When I was in high school, my class visited a fire station, where we watched a video about the different types of fire (i.e. electrical, wood) and the different ways to extinguish them.
The video kept repeating that a fire requires oxygen, fuel and heat; removing one of these will kill the fire.
While the analogy isn’t exactly parallel, I often recollect that video when thinking about how to extinguish the threat of terrorism.
If you like, a terrorist attack needs motivation and means. If we remove one of these factors, there will be no terrorist attack. And if we reduce some of these factors, we will likely reduce the severity of an attack.
It is rarely possible to distil a would-be jihadi’s motivation to a single issue. A potential Islamist terrorist will be motivated by Islam’s glorious past and prophesied future, the present global weakness of Islam vis-à-vis the West, the secularism and corruption of Muslim leaders, the success of Islamic State in defeating its corrupt Muslim and non-Muslim enemies, the decadence of the West, the festering sore of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (and American support for Israel) and so on.
But these are just sources of discontent. A would-be Islamist terrorist is also motivated by the radical theological prism through which he or she perceives the world. This worldview does not spontaneously appear, but is cultivated over time in small groups, in mosques or online. And this cultivation is not merely a matter of people pulling the wool over particularly impressionable eyes. Islam has a continuous history of very clever people that have applied the theology of jihad to their times, from Muhammad to ibn Taymiyya and Qutb, through to bin Laden and al-Baghdadi today.
It is, in short, all but impossible to remove motivation for would-be jihadists. Until the West is weaker than dar al-islam (the realm of Islam), the would-be jihadis will resent it and want to attack it, and if the West became weaker than dar al-islam, the would-be jihadi would seek to subjugate it.
There are ways to reduce motivation but many of these are akin to finger-in-the-dyke solutions. Providing Islamic State with defeats will, no doubt, reduce some motivation to potential jihadis—Islamic State’s victories have inspired violent Islamists around the world. But even after Islamic State is finished (and I’ve written previously it’s more fragile than the media makes out), to my mind, the genie is out of the bottle. Let us remember that Lee Rigby was executed well before Islamic State was created.
One could argue that the US acting strong might reduce motivation. And it is certainly true that Obama has acted weak. But Bush acted strong, and helped unbotttle that genie. Acting strong or weak is not, in and of itself, the cause of these issues. Acting wisely is what the West should be doing…
A would-be jihadi that hates the West for its perceived crimes against Muslims will usually overlook the impressive list of actions the West has taken in defence of Muslims, not least in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans. The point being, the West can do all it can to remove or reduce reasons for violent Islamists to hate it, but violent Islamists will still find ways to hate it.
Strong action and leadership within the Muslim communities across the world, to prevent radicalisation will and is helping, and there have been some successes. But as worthy as these efforts are, there will always be an influential few who preach jihad (and it’s hard to stop them from proliferating on the Internet). The problem for these anti-radicalisation efforts is, the jihadi worldview is theologically sound, so it is incredibly hard to argue against.
Social media companies have a role to play—they need to act quickly to prevent radical content on their platform. Facebook has done good work in this field; Twitter today is the social network of choice for Islamists.
Since it’s hard to reduce motivation, means is the best way Western security agencies can prevent Paris-like attacks. The greater the complexity of a terrorist plan, the greater chance security agencies will have of detecting and preventing it. And the more people involved in the planning and preparation of an attack, the more chance these plans and preparations can be uncovered.
However, if a would-be jihadi wants to take a car or a knife and kill a random civilian, he or she doesn’t require any training or even a network of organisers. These ‘lone wolf’ attacks are incredibly hard to prevent. But, on the bright side, the number of people killed or injured in each such attack tend to be small.
A sophisticated terrorist plot usually requires know how—how to obtain weapons, what ingredients to use in explosives, how to put a bomb together, etc. Moreover, training is required to learn all of the above, plus how to handle weaponry, how to remain calm during the attack when the adrenaline is pumping, etc.
Training requires a physical space. If done in the West, it can often be detected. But it’s frequently done overseas. There used to be terrorist training camps in Lebanon. These days, would-be jihadis get their training done in real-life wars, such as in Afghanistan and Syria.
Preventing Westerners from travelling to these wars (or preventing them from returning) will help protect us from Paris-style attacks.
Strong and intrusive national security legislation (which must strike a balance between the right to life and the right to privacy) will enable security agencies to uncover many complex plots.
In conclusion, a mass-casualty terrorist attack requires motivation and means. Motivation is hard for the West to prevent or reduce. Means can be reduced but not entirely prevented, with intelligence, tight gun control laws, and restrictions regarding explosive precursors, etc. But even with all of this, some groups will plan and execute their attacks undetected. Terrorism is a phenomenon we will have to live with for years to come.