Media is used to spread hate, it's time to stop it
Today's acts of terrorism are not closely supervised and targeted; they are carried out by local individuals inspired from outside the country.
Discerning and muting radicalisation is the new frontier in countering terrorism
Since 9/11, the international community has focused on preventing acts of terrorism. Their policies span from protective measures at airports to issuing new laws to bring perpetrators to court and even to launching multinational military campaigns against terrorist organisation strongholds and safe havens. But gradual changes in terrorist groups and their acts are raising questions about the sufficiency and efficacy of these policies.
The latest attacks, whether in Westminster, Linz, Paris, Boston, or Manchester, reveal an important new security trend: The crowd sourcing of terrorism. Outside of large, theatre terrorism such as Daesh and contestation in Libya, acts of terrorism no longer rely on an organised network of operatives who need financing and specific training and logistic support to mount spectacular attacks and control populations. While inspired terrorism is centuries old, today's communication media threaten to spread it like a plague across our planet.
Today's acts of terrorism are not closely supervised and targeted; they are carried out by local individuals inspired from outside the country. Perpetrators are free to choose targets, times, and methods as opportunity allows. Thus, their acts occur in the flow of hundreds of incidents motivated by criminal intent or rage. Prevention drifts into much larger domestic law enforcement concerns. Stabbing, for instance, is considered a "knife crime" in most jurisdictions so the Westminster stabbing in one sense fades into the 32,448 knife crimes recorded in England and Wales alone in 2016. Similarly, firearms are also becoming a hallmark of terrorist attack - in Mumbai, Paris, London, Istanbul or Saudi Arabia - including shooting a group of tourists, pedestrians, clubbers, or those at prayer. Yet, as former US president Barack Obama argued, because 1,000 Americans die in gun violence for every American killed in a terrorist attack, preventing that one politically more sensitive death, while supremely important, would require preventing all gun violence; this remains an impossible task.
This rise of the lone, local actor, inspired from outside but not controlled from outside, is a game changer for states. It creates a huge challenge not only on the level of security agencies, but also on the legislative and policy level. For example, a 'hit and run' in many countries is considered a misdemeanour rather than a felony, unless it shows strong evidence of terrorism. In 2015, London alone had 5,000 hit and run causalities. James Alex Fields Jr., the attacker who rammed into anti-white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, was charged with second degree murder (motor vehicle homicide), not with terrorism, because the US has no laws on domestic terrorism as such. In one sense, attributing terrorism only to external sources betrays a prejudice that may need correcting. If on-going FBI investigation were to find that James Fields had a Holy Quran in his car, for example, that Quran (in a highly contentious news world) could compel law enforcement to shift him from the political "white supremacist" category to the legal "foreign terrorist" category.
Incidents like the Fort Wood shooting indicate the ability of direct contact radicalisation discourse. However, this discourse is now being more widely broadcast. The trends from attacks in Nice, Manchester, Berlin and Saudi, highlight the role and power of media outlets in radicalisation. Many of the people involved in "lone wolf" attacks have never left their countries of residence to join a terrorist group but were radicalised in their neighbourhoods through public discourse that pits them, their beliefs and identity against their communities. The current counter terrorism policies are designed to prevent acts of terrorism, they don't address the ability to inspire acts of terrorism. This explains, for example, why the terrorists involved in the Manchester bombing were not detained before the attack even though they were flagged as radicals. Further, Khuram Butt, the perpetrator of the London Bridge attack was known to law enforcement as an extremist but not as a terrorist, until he launched his attack. The same is the case with Hashem Abedi, suicide bomber of the Manchester Arena attack who was a reported extremist whose father was connected to a political group that attracts followers based on radical discourse. And he was not considered a "terrorist" until he blew up hundreds of innocent teenagers. The same can be said about Cherif and Said Kouachi, the perpetrators of the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, and of the Boston Marathon bombers.
The speed of inspiration may outstrip detection and enforcement capabilities of even sophisticated security networks. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Bastille day attacker in Nice, was not known to the authorities and they suspect that he was radicalised rather quickly according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. Prevention today seems to require stopping or devaluing the messages that inspire radicalism, both at their source and in their news and social media channels.
Discerning and muting radicalisation is the new frontier in countering terrorism and unless we address the roles of news and social media in disseminating speech of hatred and deny extremists the chance to abuse freedom of expression, we will face more and more radicalisation.
The issue of the discourse that inspires radicalisation is at the heart of the dispute several states have with Qatar. Doha's continued support for transnational non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, with their religious supremacy discourse, has led to instability and radical behaviour in many areas. The role of Al Jazeera as an idolising platform for figures from Osama Bin Laden to Al Qaradawi have provided a means for legitimising the discourse of radical groups. Such radical discourse will not affect just Muslims in the region but will go way beyond it. The lesson we learn from the dispute between the three gulf states and Egypt with Qatar is the need to stop radicalisation by halting the irresponsible use of media to spread radical discourse.
The dispute between four neighbouring countries and Qatar centres around steps to stop organisation-driven "acts of terrorism" and policies states need for detection and prevention of radicalisation which lead individuals to "violent extremism." This is an issue beyond Qatar, the GCC, and the Middle East. It has touched Europe more than any other region so far but, it will reach over borders into every state, and therefore requires a coordinated global response.
- Mohammed Baharoon is Director General of b'huth Dubai Public Policy Research Centre