Just how big a threat is "Islamic" terrorism?

How big a threat is “Islamic” terrorism (note the scare quotes) to Europe? It’s a valid question, and not one that we should assume we already know the answer to.

Since 9/11, politicians have had a ready answer and portray terrorism as the primary, existential threat, even in an age of global warming. For Tony Blair it was “the greatest twenty-first century threat”, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “the greatest threat facing democracies”, for George W. Bush, “the greatest threat this world faces”, for the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, “no challenge is greater”, and for Vladimir Putin, the former Russian President, “the greatest threat to world peace”. [1]

From 7/7 until May 2007, there have been around 25 statements on UK threat levels from MI5, “Whitehall sources”, the police and politicians to the national and foreign press. Al-Qaeda “supporters” ranged in number from 200 to 120,000 based on unscientific polling; Al-Qaeda “terrorists” from 200 to 4000; and numbers of plots, networks and those who trained in camps were variable. In May 2007, Lord Stevens gave two contradictory figures of 2000 and 4000 UK terrorists. [2] Even if Gordon Brown now determines that such announcements should be formally made to Parliament, it may be some time before politicians will be judged to have handed these announcements responsibly.

Facts and statistics have a way of undermining such rhetoric that, some have argued, is more designed to promote a politics of fear and a “war on terror” in which securing peace and stability for some is underwritten by ongoing military intervention and the planetary curtailment of fundamental freedoms for others. Certainly the two Interpol reports assessing the terrorist threat across Europe makes for sobering reading in this regard. In 2006, one out of 498 terrorist attacks were “Islamist”; in 2007, four out of 583: that’s rather less than one per cent of the total. [3] By contrast, nationalist separatism is statistically a much more pressing terrorist problem in Europe.

The rejoinders might be that these isolated attacks aim at mass civilian casualties, there is no gentleman’s agreement of pre-warning that did exist, albeit imperfectly, in Northern Ireland and that no political endgame exists if terrorism is still understood as the outcome of local grievances, anti-imperialist insurgencies and frustrated causes of nationalist self-determination. The global franchise of al-Qaeda, while it feeds on these, is the child of the Internet, globalisation and the devolution of the state monopoly on the use of large-scale violence in the name of a deterritorialised ummah. We therefore face a failure of the political imagination to think through what a better endgame might be when the dominant metaphor is that of an endless struggle against an abstract noun, “terrorism”, that allows the rulebook on conflict resolution to gather dust on the shelf.

But is al-Qaeda an existential, first-order threat? For a generation that lived through the Cold War that seems overblown. The Interpol figures allow us to make an assumption and to ask a question. The assumption is that intelligence penetration into frankly amateurish terrorist cells is better than we are often led to believe and that prevention is working rather effectively. On the radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2007, Dame Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, said that, even if patchy and incomplete, intelligence was being garnered.

This assumption then leads the argument for prevention in two possible directions: firstly to say, as governments do, that such initiatives are measured and equitable or secondly to question whether preventative measures are fair and proportionate even if they are always necessary. Again the Interpol figures show that the impact of anti-terrorist measures outstrips the actual threat level. For instance, in 2006, a third of all terrorist arrests involved “Islamists”; in 2007, a fifth did. In 2007, 44 per cent of terrorist convictions featured “Islamists”, mostly for membership of proscribed groups, financing, recruitment and propaganda. Only a fifth of these related to preparatory acts of terrorism.

Let’s add on top of that the observations that too much media coverage links Muslims to terrorism and cultural backwardness (as the recent survey by the Cardiff School of Journalism on the British press between 2000-08 showed) [4] and the rightward shift in European politics stokes and reflects anti-Muslim sentiment, then we can hardly operate in a political context amenable to question if preventative, legal and policing measures have been proportionate or fair. Indeed, for a European Muslim to pose such a question is to risk being branded as an apologist, but – believe it or not – there can be other motivations at play like the desire to protect fundamental liberties and the concern that discriminatory treatment feeds the sort of alienation terrorist recruiters like to exploit.

To get it right, the question – how big is the terrorist threat? – should always be asked.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

A version of this article was first published by Emel Magazine, Issue 47, August 2008.

Notes

[1] C. Abbot, P. Rogers and J. Sloboda, Beyond Terror: The Truth about Real Threats to Our World (London: Rider, 2007), 5. The authors (part of the Oxford Study Group) view climate change, competition over scarce resources, the marginalisation of the majority world and global militarisation as more pressing security threats.

[2] Steve Hewitt, The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9/11 (London: Continuum, 2008), 81.

[3] The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports (TESAT) 2007 and 2008 are both available online.

[4] The Cardiff School of Journalism’s report is available here: http://www.channel4.com/news/media/pdfs/Cardiff%20Final%20Report.pdf

Update (10th Aug 2008)

S. Lodhi kindly pointed out an inaccurately reported figure from the 2007 Interpol report. It should have been one “Islamist” attack out of 498 (not 424), TESAT 2007, p. 13, Table One. Thanks, Yahya

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1 Comment

Filed under Terrorism, UK Politics, war-on-terror

One response to “Just how big a threat is "Islamic" terrorism?

  1. Rizwaan Sabir

    Very informative article that touches on a VERY important issue!

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