Inspire, Terrorism & Crisis Management: are we analysing natural calamities or terrorism? – By Barbara Lucini

In the last issue of Inspire (Spring 2016), an interesting article by Muhammad As-Sana’ani was released, comparing natural calamities and terrorism. The article raises crucial points, giving a new perspective on counterterrorism, showing for the first time an interest in the possible relationship between the crisis management approach and its strategies and terrorism acts. This also means a change in the way through which it is possible to understand IS terrorism tactics, providing different strategies of counterterrorism: from a military defence to civil protection paradigm.

This statement has been made possible, considering the following aspects and their analysis:

  1. The word “calamities” has a long history and, within the crisis management sector, it refers to the higher impact and consequent damages that a threat (natural or man-made) can provoke. The use of this specific word assumes an overwhelming importance due to the connection with the religious, spiritual and mystic (or fanatical) aspects that distinguish this word and, for example, “catastrophe” which means an operative level of crisis management culture and operation. Furthermore, the word “calamity” represents punishment in many religious cultures (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and Islamism) and it was well represented in Europe during the Middle Ages. The fear that people felt for the possibility of a calamity striking their country, impacting on their daily life, was also a practical and cultural tool of governance. This is an aspect dramatically similar to the terrorism strategy and the use of fear to increase vulnerability both at institutional levels and on the civil population. This also means that we need to look at the cultural history of calamities, considering the strategic role that punishment has had on the public life of the population during the past and nowadays. The article by Muhammad As-Sana’ani also focuses on the comparison between natural risks and terrorism threats according to a sort of “punitive perspective”, but he also maintains attention on the impact caused by man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks. According to this view, it seems quite clear that punishment can be provoked by natural threats as well as by terrorist acts or, better, by the believers who have faith in the supernatural power of (cultural and/or religious) beliefs. It was written that the “Jihadi operations” are different from natural calamities and superior to them :“And I saw unto this that the Jihadi operations are distinct in the sense that they are unique and have something into it over America than the natural disasters they undergo (sic).” Another point considering the relationship between terrorism acts and natural calamities is that: “No people will be invaded in their own homes except they will be disgraced”. This is not so in natural calamities. (sic)”, focusing on the disgraceful behaviour of unbelievers and the difference with the natural calamities which are not – formally – aimed at punishment.
  2. Starting from the consideration of the establishment of the “The Department of Homeland Security” in the USA, there is a comparison between the agencies which focus on natural risks, their preventive and preparedness strategies and terrorism threats. The author focusses on the Jihadi operations’ supremacy over the effects that a natural disaster can bring after its impact, even if mysticism remains one of the leading principles. Furthermore, he highlights the role of believers to inspire and incite the Jihad operations while this kind of recruitment is not possible with natural disasters.
  3. According to this preliminary analysis it is clear that the lens through which it was possible to understand the terrorism threat should be changed. Muhammad As-Sana’ani demonstrates that they should consider the damage that a Jihadi operation can do as a sort of product or output at the final stage of crisis evolution. The novelty is the consideration of their acts as a crisis and a threat within the disaster circle in consonance with the disaster management circle and its phases. From an expert perspective, operations are normally differentiated with a crisis management approach, focusing clearly on the cascade effects and their interconnections as well as interdependences. From my point of view, this could be their vulnerability due to inadequate consideration of the cascade effects also present during a so-called natural disaster. Furthermore this means a lack of knowledge of the current civil protection systems and their practices (also at the European level with “the European mechanism of civil protection”) as well as an underestimation of the operative strategies and the communicative tactics considered in those situations. This could also be a good starting point for a different perspective on counterterrorism, contemplating a different approach to terrorism acts, focusing on the collaboration and cooperation of multiple agencies and the need to consider all the phases of a disaster circle. Further we have to consider different practices of risk and vulnerability assessment, including the social elements and cultural background which are at the same level as tactical operations.
  4. Another issue that explains their basic knowledge of crisis management practices, appears to be the level of impact that a disaster could have on the political establishment i.e.:  Jihadi operations have a great impact in politics.” It changes political decisions of a country unlike natural calamities which only affects the society and economy”, this clearly demonstrates the lack of knowledge regarding the social and political context when a disaster occurs. All along the history of disasters and humankind evolution, disasters and crises (natural or caused by human actions) have had great impact on political institutions as well as politics, influencing the reconstruction phase and mitigation practices. So, this observation allows two distinct perspectives on the tactical and communicative levels:
  • this message could just be a propaganda message to incite believers and followers to be ready for the next attack, supporting the idea that the Jihadi acts are the biggest threat a Western country can experience or,
  • if they authentically believe in their words, this means a vulnerability in their vision, in a context where they do not know or understand crisis management procedures clearly.

If this idea could be supported by events, in the near future of counterterrorism we have to include crisis management principles (as well as resilience from an operative perspective), collaborating with the military and legislative approaches. This aspect is clearly understandable if you look at the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris in November 2015 and in Bruxelles in March 2016.

  1. Another aspect of crisis management that has been underestimated for a long time is that represented by the planned aim of the Jiihadi operation in contrast with the “aim” of natural calamities: “While the Muslims continue to fulfill their goals and progress forward, unlike natural calamities which affect all and are from Allah, the Exalted. (sic)”. Furthermore, according to this statement it seems clear that they do not fully know the effects of a disaster or the so-called calamities. Each disaster represents the (sometimes latent) social inequality of a specific society and it is not true that natural calamities affect all: there is a specific level of risk exposure due to financial resources, social status, and social relationships that can be activated for a disaster response. This also explains the different social stratifications present in a specific society and the range of opportunities that arise during a disaster management operation. For instance, Hurricane Katrina clearly demonstrated the gap (in terms of access to resources and the resources themselves) between the American Black community and the White one. The interesting matter of this statement is the recurrent reference to the religious status of natural calamities, which come from Allah. We can also argue that this cannot be the same for terrorism acts: the level of exposure depends upon a lifestyle that is very common among many populations in various countries and this is the dramatic feature of the current terrorism attacks. (Thinking, for example, of Paris, November 2015).
  2. According to this approach we can agree with the pervasive fear instilled by terrorism acts, instead of the spatial and geographical localization of natural calamities.
  3. One key point made is that natural calamities don’t bring people together with a common focus, but even this is not completely true because it depends on a temporal scale: when a disaster occurs it is clear that a community of “believers” does not previously exist as in the Jihadi operations, but following the response phase, it is quite common that a social community affected by the disaster could originate one, specifically to ask for justification as to what happened and for justice for the people who died as a consequence of the impact. This is particularly true in the aftermath of calamities, thinking for example of the L’Aquila Earthquake in Italy in 2009 and the social movement that was created for the victims. Instead, what is clear is the failure of the preventive education initiative for natural risks, causing disaster, while their terrorism education activities and propaganda campaigns seem to achieve, more definitively, the goals they have prearranged, even if we can now count on a sort of “Reluctant Fundamentalist”[1] like Salah Abdeslam.
  4. The analysis also needs to consider that America is the main addressee of this message: “And among many other reasons, it is quite clear that Jihadi operations are much more severe in the eyes of America. I believe that the American administration prefers natural calamities over terrorism and Jihadi operations.” Of course, it is not possible to “prefer” natural calamities over terrorism and Jihadi operations because all of them have a dramatic impact on the life of civilians and the maintenance of the institutional, economic and political structures. Moreover, “Jihadi operations are messages to Muslims all over to return to their respective religion and to revive the obligation of Jihad which has been forgotten. Also, to expose America to its crimes and bring into view its enmity toward Islam and Muslims. America do not want themselves to be exposed for who they really are. Natural calamities cannot expose that. (sic)”: in line with this it seems important to conduct further analysis finding, where possible, similarities with European history and the terrorism cases in the last two years, even if I can advance an hypothesis that even IS prefers to “talk” again with the USA, due to their centralized nature, while Europe appears to be too fragmented to be the main interlocutor of their actions. That it is also true if we consider that the current European waves of terrorism acts have been against France or their French connections, such as Belgium, meaning that perhaps they are trying to identify a central European representative.

Finally, in order to organize effective and resilient counterterrorism strategies, we have to consider the neglected role of the social construction of disaster management practices as well as the cultural representations that lead the emergency operations. We have to turn our attention to the importance that a crisis management perspective and its principles can have on the counter tactics to better understand the terrorism acts and their components as well as the preliminary similarities that seem to follow these features:

  • the role of “terrorism education” (that includes recruitment, but also “military” training for the operations themselves) to inspire and incite the terrorism acts
  • including the principle of resilience from an organisational perspective, considering the terrorism organisations as, sort of, “resilient organisations”
  • the principle of crisis management and the disaster circle, including the variables of time and space, that need to be adequately applied to the current terrorism threat and its counter-strategies
  • the resilience, like operative concepts and methodological features, needs to be included in a crisis management approach for terrorist threats

In the article analysed, we have learned that they have a vulnerability on understanding our crisis management organisation and its historical and cultural background, so if we want to break the terrorism chains, we have to turn our vision and perspective to a different tactical and strategical approach, becoming more collaborative and basing it on the principle of resilience-scale measurements and their assessments, with particular consideration on the role of civil society and migration policies.

[1] Moshin Hamid, (2007),The Reluctant Fundamentalist PENGUIN BOOKS, Great Britain