Everyone who witnessed the attacks will never forget 9/11. What was seen, can never be unseen. In the mind of a seven-year-old, the confusion of being refused morning cartoons and instead, seeing the terrible, unnatural replay of a plane crashing into a building with a devastating loss of life, is etched into my mind forever. The watermark of a news station was the only proof this wasn’t a scene from a movie. Sixteen years on and the almost weekly recurrence of terror attacks have made us not immune, but rather ritualised in our reaction and interactions about the shared humanitarian grief that we experience.
The routine is all too, well, routine really. Digest the horrific news over breakfast, lunch or dinner; throw in dollops of mixed emotions beginning with shock and moving through to outrage and sadness, and at some point top it off with an unhealthy dose of desensitisation given the volume of terrorist attacks. We cope by posting a status, filtering a Facebook picture, then lose a little hope while reading racist and xenophobic comment threads. You know the drill. All of us praying for the best, yet expecting the worst and waiting with an uneasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs about which everyday, and previously safe, activity terror will strike at next. It’s easy to be drawn into the intoxicating mix of hyperbole and reason which saturates our mainstream media and lay absolute blame to minority groups. I mean, when you’re already covfefe’d enough with the current world order – who could blame you?
Looking at the genesis of the two most defining terrorist groups of our time, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), the west has played more than just the role of ‘innocent victim’: in the eyes of many (especially Islamic countries) we are getting what we deserve as retaliation for our own actions in the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq with thousands of civilians there caught up in the ‘collateral damage’ of war. Growing up in a tranquil Brisbane suburb, terrorism wasn’t taught in our Australian school syllabus. Maybe because our own governments struggled to classify, much less define, what was happening in this new world order. Charged with self-education, many within Gen Y failed to understand the complexity and political, social and cultural dynamics of this phenomenon, which is increasingly dictating and changing our way of life. Travel bans, home-grown political extremists and second thoughts when you book a concert ticket or head to a crowded football match. We may be living a new reality, but many of us fail to understand why.
The Origins of Modern Terrorism
Afghanistan, like so many other countries became the rope in a tug-of-war between increasingly tense American and Soviet relations during the Cold War. Before the War on Terror there was the Afghan War, where Afghani insurgent groups, the Mujahedeen, fought against the invading Soviets who looked to expand their communist empire into the Middle-East. The factional nature of Afghanistan made it a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism, rival insurgent groups and Western influence. The result – an unscrupulous and fanatical terrorist organisation was born within a devastated country, among people with little hope. Give it up for Al-Qaeda.
Prior to Osama Bin Laden’s celebrated death and the temporary ‘demise’ of Al-Qaeda, the west began to withdraw troops from the Middle East. But not before they had left a trail of destruction and discontent and a hotbed of hatred against America and its western allies, leaving the poorly-resourced Afghan army to deal with the vicious threat arising from another mercenary civil force in the Taliban. As the foreign troops left, factions began to rise again from the smouldering ruins of war-ravaged countries. Iraq’s Al-Qaeda division split from the ranks and began fighting in Syria’s ongoing Civil War under the name, Islamic State.
The New World Order
Terrorism has long been a tactical move in the playbook of war of the aggrieved and those who lack the political or military clout to attain power or the supremacy they believe they deserve. Since 9/11 this form of violence has been routinely adopted by extremists to attack and undermine the freedoms enjoyed by their stated enemy, the west and to incite a global jihad on so many fronts. This may come as a bit of a shock to the average redneck, but the aggressors haven’t all been Muslim terrorists either. However, with the latest string of tragic and confidence-sapping terror attacks in London, Manchester and Paris having been claimed by IS, Islamic extremism is now at the forefront of our lives. The divisive effects of these attacks have been reflected in the ensuing public debate with opportunistic right wing politicians such as Pauline Hanson (energised by President Donald Trump’s success) goading the Federal Government to impose a complete ban on Muslims, which has only served to feed the hysteria and irrational aspects of the discussion. “Don’t trust any dark-skinned man with a beard or any Muslim woman who covers her face with a niqab” seems to be their catchcry.
Sadly, many of these policies such as Trump’s travel ban, Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders and even the driving forces behind Brexit, have been indirectly targeted at Muslim immigrants, sparking Islamophobia around many western countries. These feelings of unrest have further fuelled the agenda of extremists and given rise to a new form of ‘low-tech, lone wolf’ terrorism. Gone are the days of mass organised attacks like 9/11. Instead we are seeing individuals or small groups, often ‘homegrown’ and permanent residents or citizens, committing their own random atrocities against completely innocent members of the public. The stealth and unpredictable nature involved in these attacks make it nearly impossible to police against, even when governments are backed by huge national security budgets.
Combating ‘Home-grown Terrorism’
Many home-grown terrorists are created with the same desperate mix of ingredients which make them impressionable and vulnerable to radicalisation. Feelings of isolation, lack of acceptance, financial and social deprivation and a feeling of insecurity about their place in western society, combine with a perceived need for vengeance, with often deadly outcomes. These psychological traits have been at the crux of nearly all home-grown terrorists over the past three years, allowing ‘at-risk’ groups to become a worldwide web and breeding ground for possible future radicalisation. The social collective and promise of martyrdom offered by groups such as IS attract those who desperately seek acceptance and notoriety, even if it means they’re being manipulated by a terrorist organisation. Impressionable and religious young men are being recruited either by firebrand extremist influencers or social media. Who needs a flash new Training Academy for Terrorists in Kabul? Islamophobia and its corresponding pitchfork mentality by the masses has only heightened these feelings of isolation and conflict by the vulnerable and increased the number of ‘at-risk’ individuals in society.
It may sound like hippy ‘peace-and-love’ bullshit, but recent academic research found negating feelings of non-acceptance as a leading preventative measure for extremism. I’m not saying we should hold hands around a campfire and sign kumbaya, but money should be invested into programs which help to combat the enemy from within, starting in the home. Dr Edit Schlaffer, founder of Women without Borders, has set up schools around Europe which teach mothers about the warning signs of radicalisation. It’s a radical move within a society hell-bent on fighting fire with fire. Despite the reluctance of governments to fund these programs, her schools have met with great success. Countering violent extremism in non-violent ways is one of the most effective forms of de-radicalisation. The Australian Government recognised this in 2011, establishing the Countering Violence Extremism Strategy. This strategy was designed to address the contributing factors which led to radicalisation, such as feelings of isolation and unacceptance. The $1.6 million grant program assists multi-cultural community groups in mosques, schools and sporting teams identify, assist and help prevent the radicalisation of at-risk individuals. While the program has made some headway, the allocation of just $1.6 million out of a $1.2 billion national security budget, shows there’s still a long way to go before these types of non-violent solutions are embraced by the Australian public.
Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda famously said the US would implode of its own accord, that 9/11 was simply the match to light the flame. Sixteen years on it’s sad to see his predictions play out across the western world. Divisions within society only embolden would-be extremists and at-risk individuals and lead us further away from a more tolerant and harmonious world. What may have once worked on the battlefield isn’t going to work on our home soil. We’ve been fighting fire with fire in the Middle East for more than 16 years, but maybe it’s time we invest more in non-violent solutions which help to combat home-grown terrorism head-on.