For the past couple of decades, the Western world’s foreign policy has focused on extinguishing the rise of terrorist organizations. Attention has been particularly centered on Islamic groups that are located in the Middle East. After the 9/11 attack on the United States, the War on Terror was launched as an offensive frontline to combat violent extremism, spurring a mixture of fear and curiosity among nations around the world. Since the international military campaign mainly honed in on the Middle East, only certain large terrorist organizations dominated the news, such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham). Not until January 7, 2015, at the Paris headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, did the Western world finally turn its gaze towards a more threatening form of terror.
There is a noticeable trend among countries’ responses to terrorism: nations are only investing in strong counter-terrorism strategies when the public pressures them to do so instead of taking this initiative themselves. This occurs when large groups of people are harmed, as was the case with the plane crashes at the World Trade Center (2001) and the Charlie Hebdo shooting (2015). Compared to the total number of attempted terror attacks, the number of successful plots is very small, due to their lack of resources. However, many of the world’s counter-terrorism strategies have failed, as well. Almost every year, countries construct new ways to conduct the war, but these plans are frequently mere replicas of other countries’ past strategies. Even though most violent extremism acts are failed, all of these repetitive plans are wasted money, only incentivizing terrorists to attack.
Even though George W. Bush’s “endless” War on Terror has been terminated, the battle has only just begun. The large terror organizations that we once feared have decentralized, spreading even more international fear. As these small branches have grown, the violent network has expanded into stable states, like the UK and France. However, as countries proclaim alternative security methods, extremists are only riled up more. Part of a government’s goal is to keep its citizens safe, but how is that possible when counter-terrorism strategies motivate the enemy to find ways to break the country’s barriers?
Stricter security systems may keep extremists from crossing the border. However, maybe that’s not the problem. Maybe the problem isn’t keeping our citizens safe from outside forces. Maybe our problems are born from within.
When the Charlie Hebdo shooters were discovered to be affiliated with Boko Haram, a small, yet growing branch of ISIS, a new question was brought to the table: is there a possibility that Boko Haram could be building a fundamentalist foundation in this supposedly safe and stable country? For the past few years, countries have been focused on tearing down the walls of terror in failed states, where there is an evident danger of government takeover. But what happens when these organizations begin destabilizing states that are not considered failed?
That makes every nation in the world more likely to fall than we had initially expected.
Governments are underestimating the possible rise of homegrown terrorism, seeing them as small fires that can be easily put out by large governments who have access to better resources. However, for the past fourteen years, extremists are regularly executing smaller, yet brutal assaults on civilians around the world. This is not going unnoticed by governments, but the attacks are still not attracting nearly the amount of attention deserved, even when widely broadcasted through online disputes and long social media rants. According to the New York Times, homegrown terrorism may be a bigger threat than any jihadist move made in the past, and it’s happening right underneath our noses.
We know people are being killed every day. We know extremists are attracting new members who are not of Middle Eastern or Islamic background, the demographic the War on Terror focused on. So why have we made no progress in halting this manifesto?
The first problem is that we lack an accurate definition of a “terrorist.” It is impossible to fight a battle if you do not know who you are fighting. We interchangeably use words, like “jihadism” and “extreme ideology,” without understanding the rhetorical power behind these phrases. As a result, a large proportion of society labels certain racial and religious groups as “terrorists,” specifically Middle Eastern Muslims, when they are far from factually correct.
According to Dr. Richard Jackson, Director of the National Center for Peace and Conflict studies, there is no such thing as an apocalyptic terror threat. Terrorism is not a race. Terrorism is not a religion. Terrorism is not even an “extreme ideology.” As a matter of fact, no scholar can truly define a “terrorist” since there is no method to directly study one through field research. Violent extremism includes a large range of different acts that harm society in different ways.
Yet, because governments have been using profiling as a method to target terrorists for years, the image of what was presumed to be the enemy (a Middle Eastern Muslim) is still stuck in people’s heads, when reality is just the opposite. According to the New York Times, since 9/11, the number of people killed by white supremacists and non-Muslim extremists are almost doubled the number of people who are killed by Muslim extremists. Washington Blogs states that only 2.5% of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 were made by those of Islamic background. False presumptions, such as these, are holding counter-terrorism strategies back, which only allows the number of innocent bombings and mass murders to rise every day. It would be plausible to conclude that not only are governments wasting their time, but that they are being counter-productive and moving even further from the goal.
In addition to defining terrorism and violent extremism, governments need to outline what communities are considered to be “at risk” and, then, focus on those regions. If this step is not taken cautiously, nations are seen as not only racist, but idiotic, which is what happened when they specifically targeted Muslim communities. The public is always hungry for reasons why actions take place, and they’re left starving when they do not receive answers. So, governments tend to release presumptuous answers, which leaves the public satisfied, but wrong.
The problem is not necessarily about looking in the right places, but rather looking for the right people. Terrorists travel to different regions. Because they have the ability to be mobile, they also have the ability to recruit the one demographic that we would least expect to join the cult: our own citizens. In 2008, Penn Station and Long Island Rail Road almost got bombed. In 2010, Antonio Martinez was arrested for attempting to bomb the military center in Catonsville, Maryland. Earlier this year, nine African American in a Charleston church were killed by a claimed white supremacist.
The list goes on. Most of the cases and arrests are considered small in comparison to large events like 9/11, but when summed over time, the number of murders and injuries, even attempted, outweighs anything witnessed at the Twin Towers in New York. Even though many terror attempts have been failed, those who are guilty happen to be former home residents of the country. These are people who spent their lives in a stable country, but, then, were recruited to join the terror threat. They leave their home countries to join organizations, like ISIS, only to easily re-enter the country and slap the hand that fed them.
In order to operate as a successful, stable country, there is a social contract that must exist between government and citizen, based on trust. Homegrown terrorism is hard evidence that these social contracts are weakening, where citizens betray the governing body that supposedly trusted them. Is this because citizens don’t trust their home country’s government to begin with? Is the right place to look for terrorism in the government foundations of these stable nations?
International leaders are beginning to realize this issue, but their plans, once again, are questionable. On June 25, 2015, President Barack Obama passed the Countering Violence Extremism Act to add another branch to the Department of Homeland Security, almost a mirror image of the United Kingdom’s failed bill after the London bombings (7/7) in 2005. This is just the latest of a long string of legislations passed by countries around the world, mainly involving the use of enemy profiling. After almost every action taken to prevent the rise of violent extremism, more citizens are recruited to join these organizations, building forts of destruction on home soil.
The more governments push towards counterinsurgency, the more backlash and retaliation is created among violent extremists. So, how do we stop these mass murders and killings without breaking the social contract and trust that every stable nation is fundamentally built upon?