News and Comment

Tackling the new threats of terror

Tuesday 5 April 2011

As terror strikes again in Northern Ireland, with the tragic killing of a young Catholic member of the Police Force, it is important to reflect on what can be learnt from past approaches to countering terrorism. All the evidence shows that a rash, punitive response, which targets the whole community rather than the perpetrators of the crime will not produce the desired effect – which is to isolate, and ultimately, drain away the little support such antagonists have within their communities.

This killing raised for me a number of important issues. The first is that we still face a threat from all forms of violent extremism, and not just Al Qaeda inspired extremism from within Muslim communities. In this context, the Coalition Government’s likely adoption of an approach to preventing violent extremism that responds to all forms of extremism, rather than simply Al Qaeda inspired terrorism is welcome. Violent extremism, as history attests, can arise in many different communities, in the name of many different goals.

The second point is that however tempting it is to embark on a harsh and brutal counter terrorist response, it is important for security forces, and political representatives in the community, to hold back and use the next few months to gain more information about what is driving the threat, how deep the threat is, and to explore and understand the conditions which seem to be making it possible for a small and determined group of terrorists to recruit willing accomplices.

The short term security response to terrorist acts

Louise Richardson, one of the world’s most celebrated experts on terrorism, argues that terrorists flourish on gaining both ‘reaction’ and ‘renown’ from their terrorist acts. Through their violent acts, they either succeed in gaining an overreaction from the Government and security forces – a misstep which in the past led to counterproductive acts like internment without trial, and the army on the streets – or renown, in that undeservedly, they become heroes or martyrs to their communities.

In this way, the temptation to overreact and to engage in forms of ‘collective punishment’ should be resisted. Careful and targeted policing will undoubtedly find the culprits in the long run. Encouragingly, from the messages coming from politicians and the police so far, there appears to be no desire to return to approaches of the past.

The conditions which allow extremism to flourish

Louise Richardson also argues that violent extremists emerge out of, ‘a lethal cocktail containing a disaffected individual, an enabling community and a legitimising ideology’. In the case of this recent terrorist atrocity, there is need to explore some of the causes in the recent upturn in organised terror in Northern Ireland.

Disaffection is likely to spring from a range of factors, including the high level of youth unemployment in some local communities, a perceived lack of influence and power that young people have over their lives, and the problem of some people holding deep grievances against forces which they struggle to control, such as the current political class and the police. It is likely that an enabling community of some shape or form does exist in parts of the community, but there a reasons for this too, namely the sense of community decline and dislocation from the advancement which is undoubtedly benefiting other parts of the community where prosperity and progress are on the rise.

Longer term strategy to tackle these conditions

There needs to be a long term strategy which seeks to address and counter some of these root causes of extremism. This requires looking at the nature of the grievances some people hold, tackling problems of isolation and disaffection, and providing positive alternatives for those who might seek to become part of local violent terrorist groups.

We know from evaluations and research into prevention of violent extremism, including studies by OPM into how school based approaches can reduce some of the causal risk factors associated with violent extremism, that there are ways to reduce these risk factors over time. Initiating creative approaches to break down barriers between young Catholics and Protestants and enabling young people to air their grievances and consider the issue of terrorism from a wide range of perspectives will encourage young people to grasp the futility and moral abhorrence of violent extremism.

This is not to suggest that the acts which took place should not be condoned in the strongest possible terms – terrorism is a crime, and it destroys families and communities. A security response will be required, but in parallel, there will also need to be the more challenging, longer term task of building the conditions in which it is harder for terrorists to emerge in the first place.

OPM have recently written a paper on building resilience and integration which touches on some of the issues in this blog.