Europe Already Defeated Radical Terrorists—120 Years Ago

Lessons from the age of the "bomb-throwing anarchist."

First: do not overreact. Second: do not, through fear, hand over excessive power to the state.

As difficult as that might be in the wake of horrific tragedies like Paris, we must ensure we respond with proportionality in mind. We cannot overreact in knee-jerk fashion in our own societies. Islamic State will not only be hoping for such a response, but confidently expecting it.

In the February issue of its flagship magazine, Dabiq, Islamic State wrote of polarizing the world by destroying its greatest threat, the “grayzone.” That liminal space in which young Frenchmen could be both Muslims and good citizens of the Republic, without any inherent contradiction. IS anticipated that provocative terrorist attacks, like the one in Paris, would goad the French towards overreaction and “further bring division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere.” Western Muslims would then be forced to make “one of two choices”: between apostasy or IS’ bastardized version of belief. The article even cited, rather approvingly, George W. Bush’s central dictum that underscored the Global War on Terror: “The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”

State counterterrorism responses that disproportionately target Muslim citizens, as they inevitably will, risk simply reinforcing the Manichaean black-and-white worldview of the fanatics themselves, playing directly into their hands.

There is no better way to push young French Muslims toward IS’ narrative of belonging than to introduce a host of security responses that make them feel even less a part of French society than they already do.

We also cannot allow the state to overreact, because naturally, it proves incredibly corrosive to our own freedoms and democracy. From the NSA’s unprecedented mass surveillance regime to the creation of legal black holes like Guantanamo, and from extrajudicial assassination by drones to the sanctioning of torture, we know precisely where the “threat of terror and tonic of security” can lead us. We all tacitly accepted these measures after the terrorist outrages on 9/11.

When we are afraid, we will pretty much agree to anything.

And of course, many things that we do not agree to nevertheless end up on the roster too. This is the danger of the slippery slope, or function creep. Big data algorithms, used to decide who is placed on the drone strike kill list abroad in Yemen, might suddenly find their way into predicting civil unrest and dissent in places at home like Ferguson. We might not have approved of the latter, but by then it is too late—the genie’s out of the proverbial bottle.

If we want to tackle the growing menace of jihadist terrorism, but in the process not lose sight of who we fundamentally are as open, liberal, democratic societies, we would be wise to heed the experience of dealing with the anarchist scourge from over a century ago. History might not repeat itself, but it certainly shows a lack of originality sometimes.

Dr. Akil N. Awan is Associate Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr. Awan is regularly consulted by government bodies, think tanks, media and other organizations in his fields of expertise, and has served in an advisory capacity to the UK Home Office, the Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Military, the UNDP, Council of Europe and the OSCE among others. Most recently, he served as special advisor on Radicalization to the UK Parliament and as expert advisor on Youth Radicalization to the United Nations. He is Founder and Chair of the Political Science Association’s Specialist Group on Political Violence & Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter: @Akil_N_Awan

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Van Ham Kunstauktionen