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The Future of Terrorism: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Since the 9/11 attacks it has become common to hear, or read, that we live in an age of terrorism, and, in particular, an age of Islamist terrorism. Endeavouring to explain why we are living in an age of terrorism has consumed tens of thousands of hours of analysis and discussion, and produced a myriad of articles, books, and reports. Though our understanding of, and explanations for, Islamist terrorism have gradually become more useful and cohesive, it is now too often the case that Islam and terrorism are conflated into a single issue, which diminishes the likelihood of us developing a truly insightful analysis of terrorism today and terrorism in the near future. If we continue to fixate on the specific characteristics of current Islamist terrorism, we risk being as unprepared for whatever wave of terrorism comes next as we were for Islamist terrorism. Even though each wave of terrorism has its own particular characteristics, there are always underlying conditions that inform why there is terrorism at present, which can also inform why there is likely to be terrorism in the future. The aim of this article is to consider what motivating factors for terrorism exist today, and to begin to evaluate whether these factors are likely to remain salient as motivators for the next wave of terrorism.

In 2007 Mark Sedgwick wrote an excellent article on the history of modern waves of terrorism. He masterfully captured the key ideological and historical factors that divided different waves of terrorism, and interrogated why and how each wave had first appeared, festered and grown, and finally fizzled out. If one is looking for an explanation of the inspiration that characterised each of the modern waves of terrorism, then Sedgwick’s writing is an excellent place to start, but why terrorism rolls on (from wave to wave) requires a different starting point and methodology.

Even though a wave of terrorism can be explained in terms of prevalent inspiration and ideology, it is the prevalence of ongoing precursor conditions that indicate the likely emergence of the next wave of terrorism.

Any culture and/or religion can be instrumentalized to justify terrorist violence, if precursor conditions exist to underpin and exacerbate people’s grievances. Consequently, we need to begin at the most fundamental level of Human needs, which are always present as motivators for Human behaviour. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may not be as fashionable as it once was, and self-actualisation might not currently be central to people’s sense of striving (since, as Maslow himself argued, very few people manage to get there), yet meeting fundamental physical needs is still central to Human experience. Jared Diamond provides us with a robust and thought provoking perspective from which to consider Human needs in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he makes the case for geography as destiny. In short, if your ancestors were lucky enough to be in the right place, with the right plants and animals, they received the great benefits that come with agriculture and the domestication of animals. With a surplus of food and beasts of burden, they were in the best position to develop specialised skills and complex social and political systems. The societies who started with the greatest geographical advantages were well placed to dominate other peoples who had not had the same geographical advantages. Diamond uses the example of Europe’s stark invasion and domination of South America to illustrate his point.

As a consequence of centuries of trade and transfer, geography does not currently exert as blunt a force upon Human activity and culture, but where you live still dramatically impacts on how effectively you can meet your physical needs. In the twenty first century arable land and potable water are both becoming more valuable and fragile. If we combine these conditions with an ever increasing Human population, excessive consumption of other scarce resources, and the likely consequences of anthropomorphic climate change, then no population can take the future sufficiency of their geographical location for granted. A prolonged drought played its part in the build up toward the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, and we have to assume that geographical stressors will continue to provide precursor conditions for violent action. When regimes cannot, or will not, do what is necessary to meet unmet physical needs, then demands for regime change are likely. If change is not permitted, and physical needs are not met, then terrorism is a likely outcome.

Societies that are under stress tend to break down into smaller groups, who stand together against every other small group, rather than coming together to solve problems as a societal whole. In the language of Social Capital, as articulated by Deepa Narayan, difficult conditions reinforce the Bonding Social Capital that exists within small groups (who are experiencing similar things), at the expense of Bridging Social Capital, which can enable people to work together with people from other, different groups within society. Bridging Social Capital depends on people having a broad and inclusive sense of shared identity and shared experience, which can culminate in an expansive and inclusive society. Without an inclusive and expansive perspective to bring people together, each small group of people can fall back on their exclusive and narrow perspective to make sense of the world as they are experiencing it. As we have seen in each modern wave of terrorism, powerful ideologies are those that provide clear and simple answers, despite the complexity of reality.

As technology provides us with more information more frequently, direct to the ubiquitous devices in the palms of our hands, making sense of complexity is going to become ever more difficult. Inclusive and expansive ideas do not provide the simple and immediate answers that people need in order to cope with an increasingly overwhelming world. Consequently, simple and clear ideologies will become even more salient than they are now in the future. Small groups with clear and simple ideologies have a terrible tendency to resort to violence to bring about the world as they desire it.

While Social Capital can be viewed as a somewhat intangible concept, other more practical factors can be identified that have the potential to divide societies. Economic inequality is perhaps the most relevant and immediate factor. Joseph Stiglitz has masterfully laid out the short and long term consequences of economic inequality in his book, The Price of Inequality, but at present we will concern ourselves with a cruder analysis. Inequality is as old as the existence of specialised skills and stratified societies, and has been managed reasonably well throughout history, as long as the gap between rich and poor is not too extreme. Since the 1980s the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically, but, more importantly, what has changed is that those at the bottom of the economic heap no longer have enough economic security and/or opportunity to survive in a consistent manner. If inequality is managed so that everyone can at least maintain a basic sustainable standard of living, then social stability is likely to be maintained, but when even the basics break down, then we are at risk of something more like class, or generational warfare.

Extreme inequality, which strips away people’s sense of having a sustainable and comprehensible future, or being a part of an inclusive society, has the potential to exact a very high price. Such inequality provides an umbrella term over all of the precursor factors that have contributed to the current wave of terrorism, and they are all likely to motivate new waves of terrorism in the future. As the precursor factors ripple out and impact on more people in more places, the only certainty is that we will not be able to stick an apparently reductionist label on future terrorism as we have done with Islamist terrorism.

Author: David Olney, SIA Associate

***Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia ***

4 THOUGHTS ON "The Future of Terrorism: Some Preliminary Thoughts"

  1. andrew on August 9, 2016 at 5:57 pm said:

    Having seen, at first hand, the way that “we” (predominantly Western Powers) have behaved in Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein I am in no doubt that much of the “Islamist: terrorism is down to the way in which we have tried to Westernise Iraq. We have tried to judge our success (or otherwise) there by our own paradigms, failing to recognise that this area was the cradle of civilisation, and had evolved to its (then) current state over 1000s of years. That is all in the past, and there is not much we can do about it now. However, the Media (of all types) is proving to be a Force-Multiplier for the terrorists; sensationalising their every action and beaming it into living rooms around the world. There is no doubt that we need a multi-track approach to combat terrorism, but one of those tracks has undoubtedly got to be to starve them of the oxygen of publicity.

    • David on August 9, 2016 at 6:53 pm said:

      We could start by flooding the world with a more thoughtful and sophisticated media debate.

  2. David Deane-Spread on August 21, 2016 at 9:44 pm said:

    Since all human conflict and dysfunction is caused by only fear, habits (includes beliefs and values) and ignorance, then surely our remedies are to be found in courage, better practice and learning?

    However it appears our interest is captured by
    1. always pointing at what’s happening,
    2. ignoring the precursors,
    3. self interest,
    4. and our inability to manage population growth.

    My concern is not so much the future of terrorism, which accounts for the smallest of the deaths and injuries suffered globally, but for the likelihood of global warfare – in fact World War 3.

    Perhaps it’s nature’s way of completing a cycle?
    After all we are a part of nature and under it’s control, regardless of our denial of that.

    How do we bring effective attention to what really matters most, when it feels as though everyone is focused on shadows and noise?

    • David on August 22, 2016 at 2:34 pm said:

      Courage and better practices have to be learned, and there is currently very little evidence for consistent and/or systemic efforts to apply deliberate learning strategies to improve outcomes.

      We are a part of nature, but our nature is dramatically affected by our nurture, which really means everything we experience. No surprise that outcomes are likely to be bad when experience is not improved by societal norms or policy aims.

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