The Changing Face of Terrorism
The events that occurred in America on the 11th of September 2001 demonstrated how an ordinary aspect of everyday life – in this case air travel – could be used as a weapon by terrorists. The magnitude of the damage done, as well as the sheer shock that it happened, led to a profound change in terms of attitudes, risks and responses and the beginning of a new era of terrorism in the Western world.
Radical Islamic terrorism is now seen as an ever-present threat, and our society has arguably become paranoid because of it; assumptions of terrorist motives behind virtually any fitting crime, such as the recent car crash incident in Times Square, are reflective of this.
Undeniably, the new forms of terrorism since 9/11 both fuel this paranoia, and seek to thrive off it. The post-9/11 terrorist threat to the West can be characterised by three main features:
– Symbolic Targets
9/11 – which marked the turning point in the forms of terrorism, is arguably the clearest example of terrorists focusing their attacks on symbolic targets. There were 3 targets in these attacks – all of which symbolised a core part of Western culture and values.
Firstly, the World Trade Centre can be seen as a monument of wealth and capitalism. Then the Pentagon as a symbol of American military might and power, and lastly Washington D.C. which, given American history and its status as the nation’s capital, is a clear icon of democracy.
Radical Islamic ideology views Western values as dangerous and a threat to their own, so it is in many ways logical that their targets are those which epitomise and represent the values that the extremists so greatly oppose.
9/11 is not the only example of this either – in fact, most major terrorist incidents in the West since 9/11 can be shown to involve symbolic targets. Some are obvious and direct – such as the Westminster attack, with the Houses of Parliament seen as the democratic hub of the UK – while others are more indirect; the 2015 Paris attacks which targeted music and sports venues, as well as the recent Manchester attack which again involved a music venue can be shown to represent an attack on Western freedoms and culture.
Clearly, terrorists want to commit attacks that carry an ideological statement with them, and the use of symbolic targets helps to achieve this.
– Aim to Maximise Loss of Life
Since 9/11, it can also be seen that the goal of terrorist attacks is firmly to ensure as high a death toll as possible. The specifics of those affected are less important too; there has been a shift away from targeting political leaders and instead a move towards civilians, or simply anyone who is unfortunate to be caught up in the attack.
Again, 9/11 is the key example, as it was deadly on an unprecedented scale with 2,977 victims and remains the worst terrorist attack in history. But post 9/11, terror acts all share the common trend of civilian deaths on a mass scale – the 7/7 London attacks of 2005, the 2016 Nice and Berlin lorry attacks, the Westminster attack and Manchester attack all show the aim to maximise the loss of life, using whatever form of weapon is deemed most deadly and effective in order to do so.
The approach contrasts with some historical examples of terrorism, which have had clear political aims. In 1984, the IRA planted a bomb in the Grand Hotel, Brighton with the intention of killing Margaret Thatcher, while in 1980 six gunmen raided the Iranian Embassy and took 26 people hostage in a bid to force political action. This sort of terrorism is clearly not the same as radical Islamic terrorism.
This is partially explained by the radical ideology fuelling the attacks; radical Islam is opposed to the whole Western culture rather than a particular government, and therefore any civilian that enjoys that culture is a suitable target.
– Less Centrally-Organised
Unlike the previous two characteristics, 9/11 was not the turning point as such, but nevertheless marked the onset of an extreme ideology that can create terrorists without the need for a central organisation. Especially since the rise of so-called ‘Islamic State’, there has been an increase in ‘lone-wolf’ attacks – terrorist acts committed by a radicalised individual working lone – such as the 2016 Nice attack and the 2017 Westminster attack.
Additionally, terrorist incidents such as the recent Manchester attack are unclear yet as to how centrally-organised they were. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and the current evidence suggests that there was a terrorist network that planned it, but this does still not necessarily mean that ISIS actually played any real role.
This is because ISIS operates in quite modern and dynamic ways; it publishes Jihadist articles online and releases instructions regarding committing terrorist acts through the dark web, meaning that any person technically can access it if they wanted to. In this sense, it also means they can claim responsibility for any Jihadist attack as their online support probably was used by the terrorist, even though no central planning or reciprocal communication would have likely occurred.
Also, due to their current prominence, no-one is really likely to challenge their claims of responsibility, and so they can easily do so even if they had no role whatsoever; it would still benefit their cause. But generally, while attacks are undoubtedly still planned to the same rigorous extent that 9/11 was, this planning is less often co-ordinated by a single group or network.
Responding to the new threat
It’s clear that terrorism is shifting in shape and form, and it has demanded a changing set of responses from law enforcement, intelligence services, the military, private security and any other institutions that play a role in counter-terrorism. Since 9/11, the risk of terrorism has led to an endless search for global security, which has now become a major issue within governments.
Unsurprisingly there is a huge array of examples that show this search for security in the West, as well as showing how paranoid our society is arguably becoming. Much of the development within counter-terrorism centres on surveillance.
Utah Data Centre
Completed in 2014 and costing $1.5 billion, this is America’s surveillance data storage facility. It analyses vast amounts of the world’s communications, including private emails, Google search histories, mobile phone calls as well ‘personal data trails’ such as parking tickets and travel itineraries.
All this information remains stored at the Centre, in case authorities ever require it; storage limits are hardly an issue, given that the capacity of the Centre is estimated to be between 3 and 12 billion gigabytes.
However, concern regarding privacy and civil rights has been raised in relation to the surveillance being carried out at the Centre. Seemingly, America is prepared to sacrifice some of its citizens’ freedoms in order to reach a higher level of security.
In the UK, there is a clear trend of increasing investigative powers over terrorism charges, a trend that first began to escalate in the aftermath of 9/11.
The 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act enabled non-British nationals to be detained indefinitely as terrorist suspects (This has since been revised to 28 days).
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a statutory duty upon local public institutions such as schools to prevent extremist radicalisation taking place.
As the terrorist threat increases, it seems apparent that an increase of the powers of the state is also deemed necessary. However, there is a fine line between additional investigative powers and a breach of human rights; the revision of the law to reduce the detention time of terrorist suspects is just one example of this conflict of interests.
Despite this, it seems unlikely that in a debate between public protection and individual rights, that a suspected terrorist will ever win.
9/11 was, the biggest terrorist incident to have ever taken place. In light of this, it is unsurprising that it had such a big impact on the future of modern terrorism, in terms of both its threats and its responses. But despite all the changes regarding terrorism that has taken place, the recent events in London and Manchester show that tragedy and injustice always remains.