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Could almost anyone become a terrorist?

How focusing on ideology as the driving force behind global terrorism misses some real root causes that risk drawing increased numbers into violence

Professor Andrew Silke, Professor of Terrorism, Risk and Resilience, is a globally-renowned expert in the fields of terrorism and counterterrorism, and author of several books on the subjects.

When we talk about worldwide threats, the word “terrorism” is always high on the list. In one guise or another, terrorism has been a constant presence over the past 100 years – and before that. However, the tactics used to achieve its objectives are constantly changing as new groups enter the mix and as all perpetrators seek to avoid the net of global counterterrorism efforts.

We’ve seen this in the UK in recent years: terrorists are increasingly using vehicles to attack pedestrians, and choosing bladed weapons over bombs and complex cyber-attacks. Such methods are very different from the Al Qaeda-inspired attacks of 10 years ago, and have had a huge impact thanks to their ‘low-tech’ nature. Relatively simple and inexpensive to organise and perpetrate, yet very difficult for authorities to detect in the planning and preparation stages, there is precious little opportunity for plans to be thwarted before they have delivered on their objectives.

As a society, we are alert to these changes. From government leaders and counterterrorism experts to the person in the street, we understand that terrorism is changing, and that we need to change the ways in which we try to prevent it. In order to do this, we need to recognise the driving forces behind it.

There is a general temptation to try to understand terrorism only in terms of ideology: the idea that there is a ripple of extremism percolating in society that has infected a few vulnerable people. This is certainly the narrative that governments in the West have tended to cultivate over the years since 9/11, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Evidence suggests there are several other key drivers that are going to become even more important in the coming years.

World population

Four major global trends stand out as giving cause for concern. The first is an anticipated significant increase in the world’s population over the next century, from around 7 billion currently to more than 9 billion by 2050. This will be accompanied by a surge in the number of 15 to 30-year-olds in many parts of the world. Following a long-term trend, increased numbers will shun rural communities and instead choose to live in urban areas like towns and cities.

Experience suggests that societies with high numbers of young people – what demographics refers to as “youth bulges” – and increased pressure on urban infrastructure can become destabilised and volatile, leading to a very increased risk of extremism and violence. We have seen it in Asia and Central Africa, with the rise of groups like Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda and Islamic State, and we are currently seeing major cause for concern in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, with predictions of massive population increase in coming decades set for Africa and Asia in particular.

Global migration

Alongside a growing global population will come increased global migration, driven by factors including increasingly serious climate change. How to integrate diaspora communities into society will need to be a key focus for host countries as they seek to avoid a rise in ethnic tensions and extremism. We are already seeing the impact climate change has had in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where it has contributed to the emergence of terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State. Over the coming years, we can expect to see it playing an increased role in setting civil wars and terrorist conflicts in motion.

The USA

Another contributing factor is likely to be the decline of the USA as the dominant global superpower. While the US may yet end the 21st century still technically the world’s most powerful state, its economic power relative to major rivals has been in decline for some time and this inevitably will gradually result in a loss of military superiority. As the margin between it and other powers fades in the coming decades, there will be a levelling of the playing field, allowing a number of states to exert tremendous control and influence within their regional hubs. Initially, these rivals will gain parity only in narrow specific niches, but their dominance will spread as the century progresses. The result is that American foreign policy and capability will be radically different. A global war on terror as in the aftermath of 9/11 will be increasingly unlikely.

Natural resources

The fourth critical long-term trend is the struggle for control of natural resources. As economies outside the West continue to grow, they become increasingly resource-hungry. At the same time, demand in the West shows no signs of lessening. As competition to sustain supplies intensifies, the potential for conflict will increase. Clashes are likely to focus on establishing and protecting friendly regimes in supplier nations, rather than manifest themselves through open, direct confrontations between major players. The result, though, is that those supplier nations – particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America – will be increasingly vulnerable to destabilisation and internal conflict.

History suggests major global trends like those explored here can have a major impact on the proliferation of terrorism. Projections show these trends are likely to have increased impact in the coming years. Why then is the rhetoric we are hearing from most governments focused almost exclusively on ideology as the major cause of terrorism? In many ways, these other drivers are much more tangible. Environmental factors like climate change are ruining people’s livelihoods, destroying bright futures, and making people desperate. That unrest, violence and ultimately terrorism become much more likely should not surprise us.

One advantage of focusing on ideology is that it seems a more manageable factor. It is difficult to design counterterrorism policy around major global trends as they require a much more holistic approach to tackle them effectively. They are also longer-term threats, and there can be reluctance to think beyond what is immediately around the corner. For example, the US military has already explicitly identified climate change as a strategic threat, but the US government is not yet giving it the same level of attention.

It is worth noting too that while ideology is flagged heavily for certain types of terrorism – particularly Islamist and far right – it disappears from discussions of some other types. In the UK, for example, there is no real attempt to tackle ideology within the context of Northern Ireland-related terrorism. Prevent-type approaches are not applied in anything like the same model that is used in England.

At the moment, we are seeing a gradual awakening to some of the problems that lie ahead, which is encouraging, but it isn’t across the board. Of course ideology is a factor in terrorism, but focusing on this alone as the major cause of terrorism is both misleading and incredibly dangerous. Government leaders, policy-makers and counterterrorism experts need to stop shying away from engaging with the role of big topics like climate change, control of natural resources and global migration and work together to understand how they impact on the threat of terrorism and what will really work when we think about counterterrorism in those contexts.

Looking ahead, the question is not simply what form terrorism will take in the future, but rather what major global processes will drive it. What international forces and events will ignite and stir terrorist conflicts in their wake? If we can start to anticipate these now, we will be in a much better position to combat threats we know are coming.



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