Last week Anthony Bubalo suggested that a debate is needed about how to properly counter terrorism in liberal democracies, and more specifically how to achieve the proper balance between security and civil liberties when confronting violent extremism. This is part 2 of my response; part 1 here.

In my previous post I said that, as al Qaeda found it more difficult to stage spectacular large-scale attacks, its emphasis moved towards encouraging self-radicalised jihadists in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or 'lone wolf' attacks on targets of opportunity.

The focus of these autonomous, decentralised terrorists is 'everyday' targets: shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities. All present soft targets with symbolic value where a relatively small act of criminal violence can generate waves of apprehension across the population, thereby prompting a government overreaction designed as much to calm public fears as to prevent further attacks.

The range and number of these targets makes guarding all of them difficult. and if the perpetrators plan in secret, they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defence against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used as weapons. This is as much true for psychopaths as it is for terrorists.

One variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called 'swarm' attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker's capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military is often called in, thereby giving the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.

Yet if we strip away all the ideological gloss, what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise.

The proper response needs to be led by police rather than military, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation among nations. The legislative response should not be to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values.

What is not needed but unfortunately has been the reflexive response in the West is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.

Such measures are not even entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown. Australia, the US and France all have strong anti-terrorism laws.

There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering and sharing, but the main impediment to that has not been the inadequacy of criminal law. Instead, inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies are to blame. Another factor is the difficulty of cooperating internationally on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China).

Given advances in telecommunications technology, there has to be a focus on social-media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But again, all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties and without militarising the response to the point that it gives the appearance of nations at war.

A comprehensive strategy addressing the underlying causes of terrorism in the West is also needed. This involves a host of socio-economic, diplomatic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics such as the question of assimilation of migrants, border controls, and minority youth unemployment. 

But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law. Above all, terrorism should be treated not as a special type of (political) crime but as the violent acts of criminal conspirators.

This is just the domestic side of the counter-terrorism coin. The other side involves defeating extremist groups that have established military and political beachheads in the Middle East and elsewhere, and from where foreign fighters return. That is a matter of foreign and external security policy where the military option is most properly considered.

But domestically, the fight against violent ideological extremism in democracies should focus as much on de-legitimisation of the cause as it does on increasing physical security from attacks. The first step is to treat terrorism as a criminal enterprise, not as a uniquely dangerous type of political or cultural expression.

Photo by Flickr user nolifebeforecoffee.