Leader: The age of hyper-terrorism

In an open society, there is a delicate balance between the competing claims of liberty and security - so what do we do about terrorism?

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In the week before Easter Monday, Islamist militants carried out three “mass casualty” attacks on civilians of escalating severity. The first was in Brussels, where jihadis killed 32 people and injured more than 200 at the international airport in Zaventem and the Maelbeek Metro station. A few days later, a bomber detonated his explosives vest during a trophy presentation ceremony after a football match near Baghdad, leaving 41 people dead. The deadliest attack occurred on Easter Sunday, when a militant blew up at least 72 people in a park in Lahore.

Islamic State, which now appears to be a bigger threat to Western security than al-Qaeda ever was, claimed responsibility for the first two atrocities and the Taliban faction known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar for the third. What linked all three attacks were the use of suicide bombers and the deliberate targeting of civilians – rush-hour commuters and airline passengers in Belgium, football players and fans in Iraq and Christians (mainly women and children) in Pakistan. The age of hyper-terrorism is upon us and the danger is not confined to any one country.

In Europe, the events in Brussels have raised new fears about the enemy within, especially coming so soon after the Paris attacks in November, which were carried out mainly by home-grown jihadis. Though all of the Belgium bombers were of Moroccan ancestry, two were born in Brussels and a third was raised there. All were known to – and wanted by – the Belgian authorities, yet they managed to evade capture in the months leading up to the attacks and to manufacture and transport large quantities of explosives in the heart of Europe.

The Belgian government has been criticised for its failure to prevent the bombings and for the lack of communication and co-ordination between the country’s numerous security forces. But this is not a shortcoming that affects only Belgium: nations across Europe need to do much more to share intelligence about potential threats with other EU countries and to police their borders more effectively. As Shiraz Maher writes on page 21, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Islamic State mastermind of many of the recent terror plots on the Continent, was able to move seemingly freely between Belgium and Syria, where he recruited and trained European fighters for attacks back home. With more than 5,000 EU citizens having travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Isis, the group has been able to establish a web of sympathisers in cities across Europe.

In an open society, there is a delicate balance between the competing claims of liberty and security. “What we are witnessing is the rediscovery of an essential truth: our freedoms are not free-standing absolutes but fragile constructions that  remain intact only under the shelter of state power,” as John Gray wrote in the New Statesman in the aftermath of the Paris atrocities.

Over the past two years, Islamic State operatives have become ever more disciplined and sophisticated in their communications – the Brussels bombers reportedly carried mobile phones with no records of previous texts or calls and had also carefully hidden their digital trails, whether through encryption or other techniques. The authorities had little idea what methods the cell was using to co-ordinate the attacks and the accomplices of the suicide bombers remain at large more than a week after
the massacres.

In light of this, it is right to err on the side of caution and give our intelligence officers improved access to bulk internet and mobile data that could help them prevent future attacks.

Finally, much more needs to be done to improve the lamentable conditions in the war-ravaged Iraq and Syria and indeed in the collapsed state of Libya that have allowed Islamic State to thrive. The militant group’s bases in the cities of Mosul and Raqqa serve as command centres and training grounds for operatives planning attacks abroad.

Because of the absence of Western ground troops, progress will inevitably be slow but Isis is losing territory – reportedly 40 per cent of what it held in Iraq and 20 per cent in Syria. On Sunday, Syrian government forces, supported by Russian military air strikes, recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State – a symbolic reversal.

From here, further advances can be made and the international community, working through the United Nations, should increase its efforts to displace the militants. The need for patience and vigilance remains perpetual. 

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail