Preventing attacks remains tricky in liberal democracies

Monday 18 March 2019

The word 'TERROR' with a red X on top of it

The financial and ethical cost of the sort of surveillance to secure us from terrorism may not be permissible or tolerable.

In summary

  • Opinion piece for The Australian, by Dr Jason Thomas, Lecturer in postgraduate Risk Management, Swinburne University of Technology

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak and history shows that when aimed at the innocent it always fails to achieve its strategic goals. But it remains a tactic of non-state actors while being sponsored by many states, ­notably Iran.

These days, as the powerful simplicity of personalised technology meshes with the inner workings of a barbaric psychopath, it can have global impact. And despite our technical advances with big data we are no closer to predicting acts of terrorism.

Extremists use terrorism to inspire followers and disorientate opponents. They seek to provoke enemies into repressive measures or overreactions. This provides an intellectual justification for their violence.

Terrorist acts serve to advertise a cause across a sympathetic base, to disorient the lives of the target population and to signal to governments the cost of “non-compliance”. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been hijacked as force-multipliers. And it is shameful how long the social media giants are taking to shut down extremist content.

In 2006, terrorism expert Max Abrahms examined 28 terrorist groups as designated by the US Department of State. He showed when terrorists had ideological objectives — to transform a political system (usually to fascism, Marxism or Islamism), or annihilate it because of its values — their success rate is zero. Even one of the most tactically successful terrorist movements, the 19th-century anarchists, with no internet and no command-and-control structure, assassinated more political leaders than almost any cause before or since, but still failed. He also found that those attacking civilian targets rather than military ones systematically failed to achieve their ideological objectives.

That is, unless we let them. Ostracising those who respectfully debate the role of Islamist extremism in Western society and labelling them Islamophobic plays into the hands of the far-Right nutbags as much as it does al-Qa’ida. Islamophobia is one of a plethora of postmodern phrases confected in this outraged age of identity politics. It combines those who target believers (a hate crime that should be utterly condemned) and the critique of a religion, which is a right of anyone in our democracy.

We are at risk of being the first generation to allow terrorists of any persuasion to achieve their political goals.

Irrespective of the religious, ethnic or national identity of the terrorist, the extremism manifested as ­violence is an evil inflicted on us all. And, despite the promises of big data it is unlikely to enable authorities to predict terrorist attacks. We do not live in a world of pre-crime depicted in the futuristic Tom Cruise movie Minority Report. As French philosopher Michel Foucault reminded us: “Sovereignty is exercised within the borders of a territory, discipline is exercised on the bodies of individuals, and security is exercised over a whole population.”

Yet the financial and ethical cost of the sort of surveillance to help secure us may not be permissible or tolerable. Even when our security agencies identify a psychopath with a history of direct association with terrorist organisations, they cannot predict when that person might lash out.

In April 2017, Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali was arrested outside London’s Houses of Parliament carrying a bag of knives, not far from where weeks before Khalid Masood had driven a vehicle into pedestrians along Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer. Omar Ali had been under surveillance for being an alleged al-Qa’ida bombmaker in Afghanistan. In 2012, US forces found his fingerprints on improvised explosive device components in Afghanistan. Still, no one could predict when or how Omar Ali would attack.

Experts’ research shows it is impossible to tell when a person will switch from ranting online to conducting an attack.

Perhaps the only common factor is that terrorists are unexceptional, many simply losers drawn to a cause they believe gives their vacant lives purpose.

Others had a falling out with life, such as the Danish Muslim convert turned MI6 and CIA informant Morten Storm. Often people gravitate to terrorism because they like violence. It has been argued that the sad, mad and bad can present themselves in a life-and-death struggle against the establishment.

Often terror cells, or small self-organising groups, come together through random friendships, at which point there is nothing extraordinary about them. But people considered ordinary are capable of evil. It is common, following a terrorist attack such as Friday’s, to hear former acquaintances express surprise the apparently harmless person they knew had committed evil.

We have been very successful in disrupting terrorists’ plans but this has required ­intense, focused resources.

If we want more of disruption and intervention, then expect a dramatic increase in the resources required to disrupt those dedicated to hatred. But no terrorist or their nonviolent sympathisers should force us into the position of former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who said in 1908: “When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance”.

Jason Thomas teaches risk management at the Swinburne University of Technology and is director of Frontier Assessments. Read his opinion piece originally published in The Australian.