The very first thing I tell my students who choose to take my class of “terrorism and political violence” is that terrorism never ends. And they listen with slight disbelief (I can see it in their eyes) as I begin to explain to them that terrorism was, is and will continue to be a technique used by aggrieved individuals, groups and rogue states that cannot see, or refuse to see, any other way of influencing political developments. Their perception of their environment is one of violence. And the more raw, the more destructive, the more devastating the violence inflicted, the more effective the advancement of their position. We saw that last Friday in Paris. We saw it in last week in Beirut. We saw it 10 days ago in Istanbul. We saw it in Madrid, in London, in New York.
One of the stranger consequences of early 21st-century terrorism and the rise of militant Islam is that it has induced a nostalgia for an earlier kind of terrorist. The replacement of political ideology with religious fanaticism has eroded the self-imposed constraints that limited terrorist violence in the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, terrorist factions issued communiqués explaining their political agendas, their demands were clear and their targets were specific and comprehensible. In those days, terrorist groups, such as the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades, engaged in highly selective acts of violence. However radical or revolutionary these groups were, the majority were conservative in their operations, using a very limited tactical repertoire directed against a narrow set of targets.
In that period terrorists wanted – to use the often-cited observation by Brian Jenkins, director of the security and subnational conflict programme of the RAND Corporation – “a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead”. Now things are different. What we have now is a series of loose, mutually reinforcing and quite separate international networks whose followers combine medieval religious beliefs with modern weaponry and a level of fanaticism that expresses itself primarily in suicide bombings and a willingness to use indiscriminate violence on large scale.
It is not flippant to suggest that Islamist terrorists would inspire less public apprehension if they confined their murderous designs to politicians, diplomats, policemen, judges and soldiers, as did the more “traditional” ideological and ethno-nationalist organisations that dominated the terrorist scene from the 1960s to the 1990s. The threat of indiscriminate terror, even if our intelligence and police work improves a great deal, will be with us for some time and this makes it all the more important to deal with the root causes of this type of terrorism rather than simply to try to defend against it, as we have been doing for quite some time. Western policies since 9/11 have been primarily focused on capturing or killing the jihadis rather than trying to work out what motivates them and why some communities support them.
Campaigns of terrorism are not free-standing social phenomena. They depend on context, on circumstances – historical, political, social and economic – and on how groups and individuals conducting their violent campaigns relate to the societies within which they deploy force. Militants do not come out of nowhere. When a terrorist campaign begins, there is a reason for every bombing and every shooting. Whether one supports politically motivated violence or not as a tactic, it is important to place the phenomenon in a clear context in order to attempt to understand the nature of the threat. Not to eradicate it, because that is impossible, but to contain it.