The June 4 attack on London has taught us something about policing the world we face. We can walk the logic path espoused by Mayor Sadiq Khan, or the reactionary whims of Donald J. Trump.
The June 4 terrorist attack in London, when “lone wolf” jihadists drove into and stabbed several Londoners before being killed by law enforcement officers, has taught us something about Donald Trump, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, and how best to respond to our era’s wave of jihadist terrorism. Sadiq Khan and stereotypical British aplomb, it should be no surprise, merit praise and emulation; Donald Trump…well, his tough-sounding talk, ethnically-based insults and Manichean counter-terrorism policies increase the likelihood of the terrorist attacks that work Trump into such a state. And, sadly, Khan was also right about the essence of the jihadist threat we face: jihadist terrorism will be with us for the foreseeable future, no matter what we do.
Khan’s response to the past year’s attacks in London has been to reassure, take a series of visible security measures and, importantly, to relativise the threat: terrorism is “part and parcel” of life in the big city, Khan said, but, one need not be alarmed by the temporarily increased police presence in response to the most recent terrorist incident, normal life will go on. Trump’s reaction to the attack and to Khan’s response, was to deride the mayor – “You have to be kidding me?!” Trump expostulated – and to issue several calls for “strength” and “getting serious” about security, expressed in characteristically strong-sounding but vague ways. Khan soothed. Trump divided, although he would contend that he merely described the existential threat from “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Trump’s rancid denunciation of the mayor, however, does raise two issues worth consideration: is terrorism in fact “part and parcel” of life in the big city going forward; and what should we do about it? Both occupied my life for many years when I was a CIA officer focusing on Al-Qa’ida and other jihadist groups.
Intelligence professionals’ answers split roughly into two camps, too, embodying either Khan’s understated and organic response, or Trump’s violent response. Trump’s us-vs-them, we-can-kill-our-way-out-of-the-problem approach for many years won the overall debate. This approach has brought counter-terrorism authorities many tactical successes; we have more than literally decimated Al Qa’ida, for example. Overall, it has also brought strategic failure; there are as many jihadist groups and terrorists as before the West ramped up its counter-terrorist response. And although the threat from terrorists is no larger than it has been for many years (people will react incredulously to this statement but the data shows, long-term, terrorism is a small problem by most parameters, and not one that has substantially grown), the general publics in Western societies live with the gnawing fear now that a terrorist is about to blow someone or something up at any moment, and that “we” must do something draconian about “them”.
Terrorists are distinct from jihadists, who are more like a militia. Leaders have misunderstood or conflated this point, as Trump continues to do, which partly explains our policy errors in countering both terrorists and jihadists.
Terrorist attacks seek to affect public attitudes by creating, obviously, terror. The deaths they cause are a means to achieve this. As always in a political issue involving public opinion, however, the facts are secondary. There are, in fact, few terrorists, despite the fearful characterisations of Western politicians these past two decades. Terrorists who will conduct attacks like those in London and Manchester number, worldwide, perhaps in the hundreds or low thousands (definitions vary, and all counter-terrorism officials are keenly aware, of course, that it only takes one terrorist to create mayhem). But, terrorists are distinct from jihadists, who are more like a militia. Leaders have misunderstood or conflated this point, as Trump continues to do, which partly explains our policy errors in countering both terrorists and jihadists.
But, whatever their absolute numbers, the nature of terrorists has morphed these past 15 years in response to the aggressive counterterrorism measures taken against terrorist and jihadist groups: today, despite the claims by ISIS and Al Qa’ida that terrorist attacks in London, or Manchester, or Paris are committed by commanded members of these groups, the terrorist acts we must stop now are perpetrated mostly by “inspired jihadists”: individuals acting out of identification with the jihadist narrative, whose views almost always come from the media (almost never from a “recruiter”), who act largely on their own, while claiming to be part of the “global jihad”, or of “ISIS”.
This kind of “distributed” threat is, tragically, far harder to parry than one from a traditional, hierarchical terrorist group like Al Qa’ida or ISIS. There is not much for Western governments to go blow up, or networks to destroy, so as to eliminate the threat, while it is exponentially harder to identify and stop individual, “inspired” terrorists, than it is to penetrate and disrupt terrorist organisations. Terrorist experts also have anticipated for years that inspired acts of terrorism would increase, as the fortunes of groups like Al Qa’ida and ISIS decline; a bit like breaking one central threat into smaller, harder-to-find, but overall less-lethal pieces. Furthermore, destroying a terrorist group does nothing to address the causes of jihadist terrorism – long-term issues far better addressed by sociologists than by counter-terrorism operatives. Islam is in revolution, and will be for many years, as the pressures of modernisation and cultural diversity challenge Islam to reconcile with pluralist societies and the incontrovertible relativity of human norms.
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Terrorism, therefore, is going to form a periodic “part and parcel” of contemporary life, as Khan has said, no matter how much Trump may protest, or criticise Khan for speaking the truth. But this leads us to the second issue implied on Trump’s and Khan’s responses – what should we do to stop terrorism? – and here, too, Khan gets by far the better of the argument.
The objective of terrorism is to spread fear and to change the behaviour of the public, and of the practices and norms of the society terrorists attack. Terrorism seeks a Pavlovian response, to induce authorities themselves to undermine the values they seek to protect. It is only this way that terrorism can succeed. Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” (huh?) of immigrants, of targeting Muslims and thereby undermining the principle of religious tolerance, his calls for “getting serious” – perhaps by killing the families of “terrorists”, as Trump has disgustingly advocated – accomplish exactly what terrorists seek. And literally to no good purpose. In this sense Trump, and those who have advocated a largely militarised, take-no-prisoners, “kinetic” response to the terrorist threat, while sacrificing civil liberties in the name of “security”, are become poodles to Osama Bin Ladin’s ghost, acceding to the hatreds, simple cultural dichotomies, and destruction of pluralistic practices that Bin Ladin sought and jihadist terrorists seek to foment. We have just about literally done Bin Ladin’s bidding in response to the terrorist incidents committed in the name of “jihad,” and Trump advocates we respond to Bin Ladin’s ghost even more mindlessly and self-destructively.
The effective long-term response to the threat of jihadist terrorism is to take the measures necessary to pursue individual terrorists and terrorist groups – law enforcement, intelligence, and counter-terrorism bodies should be vigorous in their actions, of course – while not paying much attention to them in public. The authorities, media, and public should, as Khan advised, go on with their lives, not act in fear, not surrender Western values or day-to-day practices and life, or make terrorists and their acts the focus of extraordinary attention, however horrific their acts are. They should, frankly, be hunted in the shadows, not given the light of day, and should not be honoured with the visceral and self-destructive responses they seek to provoke.