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Keeping Terrorism in Perspective

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By Scott Stewart

As we conclude our series on the fundamentals of terrorism, it is only fitting that we do so with a discussion of the importance of keeping terrorism in perspective.

By design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage the attack causes. As their name suggests, they are meant to cause terror that amplifies the actual attack. A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort. Certainly, al Qaeda reaped such a maximum return from the Sept. 11 attacks, which totally altered the foreign policy and domestic security policies of the world's only superpower and resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan and military operations across the globe. Al Qaeda also maximized its return from the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, which occurred three days before the 2004 Spanish general elections that ousted the ruling party from power.

One way to mitigate the psychological impact of terrorism is to remove the mystique and hype associated with it. The first step in this demystification is recognizing that terrorism is a tactic used by a variety of actors and that it will not go away, something we discussed at length in our first analysis in this series. Terrorism and, more broadly, violence are and will remain part of the human condition. The Chinese, for example, did not build the Great Wall to attract tourists, but to keep out marauding hordes. Fortunately, today's terrorists are far less dangerous to society than the Mongols were to Ming China.

Another way to mitigate the impact of terrorism is to recognize that those who conduct terrorist attacks are not some kind of Hollywood superninja commandos who can conjure attacks out of thin air. Terrorist attacks follow a discernable, predictable planning process that can be detected if it is looked for. Indeed, by practicing relaxed, sustainable situational awareness, people can help protect themselves from terrorist attacks. When people practice situational awareness collectively, they also can help protect their communities from such attacks.

A third important component in the demystification process is to recognize and resist the terror magnifiers terrorist planners use in their efforts to maximize the impact of their attacks. Terrorist attacks will cause tragedy and suffering, but the targeted population can separate terror from terrorism and minimize the impact of such attacks if they maintain the proper perspective.

Propaganda of the Deed

As we begin our examination of perspective and terror magnifiers, let's first examine the objective of terrorist planners.

Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the "propaganda of the deed," or using violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point, such as inspiring the masses to undertake revolutionary action. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, modern terrorist organizations began to conduct operations designed to serve as terrorist theater, an undertaking greatly aided by the advent and spread of broadcast media. Some examples of early attacks specifically intended as made-for-television events include the September 1972 kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the December 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Aircraft hijackings quickly followed suit and were transformed from relatively brief endeavors to long, drawn-out and dramatic media events often spanning multiple continents. The image of TWA Flight 847 captain John Testrake in the window of his cockpit with a Hezbollah gunman behind him became an iconic image of the 1980s, embodying this trend.

Today, the proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and Internet news sites magnifies such media exposure. This increased exposure not only allows people to be informed minute-by-minute about unfolding events, but it also permits them to become secondary, vicarious victims of the unfolding violence. The increased exposure ensures that the audience impacted by the propaganda of the deed becomes far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack. On Sept. 11, 2001, millions of people in the United States and around the world watched live as the second aircraft struck the south tower of the World Trade Center, people leapt to their deaths to escape the raging fires and the towers collapsed. Watching this sequence of events in real time profoundly affected many people. Its effect was far greater than if people had merely read about the attacks in newspapers.

In the wake of 9/11, a wave of terror swept the globe as people worldwide became certain that more such spectacular attacks were inevitable. The November 2008 Mumbai attacks had a similar, albeit smaller, impact. People across India were fearful of being attacked by teams of Lashkar-e-Taiba gunmen, and concern spread around the world about Mumbai-style terrorism.

Terror Magnifiers

Such theatrical attacks exert a strange hold over the human imagination. The sense of terror they create can dwarf the reaction to natural disasters many times greater in magnitude. For example, more than 227,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami compared to fewer than 3,000 people on 9/11. Yet the 9/11 attacks spawned a global sense of terror and a geopolitical reaction that had a profound and unparalleled impact upon world events over the past decade.

As noted, the media magnifies this anxiety and terror. Television news, whether broadcast on the airwaves or over the Internet, allows people to experience a terrorist event remotely and vicariously, and the print media reinforces this. While part of this magnification results merely from the nature of television as a medium and the 24-hour news cycle, bad reporting and misunderstanding can build hype and terror.

For example, a Mexican drug cartel on March 19 detonated a small explosive device in a vehicle in Ciudad Victoria. In the wake of this minor attack, the Mexican and U.S. media breathlessly reported that cartels had begun using "car bombs." Journalists on both sides of the border failed to appreciate the significant tactical and operational differences between a small bomb placed in a car and the far larger and more deadly vehicle-borne explosive device, a true car bomb. The Colombian Medellin cartel employed car bombs in Bogota; it is quite significant that the cartels in Mexico have not yet done so despite their possessing the necessary capabilities.

The traditional news media are not alone in the role of terror magnifier. The Internet has become an increasingly effective conduit for panic and alarm. From hysterical (and false) claims in 2005 that al Qaeda had pre-positioned nuclear weapons in the United States and was preparing to attack nine U.S. cities and kill 4 million Americans in operation "American Hiroshima" to 2010 claims that Mexican drug cartels were smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States for Osama bin Laden, a great deal of fearmongering can spread rapidly over the Internet.

Website operators who earn advertising revenue based on the number of unique site visitors have an obvious financial incentive to publish outlandish and startling terrorism stories. The Internet also has produced a wide array of other startling claims, including oft-recycled email chains such as the one stating that an Israeli counterterrorism expert had predicted al Qaeda will attack six, seven or eight U.S. cities simultaneously "within the next 90 days." This email first circulated in 2005 and periodically has reappeared since then. Although it is an old, false prediction, it still creates fear every time it circulates.

Live tweets from attack sites, cellphone calls from people trapped by terrorist attacks to news outlets and the proliferation of cellphone videos on outlets like YouTube also have helped increase the vicarious-victim aspect of terror attacks. In some locations, state media will attempt to suppress media coverage, but these alternate media sources still get the news out to the wider world.

Sometimes even governments act as terror magnifiers. Certainly, in the early 2000s the media and the American public became fearful every time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised its color-coded threat level. Politicians' statements also can scare people. Such was the case in 2007 when DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said his gut screamed that a major terrorist attack was imminent and in 2010 when the head of French internal intelligence noted that the threat of terrorism in France was never higher.

These warnings produce widespread public concern. A number of reasons exist for providing such warnings, from trying to pre-empt a terrorist attack when there is incomplete intelligence to a genuine concern for the safety of citizens in the face of a known threat to less altruistic motives such as political gain or bureaucratic maneuvering (when an agency wants to protect itself from blame in case there is an attack, for example). As seen by the public reaction to the many warnings in the wake of 9/11, including recommendations that citizens purchase plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect themselves from chemical and biological attack, such warnings can produce immediate panic, although, over time, as threats and warnings prove to be unfounded, this panic can turn into alert fatigue. This fatigue led the DHS to scrap its color-coded alert system in 2011.

Those seeking to terrorize can and do use these magnifiers to produce terror without having to go to the trouble of conducting attacks. The empty threats bin Laden and his inner circle issued about preparing an attack larger than 9/11 -- threats propagated by the Internet, picked up by the media and then reacted to by governments -- are prime historical examples of this.

Stepping Back from the Spectacle

Groups such as al Qaeda clearly recognize the difference between terrorist attacks and terror. This is seen not only in the use of empty threats to sow terror, but also in the way terrorist groups claim success for failed attacks. For example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) declared the failed Christmas Day 2009 "underwear" bombing a success due to the effect it had on air travel. In a special edition of Inspire magazine published in November 2010 following the failed attack against cargo aircraft using improvised explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges, AQAP trumpeted the operation as a success, citing the fear, disruption and expense that resulted. AQAP claimed the cargo bomb plot and the Christmas Day plot were part of what it called "Operation Hemorrhage," an effort to cause economic damage and fear, not necessarily to kill large numbers of people.

As noted above, practitioners of terrorism lose a great deal of their ability to create terror if the people they are trying to terrorize place terrorism in perspective. Terrorist attacks are going to continue to happen because there are a wide variety of militant groups and individuals willing to use violence to influence either their own or another country's government.

Terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping after the attack. As AQAP has noted in its Inspire magazine, a determined person can conduct attacks using a variety of simple weapons, such as a knife, axe or gun. And while the authorities in the United States and elsewhere have proved quite successful in foiling attacks over the past few years, any number of vulnerable targets exists in the open societies of the West. Western governments simply do not have the resources to protect everything; not even authoritarian police states can protect everything. This means that some terrorist attacks invariably will succeed. How the media, governments and populations respond to those successful strikes will shape the way the attackers gauge their success. Obviously, the response to 9/11 meant the attackers probably were far more successful than they could have hoped. The London bombings on July 7, 2005, after which the British public went to work as usual the next day, were seen as less successful.

The world is a dangerous place. Everyone is going to die, and some people are certain to die in a manner that is brutal or painful. Recognizing that terrorist attacks, like car crashes and cancer and natural disasters, are part of the human condition permits people to take prudent, measured actions to prepare for such contingencies and avoid becoming victims (vicarious or otherwise). It is the resilience of the population and its perseverance that determine how much a terrorist attack is allowed to terrorize. By separating terror from terrorism, citizens can deny the practitioners of terror the ability to magnify their reach and power.

Click here for The Myth of the End of Terrorism.

Click here for Detection Points in the Terrorist Attack Cycle.

Click here for Detecting Terrorist Surveillance.

Click here for A Practical Guide to Situational Awareness.

Click here for Jihadism in 2012: A Persistent, Low-Level Threat.

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