Countering Twenty-First Century Terrorism

It is time that politicians recognised that minimising the threat from groups such as Islamic State and the new IRA is far more realistic than pretending terrorism can be completely defeated, writes Richard English.

In 2003, Labour Party MP John McDonnell, told a gathering to London to commemorate Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, that republican terrorists should be ‘honoured’ for their role in the ‘armed struggle’. McDonnell's comments re-emerged recently, in the wake of his recent appointment as Shadow Chancellor by Jeremy Corbyn. The controversy stirred by his remarks reminds us of the importance, and also the delicacy, of political discussion of terrorism and responses to it. While individual terrorist organisations and campaigns will tend to fizzle out, terrorism as a method of political struggle will outlive us all. But have we actually learned from the long history of terrorism and counter-terrorism? Are we able to address this blood-stained mode of political action in the 21st century? Or are we still struggling to find solutions to the ever-present threat of terrorism?

Here, I want to argue that we have yet to recognise as fully as we should, three central realities of the problem of terrorism in contemporary society: acknowledging the relationship between terrorist violence and state actions; the need to keep the terrorist threat in proportion and to respond appropriately; and the importance of being realistic about what can be done to counter terrorism.


Non-State Violence and State Actions

We tend to ignore the intimate and mutually shaping relationship that exists between non-state terrorist violence and state actions (including state counter-terrorism, much of it very violent itself). Even with a Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership in place in the United Kingdom, it remains far from fashionable to point out both that post-9/11 UK and US attempts to reduce terrorism, actually led to significant increases in terrorist violence and terrorist-generated fatalities, and also that this was especially the case in some of the arenas in which that counter-terrorist effort was most concentrated, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, there is more involved in counter-terrorism than just the countering of terrorism. Politicians have to think about a variety of other goods: reassuring their voters and their wider populations that the state is acting strongly in their defence; and, of course, there is also the business of getting re-elected into power.

But, while there were complex arguments around the merits and demerits of militarily deposing Saddam Hussein in early 21st century Iraq, there is little doubt that – in terms of countering terrorism, at least – that initiative was deeply destructive and counter-productive. Moreover, the problems caused by the Iraq war have bled over into other arenas. The shallow claim that the west needed to attack Saddam's regime because he possessed weapons of mass destruction, was one which so deeply damaged UK and US credibility that it hampered serious debate on how to respond, years later, to a Syrian regime which almost certainly was using such weapons against its people. And the erosion of effective state power in Iraq and Syria has, whatever its supposed justifications, resulted in the space and legitimacy which have produced the Jihadist Islamic State and significant turbulence and conflict across the Middle East and beyond.

One spill-over from this has been the now prominent question of people from western states going to Syria or Iraq to fight on behalf of Islamic State. In so far as this is a problem, it is one facilitated in significant part by the western state decisions taken in the very early years of this century in supposedly countering terrorism. There is a genuine risk of blowback here, with a small number of those who have travelled out, then returning with the intention of carrying out lethal violence against their western state of departure. Clearly, this needs to be monitored and countered. But we should keep this threat in proportion (on which issue, more later), and we should be honest about the roots of this problem lying in contingent decisions that were taken by western governments themselves recently.

It is far easier, of course, to identify problems in state policy when you are merely a university professor, not facing the urgent and complex issues involved in exerting power in real-time crisis. But the crucial point is surely this: that the long history of terrorism and counter-terrorism should have taught us well before 2003 to anticipate that, for example, military deployment tends to be counter-productive in contexts where inter-communal volatility and enmity will be exacerbated by inevitable collateral damage, and where the military engagement is likely to be seen as an illegitimate foreign occupation. The United States had had less experience, perhaps, of this issue before 9/11 than had the United Kingdom. But there could be no excuse at all for any UK politician being unaware of what was likely to happen in Baghdad from 2003 onwards, unless they had completely ignored what had happened in Belfast during the last 50 years (which, of course, they very possibly did). Amnesia combined here with short-term planning to produce a vicious set of tit-for-tat dynamics, with the result that terroristic and other violence increased greatly in and beyond Iraq.

So this century, like the last one, opened with a terrorist atrocity, state responses to which changed history in very violent directions. 9/11 did not generate anything like the cataclysm of the First World War. But, as with the June 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand which triggered the 1914–18 conflict, so too the terrorist attacks of September 2001 prompted contingent state responses, and it was these which decisively turned the course of history, and turned it towards greater killing and destruction.

This is not to say that state mistakes justify anti-state terrorism. But it is to argue that much of the sustenance and legitimacy of non-state terrorism has historically derived from states making egregious errors in clumsy and myopic counter-terrorist policies, and then ignoring the fact that those mistakes have played any role. Much UK discussion about Islamic State has failed to account for the feedback loop that has made terrorism a much more serious problem since the 9/11 attacks than it had been beforehand. Not only, therefore, is there a long-term amnesia about the effects of UK and other western foreign policy in shaping current politics (how much popular recognition is there, for example, of the role that Britain played in the establishment and nature of modern Iraq in the first place?); there is also a short-term forgetting of the complex consequences of recent state policy – in this case, a post-9/11 counter-terrorism which made the terrorist problem in some ways far worse.


Appropriate Responses

The main goal of states in countering terrorism should be to avoid making the worst mistakes that are available to them. A week in which no further gifts are given to terrorists is probably a good week for state practitioners in the field of counter-terrorism. Part of this involves my second point in this article: that we need to keep the terrorist problem in appropriate proportion. Sophisticated database analysis makes clear again and again, how comparatively limited terrorism-generated levels of death and injury actually are when set against more major threats. This is not to minimise or dismiss the terrible human consequences of non-state terrorist violence. I taught for 22 years at a university in Belfast, during which time students and one colleague were shot, and within which setting very many people whom one encountered had had their lives terribly maimed by callous terrorist action.

Exaggerated fears can prompt unhelpful reactions, and they have frequently done so in the past. Most terrorist groups fail to achieve their central goals, and states tend to endure terrorist challenges better and more stably than is sometimes feared at the start of a campaign against them. That being the case, states can respond with less panic, and with less sense of the need for draconian extensions of power, than often appears to be the case when bombs explode.

Much of the best counter-terrorism in the past (whether in West Germany against the Baader-Meinhof Group, in Northern Ireland against the Irish Republican Army, Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, or in post-9/11 New York against Jihadists) has been achieved by patient, professional police work, carried out within the framework of normal, inherited, democratic legal processes.

The scale and shock of 9/11 was such that it is hard to imagine any US President opting for an intelligence-based and police-led criminal response. But I suspect that such a response, combined with more sharply-focused military action in Afghanistan but not the engagement in Iraq, would have been far more effective in dealing with al-Qaida terrorism than has the actual set of policies that were in fact pursued.

So when we think about how to respond to terrorism, we need (first) to be sharply conscious of the legacies and relationships involved in state policies as they affect terrorist actions and justifications, and we need (second) to keep in proportion this grand, but not existential, threat. For, contrary to what the UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently suggested, Islamic State does not represent an existential threat to Britain or its way of life; in the longer term, climate change probably does. Recognising these rival realities would allow for saner policy regarding these and other threats and challenges in the future.


Countering Terrorism

We need to be realistic about what can actually be done to counter terrorism. I mean this in two senses, both operationally (preventing terrorist actions day-by-day) and also in terms of the continuation of a long-term terrorist problem as such. No police force or intelligence service will be able to prevent all terrorist operations from being carried out. And no government will be able – despite the absurd rhetoric sometimes deployed during the George W. Bush and Tony Blair years – to rid the world of international terrorism (much less of evil). No state, however tolerant and efficient, will be entirely free from people with serious grievances and with the belief that violence is justified in their pursuit.

So when something terrible occurs – the killing in London of Fusilier Lee Rigby, for example – it is of course important to assess how far state and society can amend procedures to make such atrocities less likely in future. But it is vital also to acknowledge that not every brutal act can be prevented, and to admit the limits of the possible, recognising that such terrorist attacks are likely from time to time to be part of our experience. In this sense, learning to live with terrorism is more realistic and rational than pretending that it can be extirpated.

As we do learn to live with terrorism, we should think honestly about how we react to particular episodes. If a gunman on a Tunisian beach seeks (as terrorists so often do) to effect revenge and to provoke a reaction which will damage their enemy, then we should be careful about giving them exactly what they seek. Tragically, the logic of the Sousse killings in the summer of 2015 was that, indeed, if one wanted to gain revenge and to damage the economy of one's opponent, then such murderous attacks can have great success. However understandable the response of people in fleeing Tunisia and avoiding it, such decisions leave a legacy for the future.

What I am arguing is not that we can produce a perfect response to terrorism. Of course not. But if we recognise that minimising the threat of terroristic actions is more appropriate than pretending that we can defeat and get rid of terrorism; if we remain calm in the face of what is a serious but not existential crisis; and if – above all – we acknowledge that what powerful states have done and now choose to do helps to explain why terrorists carry out their violence – if we honestly adhere to these realities, then we can alter the path of our century, and direct it along more peaceful paths than we have yet managed to do.


Further Reading

  • Richard EnglishTerrorism: How to Respond (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Richard English (ed.), Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Gary LaFreeLaura Dugan and Erin MillerPutting Terrorism in Context: Lessons from the Global Terrorism Database (Routledge, 2015).
  • Louise RichardsonWhat Terrorists Want (John Murray, 2006).