Terrorism: A Diluted Word and Complex Phenomenon
According to the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, we are living in the Risk Society. Part of this is our vulnerable open societies and those that want to take advantage of the vulnerabilities and use violence to change society. There is a constant fight and race between the authorities, law enforcement, security services, and groups/individuals using terrorism. It is now truer than ever many types of measures and approaches are needed to prevent and counter the threat. One part of the challenge is how we conceptualize the threat through our use and choice of words. Concepts and ideas are changing our societies and our perception of the terrorism risk, especially due to the Internet, which includes the 24/7 news cycle that has strongly influenced our society.
Since the 1970s, when the terrorism studies field began to develop, many definitions of terrorism have been proposed, resulting in the lack of a common definition. During the last two decades, the lack of consensus, and usage of the word, has become increasingly problematic. With the attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), authorities woke up to a growing security challenge — homegrown terrorism. To counter this threat, two concepts were introduced and stressed: radicalisation and extremism. This can be seen as a way of using research and policy to understand the mechanisms of why some people became terrorists and, accordingly, implement the most effective countermeasures. In 2004, when the concept was introduced, radicalisation was understood as a series of psychological fixed stages, closely connected to religion and ideology resulting in someone becoming a terrorist. Quintain Wiktorowicz, a political scientist, had studied the mechanisms for joining an Islamist organization in Britain, which he used as the basis for his radicalisation theory.
Since then, terrorism researchers have scrutinized and refined the theory and concept. Nowadays, the concept is used to describe a psychological process where a person, or a group, becomes increasingly radical and is finally willing to support or use violence, or issue threats of violence, to achieve a political or ideological change. There do not seem to be fixed stages, but many researchers agree, radicalisation usually begins with a cognitive opening. Some researchers view the process as more neutral, where it can lead to radical good deeds to society, such as someone joining Doctors Without Borders, or the special forces. Alternatively, it leads to a negative and violent path, threatening or undermining our societies. One researcher sees the process as coming to a rigid understanding of complex societal matters.
At the same time, there is more or less an agreement, between researchers and practitioners, that the concept has many caveats. Most people going through a radicalisation process never become a terrorist, in other words, they never use violence to achieve a political or ideological goal. In addition to research into radicalisation, receiving government support, law enforcement and authorities detect all the elements in the process of radicalisation and use the law to prevent the acts. One example is joining a foreign militant organization and providing support to a terrorist organization.
A degree of consensus has also developed regarding the role of local authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in countering radicalisation, because radicalisation can start with small steps. Hard power is not enough in the fight against terrorism. Therefore, a new concept was introduced, “Countering Violent Extremism” or for short CVE and PVE, “Preventing Violent Extremism”. The difference between the two is not always clear.
We are beginning to see the result of this development. Terrorism has become a buzzword, and many types of acts are defined as terrorism. The splitting up of terrorist acts is not only due to policy and the authorities. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist organizations/networks/movements have encouraged each “rightly believing Muslim” to use any means to strike the enemy. Ayman al-Zawahiri encouraged supporters to use a plank with a nail in it to strike the enemy if the person had few other resources.
Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani, the former spokesman of ISIS, called for the same in 2014. This message was also integrated into the Islamic State’s media campaigns. Jihadi organizations stated there was a global war, and everyone had an obligation to fight the enemy. In 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP), published the magazine Inspire, which included recipes for making bombs from household ingredients, and the authors their audience to use vehicles in the attacks.
These types of instructions and ideological arguments were effectively disseminated across the internet. According to terrorism laws, terrorism attacks can now be a vehicle attack, a lone-stabbing, poisoning, up to the use of automatic weapons and explosives. Terrorism-related activity can be an incitement to an act of terrorism, threats of terrorism, funding terrorism, downloading extremist material from the Internet, etc. Hate crimes are in a grey area, and sabotage of infrastructure has occasionally been linked to terrorism. In Scandinavia, terrorism laws include the intention to sow fear in the population.
The consequences are not that easy to see, but terrorism has increased. Extremism is difficult to measure, but it is also likely to have increased. The increase in hate speech online is one indication. Violent extremism is a problematic concept because it is unclear, and “extremism” as a label can be used by authorities to crackdown on dissent and restrict civil liberties, which is also the case for terrorism. Both terrorism and extremism are concepts that are fluid and closely linked to power. It is the states and state structures that decide what terrorism is, implement the definition in the laws, and have the power to designate terrorists and terrorist groups. There has been a politicization of the two terms. In some countries terrorists are defined as anyone that disagrees with the government, advocating the use of violence.
The term “extremism” seems to have followed from the development of using radicalisation as a concept to understand how someone becomes a terrorist. Extremists are those that use or support extreme measures, in other words, extreme on a political scale or compared to the average person, and what is considered acceptable behavior. British authorities have given the following definition: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
Violent extremism is when violence is added to extremism. Violent extremists, therefore, have much in common with terrorists, but while terrorists typically use violence against civilians to reach a political goal, violent extremists can also include guerilla groups and insurgency groups, or any non-state actor that uses violence.
Violent extremism as a term is often conflated with the word “terrorism”. Logically, when the definition of violent extremism is expanded, more incidents are bound to be interpreted as such. Moreover, the conflation of “extremism” with “terrorism” will likely only add to the pervasive climate of fear in our societies. It would be unrealistic to completely roll back the laws that have been implemented across multiple governments to crack down on radical elements of society, and in fact, many of these laws are necessary, but being aware of the differences between “extremism” and “terrorism” can probably reduce the number of radical ideas going around our societies, and perhaps reduce terrorist incidents themselves. One of the most important places to begin is within the media. Although social media plays an increased role in forming sentiments and understanding, traditional media has got the most concentrated power. Politicians and policymakers can also make a difference. The phenomenon of terrorism remains a threat to our societies, which we will have to continue to manage. Part of managing that threat is forming a consensus on the terms we use when we talk about terrorism.