Terrorists actually kill relatively few people but they scare billions.
Growing up in the UK in the seventies, terrorism was synonymous with the IRA, it only affected me with a few bomb scares, when we had to evacuate various buildings. I never witnessed an actual terrorist attack. I was living in London in February 1991, when the IRA exploded a bomb at Victoria Station, Derek, who was later to be my best man was working at the station that day distributing the magazine Ms London, that was the closest I got to a terrorist act affecting my life.
With the Good Friday Agreement (1998) the Irish terror threat abated and the jihadist threat rose in its stead.
Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed around 50 people in the EU, ten people in the USA and seven people in China. In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80 000 Europeans, 40 000 Americans and 270 000 Chinese.
In 2002 at the height of the Palestinian terror campaign against Israel, when Israel was attacked on a daily basis, the yearly toll reached 451 dead Israelis, in the same year 542 Israelis were killed in car accidents.
Terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change a political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. Terrorism is the choice of weak parties, who do not have the means to inflict much material damage on their enemies. Terrorism is like aikido, where you use the strength of the attacker against them.
Yuval Noah Harari, gives an interesting analogy of how terrorism works in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”
terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does the fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop.
This is what happened after 9/11, the jihadists incited the American bull and its allies to destroy the Middle East China Shop. Now jihadists flourish in the ruins of Iraq and Libya.
Terrorists are too weak to wage conventional war, they choose to produce a theatrical spectacle that will provoke the enemy into over reacting. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.
Terrorists aren’t army generals, they think like theatre producers. 9/11 is mostly remembered for al-Qaeda demolishing the Twin Towers, not so much for the successful attack on the Pentagon. As a military target the Pentagon, part of the enemy’s central headquarters was far more significant.
Terrorists undertake an impossible mission to change the political balance of power through violence, despite having no army. If we want to combat terrorism we must realise that nothing terrorists do can defeat us.
In past centuries political violence was common, terrorism didn’t bother our medieval ancestors because they had bigger problems to deal with. In the West today political violence has been virtually eliminated, so any act of political violence is amplified. Killing a few people in Belgium draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. The very success of moderns states in preventing political violence is what makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism.
The most efficient answer to terrorism might be good intelligence and clandestine action against the financial networks that feed terrorism, but this won’t make the news. the media hysteria after 9/11 prompted the state to act, unleashing a mighty storm just as the terrorists wanted.
It is our inner terror that prompts the media to obsess about terrorism and governments to overreact. If we allow our imagination to be captured by terrorists, the terrorists will have won. The jihadists and far right groups have a similar objective in the west to alienate muslims, Islamophobia and jihad recruiting go hand-in-hand.
The preceding thoughts are for terrorism as we have known it in recent years. However, if terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction, the nature of global politics will change dramatically. While present day terrorism is mostly theatre, future nuclear terrorism, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism would pose a much more serious threat and would demand drastic action from governments.