terrorism
Mourning the losses from terrorist atrocities. (Credit: Sonjachnyj/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

Terrorism, in its different forms, is a defining feature of modern life for people in cities, towns, and villages across the world. Fear of being thrust unwillingly into the frontline is common in all our societies – from remote settlements to major urban centres. Terrorism itself is nothing new. What has changed is terrorists’ capacity to kill civilians on mass scale.

Yet for such a global phenomenon, finding a single, clear, definition that we can all agree on is proving a highly difficult, lengthy, and torturous process. Terrorism should be clearly defined as outside the law. It should be a threat that all countries in the world are able to come together and confront. States that support, aid, or facilitate terrorism should be held accountable for their role in these crimes against humanity. But, after decades considering this question, the United Nations (UN) is yet to find an answer. The problem of semantics, however, does not stop the UN from maintaining a robust Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy which is reviewed every two years and is built on four pillars:

We need to develop more agile, nimble, counter-terror information-sharing and policy development units

  • Addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism;
  • Measures to prevent and combat terrorism;
  • Measures to build states’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations system in that regard;
  • Measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.

The threat posed by terrorism to communities across the globe is, indeed, severe. Terrorism goes beyond simply the illegal use of violence and weapons of war; it involves the intentional use of military means by illegal organisations against civilian communities with the express goal of inflicting maximum numbers of casualties. Given this stark reality, we could say that the differing motives behind these crimes are relevant to counterterror strategies and operations but are less worthy of moral differentiation.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2016, 77 countries experienced at least one death from terrorism: more than at any time in the past 17 years. However, some countries that have recently suffered very intensely from terrorism – Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria – recorded a collective decline in terrorism-related deaths of 33%. This might be seen to indicate that some of the more protracted conflicts are seeing a positive impact from international counter-terror engagement.

It is the prerogative of every state to use whatever means it has at its disposal to counter terrorism and to ensure its people are safe. Every year, in every country of the world, law enforcement officers work with security and intelligence agencies to foil terror attacks and undermine terrorist activities such as recruitment and network-building. In 2016, according to the 10th edition of the annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, a total of 142 people died in terror attacks in Europe, of which 135 were killed in jihadi attacks. Also in 2016, a total of 1,002 people were arrested for terrorist offences – chiefly related to jihadist terrorism (this indicator has been rising steadily for three years). Tellingly, of those arrested, almost one-third were aged 25 or younger, and there has been a noted uptick in the involvement of women and minors.

It is the prerogative of every state to use whatever means it has at its disposal to counter terrorism and to ensure its people are safe.

This one threat should not blind us to the others. Terrorism is a method used by various groups – of different faiths or none. The UK and the EU notably saw, in 2016, a significant volume of foiled, failed, and completed attacks by ethno-nationalists, separatists, left-wing, and anarchist groups.

Given the complexity of the threats we face, cross-border intelligence and information sharing is more vital than ever before. Yet despite this clear and present threat, we see a continued drive to isolate countries such as Russia that have a very relevant role to play in global counter-terror activities. The Executive Director of Europol, Rob Wainwright, said “Never before has the need for information sharing become more evident as it has in the past two years, with the unprecedented form of jihadist terrorist attacks across Europe that led to 135 victims. In contrast to ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism, and most manifestations of both right-wing and left-wing violent extremism, jihadist terrorism has an international character and therefore needs an international answer from cross-border law enforcement.”

Speaking at a UN counter-terrorism conference last month, Adama Dieng, UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, focused on terror groups’ increased targeting of young people, and the urgent need to combat this threat. “Our young people are our future. We must not fail them”, he said, before outlining ways of including young people in developing workable counter-terror strategies. “Including youth in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism must be a priority,” he said.

One reason that terrorism is so difficult for states to tackle is that terrorist groups – almost by definition – are non-state actors, and are able to respond nimbly to rapidly changing environments. States, by comparison, have great difficulty with agility in any aspect of their operations. Their procedures are unavoidably lengthy and cumbersome.

When states make progress in shutting down terror cells that run complex, high-tech, operations involving highly trained operatives, terror groups can switch tactics and choose instead low-grade but still high-impact assaults – using not explosives but trucks.

The fear among the population that these deadly and despicable attacks sow is lasting. People across Europe today cannot and do not feel safe.

I know what devastating impact terrorism has on communities. As head of Russian Railways, I had to deal with the horror of the 2009 Nevsky Express attack which killed 28 of 682 people aboard and injured over 130. I worked at the site of the blast. I saw first-hand how desperately relatives of those killed hoped until the last moment for positive news. I saw their grief, their anger, and incomprehension. I dedicated a separate chapter to commemorate those events in my recently published book The Treacherous Path. If the horrific act itself makes one wonder at man’s ability to exert cruelty to man, then the response of bystanders like 78-year old Elena Golubeva, who happened to live nearby and who did everything she could to help people affected, reminds us of our capacity for compassion.

The fear among the population that these deadly and despicable attacks sow is lasting. People across Europe today cannot and do not feel safe.

In the Nevsky Express attack, it is possible that the terrorists were aiming for an even greater attack – the time of the attack was when two trains passed each-other with a one-minute interval. Had the attack timing been just a little different, the result could have been even more devastating.

One very worrying trend in recent attacks is the conspiracy theory response. It has become so routine online that it is almost knee-jerk. Even as the death toll from a terror attack is still mounting, comments online start popping up claiming that there was no attack or that it was an insider job to cover other failings (as was falsely alleged by a number of social network users right after the Nevsky Express blast). This ‘conspiratorial instinct’ is spread so easily online and shows worrying signs of eroding our natural first response – shock, compassion, and grief. In so doing, it also undermines the fabric and the unity of our societies and the efficacy of government security and counter-terror operations.

There can be no purely military solution to terrorism, but the military has to play a central role in a complex counter-terror strategy. There can be no purely peaceful solution to terrorism either – it would be naïve to think that if we talk enough the terror will stop.

Terrorism should not be treated as equivalent to war in any part of the world, as this would split our planet into ‘safe’ and ‘no-go’ areas. Whether terrorists claim their motivation to be in religion or a desire for political power, whether they use conventional means or carry out cyber-attacks, all acts of terror should be treated as international crimes that aim to kill and intimidate through violence.

We are all at risk. Every village, every town, every city faces this threat. The fact that your home has never been burgled does not eliminate the risk of robbery. Once a burglary takes place, it is investigated, if needed, outside of the given residential area in order to arrest the suspects, whatever motives they had been driven by. Similarly, the fact that you live thousands of miles away from the nearest hotspot or outside of big metropolitan areas does not protect you or those closest to you from falling victim to a terror attack.

We need to develop more agile, nimble, counter-terror information-sharing and policy development units that are able to respond to changing elements of the terrorist threats we face. These units should be international, involving cross-border intelligence and information sharing, and be focused on current and emergent trends in terrorism – such as the role of women or young people.

In all our actions to combat terror – we must never lose sight of the real impact this scourge has on people’s lives, we must be resolute as we confront it, but we must also ensure that, in doing so, we protect our values.

Ill-focused counter-terror actions alienate the people that we most need on our side. Because, for all the importance today of high-tech and cyber operations, a vital thread in our common counterterror strategy remains human intelligence, human cooperation, and human willingness. A productive dialogue here is delicate, and we would be criminally short-sighted to undermine it.

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Vladimir Yakunin

Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Head of the Department of State Govarnance of the Faculty of Political Science, MSU, RU

Russian business leader, philanthropist and Doctor of Political Sciences. Former President of Russian Railways. Head of the Department of State Govarnance of the Faculty of Political Science of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Doctor of Political Sciences, Visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, visiting professor at the Peking University, Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Vladimir Yakunin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics as a Mechanical Engineer in 1972. After completing military service he worked with the Administration of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Foreign Trade and as a department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. In 1985-1991, Vladimir Yakunin was Second and then First Secretary of the USSR’s Permanent Representative Office at the United Nations. Vladimir Yakunin served as Chairman of the Board at the International Centre for Business Cooperation, and was then nominated head of the North-Western Federal District Inspectorate of the Senior Control Department of the President of the Russian Federation. Yakunin was appointed Deputy Minister of Transport in October 2000 and first Deputy Minister of Railways in February 2002. In October 2003 the Board of Russian Railways JSC appointed Vladimir Yakunin First Vice President. In June 2005 he was promoted to President of Russian Railways JSC, a position he held until August 2015. Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of St Andrew the First-Called Foundation and Centre of National Glory, Founding President and Co-chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and Co-president of the Franco-Russian dialogue Association. He is Head of the State Policy Department, Political Sciences Faculty, Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2013 Vladimir Yakunin founded the Endowment for the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations aimed at supporting research in the sphere of political and social sciences, religion and culture, developing communication between countries on political and economic matters, and seeking compromise in cases of social unrest and international disputes. In 2016 together with the Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer and Professor Peter W. Schulze of the Georg-August University of Gőttingen, he founded the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Vladimir Yakunin was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute. Vladimir Yakunin has received around 30 state awards, both Russian and foreign.