How Russia Will Capitalize On The New Wave Of Terrorism Set To Hit The West
Western leaders must take a more resolute stance in addressing terrorism and its hybrid forms, and see the connection with the tactics and strategy of Putin's Russia.
Terrorist violence often follows a dangerous spiral. If not promptly curtailed, it can escalate, resulting in more frequent and severe attacks.
In recent years, we've observed a rise in violent incidents displaying certain recognizable characteristics of terrorism, involving both state and non-state actors, which involve a wide array of ideologies and methods.
The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine offers another trouble model, where such tactics as nuclear threats, targeting energy infrastructure in winter, and missile strikes on civilian areas have been employed as tactical acts of terrorism.
There are others more recognizable: like the brutal attacks against civilians like those recently seen by Hamas in southern Israel, the murder of a teacher in France and a fatal shooting in Brussels of two Swedish soccer fans.
It is evident that both Western political leaders and societies need to respond. Political leaders should take resolute action, and societies should unite to safeguard their countries from destabilization by these adversaries. Failure to do so could ultimately benefit terrorists and authoritarian regimes.
The connection, in other words, is legitimate between the Middle East's sudden outbreak of violence and the way Russia conducts itself in international affairs.
Democracies: vulnerabilities in the face of terrorism
The primary objective of terrorists is to sow fear, incite panic and compel authorities to make concessions due to the random and horrifying nature of their acts. Democratic societies provide a perfect playing field for terrorists to exact their vengeance.
In the post-World War II era, Western societies enjoyed relative security, marked by the absence of large-scale deadly conflicts. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to cope with this new form of violence. Despite extensive media coverage, the Western world hasn't been the epicenter of terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Database, from 2002 to 2022, Western Europe and North America collectively accounted for a mere 3.4% of the nearly 70,000 global terrorist incidents.
Terrorists exploit the characteristics of democratic countries, including respect for privacy and freedom.
The prevalence of humanistic principles and the utmost importance placed on respecting human rights and freedoms are central to Western democracies. Terrorism, however, thrives on the devaluation of human life. The prospect of becoming an unintentional target of terrorism is profoundly distressing, and the increased frequency of terrorist attacks in Europe amplifies the sense of imminent threat. In such circumstances, quick, emotionally-driven decisions tend to emerge as self-preservation instincts kick in. The willingness to do anything to diminish the threat, even if it means yielding to terrorist demands, becomes more prevalent.
Terrorists can also exploit the characteristics of democratic countries, including respect for privacy and broad freedoms, to conceal their criminal activities. A study reveals that terrorist organizations are 3.5 times more likely to operate within democracies than in non-democratic systems.
The role of media in terrorism
Modern terrorism heavily relies on publicity, which it often receives generously from Western media. On one hand, it's challenging to fault journalists for fulfilling their function of informing society, especially when it pertains to security threats.
On the other hand, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher noted, the media can be considered the "oxygen for terrorism."
Scholars have critiqued the media for sensationalizing the topic of terrorism, which can inadvertently benefit terrorists. The constant influx of information about terrorist attacks keeps Western societies in a state of perpetual tension and fear.
For instance, American researcher Bridget Nakos found that in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American media quoted U.S. President George W. Bush no more frequently than the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. This imbalance doesn't align with the journalistic principle of objectivity.
There is also the so-called "copycat effect." When terrorist attacks are extensively covered in the media, it can inspire the occurrence of new attacks. Researcher Michael Jeter calculated that intense media coverage of al-Qaeda's attacks in the American media led to 1-2 additional attacks the following week.
These attacks can serve as both examples to follow and triggers for action.
Europe has experienced similar situations. In 2017, the United Kingdom witnessed a series of jihadist attacks, with three successful and nine foiled, as a result of the coverage of the March attack in Westminster.
Recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium serve as alarming signals. The conflict between Israel and Hamas has already triggered discontent among certain groups in Europe. For individuals who previously held extremist views, these attacks can serve as both examples to follow and triggers for action.
European governments are acutely aware of this, as they introduced additional measures to protect Jewish communities shortly after the Hamas attack. However, the fight against terrorism should not be limited to law enforcement alone. Governments and the media must collaborate to provide society with detailed explanations of events and their underlying causes. Failing to do so could lead to a descent into chaos.
Memorial in Brussels after an attacker killed two Swedes on Oct. 17
Russia’s plan to capitalize on terrorism
Terrorist attacks not only inflict violence but often exacerbate societal animosities by exploiting existing grievances. Rather than singling out individual terrorists, blame can shift towards entire religions and communities from which they originate.
The architects of terrorism typically manipulate religious and national sentiments while highlighting issues related to migrants, refugees, and socio-economic disparities. However, beneath this façade, there are often political or geopolitical interests at play.
Terrorism can serve as a potent hybrid method for destabilizing Europe, and Russia stands to capitalize on such circumstances, perhaps even fanning the flames. For years, Russia has leveraged global chaos and violence to advance its international interests. This strategy involves destabilizing nations and fomenting conflicts that can be strategically exploited for geopolitical gain.
A surge in terrorism and violent protest movements in Europe would align with Russia's interests, especially in the context of its war in Ukraine. Such events could rapidly divert the focus of European media, politicians, and voters toward internal security challenges and threats. Furthermore, they might lead to domestic political instability, potentially leaving governments that currently support Kyiv in precarious positions.
Simultaneously, right-wing elements often capitalize on such turbulence in Europe by scoring political points through anti-migrant and Islamophobic rhetoric. It's well-documented that some right-wing groups have connections with Russia.
On a global scale, such destabilization could suggest that democracies are struggling to combat terrorism effectively. Under these circumstances, voters may call for the curtailment of democratic freedoms for specific groups and the introduction of stricter regulations. Unfortunately, this disparity in rights typically exacerbates the cycle of violence and pushes the world further towards the realm of authoritarianism.
What should be done?
Western leaders must take a more resolute stance in addressing terrorism and its hybrid forms. If confirmed that Russia supplied weapons to Hamas, it should unequivocally be designated a "sponsor of terrorism," leading to stricter sanctions. This echoes situation surrounding the Wagner Group, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by numerous Western countries.
On the domestic front, politicians should exhibit responsibility by refraining from exploiting terrorist attacks for electoral gain. Governments should bolster security measures without veering into discriminatory profiling. Applying stringent measures exclusively to specific groups could foment discontent, potentially leading to violence.
Attributing terrorism solely to Islam is misguided.
Terrorism, inherently reliant on publicity and necessitates responsible media engagement. The media should avoid catering to terrorists' interests. Refraining from labelling all Palestinians as terrorists by calling Hamas militants "Palestinian terrorists" is essential, just as it would be inappropriate to term militants from the Russia-backed Luhansk and Donestk People's Republics as "Ukrainian terrorists."
Attributing terrorism solely to Islam is misguided. Terrorism transcends nationality and religion, driven by individuals seeking to disrupt political systems and the established global order. The media should go beyond merely reporting isolated acts of terrorism and instead elucidate the underlying motives and beneficiaries of such violence.
Societies that clearly identify terrorists and exhibit solidarity tend to cope better with terrorism compared to those where such issues are shocking and militants are not discussed. As U.S. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins has emphasized, modern terrorism is essentially a form of theater, and understanding its conductors is critical to effective countermeasures.
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