By Benoit Gomis
America's biggest enemy after 9/11 was not Bin Laden and his followers but its inability to maintain a realistic sense of the threat they posed.
While Britain has not been at the forefront of the so-called 'War on Terror' as much as the United
States has, Conflict and Terrorism expert Dr Kassimeris's remark, which appeared in his book "Playing Politics with
Terrorism", for a large part remains valid for Britain's response as well. Since 9/11,
Britain has spent billions of pounds on its counter-terrorism efforts and put in place new laws and technologies
that have restricted civil liberties. As outlined in the 2010 National Security Strategy, the British government still operates
under the assumption that 'al Qaeda remains the most potent terrorist threat to the UK'.
In the meantime, only one Islamic terrorist attack has been successfully implemented in Britain after 9/11. In the entire European Union (EU) in 2009, as noted in the EU's Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010, only one out of 294 terrorist attacks was carried out by Islamist plotters. More broadly, a number of experts and commentators have pointed out that many more people die every year from crime, suicide, hospital infections, alcohol abuse, automobile accidents and cancer, than from terrorism. As noted by Aberystwyth University Professor Richard Jackson, 'on a statistical scale of personal risk, terrorism ranks somewhere around the risk of being killed in a home repairs accident or being struck by lightening'. Additionally, each year more economic damage is in fact inflicted by organised crime and more physical damage is done to infrastructure by natural disasters.
Are these comparisons valid? Has the British government's response to Islamic terrorism been irrational? Has the government simply overplayed the threat? It would be naïve to underestimate the threat posed by al Qaeda - the organisation is far more dangerous than traditional terrorists groups. Its remit is not limited to ethno-separatist objectives and it has operated in many different places around the world. While the number of Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe in the last few years ranks near those carried out by the French radical group Comité d'Action Viticole, al Qaeda's desired impact is extreme in comparison with all other terrorist groups in the world. Causing mass casualties within the civilian population is part of al Qaeda's strategy to get its political and ideological message across. As suggested by Professor Paul Wilkinson CBE, Chairman of the Advisory Board of the University of St Andrews Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, al Qaeda aims to have 'a lot of people dead and a lot of people watching'. Traditional risk management mechanisms therefore do not apply here and under-reaction must be avoided.
Military operations launched in the aftermath of 9/11 in the name of the 'War on Terror' are still ongoing today. Since 2001, approximately 225,000 people have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of foreign military intervention, including 11,700 Afghani civilians and 125,000 Iraqi civilians. Crucially, calling a counter-policy a 'War on Terror' has in fact legitimised al Qaeda as an equal rival to the US-led 'coalition of the willing'.
While the British government focused on external threat, Islamic violent extremism has grown within Britain. This development is a direct impact of foreign interventions in the Middle East and an indirect result of insufficient attention paid to domestic changes. In the aftermath of the London bombings on July 7, 2005, perpetrated by plotters born and/or raised in Britain, the government renewed its counter-radicalisation efforts within the country. However, this process has been implemented largely through the view that terrorists are vulnerable, fanatic, apolitical and clearly linked to the al Qaeda network. On the contrary, evidence now suggests that there is not one single route to terrorism.
What is clear though, is that terrorism is first and foremost a political problem. The presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is a key driving factor of Islamic terrorism, but the issue is even deeper. The al Qaeda ideology appeals to some in Britain because these individuals feel excluded from the political process and believe that the only way their voice can be heard is through violent extremism. Rather than only tackling the terrorists' tactics, which keep evolving to exploit security vulnerabilities in the counter-terrorism policies, the government must renew its efforts in understanding the issue, tackling ideology and addressing grievances. As
author Samia Serageldin famously said, 'trying to understand is not to justify; not trying to understand is unjustifiable'.
As previously mentioned, there has not been any successful terrorist attack since 2005, yet this does not necessarily signify that Prevent - the counter-radicalisation strand of the British government's counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) - is actually working. In other words, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Violent extremism is still an issue in Britain. A number of plots have been disrupted and unravelled in the past few years, perhaps most notoriously the liquid bomb plot, which aimed to detonate liquid bombs on board more than ten transatlantic flights in 2006. Additionally, Islamic terrorism remains very active in other parts of the world, particularly in Yemen. Domestically, the British government's domestic Prevent strategy has generally confused social integration and intelligence gathering, creating a relatively opaque system without enough space for local Muslim communities to engage on crucial issues related to Islam, political activism and the use of violence. In particular the Channel project, aimed to support individuals vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists and led at the local level by the police, in partnership with local authorities, has been criticised for mixing 'soft' and 'hard' missions.
In sum, tackling the operational aspects of terrorist plots is essential in securing Britain and its inhabitants. Technology in particular should be a key part of a broad counter-terrorism strategy in order to successfully deter and disrupt terrorist activities. However, addressing the root causes of terrorism in Britain and abroad is the ultimate solution. This should be achieved in a more open and transparent way, by drawing a clear distinction between intelligence gathering and social integration policies. In this regard, the new Prevent strategy (issued in June 2011 and based on the conclusions of the independent review of Prevent undertaken by Lord Carlile of Berriew) is right to hand social cohesion objectives back to the Department for Communities and Local Government. However in a 'Big Society' where we are 'all in this together', now is time to engage in a broader dialogue engaging with all individuals and local communities which feel rejected from the mainstream political system. In an increasingly interconnected and complex world, the traditional 'us' vs. 'them' approach in counter-radicalisation can no longer stand.
Benoit Gomis is a Research Analyst at the International Security Programme of Chatham House.
Copyright, Chatham House; Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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