Decrease in Global Terrorism Threat: Now Look for Means to Sustain It

9 Jun 2010

On 2 June 2010, Insurance Corporation Aon presented its Terrorism Threat Map 2010. This map provides an indication of overall levels of terrorism threat per country, as well as data on the type of non-state actors active in individual countries. Fourteen countries obtained a lower threat level (Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Georgia, Jordan, Maldives, The Netherlands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland and Tunisia), sixteen countries saw the level of terrorism threat increase (Central African Republic, Chile, Honduras, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Papua New Guinea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, South-Africa, Switzerland and Ukraine). Overall, the map shows a slight decrease in the global terrorism threat level and a further shift in focus of terrorist activities to Africa and Asia.

Aon concludes that international counter-terrorism efforts appear to be stifling the ability of terrorist groups to mount significant attacks on the scale of those of 11 September 2001. Al Qaeda in particular is being forced to (re-)focus on building its networks in traditional conflict zones and established insurgencies in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia and Yemen. The networks in these conflict areas nevertheless remain a pivotal point of concern for governments and security agencies worldwide.

The outlook for the Netherlands is also relatively positive: the map shows a decrease of threat level from “elevated threat” to “guarded threat”, with the remaining threat stemming mainly from foreign Jihadist organisations and single-issue groups. According to Aon, this decrease is partly a result of the lack of active terrorists networks in the Netherlands and years of intensive counterterrorism measures. This is very much in line with the conclusions of the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD) in its 2009 Annual Report, as well as the latest Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands (DTN20) by the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism (NCTV).

The overall increase in the global terrorism threat level, although slight, is of course a positive and welcome development. But it also raises multiple questions, especially when it comes to the limited geographical focus of terrorist activities, the shift to Northern Africa and Asia and the manner in which terrorism is countered.

Does the decrease in geographical spread of terrorist activities hint at a strategic concentration of resources by terrorist groups, or is the result of effective counter-terrorism operations that forces such weakened organisations to entrench themselves in strongholds to make their last stand? There are plausible arguments on both sides. The decline in the strategic capacity of organisations such as AQIM and core Al Qaeda forces them and their affiliates to regroup and rethink their operations, not in the least due to dwindling resources.

Furthermore, the recent amateurish attempts on Western targets illustrate that would-be terrorists aren’t as well trained and well supplied as many feared. Nevertheless, core Al Qaeda seems very eager to claim these ill prepared and badly executed actions.

However, the focus of terrorist activity on a limited number of countries might have certain unwanted consequences. Most of these countries are not among the world’s most stable nations and many of them are perceived to be “occupied Islamic territories”. The lack of economic, political and social progress and stability, weaknesses in the application of the rule of law and absence of some of the basic freedoms, combined with increased terrorist activity, can have dire and uncontrollable consequences; weak states may slide further down the ladder to become failed states. This in itself can cause a further proliferation of violent non-state actors and groups that flock to the country as it becomes a safe haven for illegal activity.

But there is more. At least some of the countries that have been able to attain a decrease in terrorism threat level have done so by implementing firm measures in the areas of legislation, policing, the judiciary and intelligence. As a reaction to the threat of terrorism, a number of rights and freedoms have been restricted, the powers of the police and intelligence services increased and the operating space of civil society limited. This in itself may provide fuel to the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism instead of taking them away. Yes, the repressive actions that followed the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent worldwide concern for the international threat of terrorism have reduced the phenomenon to a limited number of territories. But it is questionable whether the underlying problems and their solutions have been addressed sufficiently. It is not unthinkable that not only terrorist deeds themselves, but also some of the repressive reactions to oppose these activities, although perhaps effective in directly countering terrorism, have in fact worsened the underlying problems instead of solving them.

Almost nine years after 11 September 2001, governments need to reflect on the effectiveness of counter-terrorism policies, paying close attention to the possible counterproductive effects of at least some of their actions. Reflection is necessary on the question whether the underlying causes –not just the visible threats and consequences of terrorism– are sufficiently addressed. In an ideal world, it should not be violent attacks that bring disagreements within societies and between groups and governments.