Month: October 2016

Book review: Old and New Terrorism

“The new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation”

– Dr Peter R. Neumann

To better understand terrorism I knew I needed a basic knowledge of its underpinnings. Not just the ‘Islamist’ terrorism that we hear so much about these days, but all kinds of terrorism throughout the ages – from its birth during the French Revolution to its most modern incarnation in the form of ISIS.

I wanted to learn from a source that was credible yet readable, where the key points were not buried under layers of academic bluster. With that in mind I chose Old and New Terrorism by Peter Neumann.

War of the worlds

Neumann sets the scene with a colourful image of terrorists ‘whose aim was to liquidate all satanic forces and destroy all life on earth’. This HG Wells-esque quote, attributed to the pre-eminent terrorism historian Walter Laqueur, draws the reader in with high hopes for an entertaining yet informative read.

Although the ‘earthquake machines’ Laqueur warns of have not yet become reality, the description illustrates the changing nature of terrorism; a fact Laqueur was quick to discern. In delineating these changes, Neumann first outlines the situation of many of the old guard from the 70s and 80s, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Irish Republic Army (IRA), and shows how they abandoned violence during the 1990s.

He contrasts this tactical shift with the rise of ‘new and more dangerous forms of terrorism’, beginning with the first World Trade Centre attack in 1993 and developing into the present-day threat of ‘lone wolf’ attacks on European capitals.

Old and New Terrorism explores how and why terrorism has changed. This is more than just a surface-level analysis; Neumann digs deep to uncover the global social and political shifts creating the conditions to foster terrorism in its modern-day form. He believes that understanding the nature of these changes is essential; that ‘the new terrorism cannot be understood without making sense of the dynamics caused by late modernity and globalisation’.

Going global

Globalisation is a core theme that runs consistently throughout the book, underpinning most of the arguments. In the first chapter, Neumann examines how terrorist groups operate, focusing on how their structures and modus operandi have adapted to globalisation. Of course, the internet features prominently along with the rise in cheap travel. Both developments allow the easy flow of people and information across borders, enabling potential terrorists to build global networks and immediately reach audiences that span entire continents.

Politics is another central focus of the book, in particular how the forces of globalisation and late modernity have influenced politics and shaped the terrorist agenda in response. Neumann points out that these developments have benefitted ‘an increasingly cosmopolitan elite’, yet also triggered a rise in political views that hinge on ‘particularist forms of ethnic and religious identity’, rejecting the liberal, secular and inclusive norms promoted by globalisation.

The clash of different mindsets enabled by globalisation has dredged up further opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit. This is the context within which we must understand the rise of religiously inspired terrorism, especially the politicisation of religion.

Shock value

Continuing the theme of globalisation, Neumann investigates how the new 24/7 media cycle has created saturation and desensitisation; causing today’s terrorists to use even more shocking tactics to spread their message, and create the necessary psychological ‘shock’ effect upon their audience.

Also, the need for brutal violence is made easier for those who wield it because their particularist ideology defines all members of different ethnic and religious groups as the ‘Other’, and consequently as ‘infidels’ or ‘subhumans’ whose harm can be justified within the terrorist paradigm. Neumann points out that this alarming lack of restraint combined with the need for ‘shock value’ creates an environment where the most extreme violence becomes possible.

Neumann concludes by arguing that governments and societies are ‘ill-prepared to face new terrorism due to a lack of international cooperation. He highlights the need to challenge terrorist messages in the virtual spaces where most of their supporters reside, i.e. on social media, in online forums and, increasingly, within the dark web.

Neumann argues against imposing globalist ideologies such as liberal values and cosmopolitanism, as this runs the risk of creating further ‘ideological blowback’. He suggests instead that solutions lie in ‘softening the interpretations’ of various religious, ethnic and national identities, and ‘providing avenues through which they can be expressed non-violently’.

Age of anxiety

Old and New Terrorism offers a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter, situating the phenomenon of terrorism within a wider context of global politics and social trends. This is vital knowledge for anyone who still believes that religion is the sole driver behind terrorist acts. I found the chapter ‘From Marx to Mohammed? Religion and Terrorism’ particularly insightful in its discussion of the recent return of religiously inspired terrorism.

Neumann explains that terrorist groups ‘always reflect broader ideological currents’ and that the recent rise in ‘backward’ terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, is not a contradiction to globalisation and modernity, but instead an inherent feature of the processes that drive them.

He refers to the insecurity and anxiety perpetuated by late modernity and globalisation, that has ‘challenged people’s sense of control over their own destiny’ and led some to look backwards to simpler systems to make sense of their world. This, combined with massive social and economic change, has left some groups behind, in particular immigrants to Western societies, many dealing with their own cultural identity crises on top of a whole raft of economic and social challenges.

The book’s narrative flows with ease. Neumann explains his points  clearly and succinctly, leaving the reader with a host of new insights and the tools to think critically about potential new directions in the subject matter. This book provides a well-rounded explanation of terrorism, although I’d have liked to read more about the digital world and how online propaganda is used by, and against, terrorist groups.

As Old and New Terrorism was published in 2009, shortly before the rise of ISIS, perhaps this is a subject for a future book. I would recommend Old and New Terrorism to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the logical drivers behind this seemingly unpredictable modern phenomenon.

Rise of nerves

I’d never really thought much about violent extremism before 2001, when images of the collapsing Twin Towers filled TV screens around the world. I was just a naive 18 year old asking my father if the world was ending.  He assured me it wasn’t, but I still remember how alarmed he looked.

The world didn’t end then, but it changed.

Although the events of 9/11 were undeniably tragic, it riles me somewhat when the media elevates this above all other similar incidents. In Turkey, in just twelve months, there have been at least fifteen terrorist attacks, culminating in the big one that really hit home for me. Ataturk Airport, June 28, 2016. 45 dead, 239 injured.

I was due to fly out of Turkey just days later. Of course, that was no reason to be afraid, but it does bring a stark reminder of one’s own mortality.

But the sense of fear in Istanbul started long before the airport attack. As an expat there in late 2014 I remember hearing fellow Brits talking about their fears of spending too long in crowded places, of taking public transport, or of hanging out in Taksim Square.

This rise of nerves coincided with the rise of ISIS; disturbingly close to home over the Syrian border. Turkey seemed immune to attack at that time, in fact some say the Turkish government actively supported ISIS, or turned a blind eye to its cross-border activities at the very least. With that in mind, some of us felt a little safer, assuming that ISIS would not bite the hand that fed it.

But things changed in July 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish peace rally in the eastern city of Suruç, killing 33 people. Eyewitnesses reported a curious lack of security at the event, which is unusual for Turkey. From that point on, every month seemed to bring a new attack, and nowhere felt safe anymore.

In early 2016 the focus shifted to Istanbul. Every expat’s anxious nightmare came home to roost when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the tourist heartland, Sultanahmet. Then came another attack in March, this time targeting another popular tourist area, Istiklal Avenue.

The bomber struck on a Saturday morning, where thankfully the street was at its most empty. At peak times, mainly weekend evenings, nearly three million people might traverse that street. It often gets packed rigid; difficult to move in any direction. That used to be dynamic and exciting. In the wake of the bombing, it became terrifying. And these days, it’s not so packed anymore.

In July came the final message from ISIS to Turkey, in the form of the Ataturk airport bombing. It seemed the group had lost patience with Turkey. Something had shifted; no idea what. But now, a few months later, Turkish forces have joined the coalition working to rout ISIS out of Mosul once and for all.

What this defeat will mean for the terrorist group remains to be seen. Analysts offer up a wide range of theories, but simply using military force to defeat the group in Iraq will not defeat the ideology. In fact, it will probably support the compelling ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that ISIS promotes through all its online content.

A concept can’t be killed, it can only be neutralised. Changing hearts and minds through smarter and more thoughtful engagement at the grass roots is one way to start doing this. Of course the social and political challenges will remain. Only deep-seated policy change can shift these. That is unlikely to happen any time soon. But rising Islamophobia and the resulting discrimination and marginalisation must be tackled if we hope to create convincing counter-narratives to combat those of violence.

All’s not right with the alt-right

The rise of Islamic radicalisation has been mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or the so-called “alt-right”. The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. They are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’.

In fact, white supremacy is a more fitting description for alt-right ideology. It manifests clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the narrative. Alt-right proponents in the US support Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech. He’s the equivalent of sending a wrecking ball crashing into the establishment, tearing down the political correctness that the alt-right despise so much.

According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream.

Those heady, hopeful days when Barack Obama was elected now feel like a distant memory. It is as if the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black man with a Muslim name in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have stayed largely outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting an opportunity for their supporters to bring their views into the public sphere. Indeed, Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is also the editor of the conservative website Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right ideology different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who support Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. A focus on identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically about how white identity is seen in relation to (and in opposition to) that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are clear. They fixate on promoting white identity; this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalism. They claim to promote traditional white Christian values. Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda for subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their fellow extremists in ISIS, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they have been dubbed.

What threat does the alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially directed against Muslims), and causing racist ideas to become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society.

At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like ISIS seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. Extremists are not only brown men joining ISIS, but also white ones joining the alt-right.

How can the alt-right be counteracted?

Liberals often feel they are superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Both groups could benefit from gaining a better understanding of what drives the other side. These days people tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by those with similar world views. Social media amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. If they believe white identity is at stake; what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in a genuine fear of losing their identity? How can this be mitigated without harming others?

A short history of fear

Throughout history, humans have been afraid. Fear is one of the most primal emotional responses and can take many forms. It can be individual and specific, like of that flying or of spiders, or more generalised and widespread, such as the Yellow Peril fear of the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or the looming terror of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that arose decades after that.

Fear stems from a lack of understanding. Individualised fears of flying, heights or spiders affect only the individual and are usually harmless to society as a whole. But when fear spreads and takes root, aimed at a group, a race, a nation, a religion, or a concept, that’s when it acquires the dangerous potential to be leveraged as a technique for social control and manipulation, usually to the detriment of some groups and the benefit of others.

In the past, it was difficult to identify exactly how these widespread fears begun, or what factors propelled them to spread across societies. Today, our globalised and tightly connected information society offers new scope for uncovering the truth. Independent journalists and citizen bloggers can share their stories with the world, with the minimum of resources needed to do so.

At the beginning, this shift had the potential to dilute the power of government and mainstream media to shape the wider narrative. But they soon emerged more potent than before, using less obvious yet perhaps more insidious methods.

Unfortunately, the information age offers many ways to hide truth, often by creating smokescreens based around false perceptions. With 24/7 news at our fingertips, information and misinformation spreads like flames sweeping across a field of parched grass. It’s called ‘going viral’, and it’s every digital marketer and content producer’s dream.

But false perceptions are deeply damaging to those affected. If a country has a bad reputation, such as for safety, tourists and investors will hesitate to go there. The economy will suffer and so will the country’s status in the world. It takes a lot of careful planning to restore a lost reputation.

For certain groups of people, false perceptions are even worse. They become objects of fear wherever they go. They don’t get the chance to show society who they really are, because all the assumptions have already been made. It’s not a level playing field when the narratives of fear are at play. Opportunities shrink away for the members of the feared groups. They experience vilification, whether overtly or more implicitly. They become constantly on the back foot in society.

In 2016, the world’s most feared group is Muslims. This has been the case for over a decade, ever since the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their vicious aftermath. The narrative constructed around the threat of Islam, Muslims, and the need for the Western ‘war on terror’ has resonated across the years, bolstered by reams of media coverage. Today, it has become an integral part of Western mainstream consciousness.

The Islamophobia narrative received a further boost to almost hysterical levels in 2014, when Islamic State (Isis) burst onto the global scene in a flurry of blood and gore. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere (although we know this is far from true) the aggressive tactics and ruthless nature of the group struck a further heavy blow to the image of innocent Muslims across the world.

Syria and Iraq had already been war-torn before Isis arrived in the public eye. As the group captured their cities, refugees began pouring across the border into Turkey, and from there into Europe. At first, stories such as that of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach, resonated with the world and spurred sympathy in many quarters. None more so than in Germany, where the leader Angela Merkel actively encouraged refugees to move there.

This move, which seemed so positive, soon morphed into the beginnings of a new wave of fear. The incident in Cologne on New Year 2015, when North African men were accused of attacking German women, was hijacked to place the blame squarely on refugees. A spate of new Isis atrocities followed, widely reported. The resulting hysteria grew and spread. And so the fear cycle continued.

Since then, Islamophobia has grown to epic levels. It has swept across and permeated Europe, the UK and the United States. The mainstream media is largely to blame, for fuelling exaggerated and often patently untrue narratives. But the unquestioning masses lapped them up, soaking in tales of dangerous refugees who refused to integrate into European culture, instead spending their days groping local women and plotting how to impose sharia law. These perceptions drive far right responses, which in turn shift the political direction of many countries towards the right.

From amid this toxic brew we now reap the effects of fear that was sown. In the UK we have Brexit to contend with, a vote for UK independence driven on the back of exaggerated and often false narratives around immigration. The main party gunning for Brexit, UKIP, used provocative campaign posters to play on British fear of the ‘other’. The posters, ostensibly anti-immigration from the EU, showed large groups of men of Middle Eastern appearance, not white as might be expected from EU countries such as Poland or Bulgaria. The message was loud and clear. Refugees, and hence Muslims, were really the ones to be feared.

Across the Atlantic, the US is experiencing its own backlash. Donald Trump, a man who began the presidential race widely perceived as a bad joke, has gathered steam and emerged as the competing candidate for the White House. Again, he stokes people’s fears of the ‘other’, mainly of Muslims, but also of Mexican immigrants and black people. This has led to an increase in harmful incidents on the ground, affecting ordinary people, such as Muslims being forced off flights for speaking Arabic, kids beaten up at school for being Muslim, and an assortment of other discriminations within an already deeply racist society.

Islamophobia has become entrenched. It won’t go away any time soon. And the people affected by it will respond in various ways. Many will be circumspect and simply carry on with their normal integrated lives. But others will soon grow to resent the constant battering from media and society alike. Some of the affected individuals will want to fight back. Combined with a morass of different factors, from social constraints and lack of opportunity to identity crises and toxic masculinity (the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this post), a few outliers may head down an altogether more dangerous path.

Fighting radicalisation has become a fully-fledged industry these days. Many academics, journalists and commentators make their livings from studying it. Western governments, especially in the UK, have tried many times to devise strategies to stop young people from becoming radicalised.  These are widely deemed to have failed. Again, discussing the multitude of reasons why this is so are a topic for another post. Suffice to say, the nature of the mainstream narrative has an important role to play. One way forward is by trying to shift this in a positive, constructive direction that involves affected groups directly, letting them define their own new narratives at the grassroots level, then making sure those narratives reach mainstream hearts and minds.

Fear Interrupted will act as a platform to do precisely that. It will explore examples of counter-narrative building from around the world, mainly in the digital sphere, showcasing a range of citizen-led initiatives that are trying to reset the mainstream narrative, promote understanding between groups, and, albeit on a small scale, bring some semblance of normality back into our distorted and uneven societies.