Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Countering “terror” and not just the terrorists

Countering “terror” and not just the terrorists Floral tributes at Parliament Square following the 22 March 2017 terrorist attack © Prioryman, Wikimedia Commons

After a terrorist attack, it is common that politicians and society immediately call for additional or enhanced security measures. For instance, in the week following the Westminster attack in March 2017 in which 5 people (+perpetrator) were killed, the Guardian reported that “MPs and peers are to raise concerns about evacuation procedures and security at the main entrance to parliament, as the authorities responsible for running the Palace of Westminster gather to discuss last week’s terror attack.”.

How appropriate and effective is this standardised response to terrorist attacks?

Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the most well-known terrorism experts and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, wrote a thought-provoking piece that should be read by anyone wishing to understand the essence of terrorism.

Jenkins explains how terrorism is “primarily aimed at the people watching”, and, consequently, the effects of terrorism are predominantly aimed to be psychological. This means that the fight against terrorism should also contain a psychological element complementing the physical battle of preventing terrorist attacks. Countering perceptions and disproportional feelings of terror should be key, as reflected in Jenkins’ title: “Taking the “Terror” out of Terrorism Requires Outsmarting Fear”.

A number of reasons are identified in the article explaining why today’s terrorists - “with limited capabilities and minimal resources” - have managed to be very successful in this psychological battle. First of all, the effects of terrorism are spread more globally and quickly than ever before, amplified by (social) media coverage. If it bleeds, it leads, as is often cynically stated, clearly holds for terrorism.

Secondly, there are politicians who recognise terrorist attacks as opportunities to portray themselves favourably, start blame games, or call for increased security measures. Interestingly, Jenkins states that these security measures then drive up subsequent threat portrayals, as “there is no point in diminishing the dragons one promises to slay”.

However, it is not just the media, politicians and policy-makers that should recognise their (at times) unhelpful role in enabling the workings of terrorism. The public demands and expects “absolute security (…) which encourages the government to overpromise, setting it up for failure, which will, in turn, exacerbate public alarm”, the author warns.

Today’s jihadi terrorists have perhaps better understood these mechanisms than most of the above-mentioned actors. Jenkins rightly notes that the development of a countering terror-strategy has hardly been explored. He recognizes that such a strategy should not be about increased security measures or trying to eradicate the public’s fear of terrorism altogether. Terrorism is a real threat and one that seems to be on the rise in Western countries in the last five years. However, there is much to gain if we help “society understand how terrorism works [and then] working together to foster a psychologically more resilient and less vulnerable mindset”.

So yes, the standardized response of evaluating security measures after an attack is a sensible and indispensable course of action. But it is not enough. The same level and intensity of inquiry should be devoted to understanding our response to attacks and to work on fear and impact management. To what extent has our response contributed to preventing terror, or are we perhaps unwittingly amplifying its effects?

Fear and impact management is one of the main research strands of the Terrorism and Political Violence Research Group of ISGA. It is also the topic of the PhD-research of the author of this blog. 

5 Comments

Shafiq Ahmad
Posted on May 6, 2017 at 07:05 by Shafiq Ahmad

Its very frustrating reading and listening a huge number of political social , academic and media pundits speaking about terrorism and counter terrorism , with out any clue about it not uttering a single word about the very essence of this jihadi ideology , which is indoctrinated in minds and spirit of the majority good believers . time is up to not only speak loud about it but urgent resolute steps must be taken in if we wish to lead towards peace harmony and preservation of our cultural values and antiquity .

Yaşar Bilge
Posted on May 4, 2017 at 10:01 by Yaşar Bilge

As long as dialectical evaluation continues, it is difficult to combat terrorism. The multi-evaluation system should be able to pass the community. This requires very effective and long-term work.

Spiros Bamiatzis
Posted on May 3, 2017 at 23:24 by Spiros Bamiatzis

Like Dr. Baker had said in one of his broadcasts, and I paraphrase, politicians need to act, many times on incomplete and sketchy information. Let’s for a second, forget about our academic hat, and let’s be that politician facing the media at the 10:00 o’clock news. What do you say and how you install security and confidence to an anxious population that needs reassurance? Contrary to popular demand, I haven’t heard any politician promising absolute security. They are too foxy to promise something like that. On the contrary, what they promise is to “bring the perpetrators to justice”, or “enhanced measures will be taken” which both of them is standard procedures practice. On the contrary, the issue of resilience is the issue that needs to be discussed, augmented, taught, and practiced, starting at the elementary school level. Unfortunately, terrorism as an idea can not be defeated. Also, let’s not forget, that the West is faced with the Democratic Dilemma, habeas corpus, innocent till you are proven guilty, due process, etc something that the terrorists are taking full advantage of. So, the West, has to guard itself, by educating the very institutions, that provide us with our freedoms. And here is the question. How is the press going to report a terror attack? What influence the press exercises in enhancing the terror in the hearts of the audience? What is the protocol that has to be followed in reporting the victims of the terror attack? What is the impact of the camera focusing on dismembered bodies? What is the social responsibility of the press? Also, the “previous” Jenkins had said, that terrorists don’t want a lot of people dead, but a lot of people watching. The “new” Jenkins, said, terrorists want a lot of people dead and watching. So, we find ourselves in uncharted waters, and we write papers, we should understand that politicians respond to peoples fears, because at the time that’s what the people need to hear, to ease their anxiety. But the fight against terrorism, starts with the way the news are reported by the press, including Q&As; by the press to the politicians, and most importantly the education of the population, in theory and practice of resilience and appropriate resilience measures. That can not wait until the next terror attack.

Peter  Sediela
Posted on May 3, 2017 at 19:26 by Peter Sediela

In my observation of the unfolding events, especially in the west; particularly the lone wolf activities which are sometimes amplified by the media as terrorist acts, worsen the situation. Politicians, and the public rely on what the media feeds them. The other issue is that the western media have allowed ‘cold-war’ tactics to undermine the truth about the ongoing war on terror.  The reporting is geared towards fearmongering, and not providing the truth. Proxy wars within the ongoing fighting, enrage people and encourage sectarian violence. Individuals displaced by persecution or wars, find the isolation or being stigmatised when reaching places of safety in the west , respond by acting out. It is like a soldier exposed to trauma(PTSD), and reacting to a normal environment, when not receiving recognition. The war on terror is making life difficult for countries where such wars are waged. More deaths happen in those areas than anywhere else in the world. Economic interests of the western powers are changing and rewriting physical maps. The response to attacks must not be limited to politics or western foreign policies on what the middle east should look like. Those marginalised by wars and reduced to refugee status,  with no place to call home,  find themselves open to being recruited by jihadist organisations or are influenced by what is happening in their home countries, end up comitting such barbaric acts of terrorism. Just a thought.

Mark D Hatz
Posted on April 24, 2017 at 11:41 by Mark D Hatz

Well written.  I would only argue that your second premise, “there are politicians who recognise terrorist attacks as opportunities to profile themselves.” might well be the most damaging to the peoples understanding of the true terrorist threat and therefore should be first.

Politicians who insist that they are somehow qualified to pontificate about the terrorist situation at any given moment, consistently mislead the public about the best way to handle the situation.  The politician may well be acting out of ignorance and not deliberate malfeasance however the end result is the same.  The politician gets face time on media, provides poorly written laws and policies but improve their chance for re-election because they are “doing something”.  The public allows these laws and policies to take affect because they believe the politicians are providing for their safety and are, by virtue of their election to office more qualified than others to make the decisions for them.

Sorry if my distrust is showing….

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