Dr Dave Sloggett asks at what point terrorism really starts to win and create fear in society.
Terrorism has finally come to Sweden. A country famous for its liberal views and welcoming attitude towards migrants has, like so many other countries, seen a vehicle used as a weapon. Killing four and injuring many others. But the headlines are not quite right. After ten o’clock in the evening of the 9 March 2017 what is thought to be a car bomb exploded in Sweden’s capital city.
For the authorities, notice had been served. If the race riots in Malmo last year had not signalled the inevitability of terrorism occurring in Sweden the detonation of a car bomb was hard to ignore. And yet many did. The Swedish Prime Minister’s reaction to President Trump’s talk of terrorism in Sweden asking him what he was smoking now looks very foolish. It was borne of a sense of liberal-minded arrogance. That the values and belief systems in Sweden would somehow inculcate themselves into migrants and that terrorism would never be visited on the Swedish population. On Friday 6 April 2017 that dream ended.
In reality it had never started. It was just festering below the surface. Before this event, a British man Taimur Abdulwahab died when a suicide vest he was wearing detonated prematurely as he walked towards a similar department store in Stockholm. Seconds before his vest self-exploded, it was unstable, a car he had parked outside one of the newspapers involved in the Prophet Muhammad cartoons story had also exploded. No one was injured in the blasts. It was quickly air-brushed out of history. Swedish society, collectively, decided to forget it.
While such a small spate of incidents is hardly sufficient to create a major national reaction they nevertheless create a sense of unease. From now on for at least the next few weeks people walking around Stockholm will be that little bit more nervous. When a car back-fires, people will jump.
That is the very essence of terrorism. Arguably by conducting attacks using vehicles in Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm Muslim extremists have achieved an aim. Society is gradually becoming terrorised. Fear seeps into their psyche event by event. The question is when does a tipping point arrive? When does society collectively feel fear and how will they react?
Today it is fair to say that people across Western Europe are not scared. That is too far at the moment. Populations do not scare easily. In Europe that is the case. They hold to their views and have candle-lit parades and issue statements on-line about love and unity.
But that is very fragile. Self-defence instincts are powerful in human beings. Society can fracture. It can fall apart. It does have a tipping point. The veneer of resistance is one in the modern era that is too shallow. There is never going to be a Blitz-like spirit in European capitals. But the rise of the Extreme Right Wing shows how unpredictable society’s reaction can be. We are not involved in total-war, yet. But what could terrorists do now to maintain the momentum they have achieved over the last year?
One of the nightmares of the emergency services across Europe is that one attack acts as a catalyst for a spate of copy-cat attacks. Killing people using trucks is not difficult. It is a simple form of rage against society. The truck used in Stockholm was stolen from its driver who had left the keys in the ignition. In London, the car was hired a few days before. In Berlin, the truck was hijacked and the Polish driver shot. None of these attack vectors are specifically difficult to take from an idea in an extremist publication and bring it to reality.
Stealing a truck and using it as a weapon lowers the access bar to terrorism. From now on it is easier to become a terrorist. But does that mean that rate of terrorist attacks is about to take off? Or are their restraints? Things that hold terrorists back. The situation in America provides insights. Arguably in America that bar is already lowered by the gun laws. People have access to weapons. The right of self-defence is part of the Constitution. And yet we do not see many terrorist events. The attack on the night club in Orlando was not the start of a pattern of terror attacks. Radicalisation it seems does not provide a fast-flowing stream of recruits ready to die.
Killing on the streets of the United States is routine. It has already become part of the national psyche. When extraordinary attacks occur in schools or on university campus or in defence facilities, debates briefly rage about modification of the gun laws only to become bogged down in the basic principles upon which American society was built. Guns are an indelible part of American history. Yet despite that low bar of access the number of terrorist attacks in America remains low by comparison with other murders and mass shootings.
So, what does this tell us about what might happen going forward? Despite the efforts of the terrorists to lower the bar of access to tools to commit acts of mass murder the total number of incidents remains low. Yes, the geographic spread of terrorism is occurring. Molehills of terrorism are appearing in new places all over the world. So-called Islamic State (IS) will continue the fight and will use its new diaspora of nations, where it has an emerging footprint, to continue conducting acts of terrorism that test society’s resilience. But for now, the status quo will be maintained. It would take a lot of attacks by vehicles to make society crumble.
What will change that dynamic is when a weapon of mass destruction is brought to the streets of a western city or capital. Scenes reminiscent of the horrific images of children dying fighting for breath not understanding what is happening to them are not far away. Their puzzled look is one born of innocence. They cannot comprehend what is occurring. As they slip away into darkness they experience little fear as their bodies are overcome by the impact of the chemicals.
But in the event of such an attack, and who is to say that it could not occur soon on a street near you, society at large will start to experience real fear. At that moment, a tipping point could be reached. How society reacts, with people seeking to defend itself against a form of terrorism that is so indiscriminate and deadly is hard to predict. That is the point at which terrorists have arguably won. A single defining moment. One were history is changed for ever. A very dark day for society and humanity at large.
Presciently, a point perhaps captured by President Trump when at the end of his press conference announcing the attack against Syria in the wake of the chemical weapon attack ended by saying “God bless America, and God bless the world”.
The theme of the Congress training conference is: Improving Multi-Agency Resilience in the Face of an Evolving Threat.
For more information and to book your ticket click here: