Twenty years ago, terrorism was a problem for only a limited number of countries and followed a relatively predictable pattern. Nationalist groups, such as the IRA in Ireland or the Basque separatists in Spain, had been around for a long time, used largely the same methods and had a well-known political agenda. It was not easy, but still possible to negotiate with such groups, divide them internally, and ultimately integrate them into a democratic political process. Other groups, more ideological in nature, such as the Bader Meinoff gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, or the Cellules Communistes Combattantes in Belgium flared up only briefly and with minimal political impact. In short, terrorism seemed both finite and containable. There was light at the end of the tunnel.
As we begin 2017, this is no longer the case. Terrorism has become a universal challenge. The number of countries experiencing attacks or terrorist activities on their territories is increasing all the time, even if the majority of attacks are still overwhelmingly concentrated in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. There are many more groups, increasingly networked, and some, such as ISIS or Al Queda, have acquired a global outreach and appeal. Given their agendas of extreme confrontation derived from religious fundamentalism and rejection of liberal, open societies, negotiation with these groups is inconceivable.
Their ability to rapidly metamorphose and adapt to new technologies, such as the Internet and social media, exploiting the key elements of the Western societies they claim to despise, makes it difficult for the international community, let alone the countries most affected, to come up with convincing, short-term solutions. Whereas the old terrorists focused on state institutions or representatives, the new brand is more focused on the liberal way of life and all its manifestations, such as young people in a Paris concert hall or shoppers at a Berlin Christmas market. This makes the range of targets almost endless, and the ability of the terrorist to sow fear and stoke sectarian hatred, with even modest means, all too easy; especially in a media environment which tends to hype the impact of these attacks, and give them 24/7 coverage, beyond their actual significance. It may well be true for political leaders, like former President Obama, to claim that “terrorism is not an existential threat” (especially compared to nuclear war, pandemics or extreme weather events driven by climate change); this fact doesn't prevent a growing climate of public fear, loss of confidence in institutions, and a popular perception, reflected in several opinion polls, that ISIS is public enemy number one and more terrorism is virtually inevitable.
In response, some commentators have asserted that we will need to learn to live with terrorism, adapt to it, and to cite the famous slogan in World War Two Britain, “keep calm and carry on.” Certainly more resilience in the face of terrorism is one of the solutions to it. Yet what is neither necessary nor desirable is that resilience comes to mean passivity or acceptance. There is much that we can do to make life harder for the terrorist, to frustrate his plans, limit the damage from his attacks, and dismantle his networks, finances and supply chains. We need not only to better share intelligence, but also experiences, tactics and modus operandi. We need to identify what works sooner and drop approaches that do not before they become counter-productive. While we seek to prevent the exploitation by terrorists of new technologies, especially in the fields of weapons of mass destruction, cyberspace, biology, new materials and robotics, we also need to examine how we can better exploit our own technological resources to better anticipate, and thus prevent, the planning, training and conduct of terrorist operations. The terrorist is good at doing a lot with often modest resources. How can we do better with the much greater resources that we have at our disposal, but where we are less able to pull all the various elements together?
At a time when a new U.S. administration is taking office and promising a fresh approach to defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups, and other NATO nations are also reviewing their terrorist strategies against an evolving threat, the Advanced Research Workshop that was held in Washington, DC last July could not have been more timely. Organized by the Millennium Project USA in collaboration with the FIRST2T group, Israel, and with the help of the TAM-C solutions/USA+Israel, this Workshop brought together many of the finest and sharpest minds that we have to analyze our current state of play, and suggest ways of doing better to fight terrorism in the future. Lasting three days, the Workshop was able to address in a most comprehensive fashion all the key dimensions of a successful counter-terrorism strategy for the NATO countries: technical, legal and social, and to look ahead with realism but also imagination. For this reason, NATO was very pleased to be able to support the Workshop through our Science for Peace and Security Programme.
To my great satisfaction, the results of the many expert presentations and exchanges are now published in this succinct but comprehensive volume. My thanks go to the editors, Theodore Gordon, Elizabeth Florescu, Jerome Glenn, and Yair Sharan, for the fine work that they have done to blend many insights and topics into 16 excellent chapters. To my mind, this publication is one of the best studies of modern terrorism and what to do about it that we have at our disposal. So I am confident that it will find a wide readership not only in academic or think tank circles but, even more importantly, among policy makers and government officials. They stand to benefit most and they can afford least of all to ignore the important conclusions and recommendations that this wise publication has provided.
Deputy Assistant Secretary General, Emerging Security Challenges Division, NATO