Globally fatalities as a result of terrorism are in decline, a key point that can be distilled from multitude of policy and academic works that are emerging from studies on terror attacks coinciding with the decline of Islamic State (ISIS) and many of their military defeats. While the numbers of attacks and casualties are in decline there is also a parallel development that is alarming, it is the deepening and widening of terror attacks across global locations and the transformations off terrorism.
Since Al Qaeda attacks in Tanzania and Kenya in 1997, terror studies experts identified the rise of transnational and decentralized terror, extremist groups working as cells or nodes with no real central control mechanism unleash violence as a heeding to a call to arms. This development heightened by 9/11 attacks led to intellectual and policy research to focus on what experts called new forms of terrorism. Yet the rise of ISIS in 2014 changed the course of the focus as ISIS claimed to be establishing a trans-boundary state using violence as a means and radical Islam as the key instigator.
- In Tarrent’s manifesto, he particularly wants the death of German Chancellor Angela Merkel
- Anders Breivik killed more than 70 people and his victims were mostly immigrant and second-generation youth living in Norway
With intense battles in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and with groups like Al Shabab the so-called Islamic terror focus now encompasses both Afro-Asia localities. The high point is deployment of military assets in various forms to counter these threats, thus a form of limited war is waged against terror targets that involved air strikes, drone strikes and covert special operations across Africa and West Asia.
Failing Liberal architectures
Whilst this new terror radar detected numerous Islamic fundamentalist terror organizations, the radar did not pick up the burgeoning of right-wing extremism. Terror movements and their foot soldiers in the last decade were quite different from most of the terror outfits prior to that even Al Qaeda and Islamic State differed in many forms from organizational structure to ideology. One unique feature of terror movements in the last decade was the fact that terrorism for many became a vocation. Many foreign fighters and regional fighters in the Islamic state were not merely fighting for a cause they were part of a well-paid militia.
The liberal political and economic order of the last half century had many winners and an equal number of losers they ranged from white or native working-class families in the Western world to marginalized migrant community youth who did not find themselves adequately integrated in their host countries, Especially in North America and Europe. Thus, the liberal success masked its underbelly of stagnant income squeezed working class and post 9/11 security order squeezed migrant second and third generations. Especially young Muslims in the developed world creating social and political outcasts across the political spectrum who today are the vanguard of a new form of terror and extremism.
Christchurch attack as a turning point
The attacker who committed the act of terror in New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant, mailed a 75-page manifesto outlining his political views before his attack and it is recorded that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received the document nine minutes before the attack. He profiles himself in the manifesto and the way he presents his identity is important, he uses sentences such as ‘Just an ordinary white man, 28 years old,”. “Born in Australia to a working class, low income family. My parents are of Scottish, Irish and English stock. I had a regular childhood, without any great issues. I had little interest in education during my schooling, barely achieving a passing grade”.
His manifesto calls for death to high profile stateless and women, he particularly wants the death of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He calls immigrants as invaders and is convinced by a key white supremacist theory, ‘Great Replacement’ which was modified intellectually by French philosopher Camus, the central premise of the theory is that non-white people in Europe will plunder and replace white populations of North America and Europe. Thus, Tarrant views immigrants as conquering his homeland, ironically for an Australian.
Right wing violence manifested mostly as isolated attacks on diverse sets of people living in Western locations, yet a modern-day turning point was in July of 2011, When Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed more than 70 people in two incidents. His victims were mostly immigrant and second-generation youth living in Norway. Breivik’s act of terror had a set of accompanying accessories, out of which the centerpiece was a 1500 plus page manifesto titled ‘An European Declaration of Independence’, in which he blamed the idea of liberal multicultural state, immigrants and Muslims as violators of his homeland and perpetrators of white genocide. If this ideology is juxtaposed with that of the ideas of Al Qaeda intellectual chief Abdullah Azzam, in his book The Defence of Muslim Territories. Al Qaeda is driven by the same idea of Muslims under threat of extinction or genocide.
Breivik, in 2011 chose a secular space to target his victims, in 2015 American right-wing extremist Dylan Roof chose a Methodist Church in Charleston to kill nine American worshippers of colour and in 2019, Tarrant chose two mosques in one of the most socialist liberal societies in the Western world in New Zealand to kill Muslim worshippers. Kenya witnessed Terror attacks on Christians and Amsterdam had a gunman shooting in public transportation in the same week.
These types of attacks are on the rise and intelligence and counter terror community are struggling to anticipate detect and deter such attacks. As conventional wisdom in dealing with terrorism seems not to be enough in dealing with such threats. Though identified as lone wolf attacks or lone gunmen, there must be serious research done on finding out about potential connections between these attacks and to anticipate a potential next stage of terrorism that cannot be dealt merely with force.
Many foreign fighters and regional fighters in the Islamic state were not merely fighting for a cause they were part of a well-paid militia
Great counter terror dilemma
Al Qaeda and ISIS was confronted in some of its core territories and counter-terror operations managed to contain or break the momentum of both these organizations and in Africa there is a united front of African and western militaries to pursue Al Shabab terror affiliates. The question is how one can deal with terror activities that have no clear centre of gravity and have no core territory?
Chat forums, social media platforms, blogs become sites of inciting hatred, creating virtual crowds of followers who cheer or endorse violence, in the case of Tarrant, he had a Facebook live feed while on his shooting spree, his gear was all done up like theatre props, his terror campaign would be a turning point in social media driven image heavy politics in the 21st Century. Breivik maybe the figure that aspires, but Tarrant displayed the level of innovation a single terrorist can create using technology, new social media and creating a narrative that is politically effective and far reaching.
They represent a crisis of the current liberal world order and domestic liberal values, institutional decay and crisis of democracy. Tarrant’s manifesto had terms such as invaders, homeland and birthrates as political punch lines. If one looks at countries like Sri Lanka and with all our political and institutional decay, right wing populist voices are already in abundance in our political narratives.
Sri Lanka has endured a 30-year war as a result of extremism and a ruthless terrorist organization which aspired to create a militaristic state, yet superior blend of conventional and non-conventional war strategies led to a military defeat of the enemy. Yet a decade later since the liberal Sri Lankan state has systematically failed to accommodate diversity, provide justice to all communities and ignore crimes against the country, Wilpattu deforestation is a classic example of mass political negligence by successful administrations, thus opening a space for a new kind of violence. Tarrant maybe a white supremacist but his narrative can attract any right-wing activist who has serious issues on social cohesion and that is a cycle of violence Sri Lanka cannot afford to enter.