Serious research into terrorism has been going on for decades, peaking in the late 1970s when terrorism started to emerge as a global phenomenon, followed by a determined resurgence after 9/11. The world again appears to be in the grip of terrorism inspired by Al Qaeda and ISIS, which has seen vicious attacks in many countries. But for all the time, effort and resources that have gone into studying these groups, we don't seem to have progressed very far in our understanding of terrorism or come to any consensus about what really makes people commit these acts.
This is not a reason to give up. But it is depressing to hear a French investigation citing a failure of communication between intelligence agencies and other security forces as a key reason a series of terrorist plots in France last year went undetected, costing 147 lives. Every terrorist involved was known to someone, their potential for involvement in something dangerous was predicted or predictable – but no one joined the dots. This must be the oldest, but hardest lesson to learn – information is power. It can provide security and it can ensure safety, but it cannot do this if organisations who have knowledge work in silos, and are threatened by sharing it. It is always easier to join dots in hindsight and appear wiser for doing so, but, with the death toll in the hundreds in recent attacks, more connections need to be made before violence occurs.
This need to share information extends into the academic world. Academics do not have current knowledge of what terrorists and organised criminals are doing. But they do have a depth of understanding based on what has been done in the past, they have broad perspectives and most importantly, they have a tradition of sharing knowledge. This type of collaboration should be encouraged.
Not all, but a staggeringly high number of those who have perpetrated recent attacks have been on watch-lists. Omar Mateen was twice considered by the FBI as no threat before he killed 49 people in Orlando, and Larossi Abbala had done his time for being a member of a terrorist organisation before he murdered a French police officer and his partner in their home. More attention needs to be given to how threats are assessed for each individual or group that comes to the attention of security forces. Applying punishment after the event, as if terrorism is just another crime, is not addressing the peculiar crime type that it is. Very few 'lone wolves' or suicide bombers survive their undertakings, so prison terms as punishment don't deter, and prisons have been fruitful terrorist recruiting grounds in some countries. On the other hand, the reaction to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal to indefinitely detain some convicted terrorists to prevent future attacks, shows the real dilemma democratic societies face in this respect.
Some fresh thinking, drawing on a range of contributors is needed to approach this problem. Is sharing information with the communities from which the perpetrators emerge any more risky than the ‘closed shop cloistered information’ approach? Are civil rights proponents a necessary counterweight to an effective counter terrorist strategy – or might they be asked to advance counter terrorist solutions for broader consideration? Whatever the case, several brains working together will be better than several working separately, and successful counter terrorist approaches will have to be at least innovative as the terrorists have consistently proven themselves to be.
The recent Iraq Inquiry report by Sir John Chilcot highlights further – the already well known problem which again emanates from cloistered information – where intelligence assessments were used “to support Government statements in a way which conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence.” Given the obvious determination to go war in Iraq, it is impossible to say the result would have been any different if more a diverse set of people were appraising known information. But surely it would have made a decision to go to war less likely. There is lesson here, not a new one – if we share more, listen better, we may just avoid repeating the same old mistakes.
Dr John Battersby is the Police Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org