Can terrorism ever be defeated?

Reports emerging this morning reflect on instances of radicalisation among the Libyan community in Manchester. Although this not a group that has raised any interest among security services in the past, Manchester has the third highest concentration of British Muslims after London and Birmingham. As these other cities also demonstrate, these concentrations tend to be diverse, but also in some places, monocultural. The latter an accident of housing policy and labour market inequality but also forms of cultural preference in a growing climate of racism and intolerance. When one thinks of these different communities, while ethnicity and cultural practices impact on characterisations, social class, education, housing status and perceptions and politics in relation to identity are also crucial considerations.

That the wider British Muslim community, including the Libyans, are utterly appalled by the events in Manchester a few days ago cannot be further stated. Given the particular nature of this terrorist attack, specifically the brutal reality of children and young people killed at the hands of what was also a very young man, it has affected people deeply. What has also emerged in this particular instance is the mass coming together in response to the challenges caused by terrorist incidents such as this. Mancunians and other people across the UK are united in responding to this attack by deliberately avoiding further division or fermenting hate in any way. There has been a flurry of activity on social media propagating hate, anger and even violence towards Muslim communities. In these cases, such deluded voices tend to homogenise and essentialise a vast religion and its peoples. The coming together of people, from all backgrounds, including online, has created the most talking points in the current case.

Once the anger and pain of this event begins to slowly dissipate, questions are now being asked of how we must completely defeat this hydra. Sadly, however, terrorism has always been around, and it will remain as a tool for anarchists, anti-establishment activists, revolutionaries and even some states. The question of Islamist radicalism in the last two years has centred on acts inspired, instigated or orchestrated by Islamic State, with the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 acting as the first in what has become a long and extensive series of attacks all over Western Europe. The question of the long-term objectives in relation to fighting terrorism is an important one, as every time an incident occurs, there is the usual gamut of questions on what has happened, why it has occurred, what can be pieced together and how can we move forward. These questions have not changed since the previous severest attack in Britain, namely the events of July 2005. Since then, the UK government has had a significant period and the extensive availability of resources to carry out the research, to determine the solutions and to ensure that terrorism, including attempts to inhibit violent extremism leading to it, is eradicated.

A pressing matter in relation to the Manchester incident, therefore, relates to the fact that the attack was carried out by a relatively young man while the device itself appears to have been rather sophisticated. It appears beyond the means of anyone without some modicum of training or expertise to build it. It suggests that there is a greater network at play here, reflected in the fact that the terror threat has been raised from critical to severe. The army is being deployed at key sites across the country as the police concentrate their resources on making further arrests. These are wider matters of counterterrorism thinking and practice but what will also enter the debate is the question of the ‘Prevent’ strategy. Is there now a need to refine again the ‘Prevent’ brand given that after nearly 12 years after its incarnation, terrorism still goes on? This would potentially limit an opportunity, as there is a need to have an interface between the government and the British Muslim communities, although the fact that the only dialogue is about radicalisation and deradicalisation invariably creates more challenges than opportunities. The other question is whether ‘Prevent’ could be eliminated altogether as it has proven ineffective, argued by many. This becomes more a political question, however, as while there is considerable writing and thinking about perceptions in relation to ‘Prevent’, there is still no independent study or evaluation of its impact or effectiveness, and if it is being carried out by the government, it is certainly not in the public domain.

The other problem with fighting terrorism is that it does not exist in a vacuum. There are wider geopolitical issues at play regarding relations between nations. These operate at many different layers and impact on how nations do business with each other, share sensitive information or not, and how they cooperate in advance of various strategic objectives. Global issues affect the mobilisation of radicalisation influences transforming grievances into particular ideological revolutionary manifestations. Sentiments on these global ideological constructs can be sensitive in local contexts. They can ferment in a space where there is disengagement and disintegration, but also where there is a sense of alienation, exclusion and marginalisation. The fact that analysis of perpetrators involved in acts of violence extremism repeatedly reports on instances of mental illness suggests a wider social, cultural and political malaise affecting young people of all backgrounds. These psychological issues, again, do not exist in a vacuum, as they are a function of the lived experience that affects states of all minds.

The question is not whether there is the need for more ‘Prevent’ or less ‘Prevent’, in spite of the fact that it is an ongoing process of learning and development. The issue is more about the ways in which the local and global intersect. These concerns, however, are structural and therefore take a long time to shift. The power of ‘Prevent’ to disengage young people who might be on the path towards radicalisation is related to wider geopolitical issues in the Middle East. Crucially, it is also affected by local area dynamics in relation to community development, and questions of identity, belonging and citizenship. Some of the opportunities for change, therefore, are very much in the hands of government policy-making. Mental health issues affecting young radical Islamists are not dissimilar to those affecting other young people in Britain today. Past public policies have led to widening social divisions, decoupled thinking in relation to diversity and difference from notions of multiculturalism, and where a sense of equality for all has disappeared for all. These tensions also affect wider counterterrorism issues that must not be separated from overall thinking.

Fighting terrorism is a multi-pronged battle. The UK government is attempting to tackle it on various fronts but the problems continue to re-emerge. It does not mean a radical departure from existing practices. It does, however, spell the need to have greater joined up thinking, understanding better the linkages between the local and global, and that fighting on these fronts but not fully appreciating the holistic nature of how terrorism works, in particular global radical Islamism, or tackling them independently of each other, could create culs-de-sac. It potentially leads to reactionary, regressive ways and means to do both politics and counter-terrorism. Suffice to say it leads to more terrorism, not less. After the events in Manchester, a radical wakeup call is needed – not to simply do more of the same – but to absolutely get it right.