The Nice terror attack on 14 July, where a truck loaded with grenades plowed into Bastille Day crowds walking on the promenade of this beautiful French town, has killed around 84 people. It is evidence of our collective failure to understand the true dimensions of terrorism, and how to combat it. Let’s face the realities upfront.
First, no country, even one with the best law enforcement machinery and surveillance technologies in the world, can prevent terrorism. By its very nature, terrorism needs only a willingness on the part of its perpetrators to die to succeed. As long as even one individual is willing to sacrifice his life for a cause he considers worthy, terrorism cannot be thwarted. Our focus must thus be on what to do after terror happens, even while we try to prevent it.
Second, the truth is terror always succeeds: even a failed terrorist attempt imposes costs on countries or continents seen as targets by terrorists. It is no coincidence that the decline of the West, including America’s weak economic growth, has followed 9/11 and George W Bush’s ill-fated attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars loaded the American economy with costs so high, that it weakened the ability of the economy to respond faster to the 2008 global financial crisis. If today Europe, and especially France, is on the terrorists’ radar, one can guarantee the Eurozone economic revival will be delayed further. More than Brexit, it is terrorism that is the greatest threat to economic revival. One study puts the cost of America’s post-9/11 anti-terror operations at over $3.3 trillion as in 2011 – which is nearly a fifth of America’s current annual GDP.
The costs have only escalated since then, and attacks in both America (San Bernardino, Orlando, etc) and Europe (Charlie Hebdo, Paris, and now Nice) have only escalated. Terror succeeds by making us pay higher costs for our lives.
Third, while good intelligence and a robust action are important weapons in the fight against terrorism, there is another side to this story: macho responses to terror sometimes become counter-productive as this only makes the challenge of organising terror that much more attractive to terrorists.
India’s poor response to terror means that it is fundamentally easier to perpetrate acts of terror on Indian soil than America’s or France’s. But it is the US and the West that offer the maximum returns on terrorists' investment in terms of resultant publicity and the ability to draw fresh recruits. The young, who are often more inclined towards radical and extremist ideas, may be more excited by the challenge an America poses to terror than a weak India. In India, we may occasionally scream about terror on TV channels, but after a few days, we go back to our jobs and everyday concerns. This is partly because Indian lives are cheaper, but it also reflects a fatalistic attitude that "karma" cannot be avoided. We don't obsess over terror the way the West does.
Fourth, social media now provides a route to self-radicalisation. You no longer need Al-Qaeda or Islamic State to provide you with the wherewithal to indulge in terrorism. Technology and mass killing armaments make terrorism easier than before. America’s lack of gun control may be a problem, but high-tech arms are today easier to procure from the world’s growing illegal arms and ammo trade. So one can self-radicalise and self-procure the means to kill and maim.
This brings us to the bigger question: Is there a better way of dealing with terrorism, so that it can be contained over the medium to long term? There is no certainty that terror can ever be fully contained, for as long as the world has so many discontents, the chances of someone taking up a gun to wipe out alleged enemies is always there.
But here are some starting points.
- Denying terrorists media oxygen. Terrorists love the media attention their acts get, and this is what makes the next terror act worthwhile. If, whenever a Nice happens, the focus shifts away from terrorism and anger to what government is doing to help the people affected and media focuses on the human tragedies that unfold, terrorist acts could become less heroic.
- Self-radicalisation, while partly true, is also overstated. The truth is someone close, or someone in the family or friends circle of future radicals, always knows something is wrong well before an act is perpetrated. Friends and family need to be encouraged to report changes in behaviour sooner – a new diligence in wearing the hijab or praying five times a day and a tendency to judge the west differently. Islamic terrorism is by no means the only kind around (America, for example, also sees White supremacist and evangelical or racist terrorism), but it is certainly the main one at this point of time. The 20-and-odd Keralites who are believed to have left for Islamic State did not get radicalised all of a sudden; there is usually an agent provocateur. The religious conversions of four of the people who left for Islamic State were also tell-tale signs of their impending radicalisation that was noticed but not reported widely. In the Orlando shooting, the father of the gunman noted the killer’s homophobia. The Dhaka killers were said to have been inspired by Zakir Naik, but we have been turning a blind eye to this phenomenon. This is what the intelligence agencies need to find ways of flagging early.
- The excessive dependence on electronic intelligence (monitoring email, noting social media behaviour, and tapping phone conversations) is also worrying. If radicalisation always has a human angle, it means human intelligence has to be enhanced. Believing too much in the power of technology to show us future terrorists is a mistake we should avoid in the future.
- Political correctness delays corrective action. The Orlando terrorist was able to obtain a lethal weapon despite him being under FBI monitoring. While stereotyping terrorists on the basis of their religious inclinations is wrong, excessive political correctness also prevents an early discover of potential problems.
- Most important, defeating the ideology that sparks terror is vital. America’s closest ally in West Asia, apart from Israel, is Saudi Arabia, which is the fountainhead of Salafist extremism and jihadi ideas. This ideology is spreading everywhere due to the funding of mosques and religious activities by the Saudi state. Pakistan is another purveyor or Islamism and jihadi culture, thanks to its visceral hatred for India. The world has to find ways to deal with the spread of Salafist ideology, which is a threat to the world.
- We should abolish root cause theories forever. The media tends to focus too much on root causes of terror, which gives terrorists the ideological justification for violence and mayhem. Root causes should be for academic or policy studies, not widespread media analysis that ends up encouraging the very terror it is supposed to end.
Last, we need to give terrorism a lower billing than it is currently given. If terrorism is treated more like a typhoon or natural calamity, we will develop a more karmic view of its negative effects. Over time, terrorist will face the law of diminishing returns in terms of publicity and global outrage. We need to outrage less and act more to combat terror.