War on terror

Big Questions: can we stop terrorism?

Is terrorism now a part of everyday life? Will there always be an al-Qaeda or an Islamic State threatening communities and nations? Are we in a perpetual ‘war on terror’? These are questions that we’re all learning to live with.

Nick ObrienWe spoke to counterterrorism expert Associate Professor Nick O’Brien to explore some possible answers. He’s the Head of School for the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security and the Centre for Law and Justice at Charles Sturt University.

What is terrorism?

Associate Professor O’Brien started by defining what we mean when we talk about terrorism.

“There are two different things at play within this particular question: the war on terror and terrorism. The phrase ‘war on terror’ originated with George W Bush after 9/11, so it is regarded as a particular form of fight against a particular form of terrorism, namely Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. The broader question is whether terrorism – and the need to prevent and tackle it – will ever end. And the answer is almost certainly no. It has been with us in one form or another for centuries.

“While the exact legal definition changes from country to country, in broad terms the definition of terrorism is ‘violence or the threat of violence for a political, ideological or religious purpose’. If you accept that definition and look back in history, you can see that there has always been terrorism (even if it wasn’t actually called terrorism, given that the word wasn’t coined until the French Revolution).

“So if we use that definition, terrorism is unlikely to end as there will always be groups with grievances willing to use violence.”

Why does terrorism occur?

The reasons why groups and individuals resort to terrorism have traditionally been, as Associate Professor O’Brien outlined, based on two major impulses.

“A lot of terrorist groups are concerned with territory and oppression. For example, the LTTE [the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] came into existence in Sri Lanka because the government made their language illegal, the group was confined to one part of the island and it is more than likely that the government committed atrocities against the Tamil people. All this made people want to fight those they saw as oppressors.

“The same goes for Catholics in Northern Ireland with the IRA [Irish Republican Army], and the Basques in Spain with ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna]. All were formed by people wanting their own territory and governance.

“The governments of the day can exacerbate the situation, increasing the likelihood of terrorist acts. In Northern Ireland, for instance, there was internment, where people could be imprisoned without a judicial process. The effect that such activities has on communities is to make them very resentful.”

Is terrorism different today?

While the ‘war on terror’ is a recent conception, it is, as Associate Professor O’Brien pointed out, also true that the terrorist threat today is different from that in the past.

“The more dangerous thing we face today is a change in terrorism, particularly with regard to the militant Islamist groups. One of the things that defined most terrorist groups in the past was the willingness to negotiate in order to achieve their goals. So, often political actions were occurring alongside terrorist actions.

“But al-Qaeda or Islamic State don’t want to negotiate. Plus, they have the desire to kill as many people as possible. ETA, the IRA and other groups don’t want to kill large numbers of people. But today we are facing a different situation in the scale of murder.

“And this drive leads to different methods of attack. In the past it was the bomb and the bullet; now it is things like using vehicles to mow people down, as happened recently in France and in the United Kingdom. And that can happen anywhere. The frightening thing about that is all you need is someone with the motivation; if they can drive, they can get the means of mass murder. And al-Qaeda is encouraging this. They produced a magazine called Inspire and in the second issue was an article on just that: instructions on how to get a vehicle and use it as a weapon.”

How does technology aid terrorism?

One of the key drivers of this new form of terrorism is technology, as Associate Professor O’Brien explained.

“Something else significant is the use of the internet by terrorist groups. People can create propaganda materials cheaply anywhere in the world. As long as they have an internet connection they can get it out at almost no cost worldwide within seconds. In the past, terrorist organisations would have to produce leaflets which had their own dangers in terms of printing and distribution. Plus, a terrorist act – such as the Sydney café siege – is worldwide news within seconds of it starting; which is great publicity for the terrorist organisations.

“Add in social media, where terrorist groups can recruit and turn people to their cause across the world. This increases the ‘homegrown phenomena’. Terrorist organisations are sending bomb-making instructions to people, or creating YouTube instructional videos, rather than those people travelling to other countries to train. People are undertaking terrorist activities in their own countries on behalf of organisations abroad without ever having been in contact with the organisation except online.”

How do we tackle the threat of terrorism today?

So if the fight against terrorism will continue indefinitely, how do we make it as effective as possible? Associate Professor O’Brien highlighted some key aspects of contemporary counterterrorism.

“The first thing you need to do is find out why people are doing what they are doing. In some cases it’s that people want to spread Islamism around the world. In others it’s because people don’t want to be oppressed. While the internet is being used by terrorists, we mustn’t forget that it also offers opportunities. That’s in terms of tracing people and using digital evidence, as well as in terms of disseminating counter-narratives to terrorist propaganda, and understanding people’s motivations.

“Once you’ve got an idea of why people are turning to violence then you can start finding out how to stop it. It not really until you understand the ‘why’ that you can bring in useful policies to combat it.

Counterterrorism is an international effort

Associate Professor O’Brien also highlighted the transnational nature of security.

“It is important to work on counterterrorism internationally. This includes having people overseas and good liaison networks and intelligence sharing with other countries (from the Five Eyes network to good relations with Australia’s immediate neighbours, such as Indonesia).

“It would also help to be more forward-thinking when it comes to what to expect from terrorism in the future. A lot of policing professionals have been waiting for the first terrorist drone attack, and it recently happened in Venezuela. You can buy drones cheaply and it’s not difficult to strap a bomb to one. How do you combat that? And do you have the necessary laws in place to combat that?

“Politicians tend to be reactive. There are companies, for instance, that have got technologies that can take down drones. But it is currently illegal to use them in Australia. If we receive intelligence there was going to be a drone attack on a particular venue, it would actually be illegal to use the technology that could prevent it from reaching its target. Politicians tend to wait for something to happen before policy changes.

“I think it is worth saying, though, that while the threat of terrorism is a real one, terrorist attacks, particularly in Australia, are very rare. And it is a very positive thing that the Australian people – like those in France and the United Kingdom, where terrorist acts are more common – are not living in fear of terrorism.”

Do you want to help fight terrorism?

If you want to explore this question further, we have a range of policing, law, security and emergency management courses that give you opportunities to delve into the subject. From the Master of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorist Financing to the Master of Terrorism and Security Studies, you can gain expertise in the fight against terrorism, learning from the best in the business.

Contact us to find out more.

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