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Politics > Security/Terrorism >

Living With Terror: Democracy and Terrorism

Paper ID: 90 Last updated: 10/05/2011 15:05:11
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Global When: Unknown How Fast: Instant
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Keywords: bullet government; security; international relations; law; domestic relations; religion; demographics; community; crime; trade; business; terrorism

Summary bullet

Britain and other developed nations have long had to contend with terrorist activity of one kind or another. Public understanding of terrorism tends to privilege certain types of terrorism above others, most obviously Islamic Jihadi terrorism. Some commentators [1] have suggested that we are in the midst of a generational struggle with a new breed of international terrorism, distinguished by its religious motivation. However, to fully understand the dynamic phenomenon of terrorism requires a much broader analysis of its drivers and potential consequences.

Discussion bullet

Britain continues to face a serious threat from terrorism, but the extent to which this requires a change in behaviour and policing is the subject of debate. Attacks related to international terrorism have occurred in London and Glasgow, and terrorist attacks have been thwarted outside the capital. ,<5039>> However, this does not appear to have caused Britons to make significant changes to their daily life. In fact, according to opinion polls conducted in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, the attacks of 2005 in London had little, if any, effect on people's behaviour in the city. [2]

The terrorist threat to the UK has evolved considerably in recent years. As of November 2007, the Security Service and police were tracking up to 2,000 suspects connected with terrorism in the UK, and typically there are around 30 active security service investigations into possible terrorist activity. There has also been a growth in the number of people identified as being involved in radical and violent extremism in the UK over the past decade. The scale of the threat is not thought likely to diminish significantly for some years. [3]

After the US invasion of Iraq three main categories of terrorist have emerged: the 'self-starter' or 'home-grown' terrorist, often self-recruited and self-trained, having been won over by terrorist ideology; foreign fighters who travelled to Iraq to fight the US; and Iraqi jihadists. [4] Increasingly terrorism has come to be identified with radical Islam, although this is by no means its only source.

Until Al Qaeda demonstrated the potential for non-state supported terrorism, governments tended to worry more about state-sponsored terror.The rise in tension between the West and Iran, for example has led to renewed fears of a campaign of state-sponsored terror. Recent history suggests that state-sponsored terrorism should not be a major concern for the West but its possible return cannot be ignored. [5]

Terror may in fact become much more widespread, especially if the 'global religious revival' [4] that some identify as occurring in almost every faith in the past few decades continues. Timothy McVeigh, a 'self-starter' and chief protagonist in the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was influenced by the American Christian Identity Movement. Religiously inspired cults [4] offer a futher dimension to terrorist activity, as seen in the example of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo. [4], [6]

The future of terrorism will be shaped by a number of key drivers, including the ability to access technologies, the mobility of terrorists, and the ability to communicate while remaining anonymous in an increasingly interconnected society. [7], [8]

The internet is often used to spread terrorist propaganda, through its online forums, videos, and chat rooms. Further development of such tools can be anticipated: in the future, the use of virtual terrorist training camps may replace physical locations, with the potential to reach a much wider audience. [7], [9]
Technologies in fields applicable to weapons creation, such as biotechnology, continue apace. The threat of nuclear terrorism is also real, given the availability of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union and other research reactors, and the increasing capabilities of terrorists. [4], [10] However many terrorist attacks will continue to use basic weapons such as car bombs.

Implications bullet

The potential for violence to be ‘privatized’, [4], [11] that is, for violence to be available to ever smaller units, means that power will potentially be available to very small groups and even individuals. As a result, the scope and diversity of terrorist activity may grow ever larger.

The rise of the 'self-starter' terrorist may increase the possibility of attacks such as the Madrid bombing. At the same time, the 'proliferation of new faith movements' may drive an increase in terrorist activity. [12] The number and type of organisations that use terror, whether ethno-religious, ideological, socio-economic [13] or single-issue groups such as eco-terrorists, may grow in number in the future. [14]

Despite the relative absence of statesponsored terrorism in recent years, it might make a come-back. For example, if Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked by the US or Israel, Iran might reinvigorate the terror network responsible for attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s. [4], [15]

While some suggest the terrorist threat has been used for political advantage, this does not mean the threat from terrorism has declined in recent years. [16], [17], [18] In fact, the threat from radical Islamic terrorism is still very real, even if its motivations are often not simply religious. [19], [20]

Citizens and politicians may have very different perceptions of the threat posed by terrorism; [21] legislation designed to protect against terrorist threats is therefore likely to remain a highly controversial topic. [22], [23] Successful deterrence of terrorism may create a situation in which the public perception of threats is hugely different to that of government.

Government efforts to fight terrorism are likely to include engaging relevant constituencies at home and abroad through public diplomacy and education, and supporting communities while pursuing 'de-radicalisation'. [24], [25], [26]

Perceptions of the threat of terrorist activity will shape public attitudes to the balance to strike between liberty and security. [27]

Security measures will target mobile technologies and the internet in particular. Web users may be tracked through closer relationships between security services and internet providers.The development of technologies able to scan and analyse web content to assess the ‘infectiousness’ of ideas, and model relationships and social networks may become much more widespread. [28] The merging of databases is already happening on a significant scale and some claim without adequate oversight. [29] Such techniques may prove particularly useful in identifying and guarding against the proliferation of single issue self-starter terrorist groups.

Measures to combat the mobility of terrorists may be put in place. Since the impact of terrorism may affect national economies, either through the attacks themselves, or responses to them, government may take a more active role in key sectors like transport, energy, and insurance by increasing contingency arrangements and emergency planning. [30]

Government may intervene in the financial sector to prevent terror groups receiving funds. [31] Increased monitoring of financial transactions may damage trade, domestically and globally. [32] A major terrorist attack, particularly on a financial centre such as London or Tokyo, could propel the world into a depression.

The security services may receive support for additional funding, powers and personnel but will also come under considerable public scrutiny, particularly if they fail to prevent a successful attack or are seen to abuse their powers. Security will become a central element of major public developments, such as sports facilities and transport systems for the 2012 Olympics. Privatisation of some government assets may make it more difficult for the government to protect against terror attacks.

Certain religious or ethnic minorities may become unpopular if identified with terrorist activity, however inappropriately. [33] Increased political extremism could spread among the the population, fracturing established political parties. That could further contribute to radicalisation among minority groups and the emergence of a ‘long tail’ [34] of radicalised causes.

The stress of a threat perceived to be permanent could also take its toll in terms of depression and suicide rates, and higher incidence of anxiety-related problems, especially among children. [35] Unless a common ideological thread or civic identity can be created to induce a sense of solidarity in the face of the threat, social cohesion could be undermined, leading to an increase in anti-social behaviour and hate crimes.

People may turn to cyber-space to socialise in safer environments. The pervasive threat may lead to greater demand for distracting entertainments and pastimes. Satire and subversive humour may also flourish. A recently released board game “War on Terror” is an example of this. [36]

The state's role in providing security may evolve. Not only will the state be ‘leaking’ sovereignty [6] in order to deal with different levels of threat, it will also mean that national security becomes increasingly transnational working with the EU as well as NATO.

The 'war on terror' is likely to change shape from direct military intervention towards counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering, and will rely more on communication and persuasion. [37], [38]

Innovation in some technology areas may suffer if regulation is put in place to protect against the development of dual-use technologies such as those related to 'synthetic biology'. [39]

Early indicators bullet

Proliferation of small-scale terrorist operations with specific motivations
The 'War on Terror' becomes an outdated expression
Development of transnational terrorist response framework across G8 countries

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Continued influence of Al Qaeda, including as an example to others.
Chronic instability and violence of the Middle East and portrayal of the UK and US as enemies of Islam.
Failed states such as Somalia.
Population movements mean that conflicts in the developing world may be replayed in Western society

(Increased) controls on nuclear & biological plants.
Better funding of intelligence services.
New forms of technology-enabled intelligence.
Greater public vigilance

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Terrorist groups since the early 1970s: IRA, ETA, Baader-Meinhof, Black September.
Social solidarity in the UK in the face of IRA terror between 1969 and the 1990s cessation.
Security threats posed by disaffected elements in society, inducing paranoia and suspicion: Catholic conspiracies in 16th and 17th Century Englan, Gunpowder Plot/Titus Oates and the ficititious ‘Popish Plot’. Fear of anarchist violence from East European immigrants in the 1890s. McCarthyism in 1950s USA. Timothy McVeigh blows up the federal building in Oklahoma

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Sources bullet

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The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.