Politicized reaction to London attacks will play into terrorist hands
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The new attacks in London — like the attacks in Paris, Boston, and Istanbul and so many other cities — need to be kept in grim perspective. The normal reaction to each attack is to announce new measures that claim to add security — more surveillance, more inspections, more police, and sometimes more military. It is to arrest everyone with links to the attackers and often to announce new laws and regulations.

Sometimes there is a roundup of serious suspects with no connection to the attacker, a call for new limits on the internet and social networking, and — far more rarely — to address the causes of alienation and terrorism. In the West, there are new critiques of Islam —  sometimes bordering on Islamophobia. In many Islamic states, there is often a series of arrests on Islamist hardliners that oppose the regime.

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Some of this is useful. There is no question that the threat of terrorism is real and that every effort needs to be made to use the forms of counterterrorism that actually work. There also, however, has been a great deal of political posturing by governments, the opposition, and officials – some to protect themselves and others for self-advantage. Counterterrorism has also become a profession and one that can pay well to experts that publicize and hype the threat, or serve the broader personal and political interests of those who attack Islam, rather than extremism and violence. From a media viewpoint, terrorism sells. It gets ratings and sustained public attention. And, there is little opposition to hyping the threat and overreacting, with the exception of a few human rights activists.

 

The practical problem is that it is one thing to use effective counterterrorism methods and quite another to hype the threat and politicize it in ways that ignore the need to avoid panic and generating fear, anger, and hatred. It is equally dangerous to make promises that governments cannot keep and make attackers like ISIS look far more effective than they are. This overreaction, after all, is one key real-world goal behind attacks like the London attack. Deliberately horrifying acts of terrorism do not have to succeed in attacking well-guarded or secure targets. As headline after headline has shown in the recent years, an extremist organization can get immense publicity simply by attacking any open target in a city – particularly if it is near some important government office, security post, or cultural icon.

Moreover, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda get more than publicity, plus volunteers and funds, from the small minority of Muslims who support them. Each such attack breeds fear in the West of Muslims, and acts to divide the world politically along religious lines. It produces the kind of anger and overreaction that Islamic extremists use to try to prove that non-Muslims are attacking Islam rather than extremism and claim that the moderate Muslims who do most to oppose such extremism are betraying their faith.

The actual attackers who conduct attacks like those in London may well be deeply disturbed or even insane, but there is nothing insane about a strategy that pushes viciousness to its ultimate extremes. Violent Islamic extremists want to create a clash between civilization, and feed on Islamophobia and the anger and fear of non-Muslims, to try to convince real Muslims that they must join the fight. They use such attacks to try to isolate Muslims in non-Muslim countries, and convince Muslims in largely Muslim states that the rest of the world is hostile. Overreaction, particularly overreaction that unfairly singles out all Muslims or all of Islam, directly serves the cause of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Over-reaction also breeds terrorism based on horror rather than the value of the target. As London and many preceding attacks show, a terrorist no longer needs even basic bomb making skills – much less sophisticated technology. Vicious killings or wounds using a car, a handgun, or even a kitchen knife are enough and such weapons can be used anywhere and by someone with no clear prior motive or prior training. Terrorist organizations can claim to sponsor completely lone wolf attacks on any form of business or social interaction, and do so anywhere that is vulnerable – which is almost everywhere in free and open societies – as well as where normal social interactions take place in even the most tightly controlled societies. 

We should learn two grim and unpopular lessons from the latest attacks in London. First, as long as any attack — regardless of the target and casualties — leads to media feeding frenzies and overreaction bordering on panic – there will be more successful attacks. Some of them will be in secular countries like the U.S. and some, like the recent attacks in Kabul, will be in Muslim states.  Moreover, far too many largely Muslim states have weak or failed governance, poor economic development and sharing of wealth, massive population growth and youth unemployment, and high general levels of violence and this means the problem goes far beyond ISIS and Al Qaeda and will almost certainly be a fact of life for at least the next decade. Like the other grim realities of the modern world — many of which kill or maim far more people than terrorism — these are realities we are going to have to learn to accept.

Second, none of the problems are an argument against effective counterterrorism. We have already accepted many restraints on our freedoms and may well have to accept more. But, the key is that that each such measure should be constantly evaluated as to its effectiveness. Largely empty political gestures should get as much media criticism at the terrorists, and governments should provide enough transparency and real-world measures of effectiveness to show both that they are doing all they should, and that what they are doing is really cost effective.

This is not a minor issue in a case like the U.S. where so far there are no clear measures of effectiveness, but the Office of Management and Budget estimated that the U.S. will spend $70.5 billion on homeland defense in FY2017 ($56 billion in non-defense), plus another $85.3 billion on wars largely directed against terrorism.

As for the media, there is a clear need for more balance and restraint. Moreover, governments that make largely empty political gestures should get as much media criticism as the terrorists. 

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.


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