As the Manchester Arena attack shows, terrorism has changed for good

23/05/2017  -  2.18

George Kassimeris, Professor of Security Studies

One of the stranger consequences of early 21st century terrorism is that it has induced a nostalgia for an earlier kind of terrorist. The replacement of political ideology with religious fanaticism has eroded the self-imposed constraints that limited terrorist violence in the past. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, terrorist factions issued communiqués explaining their political agendas; their demands were clear and their targets were specific and comprehensible. In those days, terrorist groups, such as the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades, engaged in highly selective acts of violence. However radical or revolutionary these groups were in their ideologies, the majority were conservative in their operations, using a very limited tactical repertoire directed against a narrow set of targets.

In that period terrorists wanted – to use the often-cited observation by Brian Jenkins, director of the security and sub-national conflict programme of the RAND Corporation – “a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead”. Now, and as we saw in Manchester last night, things are very different. 

Although the identity and motives of the suicide bomber in this case are yet to be revealed, what we have now is fanatical individuals (so-called "lone wolves") and a series of loose, mutually reinforcing and quite separate international networks, whose followers combine medieval religious beliefs with modern weaponry and a level of fanaticism that expresses itself primarily in suicide bombings and a willingness to use indiscriminate violence on large scale.

It is not flippant to suggest that Islamist terrorists would inspire less public apprehension if they confined their murderous designs to politicians, diplomats, policemen, judges and soldiers - as did the more “traditional” ideological and ethno-nationalist organisations that dominated the terrorist scene from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The threat of indiscriminate terror, even if our intelligence and police work improves a great deal, will be with us for some time. This makes it all the more important to deal with the root causes of this type of terrorism rather than simply to try to defend against it.

Western policies since 9/11 have been primarily focused on capturing or killing jihadis rather than trying to work out what motivates them, and why some communities support them despite their shocking acts of terror.

Political extremists tend to imitate each other. After the Paris and Berlin attacks it was, for the UK, more a question of when, rather than if, it were to suffer from a similar type of destructive, indiscriminate attack.

Such a terrorist attack is the hardest attack to stop, let alone to prevent. But it is important to remember all those many attacks that never materialised because of the vigilance and prevention strategies of UK's counter-terrorism forces. Yesterday's terrorist attack in Manchester has traumatised all of us living in the UK, but we must not allow it to poison and divide us.

Professor George Kassimeris is chair in security studies at the University of Wolverhampton