The following text is an attempt to develop a genuine and realistic narrative on terrorism from a progressive and humanist point of view. It is not about so-called ‘counter-narratives’, whose purpose is rather to prevent radicalisation by casting doubts on the motivations and justifications of potential extremists. It is more about bringing what can be said about and what can be offered against Europe’s currently resurgent terrorist threat into the same encompassing sweep. Each paragraph addresses one aspect, and is both independent and related to the broader narrative.
Terrorism and its effects
The concept of terrorism is not just an affirmation of theory but a concrete manifestation of political violence throughout history.
By definition, the aim of a terror attack is not primarily about the number of dead. It is not as much the casualties that matter to the terrorists but the shock, and in its aftermath, the separation and polarisation it wedges into society. As confirmed by Dabiq (Daech’s propaganda magazine) itself, the target is the “grey zone”, the bulk of citizens who have refused to, or simply have not yet decided to, pick sides in the conflict that the terrorists stage. The aim is to trigger a cycle of repression, radicalisation, and realignment into two clear opposing fronts. The blast and the fear thus pose triple challenges: first, to the state and its institutions: to show their inability to protect their citizens from pain, fear, and discrimination; second, to the resilience and cohesion of a society: instil defiance and pit communities against one another; and, third, to the values it is built upon: freedom, tolerance, democracy, solidarity, openness…
Terrorism is not new to Europe. Its modern history is filled with theoreticians and practitioners of terrorist means for political ends. From anarchists’ targeted killings, to the wars of decolonisation, to separatist movements and radical-left or extreme-right violence, almost every European country has experienced a form of domestic or foreign terrorism in peacetime. Yet just as the threat was slowly receding, the 2000s saw a wave of jihadist-inspired terrorist attacks that synthesised anarchist methods, anti-colonialist political rhetoric, and the radical left’s globalised frame of reference.
Between 2013 and 2018, Western Europe was the target of 39 attacks linked to the Syrian-Iraqi regional warzone, plus 13 failed attempts and more than 100 plots. The last major one took us to the popular Ramblas in Barcelona when in the 2017 summer, a driver ploughed through the crowd, killing 16 and injuring hundreds. Since, there has been the gruesome stabbing rampage in Marseille, a killing spree in southern France in March 2018, and Liège in May. And the memories: 16 years since the Twin Towers were hit by Al Qaeda’s plane commandos, opening a new chapter in world history, 13 since the carnage at Atocha estacíon and 12 since the London blast… It has been two years since the Paris attacks and three since the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The bodies of Berlin, Manchester, Nice, Munich, and Barcelona dot the path of this new decade of fears. And, in 2011, a Norwegian white-supremacist killer spectacularly reminded the forgetful that terrorism is not a jihadist monopoly.
The fear is real, understandable, and legitimate. As we contemplate the ashes, count the bodies, witness the blood spatter, and become fixated by the powerful media images created in the wake of each attack, we cannot help but shake our heads in shock and awe. Of course, one could demand the same manifestation of dread and compassion in front of the desolation and the pain that have overwhelmed and engulf Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Egyptian Sinai, and too many exotic faraway places in the same spiral of blind violence. And that is without even mentioning the high numbers of civilian casualties in the fallout of adventurous and often counterproductive military interventions. But let us admit that distance matters. We, Europeans, are mourning our own departed, and these victims are extensions of ourselves far more than any distant strangers could ever be. Everywhere, in our social networks, personal bubbles, and broader entourage, in the permanent chatter of newsrooms and the noise of the political emotion, we are faced with the many conflicting sentiments lashing inside us. Overall, we have been living in the shadow of terrorist networks and cells and every time we almost forget it, some trial or blast brings back an awareness we never wanted in the first place.
Fortunately with the shock, and before the political rumble, come the manifestations of our humanity. Love and compassion for the fallen and the wounded, kindred kindness for the simple heroes of the day whether police, firefighters, nurses, cab drivers or simple bystanders, and poignant calls to fend off the hate, anger and desire for revenge. “Vous n’aurez pas ma haine” [You won’t have my hate] wrote Antoine Leiris, whose wife was a victim of the Paris Bataclan attack, in a Facebook post gone viral. The Norwegian Prime Minister offered “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity” after the Uttoya extreme-right massacre. So far, European societies have proven to be more mature than most of their political class and media outlets. They have shown deep resilience. Yet as we can see in public debate, they stumble on an unresolved issue: living with the looming threat of terror.
Facing the threat
The complexity of the phenomenon demands that we break from Pavlovian defensive reflexes and seriously investigate the root causes of this political violence.
The mainstream answer is to fight the terrorists and terrorism as if it were warfare. Yet, a ‘war on terror’ cannot be won by military means. Sure, an army can defeat a state, conquer a territory or disrupt terrorist bases, as it did to the so-called Caliphate. It can even act as a temporary deterrent in its own home country – like an occupation force. But blind and disproportionate repression breeds terrorism. Whereas military responses might reassure some civilians in the short term, they attract more attacks in the long term, by vindicating terrorist claims of self-defence, and offer an obvious target, symbolic and legitimate altogether. Where countries have chosen to patrol their streets with the armed forces, soldiers have been subject to repeated attacks – like in Northern Ireland, France and Belgium.
Lest we forget, the war on terror is the dystopian condition in which totalitarian regimes are founded and thrive upon, in reality such as the Terror of Revolutionary France as in fiction. From the textbook case of 1984 to V for Vendetta, The Handmaids’ Tale, and the Philipp K. Dick universe, authoritarian powers build legitimacy and exert power through promising of absolute security in exchange for all individual freedoms. Dissent becomes treason. Anyone can become a suspect. Anything or anyone not aligned with the official thought and actions of the government becomes suspect and is presented to the public as a security threat.
This image feeds the wrong assumption that there is a ‘balance’ to strike between two opposites: security and freedom. That there can be no freedom for its enemies. That human rights do not apply to the barbarians who have relinquished their belonging to humanity and civilisation. That if criminals have no rights, potential criminals should be denied theirs too. But security and rights cannot be ‘balanced’ as in an equation, for this implies that any increase in security will automatically result in a lowering of rights and vice versa. Normalising the idea removing our rights and freedoms to feel safer is dangerous. Quite the opposite: security is at the service of freedom. Human rights and liberties are fundamental values, as is security, but they are not applied with the same enthusiasm. In a truly democratic society, security should be understood as the security of freedom and rights. Curtailing the freedom of opinion or belief, for example, can be dangerous for peace in society. Fundamental rights must secured and protected for each and every citizen.
Indeed the logic of suspicion starts with individuals, before implicating bigger groups and then whole communities. Hasty condemnations and hastier solutions are always tempting. The widespread feeling of a separation between ‘us’ targets and ‘them’ terrorists is a powerful drive to erect walls and borders. The danger must be foreign. If necessary, it must be made foreign through stripping suspects of their citizenship. But ‘foreign fighters’ are called so because, in Syria as elsewhere, they’re ‘foreigners’ since they mainly come from Europe. No matter what delusional politicians and frightened, angry citizens tell themselves, today’s terrorism is first and foremost home grown. Whether jihadist or extreme-right inspired, terror attacks are perpetrated in their vast majority by European citizens, who hit places and symbols they’ve grown close to. Which means that the threat cannot be treated with borders, exclusion, and deportation. It must be identified, understood, and defused.
So, how have these citizens come to take up arms against their own? Unfortunately, it is impossible to isolate one path towards violent extremism. Of course, social cohesion, political context, economic condition, religious and ideological ideals, personal traumas and psychological vulnerabilities, as well as surroundings and networks, constitute many factors and triggers behind becoming a terrorist. Pretending that one is more important, and trumps all others, is a dangerous choice that ignores the full picture – and betrays strong political bais. Yet all these factors converge to one certainty: ‘radicalisation’ is the search for answers for individuals who feel ‘uprooted’. Hence the major focus of prevention is to find ways to strengthen the fabric of our societies, the possibilities extended to everyone to integrate socially, economically, and culturally Whether they are estranged youngsters looking up for extreme-right action, neo-converts with an extreme appetite for Islamic righteousness, citizens sidelined and alienated due to their foreign origins, or foreign fighters returning home from jihad, they need to be inserted, incorporated and integrated in a society that provides them with roots. The challenge is political, not military nor technical.
Making Islam the root of terrorism and prime cause for bloodshed is one tempting political move. It makes common sense, in a Samuel Huntington way, since, evidently, the killers proclaim their Muslim faith and the terrorist networks root their violence in a political and ideological interpretation of religion. Harsh condemnations of ‘Islam’ flare from different parts of the European societies, emboldened by diffuse public anxieties prone to stoke the same fears of migrants, Muslims, and terrorists. Suddenly everyone becomes an expert in Islamic theology to discuss, condemn, or dispel a fantasised intrinsic link to extremist violence. But once the callous machinery of conflicting identities is set in motion gradually, the actual political challenge is quickly overshadowed by identity politics. Moreover, calls from non-Muslims for ‘moderate Islam’, ‘condemnation of violence by Muslim communities’ or ‘Islamic reformation’ only strengthen the assumption that Islam is the problem.
Akin to Europe’s dominant Judaeo-Christian heritage, Islam was however always the objectified face of either the enemy or the colony. If it undoubtedly belongs to Europe’s history, it is too often as the Other of Europe. A religious and cultural interpretation of the ‘civilisation’ is what binds together terrorists and extreme-right activists. For it makes their preferred strategy the only one possible: confrontation and prohibition. Outside: strong walled and barbwire borders, whether at EU or national levels, and inside: suspicion, surveillance and, gradually, deportation. This slippery slope is already being considered and pursued at the highest levels of mainstream politics. However, for some, it is still too timid and slow. The doppelgänger of jihadi violence, the radicalisation of far-right groups and activists bears testament to the foul degradation of the political climate. From Italy to Germany, where right-wing violence resonates even deeper, to France, where anti-Muslim plots have been foiled, looms the risk of ‘retributive’ violent extremism.
Refusing the religious and cultural bias in the fight against terrorist networks cannot bypass the thorny issue of Salafism. A rigid, simplified, and globalised version of Islam – very easy to embrace with a comfortable personal structuring effect – Salafism would be to religion what fast food is to cuisine. A negation of the cultural Islam inherited from the former generations, it uproots its followers and offers a path to break with society. Salafism is a double paradox for a free open society. First, it is essentially peaceful and contemplative but at the same time is the dominant reference for jihadist terrorists. Because, second, its harsh and uncompromising rejection of Western modernity, democracy, and values can encourage violent extremism. Comparable to a form of sectarian deviance, it questions the limits of freedom of opinion and consciousness in a tolerant society – and the political appreciation of hierarchy between a community’s cohesion and its fundamental values.
Mending the fabric of the world
The only way out is not repressing or embracing violence but to quench the thirst for it.
The issue of values is a delicate double-edged sword for the West, constantly torn between universalist aspirations and the many shocking manifestations of its historical dominance over the rest of the world. As a black mirror of guilt comes the argument that the rise of jihadist violence is a somewhat explicable price for two centuries of colonisation, looting, oil wars, arms dealing, cynicism, shameful compromises on basic human rights principles at home and abroad, extra-judicial killings, and continuing discrimination against extra-European populations within Europe. Indeed, some sincere soul-searching should eventually foster new sustainable, fair and human-rights based energy, social and foreign policies. It would stop fuelling jihadist rhetoric and raise the standards of EU values. But such reasoning remains so utterly self-centred that it tends to overstretch the political interpretations and motivations of the terrorists. Moreover, it overlooks the reality of the immediate threat, dismissing the concerns.
Terrorism is an ever-morphing reality. Our modern history is dotted by the successive attempts of violent extremist individuals transgressing the rules of the political game to express their brutal and absolutist forms of demand. No amount of security laws and technology will ever be enough to prevent a handful of radicalised fascistic or jihadist militants to risk their lives for a cause they consider superior. A successful counterterrorist policy is not measured by an increasing number of foiled attacks, but by a decreasing number of attacks to foil.
Evidently, today’s plots must be foiled. From national to EU levels, that requires measures to enhance the human quality of intelligence services and prisons, a more efficient tackling of links between crime and terrorism, much tighter controls on weapons and explosives, the establishment of a European Bureau of Investigations, mutual trust and exchange programmes for law enforcement officers, and constant vigilance for fundamental rights and parliamentary oversight.
But all these are drops on a hot stone. Quenching the sources of violent extremism supposes cooling the stone: it is about making tomorrow’s plots unthinkable. It means changing the global setting and building a resilient society.
Indeed, in addition to any concrete measures, it seems unavoidable to take global actions on the international stage to address the protracted conflicts that destabilise entire regions, feed the cycle of violence and suffering, and unfortunately provide fuel to many terrorist narratives. It is time for a new ‘New World Order’, one based on rule of law and genuine cooperation. Since 9/11, the global threat of terrorism has been addressed as the new enemy of the West, under US leadership, leading to a costly and dangerous drift into adventurous and often counterproductive military interventions with high numbers of civilian casualties, unlawful killings by armed drones, illegal programmes from powerful agencies, and turning a blind eye on inhuman practices in the name of counter-terrorism. Yet the world has not become more secure, terrorist networks have morphed but survived, and unsavoury regimes play an ambivalent power game. Meanwhile, in the name of the ‘global war on terror’, many EU countries have accepted compromising on basic human rights. But will the ends justify just any means?
Rather than a ‘radicalisation of Islam’, the combination of a globalised disincarnated version of Islam to a geopolitical context of western abuses paves the way for an ‘Islamisation of radicalism’ – and a disturbing right-wing radicalisation in some European countries. What stands out from reading the many reports, experiences, and programmes from so-called ‘first line’ practitioners and other experts if not the difficulty for our wealthy, developed, western societies have overcoming their own contradictions? It is in the many deep cracks of our inner condition that the radicalised violent networks have woven their web. We can always try to clean, and swipe, and sanitise, and chase or kill the spiders, but the cracks will remain. And in their dark and remote protective depths, newer monsters will breed, older demons will dance, spawning another generation of individuals ready to embrace the ways of violent extremism. These cracks are numerous, some wide open, some insidious and hidden, but they all have the same origin: loose social fabric, tension in the relations between individuals, lack of care for psychological vulnerabilities, limited basic education combined with failed, biased medias, weakened institutions and leadership, scarce prospects for the future… A society that no longer provides enough meaning to be respected and defended.
Mending those cracks is the ultimate prevailing long-term political project and priority. To bring about meaningful, sensible prospects, designing a desirable future anchored in this world and not in the simplistic fantasy of a great beyond. It is urgent to make sense. A shared sense.