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Monday, 09 May 2011 05:23

After bin Laden: The Threat of Over-Hyping Terrorism

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Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, various clever (and not so clever) analysts have pointed to the increased threat of retaliation by al Qaeda fighters against Europe and the United States. Despite appearing like a sound conclusion, however, the threat of terrorism is – and likely remains – marginal. 

It is true that only last week three terrorism suspects, allegedly with a mission from a "senior al Qaeda leader", were arrested in Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany. Abdeladin K., the 29-year old Moroccan head of the group travelled to an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in early 2010 where, according to German investigators, he received training and instructions for launching an attack in Germany. Not only does this show that al Qaeda is still maintaining training camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, but this incident highlights their continued operational effectiveness. So All things Counterterrorism’s Leah Farell tweeted:

It seems AQ’s pak based EO [external operations] infrastructure is pretty robust & they are sticking v much to template.

In fact, bin Laden's death may have acted as a trigger event for the Düsseldorf cell to speed up their plans. The raid might therefore have been just in time.

As well as that, the Düsseldorf case may or may not be connected to a wider plot that filled European governments with unease in the autumn of last year. As I wrote elsewhere, when it comes to the Düsseldorf plot, German security institutions point to Ahmed Siddiqui, a Afghan-German individual who was detained in Kabul in July 2010 and since then was arrested in Bagram, Afghanistan without access to a lawyer. Previously, Spiegel Online reported that Siddiqui was the key source for preventing the "Euro plot" in 2010. In September last year, media reports also appeared claiming that "Mumbai-style attacks" – attacks by several heavily armed individuals – were planned in several European cities. The situation was scaled down after US drones in Pakistan had killed several individuals that were reportedly involved in the planning. However, no arrests have been made.

While this is all a problematic development and one hopes that security institutions are capable of addressing it fully, recent days have clearly underlined the need to put things into perspective. The cover of the special edition of TIME Magazine, for instance, featured a picture of bin Laden which was crossed out in red. In the same way the magazine had reported the death of Adolf Hitler in 1945. As emotionally charged, and terrible, as terrorist attacks might be, though, the numbers of casualties of terrorism do not support such hype. The fact is that the likelihood of being subjected to a terrorist attack is anywhere very close to zero, whereas in 2009 in the UK alone around 2,200 people were killed by car accidents. This is not to say that deaths from terrorism aren't awful, but that things need to be seen in perspective.

In a Ted Talk well worth seeing, Bruce Schneier nicely illustrates that a good deal of the problem stems from the difference between being secure and feeling secure. "People underestimate risks in situations they do control and overestimate them in situations they don't control," he argues. The key problem is that we organise our security around whether we feel secure or not. Particularly in the United States, this has led to a mushrooming of security institutions after 9/11. The Washington Post identified that "some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States". Even though such development has not happened in Europe yet, many European states have seen controversial laws that reduce civil liberties. A recent proposal by the European Council, for instance, intends to create a "virtual Schengen border" to prevent "cybercrime". Distinguishing that from the "Great Firewall of China" might not be a simple endeavour. Accordingly, confusing feeling insecure with being insecure can have tremendous consequences for policy making and subsequently for the population.

The reaction of TIME magazine and others in overstating the threat of Osama bin Laden in particular and terrorism in general is understandable but not helpful at all. While terrorism is and remains a threat, the current situation might present a good opportunity to reflect on the measures we actually take to combat it and the way we think about terrorism. Giving up one's core values, including liberties, respect for human rights, national and international law does not offer a satisfying answer to combating terrorism. Yes, there might be an increased risk of attacks in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. But looking twice at the next road junction might be the better defence.

Last modified on Monday, 09 May 2011 07:03
Janosch Jerman

Janosch Jerman, 23, from the Ruhr area of Germany, will be writing from London where he studies International Relations. He is often complimented for reading 'all the news.' His shrewd analysis will give you a dynamic European perspective on international politics.

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