, who carried forward his backer’s theme. At one point the future president said that:

In the 20th Century, the United States defeated Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Now, a different threat challenges our world: Radical Islamic Terrorism.

Isn’t such a strong reaction warranted? The terrorists are trying to kill us!

They are but they are highly unlikely to succeed. The US State Department estimates that about 35,000 people a year are killed in terrorist attacks. Which sounds like – and is – a lot of death. Remember though, that this number is spread out across the entire globe. To put it in perspective, 56.4 million people die each year. That means terrorism represents 0.0006% of all mortality. It is dwarfed by the truly big killers like heart disease, diabetes and traffic accidents, each of which kill millions each year. It is  even less common than fairly niche causes of death like dog and snake bites (55,000 and 94,000 fatalities respectively). Being killed by a terrorist is, essentially, ‘winning’ the world’s worst lottery.

It doesn’t feel like that. Every time I turn on the television there seems to be a report of fresh attacks. In the past few weeks alone there have been attacks in Alexandria, London and Stockholm.

The media distorts our perception of risk. It is drawn to terrorism because it makes a compelling story. It involves danger, provides a clear villain and we can easily imagine ourselves being caught up in it. As a result, they will bring you terrorism stories whenever and wherever they happen. The three incidents just mentioned, happened thousands of miles apart in three different countries on two separate continents. The media focuses on the needle, not the haystack. As a result, it feels like there are needles everywhere.

Indeed, a large part of why terrorism is news is precisely because it’s rare. A death from cancer or a car crash seems mundane. But terrorism is far enough outside our ordinary experience to make for compelling television.

 But don’t Islamist terrorist groups have aspirations that go beyond bombing and shootings?

There are places in the world – Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria, Yemen – where this is a very real concern. In these places, terrorist groups have ceased to simply be terrorist groups. They have raised armies with which they can take and then rule territory. But that’s not true of anywhere in the West (or most other places really).

Well established states can generally suppress guerrilla movements. For example, the Provisional IRA fought the British state for almost three decades in pursuit of a United Ireland. It was a sophisticated, disciplined and well-organised group. It carried out bombings, shootings, assassinations and kidnappings, not only in Northern Ireland but also on the British mainland. It had fundraising, training, propaganda and counter-intelligence departments as well as an affiliated political party. At its peak, it may have had as many as 30,000 active members, a number that does not count auxiliaries and is all the more striking because it was focused on combatting a single state, not most of the world like ISIS. Members of British intelligence whose careers have spanned both the fight against Irish and Islamist terrorism, have reportedly commented that stopping attacks by the former was harder because the IRA enjoyed more support in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland than the Jihadis do amongst British Muslims. As a result, the security services received far fewer tips regarding the IRA than they now do about ISIS and Al Qaeda. However, despite all this the IRA was still defeated.

That’s not an isolated incident either. Spain broke ETA. Sri Lanka eliminated the Tamil Tigers. Columbia forced the FARC to the negotiating table. All of these movements were in a stronger position within their societies than ISIS and Al Qaeda are within theirs. They also had far more modest aims. Nonetheless, they still failed to achieve them.

And Jihadis are never going to get as far as the IRA and the like did. At least not in the parts of the world you probably live in. Those groups had broad bases of support. Violent jihadis do not. Their ideology has essentially zero appeal to non-Muslims and that creates a hard (and low) ceiling on its support base in most societies. Muslims make up less than 6% of Europe’s population and 1% of the United States’s. That would make those countries largely immune to any attempt at launching a large-scale insurrection within their borders. And that’s before one accounts for the clear polling evidence that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violent jihadist movements. A minority of a minority is hardly a credible basis for a successful insurgency.

So how come we seem to be suffering so many military defeats at the hands of jihadis?

Well, we did make ourselves far more vulnerable to that by sending our own forces into parts of the world with Sunni majorities.

Even then, Western militaries and their allies have a pretty reasonable record. ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was crushed during the 2007 surge. In the present day, it is losing territory and support. ISIS’s own propaganda acknowledges that it is making more use of ‘lone wolf’ attacks because its position is weakening. Their ‘Caliphate’ is disintegrating, and soon it will probably move from being a real place consisting of actual territory to an ideological abstraction. SIS may still carry out terror attacks on Western targets, but this is something it tends to do in the aftermath of military reversals in Iraq and Syria. It is its way of looking strong at moments of weakness. However, even that capacity seems to be being eroded. Of late, intense surveillance has largely prevented them from orchestrating attacks using their own networks. As a result, they have instead begun relying on using their propaganda to incite sympathisers in the West to carry out ‘lone wolf’ attacks. While this is often presented as an alarming new development, this is actually further evidence of the group’s increasing weakness. Imploring the dregs of western Muslim communities – the Westminster bridge attacker was a petty criminal and the Orlando shooter an unemployed habitual steroid user – to carry out attacks in ISIS’s name but without any material support from them, and then still give the group credit, shows a degree of resourcefulness on their part, but also the extent of their desperation. It faces the real possibility of not only becoming a state without territory, but also a movement without an organisation. Elsewhere, a joint French, African Union and Malian force defeated an Islamist insurgency in Northern Mali that once threatened to capture the nation’s capital. Boko Haram is in retreat.

The picture is, of course, not universally positive. The Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra front has successfully co-opted much of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Though, given that Russian assistance seems to have given Assad’s government the edge over the opposition, it is debatable how much that is actually worth to them. he Taliban is also gaining ground in Afghanistan, but all that amounts to is them regaining territory they lost during the 2001 invasion.

Given the disparity in military force available to Jihadis and their opponents, none of these situations should alarm us unduly. They are in a weak position, that is likely to weaken further.

Shouldn’t we still be concerned? Violence is just one way that radical Islamism can spread.

Clearly there are people telling us we should. For example, Ayann Hirsi Ali, a Somali born author who has branded Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death and the new fascism” has a new book out that purports to describe:

the ceaseless, world-wide ideological campaign waged by Islamists as a complement to jihad. It is, she says, the greatest threat facing the West and “could well bring about the end of the European Union as we know it”.

But the non-violent subversion of the West would founder for the same reason as violent insurrection. It would be entirely reliant on support from a (minority) of Muslims and there just aren’t that many of them in Europe and America.

Hirsi Ali’s rejoinder would likely be that the point of these campaigns is precisely to win new converts (and might also involve encouraging the emigration of supporters to Europe or America). It is true that Muslim populations in the West are likely to grow in the near future. However, they will do so from such a small base that it will simply go from being a small minority to a slightly larger but still small minority. Anything beyond that seems unlikely. This isn’t like the IRA trying to convince Irish Catholics to back them. The new identity radical Islamists would require potential converts to adopt, would not be complimentary to their existing one, but quite distinct and in many cases opposed to it.

Whatever we might read from Hirsi Ali (or in Breitbart or the Daily Mail), theocracy and sharia law are not coming to any unexpected places.

So, what would you like to see change in the west’s response to terrorism?

First and foremost, abandon the idea that we are engaged in a grand struggle with Islamism on a par with the fight against communism or fascism. During the Cold War, there were plausible routes by which the Soviet Union and its allies could defeat us militarily or incite the overthrow of our political systems. Those routes are simply not available to radical Islamists.

At its peak, ISIS had a fighting force the same size as Bulgaria’s. Now I don’t mean to disparage Bulgaria or its military. It is by all accounts a lovely place. And I’m sure that, if required, its people would fight ably to defend it. But it’s in no danger of being mistaken for a geopolitical superpower. If we do not put Bulgaria in that category, we should not put ISIS in it either. If Bulgaria cannot do something, neither can ISIS. If Bulgaria suddenly became a rogue state, we would regard it as an annoyance rather than an existential threat. We should think of ISIS and its ilk in a similar fashion.

Looking at the ideology of radical Islamism more broadly, we can see that it competes with liberal democracy in a few parts of the world. When we consider those regions, we should factor its power into our foreign policy calculations. We should not allow it to shape our broader strategy for engaging with the rest of the world. When the US or EU engage with China or Russia, Islamism should be considered a side issue.

We must also accept that, as threatening as it seems, terrorism is just a crime. It is not even a very common one. If four people were murdered in London or Stockholm over money or jealousy, it is clear to me that people in China or Korea would not need to worry about it. The same should be true of murders with political motivations.

If you work with the police or security services, then clearly you should aim to prevent terrorist attacks and prosecute those who commit them. While terrorism may be a modest source of mortality, we should nonetheless hope to see it reduced. However, we should also accept that there may not be proportionate means by which to prevent all deaths from terrorism. From time to time, attacks will probably happen.

When they do happen, we should view them as tragedies not catastrophes. They can no more destroy our way of life than a tiger can be felled by throwing a pebble.

Even though we must live with terrorism, we should not let that threat interfere with our ordinary lives. That’s not a new suggestion, but it is normally said in a way that implies that doing so is an act of courageous defiance. In reality, it is simple pragmatism. Most of us have more important – and more pleasant – things to be thinking about than terrorism.

But isn’t it safer to overreact than to underreact?

Hold that thought. It will be the subject of a series of further posts that I will publish over the next few days.


NOTE 1: When this post was first published there were issues with moving the text from the word document where I drafted it into WordPress. I think I’ve now fixed them but if you see, for example, the start of a sentence but not the end, please let me know.

NOTE 2: This post from Vox on the anti-Islamic worldview of Steve Bannon and other Trump advisors reinforces many of the points I made above.


5 thoughts on “The impotence of terrorism

  1. Pingback: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists | Matter Of Facts
  2. Pingback: 9/11 is NOT history’s most deadly terrorist attack | Matter Of Facts
  3. Pingback: 9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks | Matter Of Facts
  4. Pingback: How to avoid freaking out over terrorism | Matter Of Facts
  5. Pingback: Terrorism makes us feel fear, anger and compassion. We should aim instead for apathy. | Matter Of Facts

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