Despite the consequences of transnational terrorism primarily being felt in Muslim majority-countries, fear and awareness of the threats is felt strongly in Europe and North America. Terrorism is a ‘communicative act’, by which we mean it seeks to send a message that goes beyond the actual destruction caused to life and property. That message is to be heard by three groups of people. The first are civilians either local or globally who witness the events. The second are governments which are called upon to respond to the terrorist violence. Finally, the third are potential supporters who are attracted to join by the terrorist actions. We will now look at each of these three groups in turn.
Transnational terrorist groups focus on the location of attacks as much as, if not more than, who is attacked in order to generate a wide message. The importance of location is demonstrated by the attacks in Paris in 2015 by the Islamic State group. Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world and the group targeted ‘everyday’ places – bars, a football stadium and a rock concert. This signalled the idea that anyone and anywhere is a target, increasing fear of and publicity for the group’s actions. This targeting strategy is in contrast to that of groups which may act across borders – such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, working in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria and neighbouring countries – but for which the local political scene remains key. With the Tehrik-e-Taliban, their actions, while linked to a global cause of ‘jihad’, are local. They target beauty shops, police stations and market squares because they see these as opposed to the way of life they want to establish in their lands. Boko Haram too targets villages across different countries’ borders and punishes those who don’t conform to their new laws, which are about ‘everyday living’ even as they claim allegiance to a wider global political cause. However, this is not to say these groups do not target individuals. The Tehrik-e-Taliban tried to kill the activist Malala Yousafzai because of her support for girls’ education and Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of Christian schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria. Schools are targets because they are seen to promote state agendas, and schoolgirls are targets because these groups wish girls to have an Islamic education that focuses exclusively on domestic responsibilities and learning the Quran. Malala Yousafzai has gone on to campaign against this understanding of Islamic education and promote women’s schooling the world over, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. In addition, the Nigerian military was forced to take a more active stance against Boko Haram due to global outrage over the kidnappings. Thus, while these are ‘local’ causes and local targets, they are global and transnational in their wider effects.
The second feature of transnational terrorism is that activities are sometimes designed to provoke states into action as well as generate fear in populations. Attacks are frequently symbolic in purpose and often have a high casualty rate for maximum shock value. It was inconceivable, for example, that the United States would not respond to the 9/11 attacks or that France would not react to the Paris attacks. Here, attacks are designed to provoke states into doing something to prove they are protecting civilians, even when that action may undermine the values they live by or end up being so costly that popular support for government is eroded. This terrorist strategy was first formulated by Che Guevara, a leader of revolutionary communist movements in Cuba against the American-sponsored authoritarian Batista government. The approach is known as ‘focoist’ (or focoism), whereby terrorists imagine themselves as the ‘vanguard’ of popular revolutions. The Uyghur ethnoseparatist groups (which now have links to regional Islamist terrorism) operating in China’s north-western provinces have been applying this strategy for over a decade. Their attacks are seen to have provoked ever-greater Chinese crackdowns on the civil liberties of people living in affected provinces in order to provide security and to demonstrate the strength of the central government. Yet the government has failed to reduce the number or severity of the attacks and also failed to stop people joining the separatists. Some have argued that European counter-terrorism policies are more reactionary than effective because they follow the same pattern of government suppression of human rights in the name of security as the Chinese example. The disproportionately felt impact of counter-terrorism legislation on Muslim communities across Europe is, critics argue, providing more propaganda for the Islamist groups’ recruitment campaigns.
The expectation of many terrorist groups is that, in time, ever greater numbers will realise they are oppressed and join resistance groups or that, with sufficient coverage, the international community will come to support their cause. The example of Palestine underlines this well, since, despite decades of political struggle – which has included terrorist tactics – to establish Palestinian independence from Israel, the Palestinian cause remains relatively popular domestically and internationally. On the other hand, rather than creating something (an independent Palestine), this tactic may also be used to destroy something. Here, we can point to the 9/11 attacks and the many years of terrorism that followed as bait to lure the United States into engagement in the Middle East as a means of undermining their political and economic stability. By this logic, first Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State group pursue strategies that aim to grind down the global power and image of the United States so that it may no longer be willing or able to interfere in Muslim lands.
In the past, countries have managed to resist reacting to these sorts of violent action by terrorists. Consider Italy’s reaction to the assassination and kidnapping of the popular prime minister Aldo Moro by the socialist Red Brigades: during the investigation of Moro’s kidnapping, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa reportedly responded to a member of the security services who suggested torturing a suspected Brigade member, ‘Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture’ (Dershowitz 2003, 134). However, with public and media scrutiny operating at speed and levels not previously encountered, the ability of governments, especially democratically elected ones, to resist pressure is significantly reduced. The crossover with popular culture is interesting too, with military ethicists reporting a ‘Jack Bauer effect’ – referring to the tendency of this character in the TV series ‘24’ to torture individuals as time runs out to stop a terrorist attack. Bauer’s tactics often reflect (albeit in dramatised form) the enhanced interrogation tools that many governments have used in response to terrorism. Pressure is also placed on governments by allies and neighbours demanding support and action. For example, there has been a considerable chilling of relations between Thailand and Malaysia since 2004 because Thai authorities believe Malaysia to be turning a blind eye to Thai Muslim separatists operating across the border.
Finally, the third reason for terrorist violence is to recruit members and reinforce loyalty and membership among existing supporters. Extremely violent or highly technical attacks demonstrate the capability and will of the group carrying out the attack and its overall support. We see support for Islamic State coming from citizens in nations of every region because their attacks are dramatic and spectacular, which raises the profile of the group and demonstrates their military mastery. Mandaville (2007) calls this the myth of success. Islamic State group videos and propaganda frequently assert the weakness of the opposition as demonstrated by their deaths. The videos dehumanise their opposition, treating them like cattle or computer game characters in first-person shooters. The use of videos that mimic computer game imagery is supplemented by Islamic State creating its own ‘skins’ or ‘maps’ for popular computer games. In its version of Grand Theft Auto, the city is Baghdad and the people opposing you are the police and the military. As one British supporter said of their life in Syria under Islamic State, ‘it’s better than that game, Call of Duty’. Members say how they will ‘respawn in Jannah’ – ‘respawn’ being a gamer word for ‘reincarnation’ or ‘being reborn’, and Jannah is paradise in Islam. This is clearly designed to recruit and sustain membership by linking to Western masculine experiences (Kang 2014).