Terror threats have grown in the 20 years since 9/11, experts warn

Special In the 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., a huge amount of research has been carried out around the world into the causes of terrorism. (File/AFP)
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Updated 09 January 2021

Terror threats have grown in the 20 years since 9/11, experts warn

Terror threats have grown in the 20 years since 9/11, experts warn
  • UN hosts discussion of the rapidly evolving nature of terrorism and how best to counter it
  • Radicalization is a constant process, expert warns, while efforts to prevent it are short-term and piecemeal

NEW YORK: The threat posed by terrorism is greater now than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

That was the warning from experts as the UN Security Council, the presidency of which is held this month by Tunisia, hosted a high-level discussion on Friday about the past, present and future of counterterrorism efforts.

In the 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., a huge amount of research has been carried out around the world into the causes of terrorism, the identity of terrorists, and potential containment and prevention strategies.

The participants in Friday’s virtual event included members of the Global Research Network, which was established in 2015 by the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and includes 120 institutions that collaborate on identifying trends, challenges and developments in terrorism. They were joined by policymakers, practitioners and representatives of civil society.

The topics for discussion included key trends and challenges, along with the lessons that have been learned in the past 20 years from efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism, with a focus on how these lessons should shape future policies.

Many people in the West might not realize it but the physical threat posed by terrorists is greater now than it was 20 years ago, said event moderator Alexander Von Rosenbach, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in the Hague. The organization’s main goal is to achieve long-term security through the adoption of policies and practices guided by human rights.

He said the current polarization evident in many societies, fueled by the right-wing response to terrorist threats, has left already vulnerable communities in even more-precarious predicaments.

While the response in the West typically has been to bolster security forces and create “a protective bubble,” leading to a “fragmentation” of the terrorist threat, the endemic problems in other countries, which are so ingrained in their societies, have caused the threat to heighten, Von Rosenbach added.

Ornella Moderan, from the Institute for Security Studies in Africa, said that a novel aspect of the post 9/11 era lies in the fact that the “war on terror” was launched by a single Western power but has evolved into a global agenda that guides the efforts of many nations and organizations.

She said: “In Africa we looked at these (local terror) groups and said, ‘Who are these people, really? Why are they joining these groups? What are their motivations?’”

The concept of “radicalization” then emerged, which involves “an assumption that there is something radically different in the ways people joining these groups think and the rest of us think,” added Moderan.

Her research found that it is inequality and marginalization, in addition to harsh treatment and abuse at the hands of security forces, that is “pushing people above the tipping point to revolt and, in the absence of other ways to express their rebellion, join these (terrorist) groups.”

In the first decade after 9/11 terrorist groups observed certain rules, were somewhat predictable in their methods and operated within established limits, said Moderan, but the rise of Daesh was a game changer. There were no more rules.

“Suddenly, it became okay to kill their own people — and essentially do anything,” she added. “This has led to confusion in the research community. (Daesh) was evolving faster than we were able to keep up with.”

Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation, an influential think tank in Asia, said: “The war on terror globalized terror without understanding local context, local histories and local capabilities.

“Now everyone wanted to do what Uncle Sam was doing. The response to terror has been universal clumsiness, and the ‘Hollywoodization’ of terror became the blueprint of how we engage with the topic.”

He highlighted an important difference in the way the authorities respond to terror threats, compared with how the terrorists operate.

“Radicalization is a never-ending soap opera,” said Saran. “(Terror groups) are always at it, while we respond in episodes. It is not about catching up, it is about (our) lack of passion, lack of intensity, lack of focus and lack of purpose.

“We take funds from governments to fight radicalization; (terror groups) crowdsource to radicalize. We want dollars in our banks; they’re happy with cryptocurrency.

“$146,000 is the price of a bitcoin,” he added, referring to a recent prediction for the long-term price for the cryptocurrency. “For $15,000 of research, we require 27 government commissions.

“Technology allows us to do a lot more if we are nimble. Speed matters; intensity matters, and innovation matters.”

Azadeh Moaveni, who has studied the role of gender in terrorist activities, noted that there was a time when the typical image of a terrorist was that of a young man carrying an AK47. Before the turn of the century, when she was working as a journalist covering the Middle East, “the notion of young women being actively involved at the forefront of militant groups wouldn’t even have occurred to us.”

The central drama of world terrorism for the past 20 years, she said, is why did women from more than 50 countries “stream into the Caliphate?”

She added: “This experience of women lending so much resiliency, and being part of the draw for what has become the interconnected, transnational jihadism — how did that emerge?”

Although “our understanding of why women affiliate with these groups has been limited,” the failure of the Arab Spring is “embedded in the heart of (Daesh) and its appeal to women,” Moaveni said.

“From Syria to Egypt and Lebanon and Libya and Iraq, young women were very much at the forefront of these movements for change which, country by country, were squashed, put down.” With them went hopes of women for empowerment, access to politics and elevating their demands from civil society to the political arena, she added.

“This is the precursor to the Islamic State, and why it was so effective in recruiting women,” said Moaveni. “(Daesh) were tapping into a very specific local demand that women had, country to country, and were offering empowerment for women to access (and) aspire to those goals, which they had sought to resolve in their countries, in this distant place.”

The participants in the discussion advocated a holistic approach to counterterrorism efforts that tackles social, political and economic problems, with enhanced communication between researchers and policymakers.

Asked about the role of regional organizations in countering terrorism, Moaveni stressed the need for “a regional security architecture that is inclusive and does not rest on one external Western actor to guarantee certain things.”