The first years after the 9/11 attack were used to wage war against Al Qaeda in what seemed to be a US affair. Soon it became evident that Europe was also under threat and while european countries never adopted a direct, clear military approach to countering terrorism, they did take measures and adopted polices that challenged longstanding principles of human rights and liberties. Additionally, islamist terrorism proved to be a network matter, with groups and cells participating in almost a “franchise” model with extensive communication powers through Internet. Daesh – the Al Qaeda successor that managed to become synonymous with middle eastern terror operational methods in Europe – made the territorial claim of jihad plausible even for a while, contributing to the creation of a refugee wave that challenged even european solidarity.
With jihadi terrorism becoming a priority in the world security agenda (although still other forms of terrorism exist), theories and models appeared and research projects tried to address the issue. The term “radicalization” entered the counter terrorism studies dictionary and up to now seems to dominate relevant scholar discussions and publications. The use of radicalization in explaining involvement to terrorist activity highlighted the parameters of process and life pathway, putting in the spotlight the individual, the perpetrator of the terror attack and member of terror group. Radicalization research has indeed served a purpose, that is to point out that there is a whole set of factors that leads people into involvement to terror and extremist violence. Moreover it expanded the discussion about terrorism beyond the levels of international relations and political studies that almost monopolized the scene in the past and focused in geopolitical and institutional parameters affecting the birth and life of terrorist movements. Expanding the discussion and focusing on the person as perpetrator meant that scholar fields like psychology and criminology began to contribute. A multidisciplinary approach came out that shed light to more aspects of the phenomenon.
Yet in a sense alot of the studies that explain radicalization factors have just brought again to attention knowledge which was already there, arguing for the self evident, that poverty, lack of opportunities, marginalization, a dysfunctional family, domestic violence etc can work as a fertile ground for breeding violence. What until now radicalization research has not shown concretely is the motivation behind a terrorist, what puts a weapon in the hand of an individual, making him to want to take lives. As for religion and ideology (in their extreme, fundamentalist forms), though they offer the context for expressing violence and are good recruitment baits, they have not proved to be the undoubted dominant motivational factor. There appear to be actors of the terror and extreme violent scene with no serious religious or ideological personal involvement apart from external appearances that serve the organization’s propaganda purposes; they pose to be fanatics, but are they really, or do they hide other reasons and personal complexes behind this facade? No complete answer to the question “what makes a person a terrorist” has been given yet and it is doubtful if it can be given in absolute terms, due to the perplexity and diversity of individual human behaviour.
The concern towards the individual player in terrorism has led also to the research of deradicalization as a possibility. Is it actually possible for a person to leave the terror scene and what are factors that can affect positively such a decision? Even if a person keeps the religious or ideological affiliation to a terror group, is there a chance at least to disengage from violence? Can the prison system and its conditions be adjusted in order to help a terror convict- instead of getting further radicalized or even radicalize others- to give up terrorist violence? Such questions as well as restorative justice issues that involve communication with victims have become a subject for scholar discussion.
Another aspect of counter terrorism research has been orientated towards practical solutions to prevent and thwart attacks. Behavioral profiling has resulted to the development of models to help authorities protect human lives and infrastructure on the spot, during the perpetrators attempt. Though a tough call, there have been successful cases of law enforcement interrupting at some point the terror plan, especially with the help of good intelligence and situational prevention measures.
17 years after the attack to the Twin Towers the world has not become a safer place and the war against terrorism has not been won. At least not at the extend and the level it was expected to have been won. Yet serious battles have indeed been won. We have not learned everything about terrorism, but we have become aware that it changes according to strategic interest of the organizations and can take many different forms. Operations vary in planning and simple, inexpensive ones, with the use of everyday means can produce enough terror to serve their purpose. We have also learned that laws and measures to counter the terror threat can be also become a threat against the way of life we try to protect from terrorists. With all the above knowledge we continue to strive for better security and fight against terrorism.