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How the spiral of terror has changed our lives since 9/11

Datum bericht: 23 september 2021


This month, it is twenty years to the day since the attack on the World Trade Center took place. What followed was the ‘War on Terror’, an unprecedented global fight against terror. It is a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, a war that many believe has led to the global curtailment of human rights. Willemijn Verkoren, associate professor at Radboud University’s Center for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM), sums up the past twenty years in her new book and discusses how we can possibly break out of the terror rut.

In her book ‘Out of the Terror Spiral: A New Perspective on Terrorism’, Verkoren makes it very clear that the ‘War on Terror’ has failed. “The War on Terror is like a giant, blind dinosaur that’s wildly thrashing its tail and doing a lot of damage in the process, while doing nothing to increase the sense of safety,” she writes. She has calculated that the chance of being killed by an attack in the West is as small as the chance of being killed by a lightning strike. Even so, we have made unprecedented sacrifices to combat terrorism.


In addition to human life and financial costs, anti-terrorism measures have also had consequences for society. “The most obvious aspect is the human rights that have been sacrificed. The American acts of torture in secret prisons and Guantánamo Bay are the most extreme examples of this,” explains Verkoren. “But the rule of law in the Netherlands has also been affected. The protection of our privacy has been severely diminished. We’re collecting data from everyone on a large scale, and people are being more easily detained with only limited evidence.”

“We’ve increasingly seen that people who hold radical views are being monitored even though they don’t harbour any violent plans. Certain sections of the population are now frequently being treated as suspicious by the government, even though it’s not been proven that they’re preparing violent acts. This is affecting our freedom of expression, and so you have to ask the question: Is it still allowed to be radical?”

Fourth wave of terrorism

During the last century, the West experienced several waves of terrorism, says Verkoren. This includes the anarchist terrorism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the extreme left-wing terrorism committed by such groups as the RAF in the 1970s. Even back then, some governments responded violently to terrorist attacks, albeit on a different scale than today. Verkoren: "For example, in Germany and Italy, a harsh response provoked further terrorist actions, just like you see now. In those days, we did things differently in the Netherlands: unlike other countries, we didn’t adopt any new and harsh measures. The government didn’t want to play into the hands of the terrorists and deliberately reacted with restraint. This had a de-escalating effect.”

Since the 1980s. the fourth ‘jihadist’ wave has been the dominant force in the world of terror. Contrary to what many people believe, jihadist attacks mainly occur in conflict areas in Asia and Africa. There are far fewer victims of terrorism in our part of the world. It is also true that in recent years more people have died in the West from extreme right-wing terrorism than from extremist Muslim violence. This right-wing extremism is partly a result of the great fear of Islamic terrorism.

Since September 2001 in particular, Jihadist terrorism has been closely linked to the ‘War on Terror’, the ever-present conflict that is playing out in several Middle Eastern countries. In recent years, the threat of and the fight against terrorism seemed to fade into the background for the first time in a long while. This was partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, which was considered a more acute danger by many people. But the United States in particular has now proved to be quite war-weary. In fact, the Americans had mostly forgotten about the original conflict in Afghanistan. The Tyndall Report estimated that in 2020, the country’s three major news programmes collectively devoted only five minutes to the topic of Afghanistan. That is the number of minutes out of a total of more than 14,000 minutes of broadcasts.

But all that suddenly changed in August of this year when President Biden decided to accelerate the exodus from Afghanistan. The Taliban then took over the country at breakneck speed. Verkoren initially found it frustrating that these developments could no longer be included in her book, although she believes that they also underline the failure of the strategy that has been used in the campaign against terror during the past twenty years. “The war in Afghanistan began in response to 9/11, as a battle against Al Qaeda. But in actual practice, combating terrorism with violence is often just an impulse for more terrorism. We’ve also seen this in Afghanistan: Bin Laden has gone, many other leaders have been bombed out, but in the meantime new leaders and groups continue to rise up,” says Verkoren. “Terrorism has increased dramatically in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001. The actions of the US have created so much bad blood that terrorism and jihadism in the region have not been weakened; they’ve been strengthened. And they’ve also expanded to other parts of the world, from Southeast Asia to Southern Africa.”

Out of the spiral

There is thus a violent spiral of terrorism and counterterrorism. “If we’re to break out of this spiral of terror, a different approach is needed. It helps to realise that terrorism is a form of provocation. It is a means by which a militarily weaker party can present itself as a formidable opponent through fearmongering.

Terrorists also seek to elicit a harsh response from governments, so that they can portray the opponent as an oppressor and draw moderates into their own camp. The ‘War on Terror’ consequently gave Al Qaeda what it wanted. By reacting more cautiously, like the Netherlands did in the 1970s, you can actually take the wind out of the terrorists’ sails. The media also has an important role to play. In the 1970s and 1980s, reporting on terrorism was more cautious. But over the last twenty years, every single attack has been widely publicised on television, in the newspapers and on the internet. And that’s understandable, because that’s exactly the type of viewing that provides ratings, but it may also encourage potential terrorists: after all, it’s something that’s sure to attract everybody’s attention. The media should be held accountable. For example, take the media code of conduct on suicide: by keeping details to a minimum and conveying a sober message, suicide rates have fallen in recent years. Every little bit helps.”

Science can also lend a hand by providing more insight into the motives of terrorists, so that policy can focus on removing these motives. In my book, I take a closer look at what drives terrorism and what this means for the fight against terrorism, both in the West and in countries like Afghanistan.”

Nevertheless, Verkoren expects little change in the short term. “It’s hard to break out of that spiral, and I’m not very optimistic about it. But we’ve all seen that twenty years of the War on Terror hasn’t made the world a better place; it obviously doesn’t work. And this could be the starting point for a different perspective. Terrorism often leads to calls for a harsh response. It’s terrifying, people want to feel safe. But there is a risk in life, and we have to accept that. It helps to realise that the terrorist threat to a country like the Netherlands is limited. How many of our rights and values are we willing to give up to eliminate every risk?”

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