As the forces of ISIS are gradually defeated and its tactics change, violent extremism and its consequences remain a major threat to international peace, and therefore the need for a nuanced approach to understanding this menace has never been greater. Talento Media Academy brought together a panel of distinguished speakers at Frontline Club on October 4 for an in-depth analysis and discussion on the changing contours of the terror threat and how nations seek to advance their resilience and ability to combat terrorism in the Middle East and Europe.
The talk was moderated by Said Shehata, expert and lecturer in Islamic movements and counter-terrorism, who opened the conference by discussing homegrown and lone-actor terrorists in the West and the acute challenges they present for law-enforcement practitioners in detection and disruption. “In the West the problem is complex because of the phenomenon of the homegrown terrorists who are not on the radar of the security services however they committed attacks like what happened in Westminster and Manchester. Even some that are on the radar are not followed by security forces because they under immense pressure,” he said.
On the response to counter-terrorism, Shehata opined that more needs to be done. “There are immense efforts on an international level, regional and domestic levels but they are not enough,” he explained.
Shehata pinpointed four key challenges in the realm of counterterrorism: The law, security and intelligence services, social media, non-state actors and terrorism funding.
Michael Binyon, an English journalist and eminent foreign corresponded who has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times since 1971, discussed the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the press. “The press gets a lot of the blame for terrorism because terrorism feeds on publicity and always has done. That is the point of terrorism, it is to inflict a psychosis on an innocent population and to make a group feel that it is actually able to achieve its political objectives by instilling fear into others… but of course the problem is that in reporting it, there is always a danger that you glorify, or at least you give publicity to terrorism,” he explained.
Binyon highlighted that the press must ensure that it takes great care in the terminology used when reporting on the difficult and emotive subject of terrorism to maintain standards of accuracy and especially impartiality. “It is very difficult if you use the world terrorist, it is so laden with political overtones because people will say well one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter and then many people say well what about state terrorism,” he said.
On the press’s role in countering terrorism, Binyon explained that the British press are “uncontrollable” and will not take a unified view at the direction of government ministers or intelligence services. “To try to get the press to be engaged in actively combatting terrorism is almost impossible,” he explained.
Dr Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, explained that there is an oversimplification in the public domain and a tenancy to seek equivalence where it doesn’t exist when it comes to terrorism in the Middle East.
“It is the half-truths that are sometimes more dangerous than the lack of information altogether so we have to be very careful not to make inferences without actually looking very deeply into the details because sometimes things when looked at superficially can lead us to misleading conclusions,” she elaborated.
Khatib explained that deciding who is a terrorist and who is not is very sensitive as there are individuals who have unwittingly assisted in financing terrorism through NGOs or charitable organisations and others who have been forced to pay taxes in areas that were under the control of ISIS. She explained that we should therefore be mindful when approaching the subject as “sometimes this issue gets politicised by governments and by all kinds of entities that use the issue of terrorism to crack down on opponents and this is sadly something we see in many areas.”
“Civil liberties are at risk when we apply a very heavy handed, very black and white approach to tackling terrorism funding because otherwise what is going to happen is that you start stifling the space for a public debate and the space for charitable activities and this causes resentment and terrorist organisations gain because they prey on people’s grievance,” she elaborated.
Khatib also pointed to the worrying trend of terrorist organisations themselves becoming an attractive source of income for people living in marginalised areas. “Not everyone that becomes a member of an organisation necessarily believes in the ideology of that organisation, sometimes people join organisations and support them for pragmatic reasons…sometimes out of economic gain,” she explained.
Brigadier Paul Gibson, former Director Counter Terrorism and UK operations, talked about the tangible evidence that the terrorism threat in the UK is “growing and evolving.”
“The threat has mutated. We have seen particularly in the UK the diversification in the nature of the attacks. The use of the word asymmetric. If you are good are stopping people moving weapons into the United Kingdom, if your borders are relatively secure, if you have got a good handle on explosives, if you’ve got a good handle on the equipment people can use in the more conventional terrorist attacks, then the terrorist inevitably is going to be drawn to the low tech, the kitchen knife and the rental van or car and some of these individuals are operating as lone wolves.”
Gibson explained that the hardest element of the UK’s counter terrorism strategy is preventing radicalisation. “The government is wrestling with safeguarding and supporting the vulnerable people who might be radicalised and might wish to conduct terrorist attacks…because we don’t yet understand the totality of radicalisation.”
He explained that he believes that some of what the government has done to counter the terrorist threat may have “gone too far.”
“What you end up doing is alienating the very community within which these potentially vulnerable people live and they are the people you want supporting your aims,” he explained.
“You want to retain as government the moral high-ground. You have got to be fair, strong but supported by those communities.”