To get a grip on the elusive nature of terrorism, it is best to think of it as a tactic in pursuit of predominantly political ends, rather than as some sort of ideology or irrational lashing out. This tactic – attacking civilian or non-combatant targets – has been used by both states and sub-state agents for a very long time.
States have used terrorism internally against their own civilians, often when fighting insurgents or rebellions. Currently, we’re seeing this play out in Syria. The United Nations has described Syrian President Bashar Assad as a “war criminal” after 58 people, including 11 children, were killed in a suspected chemical gas attack earlier this year, allegedly conducted by the Syrian government.
But states have also used terrorist tactics against other states. A notable example is both Allied and Axis bombers targeting non-combatants during World War Two in the terror city bombings, to devastating effect.
Sub-state agents, like FARC in Colombia or Islamic State, have repeatedly resorted to “soft-target” warfare, targeting non-combatants in revolutions and insurgencies as an alternative or supplement to outright confrontation with state troops.
Both states and sub-state groups have hoped that this tactic would serve their political ends by weakening the resolve of their enemy to continue the struggle. Their aim is to distract the enemy in various ways, or to simply prove continued defiance, showing that “we are still here.”
What is somewhat new about the current wave of Islamist extremist terrorist attacks on some Western “homelands” is that the attacks are occurring beyond even the loose boundaries of the ongoing battlefields of the Middle East; even though they are clearly attempts at continuing those struggles beyond those borders.
During the recent hammer attack on a policeman in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, for instance, witnesses say that the attacker yelled “This is for Syria” before injuring the officer.
This highlights the palpable truth in British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s comments that the attacks in Manchester and London result, in large part, from the UK’s military involvement in Syria and Iraq. Ditto for France and Belgium.
What is interesting and unusual is that some of these attacks are often carried out by second-generation migrant young Muslims, apparently at relative ease in their home nation, and without overt direction and management from the Islamic militant groups fighting in the Middle East. Rather than being directed and organised from abroad, these kinds of perpetrators are inspired by the globalised, often online, propaganda of the distant insurgents, sometimes with input from local religious-political leaders. This is the origin of the “lone wolf” epithet.
But some of these perpetrators are even further removed – existing on the outer fringes of the “lone wolf” designation. This is true for criminal figures like Man Haron Monis, the perpetrator of the siege at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney’s Martin Place. It also seems likely to be true of Yacub Khayre, who in June killed one man and took a woman hostage in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton before being gunned down by police. These are people whose protestations of allegiance to overseas terrorist groups seem like coatings for individualist, self-aggrandising criminal activities cloaked in confused Islamist sloganising.
Other perpetrators vary the home-grown pattern by visiting the areas of conflict, where they are inspired by first-hand encounters and then return to their Western home state. Such a pattern should make them easier for police and intelligence agencies to track with an eye for preventing their potential for terrorist acts and even possibly for reform. Another option to simply refuse them re-entry, as the Australian government wants to do.
It can be expected that as the military power and prospects of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other such groups in their own regions suffer continued rebuffs on the battlefield, the incidence of attempts at terrorist attacks on “soft targets” at home and abroad will increase.
Pointing to the key role of inept military meddling by Western powers in many parts of the Islamic world, especially Iraq, in fuelling terrorist responses, is not to justify those responses. Although terrorist acts have been committed by nations, groups and individuals who believed that the slaughter of the innocent was necessary to promote good ends, those acts remain both profoundly immoral, and illegal under international law.
Terrorist acts can of course be condemned because they rarely succeed, and are rarely likely to succeed, in promoting the supposed long-term good they seek. But more significantly, they should be condemned because they are immoral means for promoting that so-called good, whatever the beneficial outcome.
They violate the Just War principle that insists that the use of violence against enemies is only justified against those who are actively prosecuting the offence for which the remedy of war is the only one proportionate and likely to be successful. Other enemy civilians are immune from direct attack, having done nothing, or not enough, to justify it.
The effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures is beset by the dangers of over-reaction. The temptation to over-react is strong among politicians who live in understandable fear that some terrorist outrage will occur on their watch and they will be held accountable for it. Yet the temptation should be resisted.
Some counter-terrorist legislation already on the books, including the meta-data powers, are dubiously necessary for our protection and certainly erosive of civil liberty. Newer proposals such as special jails for convicted terrorists may satisfy political instincts, but have rightly been questioned by anti-terrorism experts, such as Australian National University’s Dr Clarke Jones.
It is understandable that terrorist attacks at home create fear since they are unpredictable and filled with intent to harm the innocent, but it is important not to exaggerate their significance in terms of harm caused, or likely to be caused.
Even the harms done by awful attacks like those in Manchester or in London, do not compare with the consistent damage done in Western countries, for example, by road collisions, drug addiction, or family violence.
The one certain thing about counter-terrorism measures is that they should not involve vilifying whole groups or communities from which the small number of terrorist actors come.
Various calls from reactionary politicians in Australia and elsewhere to abandon “tolerance” of Islam not only involve bigotry, but are sure to create grievances and alienation amongst those Muslims from whom information and support is needed for countering violent extremists.
Banner Image: 1973: Police and firemen in front of the Criminal Court and Army Recruiting office in Whitehall, London where an IRA bomb exploded/Getty Images.