In 2013, then-US President Barack Obama announced the War on Terror was over. It was a rhetorical end to the “war”, however, and within a year the Iraqi city of Fallujah had fallen to militant forces, heralding the rise of the so-called Islamic State terror group. The War on Terror (as launched by George W. Bush following the September 11th attacks) might have officially been declared over, but it certainly didn’t feel like a victory.
Is it even possible to “win” against terrorism? Is it possible to stop terrorism from being used as a tactic by groups and individuals with a grudge? Can we imagine living in a world without terror attacks? Or, at the very least, can we work to reduce their number? Can we discourage the use of violence and improve our resilience as a society?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Cécile, who wonders if it’s possible to ever live in a world without terrorism. She thinks it’s sad to think this way, but believes the reality is that there will always be terror attacks.
Is Cécile being too pessimistic? Perhaps it’s not possible to end terror attacks completely, but maybe they can be dramatically reduced in number? We put Cécile’s comment to Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator. What would he say?
I would say yes and no. We’ve had different forms of terrorism in Europe, and if you look at the IRA, or ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigades in Italy, or the Red Army Faction in Germany, they came to an end. There are ways to get to a point where it stops. So, I would be not so negative.
The current forms of terrorism, linked to jihad, linked to Da’esh and Al-Qaeda, will likely last for some time – because a lot of the reasons why they developed remain – but I would not be that negative. One day, it will stop and maybe other forms of terrorism will start.
So, that’s why I cannot say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I think history shows that it sometimes stops and morphs into something different. But, in this respect you could say that terrorism never stops, but the current form of terrorism will.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Bjørn Ihler, a Norwegian counter extremism expert, peace activist, and survivor of the 2011 Utøya mass shooting. How would he respond to Cécile?
So, I think that’s – as she says – a kind of sad way of seeing it. But, in the foreseeable future, I think it’s also realistic… People in the field of counter-terrorism and countering radicalisation and violent extremism are hoping we can in the long-term at least push towards the reduction of terrorism and push towards other forms of resolving conflict.
We’ll always live in a world with conflicts, the question is how we manage those conflicts. Unfortunately, right now, some are managing their conflicts and grievances through terrorism, while if we do our job well enough in the long-run the hope is that people will find other ways of managing their grievances and conflicts.
Next up, we had a comment sent in by Philip, who believes there should be tougher laws against spreading extremist propaganda online. What would the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, say to that?
I do agree with his statement. We’ve been working with the large internet platforms the last 2-3 years through what we call the Internet Forum to get, through a voluntary approach, more unlawful content removed from these platforms. But we’ve reached a limit which led the Commission to suggest legislation, which is currently being negotiated in the Council and with the European Parliament, which foresees an obligation for the companies to remove [unlawful content] within an hour, to take much more proactive measures, to issue a transparency report, and to develop the necessary human and technical resources to reduce this terrorist propaganda online to a minimum. So, I hope this legislation will be adopted before the next European election, because this is a very important piece of legislation.
Finally, how would Bjørn Ihler respond to the same comment?
It’s always been possible to spread messages. The revolutionary thing about the internet is really the speed and efficiency of doing it. However, policing the internet has proved tricky because it’s so international and such a global platform. Getting unity among governments and governing it has been difficult, but also having the technical capacity to do it has been difficult.
So, really, what I’m striving for when it comes to the internet is building resilience in online communities, so making sure that communities have the power within them to combat hate speech and the spread of propaganda. And there are several approaches to that, including working with the platform providers – so, Facebook and Google and so on – creating better policies and algorithms for deciding what you see.
However, one of the big political problems when it comes to policing content on the internet is first of all freedom of expression. So, who gets really to say what is terrorist content and what is not? This has proven tricky in countries such as Turkey, where a lot of academics, journalists, and human rights activists have been accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. So, that’s a massive problem in terms of deciding what constitutes terrorist propaganda or content. Another problem is that if we push the extremists off of the mainstream platforms they’ll just move onto hidden platforms. We have encrypted chat services that a lot of extremists are on and using actively, and those hidden spaces are impossible to monitor by the security services, and those of us working on the softer edge of preventing radicalisation have no way of monitoring it properly. And another element of that is that extremists who would otherwise get exposure to other worldviews and ideas through interacting with normal people on the open access platforms are getting into their own little worlds where they only interact with people who agree with them…
It’s an incredibly complex challenge and a lot of work is needed to figure all of these things out. These are just a few of the problems that we are thinking about and working on actively in that field.
Is it possible to win the war against terror? Should there be laws making it harder to spread terrorist propaganda online? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!