When Al Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon six years ago, America’s focus in retaliation was very much on Osama bin Laden’s organisation and how to crush it with military force.
Now there is wide consensus among terrorism experts that that way of thinking is outdated.
Western intelligence experts and law enforcement agencies are paying increasing attention to radicalisation – the process by which people embrace Islamic extremism and in some cases, terrorism.
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What they have found is that Al Qaeda as an organisation is less relevant than the organic spread of Islamist ideology via the internet – a phenomenon that allows people to effectively recruit themselves to the cause.
These developments present profound challenges for counter-terrorism efforts.
Since June, there have been two key events that have interested those who analyse international terrorism.
The first was the failed terrorist plot in London and Glasgow, and the second was the recent video message by Osama bin Laden – his first in almost three years.
In the first event, the botched execution of the plot revealed the suspects were amateurs, with little formal training who seemingly acted on their own initiative.
In the second event, bin Laden issued a broad motivational message to followers, not a specific strategic directive.
Taken together, those two things illustrate the nature of Islamic terrorism today.
It is no longer just about an organisation with followers who obey direct orders. It is now an ideological movement with a message spread via the internet to whoever is interested.
In the words of one of Australia’s most respected commentators on Islam and terrorism, Waleed Aly, it is a ‘liquid threat’.
“What some analysts are starting to talk about is not Al Qaeda – Al Qaeda is largely irrelevant now – but Al Qaeda-ism,” he said.
“It’s just an ideological symbol – people pick and choose and they take from it whatever they want and they do it via global media and they do it via cyberspace.
“No-one’s actually in control of this process – bin Laden is not in control of this process. It’s liquid.
“What that means is that in thinking about the ‘war against terror’ or any kind of counter-terrorism strategy, we’ve got to begin to recognise that we’re not fighting an organisation.”
Mr Aly says the word ‘war’ is misleading in this context because the struggle is not between two armies or organisations.
“What we’re dealing with here is not organisational structures but we’re really dealing with persuasion,” he said.
Mr Aly is the author of a new book, People like us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and West, and he says the evolving nature of the threat means governments need to adapt their counter-terrorism responses.
He gives the analogy of using a sledgehammer to smash a walnut. The current sledgehammer strategy is not working because the terrorism threat is amorphous: it is no longer a single solid entity like a walnut.
“It’s liquid, it’s more like a ball of mercury, so that when you smash it what happens is it reconfigures and spreads,” he said.
“That raises profound challenges for how we’re going to respond to this, and I don’t know that anyone’s got an answer to that.”
One of the reasons it is so difficult to come up with solutions is that radicalisation is springing up in such diverse societies.
For example, a relatively monocultural nation such as France has problems with disenfranchised Muslim youth, yet so does Britain, a very multicultural nation.
Experts say Australia does not face anything like the challenges in Europe, although so far, there has not been any credible research on the extent of radicalisation in Australia.
Strategy against radicalisation
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a paper on the subject last week, based on experiences in other countries, and came up with a number of recommendations for the Australian Government.
One of the authors was Anthony Bergin.
“I find it rather disappointing that we still do not have a national counter-radicalisation strategy in Australia, and I think the first thing we need to do is to get the Council of Australian Governments to address the issue and to embark on the creation of such a plan,” he said.
Dr Bergin says such a plan should focus on the use of the internet in radicalisation.
“It would certainly, in my view, look at the role of the internet – I think one of the things that anyone who’s studied the radicalisation process is made clear is that the internet now is a very, very key factor,” he said.
A recent landmark New York Police Department report into radicalisation suggested that radicalisation often starts with people who are frustrated with their lives or the politics of their home government.
In other words, it is not just about disenchantment with foreign policy, such as the war in Iraq: domestic issues play a role too.
The New York study found most terrorists are dissatisfied young men, who tend to be educated, middle class, and second or third generation immigrants.
Often, they are also often not particularly religious before they get involved in a cult-like terrorist cell.