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Essence of terrorism

In this video Prof. dr. Bakker explores the main elements of terrorism, and the mechanism and impact of the acts.
Hello, the previous video explained the need for a definition of terrorism. We have discussed several attempts to arrive at a generally accepted definition of the term. In this video, we will explore the essence of terrorism. We look at the main elements of the phenomenon, and the mechanism of fear, and impact of terrorist attacks.
Well, there’s not one definition of terrorism, but there is general agreement that the phenomenon of terrorism has many different elements, and there’s also more or less agreement on the idea that terrorism is an instrument or a tactic of certain groups, be it non-state actors or state actors, in order to achieve certain political goals. Use of force is an important part of this instrument or tactic, but it is not the goal in itself. In other words, terrorists don’t kill in order to kill. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes mainly with lone-actors, it is not clear what the terrorists actually want, and sometimes the violence in itself is both a method and a goal.
Fear is also one of the key components, and spreading fear is more important than spreading death. Hence, the goal is not many dead, but many people afraid, and the terrorists sometimes manage to do that. Also sometimes with very limited means. Especially in countries that are not that often confronted with terrorism. An example of that is the situation in my own country, the Netherlands. In 2006, according to a public opinion poll, 40 percent of the Dutch did consider terrorism to be one of the two most important problems the country was facing.
And they were more afraid than the British and the Spanish who had just experienced horrible attacks in Madrid, with 200 people being killed, and the London bombings, with more than 50 people killed. What happened in the Netherlands? What were people so afraid of? Well, they had experienced a single attack, one attack by one person, killing one other person. A relatively famous Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh. Well, one could argue that the killer managed to produce a lot of fear with one single action, and I guess one could say, too much fear. The Dutch were very vulnerable just after one attack. Very worried about terrorism.
A well-known scholar that was one of the first to stress that terrorism is not primarily about killing, is Brian Jenkins in 1975. Many years ago, he wrote that terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead, and I think this statement is still true for most cases of terrorism. Whether or not its relevancy has changed in the course of time, especially after the mass killings on 9/11. We will discuss in a later video.
Nonetheless, it is safe to say that an essential element of terrorism, both in the past and today, is that it is not mainly about killing, and another important aspect is that the direct targets of terrorist attacks are not, or only rarely, the main targets. How to explain this. We take, for instance, the attacks on 9/11. About 3,000 people were killed. But they were the indirect targets. The terrorists did not want to specifically kill those 3,000 individuals, they wanted to attract a lot of attention, and cause a lot of fear among the general population. The main targets were the American authorities and the public. The violence of terrorists is not aimed at those who die, but those who continue to live.
The main target is us, you and me, the audience. The strategy is to kill one or quite a few and to frighten millions. They want us to be afraid, to be angry, to overreact, and unfortunately, sometimes they succeed in that, and sometimes quite easily.
Knowing this essential part of the workings of terrorism, maybe we should try harder not to be afraid, not to overreact. I’m very much a fan of the social movement and slogan, ‘we are not afraid.’ People, posting pictures or cartoons or using banners to express their resilience to terrorism, stating, ‘we are not afraid.’ Or other slogans expressing resilience against terrorist attacks. Here you see a picture using the logo of the London Underground, as a reaction to the London bombings in 2005. But how hard you and I might try, the impact of terrorism can be very high. Media are very important in spreading fear.
But the same holds for politicians and public figures, and as a result of this spreading of fear, the impact of terrorism can be enormous, and this makes terrorism a serious threat to peace and security. Not so much in physical terms, at least in most countries. Although too many people die because of terrorism, especially in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria, countries we mentioned earlier in this video. Well, the impact can be enormous on all societies, and on relationships between ethnic, political, or religious communities. It can also be very high on the economy, and on politics and international relations.
What have we learned about the essence of terrorism? Among scholars and practitioners, there is some level of agreement on the idea that terrorism is a tool, a mechanism, an instrument to spread fear by the way of using violence in order to impact politics and society. Unfortunately, that impact can be very high, and sometimes politics and society tend to overreact after terrorist incidents and attacks. I’d like to add that by doing so, we actually help the terrorists. What are we going to do next week? We will look at the study of terrorism and counterterrorism. We will answer the question, ‘what have academics and think tanks learned about terrorism both before and after 9/11?’
and Why is it rather difficult to study terrorism? See you next week.

Let’s discuss!

After following the material for this week, what do you think are the key elements for accurately defining terrorism?

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice

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