Opinion: The terrorism challenge in the 21st century


London has been the scene of recent terror attacks (photo credit/Wikimedia Commons)


by Nick Nelson and Dr John Battersby

The United Kingdom has endured its third terrorist attack in three months, and others have occurred in France and Australia in recent days exposing the vulnerabilities of modern liberal societies. Modern terrorists, focused on the next world rather than this one, use the agency of killing and maiming to send a message few of us can actually fathom.

No recent perpetrator has survived to explain it.  Although the message seems to be connecting isolated and disparate individuals around the globe, perhaps each example prompts the other; events in Manchester stimulates like events in London, Notre Dame, Melbourne where no prior link or impetus even existed.  ISIS claim them all, perhaps learning of these events only when the rest of us did.

The Manchester attacker used a bomb, but the Westminster and London Bridge attackers used everyday vehicles and the latter used knives and wore fake bomb vests, guaranteeing they would be shot dead. The French incident near Notre Dame involved a man with a hammer. The feeling of insecurity which terrorism seeks to instil is underpinned by everyday items being weaponised and used against ordinary folk going about their ordinary business.

While a number of the attackers involved in the three UK incidents were known to both police and MI5, there was no intelligence of them plotting terrorist attacks. Rather, the recent attacks appear to have come out of nowhere.

Everyday items in terror attacks

While some may see this as an intelligence failure, this overlooks the incredibly complex environment in which intelligence agencies designed in a different era and for different threats now operate. Identifying self-starting individuals who are blending into daily life and using ubiquitous items to perpetrate one-off, unconnected attacks is extremely difficult, particularly when the activities that used to make them detectable, including terrorist training, weapons handling and bomb making, are largely absent.

In the case of the most recent attack in the UK, while Khuram Butt was known, he was not considered a priority and, as such, he was relegated to the lower echelons of the long list of individuals under investigation.

There is no pattern to be discovered because every attacker only ever carries out one attack; the psychology of the attacker is impossible to gauge because they kill, and go on killing until someone takes the only viable option and kills them. In doing so, the defenders of the society under attack become a part of penning the confused and horrific message the perpetrators sought to send.  The media then offer themselves as the purveyor of the message, replaying and repeating the images of the terror so it reaches every corner of the globe.

Watching the ‘watchlist’ a daunting task

 ‘Watchlists’ are names of people who have had suspicions raised about them – the vast majority of whom will never commit any violent act. No state, except perhaps the totalitarian regimes that watch everybody anyway, can watch all those on ‘watchlists’ to the extent necessary to be sure they will not, at some future time, commit an act of terrorism.  

Within the UK, there are said to be several thousand individuals on a ‘terrorist watchlist’ and 500 active investigations on the go at any one time. The resources that this requires are staggering. Even within the limitations that exist, Police and Intelligence agencies around the globe have had some spectacular successes since 9/11, to be sure far more attacks have been foiled than have succeeded.  But the IRA statement to the British security forces after IRA failed to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher 1984 still encapsulates the fundamental problem “We only have to lucky once. You have to be lucky always.” 

Free societies will need to be prepared to defend the life they want, and resource their policing abilities to react quickly to these attacks when they occur because no state will ever be good enough or lucky enough to detect every threat.

ISIS have steadily lost ground, support, money, and people in Syria and Iraq in 2017, but the more ground they lose the more frequent these attacks seem to become. Inspiration emerges from many places including evangelisation - violent, uncompromising rhetoric, which has been seen throughout history in dozens of different and deadly nationalist contexts.

Internet and terrorism - challenges for security agencies

But with the coming of the internet, national borders now mean much less, and there are no seething nationalistic crowds converted en masse; instead individuals and tiny groups, hemispheres apart can be prompted to act. They cannot act together, they cannot act in force, but they can get a knife and a car and create a scene of horror out of all proportion to their singular actions.

The perpetrators of the propaganda do not need a state, they do not need territory, the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq may well be irrelevant. The British Prime Minister has pointed the finger at internet providers – the information highways on which the toxic rhetoric travels – but policing the internet for child porn, drugs and weapons dealers, hackers and terrorists has proved challenging to date, and no simple solution is likely to be found in the future. 

Longer term social, political and economic solutions to countering terrorism are vital, but shorter term preparations against terrorist attacks will remain a necessity in the early decades of the 21st century.

Perhaps also, as British Prime Minister Theresa May has alluded to, the unfettered development of communications technology which has moved apace without any forethought given to the criminal of terrorist use of it, needs to be restrained, and human rights laws may need to be changed to allow new restrictions to be imposed on terror suspects.

Is this something New Zealand needs to think about? Professor Greg Barton, a leading Australian-based international counter-terrorism researcher stated at New Zealand’s inaugural National Security Conference in 2016 his view that “it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when”.

Nick Nelson is a Senior Lecturer with the Centre of Defence and Security Studies who teaches and researches political violence and terrorism.

Dr John Battersby is a Teaching Fellow at Centre of Defence and Security Studies, where he teaches and researches policing, intelligence and terrorism.

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