Commuters woke up this morning to news that Brussels was under attack. Two explosions were reported at the departure hall at Brussels Zaventem airport at 8am (CET) and a further blast was recorded at the Maalbeek metro station, close to the EU Parliament, shortly after 9am (CET). The attack comes four days after Salah Abdelslam, the last surviving participant in last year’s Paris attacks, was captured.
There have been scores of casualties, including at least 28 confirmed fatalities. The Belgian government has rather belatedly raised the threat level to maximum, as ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks hours later.
When it comes to how we report tragic events like this, we have to remember that media and exposure are oxygen for terrorists. Terrorists are after the three Rs: revenge, renown and reaction, according to terrorism expert Louise Richardson, who was recently appointed Vice Chancellor at the University of Oxford. In 2006, she published a highly recommended book, What Terrorists Want, based on her experience growing up among IRA sympathisers in the 1970s.
The two most important aspects of the three Rs are renown and reaction, in which the media can sometimes play an unhelpfully supporting role. When atrocities like this happen, we should focus our attention on the victims – and report and showcase their achievements and humanity. The attackers, who have lost any claim on humanity, should remain anonymous. The police and courts should do their work, and we should forget about them. Manhunts like that for Salah Abdelslam make for good headlines and sell papers, but intense publicity lionises and gives succour to losers. It is tempting to speculate that this attack is revenge for the arrest of Abdelslam last week, or the work of an undetected cell pressed into action, but this needlessly raises the profile of these people.
Murder is not the primary objective of terrorist organisations. They seek, with their random and sudden attacks, to thrust themselves on the collective consciousness. They want to undermine the societies they attack, and roll back all the freedoms that have taken centuries to establish. They want to undermine the Hobbesian contract that Western electorates make with their governments to keep them safe, and produce a state of disorder along religious lines. They want to demonstrate the weakness of the state by producing scenes which resemble the guerrilla wars of foreign lands. They want advertisements to their power, and they largely get that through the blanket media coverage, legions of armed personnel and ubiquitous public warnings. But we win when we understand that much of terrorism is theatre, and it is through our responses that we give power to these assailants.
If we are to stop this kind of thing, we have to lose our obsession with the process of terrorism and leave it with the experts in the security services.
We are learning how important these security services are. On the BBC this morning, Frank Gardner made an extraordinary admission. Not only do Belgian security services not share information with each other, but they rely on M15 and British police for their intelligence. In a country from which one of the highest number of foreign fighters per capita have travelled to Syria, this is incredible. The Belgian authorities need to get a grip. They have taken four months to capture a key suspect who looks likely to have been living under their nose undetected, and they rely on the intelligence of a foreign country to keep their own people safe.
Terrorists – even suicide bombers – act to promote a reaction. And with this generation of Salafist radicals, it’s hard to know exactly what they want. Is ISIS a millenarian organisation which genuinely seeks to establish a global Islamic caliphate, or is it simply an eschatological cult obsessed with death? Either way, it is not sustainable. Terrorism of this sort does not work. Political scientist Max Abrahms studied 28 terrorist groups that have operated since 2001, including Al-Qaida, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers, and found that they accomplished only 7% of their policy objectives.
Any organisation that prides itself on blowing up innocent commuters and tourists will not endure, and the Islamic State surely knows this as it continues to lose territory in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. They have incurred the disdain of the overwhelming majority of the world, and according to expert Patrick Cockburn are rapidly losing support in the places under their administration.
#ISIS lost 24% of its territory since Jan 2015 says @IHS: 16% in 2015, further 8% in just last 3 months #Syria #Iraq pic.twitter.com/LRn7Og4be5
— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) March 16, 2016
For death cults like ISIS, the aim is to provoke a response along the lines suggested by Carl von Clausewitz: “If the enemy is to be coerced, you must put him in a situation that is even more unpleasant than the sacrifice you call on him to make.” The problem for ISIS and all before them is that they are fundamentally weak, and rely on the weapons of the weak. The more they attack, the more they will unite the international community against them.
However, we should refrain from using phrases like ‘War on Terror’ as Recep Erdoğan declared last week in response to the Ankara bombings. We can’t win a war against an emotion or a tactic, and our attempts to do therefore serve the interests of the terrorists who can claim that they always have the upper hand and the ability to inflict damage.
And if the reaction the Belgian attackers are after is fear and panic, they’re also supporting a losing cause and betray a poor understanding of psychology. A few months ago the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that “we have entered – we all feel it – a new era characterised by the lasting presence of hyper-terrorism.” This is a deeply unsettling statement but it is also a normalising one. It removes the ability of terrorists to terrify. Terrorism is simply added to the contingent risks of life. We start remembering that we’re just as likely – if not more – to be involved in a car crash, crushed by furniture or drown in our bathtubs than succumb to the coward carrying a bomb.
Yet by normalising terrorism we should not accept it. There is obviously no moral equivalence between mass murder and accidental death. Whether it happens in Brussels, Paris, Ankara, Jerusalem or Grand Bassam, it is everywhere a human tragedy, and we need to continue to tackle the ideology which is driving these people to commit mass murder in this awful way.