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How should we respond to terrorist violence?

Richard English was born in 1963 in Belfast, where he is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University. He is a frequent media commentator on Irish politics and history, and on terrorism, including work for the BBC, ITN, Sky News, NPR, Newsweek and the Financial Times. His latest book is Terrorism: How to Respond, which draws on over twenty years of conversations with terrorists themselves, and on analysis of a wide range of campaigns – Algeria, Bader Meinhof, The Red Brigade, ETA, Hezbollah, the IRA, and al-Qaeda – to offer both an authoritative, accessible analysis of the problem of terrorism, and a practical approach to solving it. In the original post below, Professor English lays out what he sees as the seven key elements in responding to terrorist violence.

This summer’s fatal terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Spain and Iraq in their various ways reflect a paradoxical reality: despite the unprecedented efforts made since 9/11 to combat terrorist violence, the terrorist problem remains at least as prevalent as it was before the commencement of the ‘War on Terror’.

Indeed, the situation has in some ways grown worse. The number of terrorist incidents recorded globally in 2001 was 1732. By 2006 – five years into the War on Terror – the figure had risen to 6659. The monthly fatality rate from terrorism in the years immediately preceding 9/11 was 109; in the five years after 9/11, the monthly death-toll from terrorism rose to 167 (and this excluded deaths from attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq – with those included, the monthly death-toll rose to 447).

Of course, there are no easy solutions to the terrorist problem. The longevity of this form of violence is a testament to that. But this long history of terror is, perversely, a tremendous resource as we seek to deal with this global, murderous challenge. For we do, in fact, have a huge body of experience to draw on as we consider how best to deal with the terrorist threat. There are – or should be – a long list of ‘known knowns’ in terms of what we should and should not do about terrorism.

The difficulty tends to be this: each state faces each its own new terrorist crisis in effectively amnesiac fashion. Depressingly for those of us who research the history of terrorism, the same mistakes tend to be made each time, as though the lessons required re-learning. I remember a conversation with a scholar in Washington DC in 2006, in which I suggested that the US might have learned far more than it apparently had about how to deal with terrorism, from historically-informed scrutiny of what other states had been through. ‘Ah, but we have to see our own crisis as exceptional,’ I was told. This is, perhaps, true enough as a depiction of prevalent opinion. But it is no less depressing, and damaging, for that.

In 2003 I published a history of the IRA. At that time, the IRA was in the process of leaving history’s stage just as the post-9/11 crisis meant that terrorism itself was becoming a global preoccupation as never before. So it seemed worthwhile to try to set out the lessons of history – Irish, but also drawn from other settings – in a systematic and accessible way, to try to address the problem of what we should do when the next terrorist crisis strikes.

My argument as a result of that process is that we can only effectively respond to terrorism if we learn the lessons of terrorism’s long history, but that we can only learn those lessons if we adopt a proper means of explaining terrorism, and that we can only explain it if we are honest and precise about exactly what terrorism is in the first place. So, what is terrorism? Why do people resort to terror? What can we learn from terrorism past? How should we respond?

The seven key elements in a response to terrorist violence, as I see them, are:

First, learn to live with it. Politicians have all too often tried to give the impression of a resolve to uproot terrorism altogether, which is self-defeating and unrealistic. Individual terrorist campaigns will come to an end, terrorism itself will not, and our best approach is to minimize and contain it.

Second, where possible, address the root causes and problems which generate awful terrorist violence. This will not always be possible (neither the goals of the Baader-Meinhof group nor of Osama bin Laden could be delivered). But there are moments in history when effective compromise can be reached, normally after terrorist groups themselves recognize that their violence is not bringing anticipated victory, and that a turn to more conventional politics makes sense.

Third, avoid an over-militarization of response. There is an understandable temptation after terrorist atrocities to respond with military muscle, and this can have beneficial effects. It has also, on very many historical occasions, back-fired, with rough-handed military action and occupation stimulating that very terrorism which it was intended to stifle.

Fourth, recognize that high-grade intelligence is the most effective resource in combating terrorist groups. From 1970s Germany to 1990s Northern Ireland there have been many cases where intelligence has decisively aided the constraining of terrorist campaigns.

Fifth, adhere to orthodox legal frameworks and remain wedded to the democratically produced framework of law. All too often the Abu Ghraib pattern has been evident, with the state transgressing the line which distinguishes its own legal activity from illegal brutality: such transgressions tend to strengthen rather than undermine terrorist violence.

Sixth, ensure the coordination of security, financial, technological and other counter-terrorist efforts, both between different agencies of the same state, and between different states allied in the fight against terrorist violence.

Seventh, maintain strong credibility of public response. Any resort to implausible caricatures of one’s enemies will prove counter-productive among that constituency which is potentially supportive of terrorist violence but likely – if presented with credible alternatives – to recognize the futility as well as the appalling bloodiness of terrorist action.

All of the above points were ignored during the post-9/11 response of the War on Terror, and each of these errors has made our current position more difficult.

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