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In a speech made after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama criticized the media’s use of the word mastermind to describe Abdelhamid Abaaoud. “He’s not a mastermind,” he stated. “He found a few other vicious people, got hands on some fairly conventional weapons, and sadly, it turns out that if you’re willing to die you can kill a lot of people.”
Religious belief has been allied, for centuries, with fundamentalism and intolerance. It’s possible to have one without the other, but it requires a degree of self-criticism that is not easily acquired. When Calvin endorsed the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, he justified his decision by appeal to the certainty of his own religious faith.
पाक-आतंकवाद और सरकारी अव्यवस्था आज अखबार में एक खबर पढी. खबर हरियाणा की थी कि तस्कर बचाने वाले चार पुलिस कर्मी गिरफ्तार. वही एक अन्य खबर पढी जिसमें लिखा था कि रेलवे स्टॆशन उडाने की धमकी.. सर्च में दो फौजियों से मिला 40 किलो कैमिकल. हैरानी है कि ये हो क्या रहा है …वही एक […]
In a British Council report Martin Rose argues that the way STEM subjects are taught reinforces the development of a mind-set receptive to violent extremism. Well taught social sciences, on the other hand, are a potentially powerful intellectual defence against it. Whilst his primary focus was MENA (Middle East and North Africa) he draws implications for education in the West.
Terrorism in the early modern world was rather different from terrorism today. In the first place, there wasn’t any dynamite or automatic weaponry. It was harder to kill. In the second place, the idea of killing people indiscriminately, without regard to their identity, didn’t seem to occur to anyone yet. But still, there was lots of violence using terrorist tactics.
When the suspect in the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina was identified, the authorities circulated a photograph of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and post-UDIRhodesia.
The symbolism isn't subtle. Like the confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina capitol, these are flags of explicitly white supremacist governments.
Rhodesia plays a particular role within right-wing American militia culture, linking anti-communism and white supremacy. The downfall of white Rhodesia has its own sort of lost cause mythic power not just for avowed white supremacists, but for the paramilitarist wing of gun culture generally.
The power of Rhodesia for paramilitarists is evident throughout the history of Soldier of Fortune magazine, a magazine that in the 1980s especially achieved real prominence. The first issue of SoF was published in the summer of 1975, and its cover story, titled "American Mercenaries in Africa", was publisher Robert K. Brown's tale of his visit to Rhodesia in the spring of 1974. (You can see the whole issue here on Scribd. Warning: There's a gruesome and disturbing picture of a corpse with a head wound accompanying the article.) For Brown's perspective on his time in Rhodesia, see this post at Ammoland.
SoF continued to publish articles on Rhodesia throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. They also published articles about South Africa. Here's a two-page spread from the August 1985 anniversary issue (click to enlarge):
The introduction to the first article states:
SOF made quite a reputation in the early years of publication for fearless, firsthand reporting from the bloody battlefields of Rhodesia. Our efforts in that ill-fated African nation and our support of the Rhodesian government in operations against communist insurgents gained us two unfortunate, undeserved labels: racists and mercenaries. We are neither. On the other hand, we have never avoided consorting with genuine mercs to insure readers get the look and feel of Third World battlefields.
It's true that anti-communism was the primary ideology of SoF in the 1970s and 1980s and that they would take the side of anyone they considered anti-communist regardless of their race or nationality — they published countless articles supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Karen rebels in Burma (heroes of Rambo 4), and the contras in Nicaragua. (Ronald Reagan, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, supported white Rhodesia even longer than Henry Kissinger, causing them to have their first public disagreement. See Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge pp. 671-673.) But the kind of anti-communism that supported Ian Smith's Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa was an anti-communism that supported white supremacist government.
The second page there begins an article written by a veteran of the South African anti-insurgency campaigns, and it sings the praises of the brutal Koevoet (crowbar) unit in Namibia. Here's a passage from the next page: "It doesn't pay to play insurgency games with Koevoet. SWAPO had felt the force of the crowbar designed to pry them out of Ovamboland."
It's no great mystery why such campaigns would appeal to white supremacist groups, and why white supremacists would use the examples of Rhodesia and South Africa to stoke the fears and passions of their followers.
Consider the Greensboro massacre of November 1979. Tensions between the Communist Workers Party and the Ku Klux Klan led to the Klan and the American Nazi Party killing 5 activists. The neo-Nazi and Klan members accused of the crimes were acquitted. The head of the North Carolina chapter of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of America in 1979 was Harold Covington, who was implicated in the massacre but never faced criminal charges. Covington loved to brag that he'd been a mercenary in Rhodesia, though his brother claimed that wasn't quite accurate:
I suppose he wanted to move someplace where everything was white and bright, so after a yearlong stint at the Nazi Party headquarters, he wound up going to Rhodesia, and he joined the Rhodesian Army. In different blogs and writings, he was always bragging, "Oh, I was a mercenary in Rhodesia and I went out and did all this fighting." But to the best of my knowledge, according to the letters he wrote to my parents, he was a file clerk. He certainly never fired a shot in anger. He started agitating over there, and the [white-led] Ian Smith government said, "We have problems enough without this nutcase," and they bounced him.
The myth of the lost white land of Rhodesia has proved resilient for the paramilitary right. It plays into macho adventure fantasies as well as terror fantasies of black hordes wiping out virtuous white minorities. Rhodesia sits comfortably among the other icons of militia culture, as James William Gibson showed in his 1994 book Warrior Dreams, in which he described a visit to a Soldier of Fortune convention:
All the T-shirts had their poster equivalent, but much else was available, too. John Wayne showed up in poses ranging from his Western classics to The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Green Berets (1968). Robocop and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry decorated many a vendor's stall. An old Rhodesian Army recruiting poster with the invitation "Be a Man Among Men" hung alongside a "combat art" poster showing a helicopter door gunner whose wolf eyes stared out from under his helmet; heavy body armor and twin machine gun mounts hid his mortal flesh. (157-158)
Anti-communism doesn't have much resonance these days, and so the support of Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa can no longer be couched in any terms other than ones of white supremacy — terms that were previously always at least in the shadows. Militarism, machismo, and white supremacy have no objection to hanging out together, and the result of their association is often deadly.
The moral outrage at the actions of Islamic State (IS) is easy to both express and justify. An organisation that engages in immolation, decapitation, crucifixion and brutal corporal punishment; that seemingly deploys children as executioners; that imposes profound restrictions on the life-choices and opportunities of women; and that destroys cultural heritage that predates Islam is despicable. What drives such condemnation is complex and multifaceted, however.
Kuwait is changing the playing field. In early July, just days after the June 26th deadly Imam Sadiq mosque bombing claimed by ISIS, Kuwait ruled to instate mandatory DNA-testing for all permanent residents. This is the first use of DNA testing at the national-level for security reasons, specifically as a counter-terrorism measure. An initial $400 million dollars is set aside for collecting the DNA profiles of all 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents
In world politics, preserving order has an understandably sacramental function. The reason is plain. Without minimum public order, planetary relations would descend rapidly and perhaps irremediably into a "profane" disharmony.
It is said in the domestic practice of law that the facts are sometimes more important than the law. Advocates often win and lose cases on their facts, despite the perception that the law’s formalism and abstraction are to blame for its failures with regards to delivering justice.
Anyone who saw the terror on the faces of the people fleeing the attacks in Paris last week will agree that terrorism is the right word to describe the barbaric suicide bombings and the shooting of civilians that awful Friday night. The term terrorism, though once rare, has become tragically common in the twenty-first century.
At its root, Islam is as much a Western religion as are Judaism and Christianity, having emerged from the same geographic and cultural milieu as its predecessors. For centuries we lived at a more or less comfortable distance from one another. Post-colonialism and economic globalization, and the strategic concerns that attended them, have drawn us into an ever-tighter web of inter-relations.
In the months following the Taliban's evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden's residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda's most coherent organizational momentum.
In 1933 in the midst of Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address, wisely stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That wisdom has as much relevance today as it did during the Depression.
It has begun again: the age-old cycle of hate and counter-hate, self-justification and counter-justification, the grim celebrations of righteousness and revenge. In the US, conservative politicians play on it as demagogues always have, projecting strength and patriotism by refusing to take refugees from the lands terrorized by ISIS; my own governor, Chris Christie, tries to outdo his competition by arguing that even five-year-old orphans from Syria should be stopped and sent back, as if they are tainted by being from the same part of the world as the murderers.
Britain and the United States have been suffering from intervention fatigue. The reason is obvious: our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven far more costly and their results far more mixed and uncertain than we had hoped.
This fatigue manifested itself in almost exactly a year ago, when Britain’s Parliament refused to let the Government offer military support to the U.S. and France in threatening punitive strikes against Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Since then, however, developments in Syria have shown that our choosing not to intervene doesn’t necessarily make the world a safer place. Nor does it mean that distant strife stays away from our shores.
There is reason to suppose that the West’s failure to intervene early in support of the 2011 rebellion against the repressive Assad regime left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill—jihadists whose ranks now include several hundred British citizens.
There’s also some reason to suppose that the West’s failure to support Georgia militarily against Russia in 2008, and to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, has encouraged President Putin to risk at least covert military aggression in Ukraine. I’m not saying that the West should have supported Georgia and punished Assad. I’m merely pointing out that inaction has consequences, too, sometimes bad ones.
Now, however, despite out best efforts to keep out of direct involvement in Syria, we are being drawn in again. The rapid expansion of ‘Islamic State’, involving numerous mass atrocities, has put back on our national desk the question of whether we should intervene militarily to help stop them.
What guidance does the tradition of just war thinking give us in deliberating about military intervention? The first thing to say is that there are different streams in the tradition of just war thinking. In the stream that flows from Michael Walzer, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defence. More coherently, I think, the Christian stream, in which I swim, holds that the paradigm of a just war is the rescue of the innocent from grave injustice. This rescue can take either defensive or aggressive forms. The stipulation that the injustice must be ‘grave’ implies that some kinds of injustice should be borne rather than ended by war. This because war is a destructive and hazardous business, and so shouldn’t be ventured except for very strong reasons.
What qualifies as ‘grave’ injustice, then? In the 16th and 17th centuries just war theorists like Vitoria and Grotius proposed as candidates such inhumane social practices as cannibalism or human sacrifice. International law currently stipulates ‘genocide’. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protest (‘R2P’) would broaden the law to encompass mass atrocity. Let’s suppose that mass atrocity characteristic of a ruling body is just cause for military intervention. Some nevertheless argue, in the light of Iraq and Afghanistan, that intervention is not an appropriate response, because it just ddoesn’twork. Against that conclusion, I call two witnesses, both of whom have served as soldiers, diplomats, and politicians, and have had direct experience of responsibility for nation-building: Paddy Ashdown and Rory Stewart.
Ashdown, the international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002-6, argues that “[h]igh profile failures like Iraq should not … blind us to the fact that, overall, the success stories outnumber the failures by a wide margin”.
Rory Stewart was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy governor of two provinces of southern Iraq from 2003-4. He approached the task of building a more stable, prosperous Iraq with optimism, but experience brought him disillusion. Nevertheless, Stewart writes that “it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned”.
Notwithstanding that, one lesson from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed from British imperial history—is that successful interventions in foreign places, which go beyond the immediate fending off of indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale to attempting some kind of political reconstruction, cannot be done quickly or on the cheap.
Here’s where national interest comes in. National interest isn’t necessarily immoral. A national government has a moral duty to look after the well being of its own people and to advance its genuine interests. What’s more, some kind of national interest must be involved if military intervention is to attract popular support, without which intervention is hard, eventually impossible, to sustain. One such interest can be moral integrity. Nations usually care about more than just being safe and fat. Usually they want to believe that they are doing the right thing, and they will tolerate the costs of war—up to a point—in a just cause that looks set to succeed. I have yet to meet a Briton who is not proud of what British troops achieved in Sierra Leone in the year 2000, even though Britain had no material stake in the outcome of that country’s civil war.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way.
However, the nation’s interest in its own moral integrity alone will probably not underwrite military intervention that incurs very heavy costs. So other interests—such as national security—are needed to stiffen popular support for a major intervention. It is not unreasonable for a national people to ask why they should bear the burdens of military intervention, especially in remote parts of the world.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer to those reasonable questions will have to present itself in terms of the nation’s own interests. This brings us back to Syria and Islamic State. Repressive though the Assad regime was and is, and nasty though the civil war is, it probably wasn’t sufficiently in Britain’s national interest to become deeply involved militarily in 2011. The expansion of Islamic State, however, engages our interest in national security more directly, partly because as part of the West we are its declared enemy and partly because some of our own citizens are fighting for it and might bring their jihad back onto our own streets.
We do have a stronger interest, therefore, in taking the risks and bearing the costs of military intervention to stop and to disable Islamic State, and of subsequent political intervention to help create sustainable polities in Syria and Iraq.
In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counter-terrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the pre-Arab spring period. European governments are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counter-terrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full-circle? Does counter-terrorism once again subordinate any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab spring, ministers, leaders and commissioners lined up to insist they had learnt the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot in practice provide the stability that is their realpolitik justification. Have these same leaders now forgotten their own warnings?
There are certainly signs that the EU is reversing back to the past. Member states are reinforcing cooperation with Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in order to contain Islamic State. Military action against Islamic State is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria towards the Assad regime. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and Europol’s constricted reach.
The prominent foreign policy debates are once again about defeating radical jihadism. Observing this fitful drift in strategic reflection is like watching a replay of the late 1990s or the period after the 9/11 attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace and de-radicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policy-makers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European governments have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime, and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the IS surge. Most stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization. They acknowledge that more not less priority needs to be given to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical towards the re-empowered Egyptian military, but maintain a greater distance than in the Mubarak era; several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
Consequently, the situation is nuanced: the EU has tried security containment, and it has tried (modestly) backing the Arab spring as a route to social stability. Both apparently failed. So, what now?
The answer is that a better synthesis is needed between the security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counter-terrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decision-making than those advocating a focus on supporting democratic reforms. In 2011 and 2012 this situation switched around: EU policy briefly became a more positive enterprise in assisting local Arab demands for better governance rather than a nervous and negative exercise in containment. It seemed that the main players in the region were IT-savvy, modern and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy over-played the counter-terrorism angle and failed to understand the Middle East’s underlying social changes. After 2011, the EU was not particularly ambitious in supporting democratic transitions; but its focus was on national-level reforms more than on the regional, geopolitical ramifications of states’ internal political changes.
It is easy to point out that a focus on political reform must be retained, to get to the root drivers of radicalization. But, the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how this would relate to geo-strategic questions — how reform and geopolitics would condition each other in mutual symbiosis. As Islamic State rampages and Middle Eastern intra- and inter-state order teeters, the challenge is to move towards a better conjoining of security with reform imperatives.
It is now commonly argued that the EU should strike flexible and security-oriented alliances with friendly powers, forget about transformation and conditionality, and abandon its ambitious schemes of regional cooperation. Those favoring a security-first approach insist this is necessary because the logic of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is once again subjugated to sectarian identities.
This argument contains much that is sound, but is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank to European foreign policy, it reinforces the very power dynamics that drive radicalization. It risks worsening the disease it purports to cure.
While regional alliances are needed to contain Islamic State, these should not divert the EU from providing more effective backing for moderate opposition groups in Syria; European governments have conspicuously not matched the United States’ new package of support for the Free Syrian Army. European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement from Iraq. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness not the current divvying out of power quotas between discredited elites. The EU should not forget that long-term stability in the Middle East still requires the tempering of social frustrations within unreformed Gulf states — however closely these regimes now work with Western powers on counter-terrorism.
And, perhaps most crucially, some form of more effective and broader regional security architecture is needed to link together what happens within states with what happens at a regional level. The EU needs strategic deliberation that more systematically connects security actions with domestic political factors in the Middle East.
A focus on reform without security cooperation today looks naïf; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.
Headline image credit: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01 by Email4mobile. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Lebanese journalist and editor Hanin Ghaddar shares his thoughts.
To answer this question, one has to go back to the roots of this organization. ISIS did not come from a vacuum, and it is not this shadowy bunch of militants that mysteriously managed to control large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a very long time, and its roots go deeper than its current military achievements.
As an organization, ISIS originated from Al-Qaeda’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, a member of ISI, established Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in 2011. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between ISIS and al-Nusra soon led to infighting, and eventually to a public repudiation by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after Baghdadi refused his orders to leave Syria and return to Iraq.
Due to the difference in strategy, Baghdadi sought to create the Caliphate and his main priority was to self-sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical side of ISIS is very significant for its quick logistical and military success. According to many news reports, ISIS’s financial assets amount to $2 billion, with money secured from oilfields in eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, in addition to military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is made up of former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.
However, the popularity of the group lies somewhere else.
The states where ISIS is expanding and flourishing are visibly Iraq and Syria — the two states where Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, and brutal killing by the pro-Iranian Shiite and Alawi regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer a safe haven for citizens; on the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.
In Iraq, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes, who helped fight al-Qaeda, led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands in January. Maliki alienated these tribes and refused to share power with them. After the US withdrawal in 2011, these tribes went into open revolt against Maliki.
A feeling of betrayal also boosted this revolt, as the US started talks and unstated bargains with Tehran. It is not a secret that the International Coalition’s war against ISIS Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. Ignoring the brutality of Assad by the West did not help reassure the Sunnis.
When Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria are left to wage war against the Sunnis in both countries, and aid the regimes in killing and torturing them, many Sunnis came to see ISIS as the most powerful defense against Iran’s persecution.
But it would be too naïve to only blame regional leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS, and enjoy the role of the victim. We are very much responsible, as people and communities. ISIS flourished in these two countries also because of the heightened sectarian rhetoric by the people everywhere. In the streets, traditional media, social media, and inside homes and families, everyone is practicing sectarian hatred, and judging each other’s commitment to Islam.
Our governments have denounced ISIS and promised to secure all available resources to rid the world of its threats, but have we really condemned ISIS when our media, political leaders and Imams at mosques still speak the same sectarian rhetoric and call for hatred?
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran condemned ISIS and pledged to fight all terrorism. But authorities in both countries are still practicing public executions in public squares. Only recently, Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Nimr was sentenced to death. His prosecutors called for his execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment which in Saudi Arabia involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body. How is this really different from ISIS’s beheading practice?
ISIS is a product of our culture of sectarian rhetoric, violence and hatred. ISIS thrives on the injustice and corruption razing our state institutions and communities. Therefore, any policy that aims at fighting and destroying ISIS has to take this into consideration.
To make sure another ISIS does not emerge, the roots behind ISIS’s power and popularity should be targeted. Justice needs to prioritized. Iran should not be treated as the better evil and its regional militias need to be stopped as we are trying to stop ISIS. Assad, who has caused the death of almost 200,000 people, should leave power and he and his lieutenants should be prosecuted under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay. Otherwise, sectarian hatred and violence will never stop, and ISIS will only get stronger.
ISIS and Hezbollah today feed into each other’s rhetoric of violence and acts of terrorism. Without Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra wouldn’t have gained any popularity, and without ISIS’s power, causing fear among the Shia community and other minorities, Hezbollah would have suffered more pressure to leave Syria, even by its own community. They should be dealt with consistently.
In addition, our media and religious institutions should be held accountable for inciting hatred and sectarianism. Those who call for violence through TV channels and inside mosques should be punished, even if they haven’t personally spilled blood.
Our governments, regimes and leaders might not like to tone down this sectarian rhetoric, because sometimes it serves their regional political agendas. Therefore, this should come as a condition for them to join any international effort or regional initiative. International funding for governments should also come with cultural and social conditions, aimed at alleviating sectarian rhetoric and boosting citizenship.
It is a very extensive and difficult route, but it is the only way. You cannot bomb ISIS away; it will grow back. It should be eliminated from the roots.
Heading image: Ar-Raqqah Roof Tops (Ar-Raqqah is the de facto headquarters of ISIS/ISIL) by Zeledi. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Signal crimes change how we think, feel, and act — altering perceptions of the distribution of risks and threats in the world. Sometimes, as with the recent assassinations and mass shootings in France, sending a message is the intention of the criminal act. The attackers’ target selection of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine, and that of taking and killing Jewish hostages, was deliberately designed to send messages to individuals and institutions.
Researchers examine social reactions to different kinds of crime events and the signals they send to a range of audiences. The aim is to determine how and why certain kinds of incidents and situations generate fear and anxiety responses that travel widely and, by extension, how processes of social reaction to such events are managed and influenced by the authorities.
The murder of Lee Rigby in London in 2013 can be understood as a signal crime as it triggered concern amongst the general public and across security institutions, owing to the macabre innovation of the killers in undertaking a brutally simple form of assault. Analysis of the crime has identified a number of key components to the overarching process of social reaction. Observing how events have unfolded in France, the collective reactions have followed a similar trajectory to what happened in London.
In the wake of both incidents there was ‘spontaneous community mobilisation’ as ordinary people sought to engage in collective sense-making of what had actually happened, coupled with collective action ‘to do something’ to evidence their opposition. Widespread use of social media platforms helped spread rumours as attempts were made to follow updates in the story; rapid moves were made to secondary conflicts as acts of criminal retaliation were committed against symbolic Muslim targets.
One prominent type of intervention evident in both cases has been a call from senior figures within security institutions and governments to urgently provide the authorities with enhanced legal powers, especially for digital and online surveillance. This is part of a wider reaction pattern that we might label ‘the legislative reflex’. This term seeks to capture how – following a terrorist atrocity and the public concern it induces – politicians who need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ almost automatically reach for new laws as their principal response. The presence of this reflex is evidenced by the fact that since 9/11, in the United Kingdom we have seen the introduction of a significant number of new laws including:
The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, allowing for detention without trial (later overturned by the courts)
The Terrorism Act 2006, which extended the detention of suspects without charge from 14 to 28 days
The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, under which police were permitted to continue questioning suspects after charge
The Terrorist Asset-Freezing Act 2010
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is currently being debated by peers in the House of Lords
What we can detect here is how fear of not being able to protect against potential attacks is being mobilised to justify new preventative anti-terror legislation. In effect, public and political fear is being deployed to shape the reaction to terrorism, where reaching for new legislation has become part of the societal response to terrorist attacks.
However, it increasingly appears that this approach is inadequate and that we are dealing with a social problem that we cannot solve by legal means alone. Indeed, a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to counter-terrorism policy development would probably look elsewhere for solutions. After all, in both the French cases and that of Drummer Rigby, it transpired that the perpetrators were well known to the authorities as presenting a risk. Rather than creating legislative fixes to collect more intelligence, research suggests the focus must be on finding effective policy solutions to three inter-linked ‘wicked problems’ that have been identified in issues of radicalization and home-grown extremism.
The first of these, mentioned earlier, concerns the ability of the politics of counter-terrorism to resist the allure of introducing new security measures that might corrode levels of integration and cohesion. Over the long-term, over-reaction to terrorist provocations can be as harmful as the initial act itself.
This connects to the second ‘wicked problem’: tension between the tactical and strategic response to countering violent extremists. The police and security services focus upon stopping violent acts, often engaging with individuals whose ideas are not coherent with liberal democratic traditions. Preventing or stopping these acts does not reduce the longer term influence of these radical ideas.
Thirdly, all plausible theories of radicalisation into violent extremism identify a pivotal role played by ‘non-violent extremists': those who do not engage in violence directly, but whose ideas and rhetoric influence others to do so. These create a ‘mood music’ of ideas, values, and beliefs that presents violence as a permissible means to an end. In the wake of the killings in France, there has been a widespread call across Europe to protect the right to freedom of speech. However, this freedom will also be used by those motivated to undertake mass killings. Current counter-terrorism policy struggles with what to do with individuals who steer and propagate the radicalisation of others by engaging in activity that is troublesome and unpleasant, but not necessarily illegal.
One of the principal institutional effects of high profile signal crimes is to implant a political imperative to consider what can be done to predict, pre-empt, and prevent similar atrocities in the future. However, it is increasingly clear that it is not going to be possible to prevent all such attacks. Developing a conceptually robust evidenced understanding of how and why our collective processes of reaction occur in the ways they do, and the institutional effects that such assaults induce, seems vitally important if we are to collectively manage our reactions better when the next attack comes.
Headline image credit: Paris rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, 11 January 2015. Photo by “sébastien amiet;l”. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
In the days following the terrorist attack in Paris on 11 January, thousands of people took to the street in solidarity with the victims and in defense of free speech, and many declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ on social media around the world. The scene is familiar with what we have seen in several other countries in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks.
The shooting spree in Copenhagen combines the old and the new of European jihadist phenomenon. Like virtually all European Holy Warriors, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein is not an immigrant, but the son of immigrants, Palestinians who settled in Denmark before his birth.
In the 1960s British comedy radio show, Beyond Our Ken, an old codger would, in answer to various questions wheel out his catchphrase—in a weary, tremulous groan—‘Thirty Five Years!’ I was reminded of this today when I realized that it is exactly 35 years ago that my first book on privacy was published. And how the world has changed since then!
In July 2014 Yusuf Sarwar and his associate, Mohammed Ahmed, both aged 22, pleaded guilty to conduct in preparation of terrorist acts, contrary to s5 of the Terrorism Act. Sarwar was given an extended sentence (for ‘dangerous’ offenders under s226A of the Criminal Justice Act 2013) comprising 12 years and eight months custody, plus a 5 year extension to his period of release on licence.
Category #6 is up today, and while Brown Girl Dreaming was one of my favorite reads of last year, I have opted to review the young reader’s edition of Malala’s story, which is co-written by the talented YA author (and … Continue reading →
An effective counter-terrorism policy requires the identification of domestic or international threats to a government, its civil society, and its institutions. Enemies of the state can be internal or external. Communist regimes of the twentieth century, for example, focused on internal enemies.