Tuesday, January 29, 2013

29-Jan-13: Is the threat of terrorism greater now, or less?

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There's a major piece of analysis in today's The Guardian that asks a question in order to answer it. The question is in the title: "Al-Qaida: how great is the terrorism threat to the west now?" Jason Burke, who covers South Asia for the Guardian the Observer, takes his readers on a grand tour of Al Qaida and its history, expands it to a kind of overview of Islamist and Islamic terrorism, and works his way up to a conclusion. Towards the end of his essay he writes:
...If you take the fighting in Mali and the attack on the refinery, and add it to a list of all the incidents occurring around the globe involving extremist Islamist violence, it is undoubtedly a frightening picture. In the last few days there were arrests in the Philippines, anti-terrorist operations in Indonesia, deaths in Pakistan (due to infighting between extremist groups), air raids in Afghanistan on suspected al-Qaida bases, battles in the Yemen, shootings and executions in Iraq following the release of a video showing brutal executions, reports of trials in the UK and Germany as well as fighting in Mali. But does this all add up to al-Qaida 3.0, more dangerous than ever before?  [more]
This he seems to answer in the negative. We see several problems with his thesis.
  • Terrorism is plainly not the same thing as Al Qaida and vice versa. Whatever Al Qaida is, whether a specific group or a more generalized aspiration, terrorism has multiple expressions. Burke writes that Al Qaida's leadership has been "hollowed out" by drone strikes and other challenges. Then he observes that from its high point "around 2004 or 2005", the wave of extremism has been receding as the central leadership of al-Qaida "has suffered blow after blow". Bin Laden was killed and Ayman al-Zawahiri - though effective, dedicated and an experienced organiser, "lacks Bin Laden's charisma". But plainly, the decline in Al Qaida's fortunes, whether or not it's factually correct, is no indicator of terrorism being in decline. 
  • Every attempt by al-Qaida to win genuine popular support has failed, he says, quoting Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as examples. And "when communities have direct experience of extremist violence or rule", their support for Al-Qaida falls. Then his trump card: "Bin Laden was apparently thinking of relaunching the group under a new name", leaving us to wonder whether terrorists are like the marketers of bottled tea beverages. If terrorism and/or Al-Qaida are in decline, as Burke says, will we know it from public opinion polls?
  • He saves his trump card for the end of the essay. "There's a simple test," he says, referring to the danger we face and whether it's greater or lesser than before. "Think back to those dark days of 2004 or 2005 and how much closer the violence seemed. Were you more frightened then, or now? The aim of terrorism is to inspire irrational fear, to terrorise. Few are as fearful today as they were back then. So that means there are two possibilities: we are wrong, ignorant or misinformed, and should be much more worried than we are; or our instincts are right, and those responsible for the violence are as far from posing an existential threat as they have ever been." To which we say: How frightened were Americans on September 10, 2001, the day before 9/11? How close did the violence seem to the citizens of Madrid on March 9, 2004? Or to the residents of Beslan in August of the same year?
We think Burke's article is dangerously off-target. Even more alarming is the tone of the many responses that are published on the Guardian website: Al-Qaida was never really a threat; the real threat is the Americans or the pompous Western politicians or religion in general or ourselves.

It's a familiar pattern of thinking among the kind of reader who is drawn to the Guardian but no less depressing for that and a kind of validation for the theory of cognitive warfare. It's a great pity that people tend towards accepting the existential reality of terrorism in its various manifestations more readily when they have been personally exposed to it, or suffered its consequences. 

It's even more regrettable that a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to protect your own society (and family and self) also seems to stem - broadly speaking - from having been, yourself, touched by the tentacles of terrorism and the forces of hatred that propel it. It would be better for everyone if we could simply skip the part where first you pay the price and then you discover that the danger was there all along and it's not going away.

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