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After a terror-filled summer

The terrorists are trying to force us into war mode. We must be aware of our role in the theater of terror.


Since the start of Ramadan in early June, more than 1200 people have been killed in 75 terror attacks in 22 countries. The terrorist organization ISIS specifically called for attacks during the fasting month of Ramadan, and the attacks continued with equal frequency after Ramadan was over – one attack more bestial than the other. In particular, it is the symbol-heavy goals – such as a trailer that mowed down families as they celebrated National Day in Nice, and the beheading of a priest in Northern France – that leave deep marks in our minds. That's because terror is primarily psychological warfare. We are involuntarily dragged into the theater of terror.

The immediate effect of terror is fear. Fear is one of our strongest and most dominant emotions, directly linked to our urinary instinct – survival. Often, the fear is accompanied by anger, another strong and dominant feeling, which reduces our ability to think nuanced and rational. This is exactly what the terrorists want. They want to create chaos and a sense that we are all under attack. They're trying to force us into war mode. In this way, terror strikes far more than those directly affected. The entire people is greatly affected, and a massive expectation is established that the authorities must do something – take immediate action and eliminate the terrorist threat. The only problem is that it is very difficult to put in place effective measures against this type of attack – ie actions against soft targets carried out with simple weapons by people who are willing to die in the attack.

A lot of attention. In the wake of such heinous attacks, of course, various political actors also look to their exploits to exploit the easily influenced mood in public opinion. Examples of populist play are that immigration leads to terror, and that we must therefore close the borders; that racism causes radicalization, and that we must therefore take more measures against racism; or that Islam creates terror, and that we must therefore shut down mosques or keep Muslims out of the country. Such causal models and solutions will not lead to less terror.

The most important element in being able to carry out an organized terrorist attack is the capacity to actually operationalize an attack – that you have resources, networks, knowledge and a sanctuary for organizing and planning. That's what makes cells related to ISIS so dangerous – they have all this in the areas they control in Syria, Iraq and Libya. In addition, through its spectacular distribution of violent films, ISIS has succeeded in getting the media's constant attention. In this way, it will also be attractive for mentally unstable, violent individuals to link their mass killings to ISIS, and thus be guaranteed that their deeds will enter history. In the latter form of attack, the organization ISIS does not need to lift a finger, the dramaturgy goes by itself.

Rapid radicalization. One term that has emerged in connection with the perpetrators of the Orlando and Nice attacks is rapid radicalization. A report by Rik Coolsaet at The Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels studies the new wave of jihadists and compares them to previous generations of jihadists – including those who joined Al Qaeda before 9/11. The average age of a European jihadist in the years 2001–2009 was 27,7 years. Today, the average is almost 20 years. Ten years ago it took years of religious indoctrination to make people become jihadists, today it can take a few weeks. From the West, in recent years ISIS has managed to attract over 4000 warriors, mostly young men, born or raised in the West with parents from Muslim communities.

Ten years ago it took years of religious indoctrination to make people become jihadists, today it can take a few weeks.

The decision to join ISIS is often impulsive and unthinkable. Few ISIS fighters have a background in political or religious activism, and few have any connection to Syria or Iraq whatsoever. What the older and the new generation of jihadists have in common is the importance of social ties: cohesion, brotherhood and camaraderie. The innate loyalty and care for one another is a softer side of jihadist life that must not be underestimated, and which is just as strong a motivating factor for performing acts that are very likely to cause death, as the martyr doctrine itself is. One's death will help one's combat partners, for whom one feels a huge devotion. On social media, jihadists often refer to each other with positive terms such as "beautiful", "brave as lions" and "with a face full of light", and love statements are exchanged.

Tailor-made propaganda. The choice to join ISIS is thus more of an emotional choice than a rational one. Social ties with other ISIS members are often crucial. There are few who end up alone. ISIS also tailors its propaganda to the various countries. The propaganda aimed at Scandinavian Muslims is different from the one targeted at French or Tunisian Muslims, for example. In our part of the world, the quest for belonging, recognition, respect, adventurousness and meaning with life is played out. They target young individuals who our society does not want, who are criminals, unstable, substance abusers, prone to neglect and discrimination. At ISIS, they find love, both from combat traps and from up to several wives who are motivated to do everything in their power to make their warriors as comfortable as possible while making the ultimate sacrifice. Sins that are erased and the promise of eternal peace and salvation are enticing to young people with a turbulent and rootless past.

Our strongest card. The Salafi-jihadist ideology they cultivate, strengthen and play with is personal experiences, emotional and social ties. In addition, it legitimizes the dehumanization of the victims. The tolerant and human doctrines and traditions of Islam are discarded, or reserved only for the few selected "believers". The community that emerges seems so strong and meaningful that even people who do not have direct contact with the community want to be part of it.

On our side, all these cruel acts of violence lead to division and polarization in society. Then it is crucial to remember that just as the sense of community is the foremost strength of jihadists, it is also our own strongest card.

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