Taking the terror out of terrorism

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This was originally published in 3 parts between 17 and 19 January 2017 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.

The current terrorist problem is, by most metrics, larger than ever.

There have been four successful terrorist attacks in Australia since September 2014. Outside of Australia, terrorist attacks are occurring more frequently and killing greater numbers. While the large majority of these have taken place in just a handful of countries, in 2015 and 2016 there were multiple attacks in Europe; South and Southeast Asia; North, West and East Africa; and North America.

Yet the terrorist threat is more than just the attacks that actually transpire. The actions of counter-terrorism authorities have thwarted planned attacks and prevented other terrorist offences from taking place. As a result, arrests associated with disrupted attacks, attempted travel to terrorist hotspots and other terrorist offences have become a frequent occurrence.

Thousands of individuals are currently under investigation for potential terrorist activity. In Australia, ASIO estimates indicate that almost 200 Australians are actively supporting Islamic State, with a further 110 overseas fighting in the Middle East.

The escalation in terrorism-related activity means that counter-terrorism is both a higher priority for governments, and of greater concern to the general public. As a result, governments across the world are communicating more frequently about terrorism and counter-terrorism.

This communication takes many forms: formal press releases from government ministers and heads of departments or agencies; media interviews or broadcasts; updates relating to the arrest or prosecution of terrorist offenders; and physical actions such as an increase in security agency presence.

The focus and framing of these communications largely reflect how counter-terrorism is typically defined: activities designed to prevent or deter terrorist acts. Common examples include updates on improvements to a nation’s counter-terrorism capability, legislative and criminal justice reform, additional security measures in specific locations, and (to a much lesser extent) longer-term prevention via a counter-radicalisation strategy.

In addition to prevent and deter, a third, critical element of counter-terrorism (missing from many counter-terrorism strategies post-9/11) is resilience: the ability of a system or society to absorb shocks caused by terrorism and reorganise while retaining its essential structure and identity.

In Australia, resilience has been central to counter-terrorism policy documents (if not actual counter-terrorism policy) since 2010. The counter-terrorism white paper ‘Securing Australia, Protecting Our Community‘ listed resilience as one of the four key elements of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. The most recent Australian counter-terrorism strategy document, 2015’s ‘Strengthening Our Resilience‘ made the centrality of resilience to the Australian counter-terrorism response even more explicit.

There are a number of different aspects to resilience in the counter-terrorism context. Yet within both strategy documents, resilience is framed in either a preventative context (protecting key infrastructure or helping society resist violent extremism) or a reactive context (ensuring an effective law enforcement or military response in the event of a terrorist attack).

What neither document adequately addressed was how the government could maintain and increase emotional resilience against the fear of future terrorist activity, regardless of whether this activity occurred.

In a climate where even the best efforts of intelligence and law enforcement agencies might be unable to prevent an attack, a counter-terrorism strategy needs to communicate more than the government response. It also needs to make the threat of terrorism less terrifying – not just reducing the threat but also reducing the fear associated with it.

A communication strategy that fails to place fear-reduction at its centre ignores what differentiates a terrorist act from many other forms of violence. It has a primary and secondary effect; a short-term immediate impact followed by a longer-term one that ripples across the public consciousness.

Placing too great a focus on the violent act may result in this secondary effect, even if the context is solely preventative and a violent act has not actually occurred. Fear increases even when terrorist attacks are being prevented.

Notwithstanding the recent increase in terrorist threat, in the Western world at least, fear of terrorism outstrips the likelihood of it occurring by some distance. In the Lowy Institute Poll 2015, fewer than one in four Australian adults said they felt very safe, the lowest recorded result in the eleven years of the Poll. Respondents identified the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and terrorist attacks on Australians overseas as the two greatest risks to Australia’s security over the next ten years.

This problem is not unique to Australia. A Gallup survey in February 2016 found that international terrorism was ranked the most critical threat to the United States over the next decade. In June 2016, respondents to a Pew survey in nine of ten European countries identified Islamic State as the greatest threat facing their countries.

And yet, over the past three years, terrorist attacks in Australia have killed just three people (excluding the attackers). A terrorist attack, while ‘probable’ on the National Terrorism Threat Advisory System, remains unlikely to be the cause of death or serious injury for Australians.

There are several explanations for the discrepancy between the fear of terrorism, the perceived threat it poses to a nation, and the likelihood of it affecting an individual.

In an Australian context, despite the rarity of terrorist attacks in Australia, this has not been for the want of trying. Australian authorities have prevented multiple terrorist attacks from taking place. Australians have also been targeted or caught up in terrorist attacks overseas, most tragically in the Bali bombings of 2002 that killed 88 individuals and injured countless others.

As an immigrant nation, Australians are also connected to other parts of the world in a meaningful way. Mass casualty terrorist attacks in Europe or the Middle East resonate in Australia, particularly given the degree to which they dominate rolling news coverage. Finally, even where there is no personal connection to a terrorist attack, research has shown that prolonged exposure to the associated news coverage can trigger acute stress reactions.

In addition to these broadly rational reasons why the fear of terrorism in Australia is disproportionately high, there is one overarching factor that applies in Australia and elsewhere. While other risks and threats are much more likely to be the cause of death or serious injury, they are perceived as threats over which an individual has a large degree of control (even if reality does not match that perception). Or in the case of natural disasters, over which no one, including the government, has control.

Attempts to use statistics to demonstrate that workplace accidents or drowning in the bath are a more likely cause of death than terrorism, while laudable, are likely to be ineffective. They miss what is unique about the threat posed by terrorism: that it is a deliberate act of violence designed to kill or injure by an external ‘other’.

An individual is entirely reliant on the actions of others (government agencies) to keep them safe from the threat of terrorism.

In this context, basing a communications strategy around government prevention efforts appears to make sense. Constant reminders that the government is taking active steps to prevent terrorist attacks should reassure a public that everything is being done to keep them safe.

Yet activity is not on its own reassuring or fear-reducing. The need for yet more legislation or new responses might suggest that up until this point the government response has been inadequate, or that the threat has increased to such an extent that more must be done. Rather than reassuring, this activity may ramp up perceptions of threat.

Central to this counter-productive reaction are perceptions of how competent the government’s counter-terrorism response is. This instinctively makes sense: the greater the government’s perceived competence in dealing with a threat, the less threatening it is. And indeed, this thesis has received some support in academia. A study from Purdue University’s Aaron M. Hoffmann and William Shelby concluded that when governments are able to communicate the effectiveness of their counter-terrorism efforts, people are more likely to conclude that their government is able to manage the threat of terrorism and accept reassurances that their security is not in peril.

In the context of fear reduction, governments need to use their communications to demonstrate their counter-terrorism competence. This is a difficult space to operate in, given the heightened threat level and increasing frequency of terrorist attacks worldwide (particularly as some of these attacks have utilised an attack methodology that is difficult to detect or prevent). Proclaiming the strength of a country’s counter-terrorism apparatus immediately prior to a terrorist attack would strain a government’s credibility, as well as having a counter-productive impact on fear levels.

Critical to the success of such a strategy therefore is minimising the ‘say-do gap’. The smaller the gap between what a Government says and does, the greater the credibility of the message. A communications strategy must therefore be based in reality, communicating competence because competence exists, but also being honest and transparent about the limits of counter-terrorism in the current environment.

Based on the events of the past two years, it might be difficult for French authorities, for example, to employ this strategy. Australia on the other hand, is a good test case for doing so. Its law enforcement and intelligence agencies are widely recognised for their competence and experience, and have extensive powers and resources at their disposal. Australia has suffered relatively few terrorist attacks and no mass casualty attacks on Australian soil. And in the context of the threat from returning foreign fighters or attacks utilising heavy weaponry, remoteness and a robust border protection policy offer strong defences. An Australian competency-focused communications strategy would be starting from a strong base.

If raising public perceptions of competence should be the over-arching aim of the strategy, the content should be driven by the actions of Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

One obvious indicator of effectiveness is the ability to detect and prevent terrorist activity via raids and arrests. It shows that authorities can identify those most likely to commit terrorist offences, and have the tools necessary to collect sufficient evidence to arrest and prosecute those individuals.

Such arrests and raids have been an infrequent but regular feature of the past two years of Australian counter-terrorism. Yet far too often, they have resulted in too great a focus being given to the terrorist attack that might have been, rather than the fact of its prevention. The most salacious details of the ‘terror plot’ become tomorrow’s headline. As a result, the secondary effects of terrorism take hold, even if (due to Australia’s counter-terrorism effectiveness) such an attack was never likely to take place.

Under the proposed strategy, the government should not just communicate details of this disruptive activity; it should try to place the activity in the context of a broader, demonstrated counter-terrorism competence, and (initially at least) provide a more limited insight into the often speculative attack plans of arrested terrorism suspects.

Competency in counter-terrorism is about more than arrests and attack disruptions. It encompasses a full suite of measures and indicators that include collaborative national and international partnerships, strong relationships with local communities, specific knowledge and expertise, and attempts to tackle the longer-term causes of radicalisation.

Wherever possible, the communications strategy should attempt to convey this competency, provide greater insight into the hard work being done at all levels, and, most importantly, highlight counter-terrorism successes across all of the competence indicators.

Communicating this message and ensuring that it reaches its intended audience are two separate issues. The media plays a large role in shaping which parts of a statement or press conference reach the public.

The relationship between terrorism and the media is long and well-established. To achieve their core aim of provoking irrational fear in large groups of people, terrorists have relied on the media to share their message and actions.

While governments cannot control how the media treats any given terrorism news story, it can control the frequency with which the media is able to base a story around a government statement or media release.

Take, for example, the tendency to provide a government response to each terrorist attack overseas, and to explain how Australia is addressing each specific threat. While understandable, there is a danger these responses create a ripple effect, helping to increase the longevity of the public’s exposure to the terrorist threat. And this is exacerbated by the sharing of responsibility for counter-terrorism across multiple departments, agencies and ministers.

After the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016, Australian news reports included separate comments from the prime minister, foreign minister, attorney-general, immigration minister and minister assisting the prime minister on counter-terrorism, as well as news of a ‘show of force’ by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) at Australian airports.

This is just a portion of those who do and should comment on terrorism-related issues. Others include the counter-terrorism ambassador, a counter-terrorism tsar, the Australian Federal Police, State and Territory police and multiple federal intelligence agencies and regulatory bodies.

News outlets know that stories on the activities of Islamic State consistently rank highly on lists of the most read and most viewed news items. In an environment that rewards clicks and engagement, it makes sense for media to seek to maximise the number of terrorism-related news stories that they publish.

In this context, multiple commentaries from multiple departments and ministers (while reflective of the differing responsibilities across the government) may be counter-productive, particularly if the messaging is inconsistent, does not seek to reduce fear, or simply repeats previous material.

Instead, consideration should be given to reducing the frequency with which the government talks about terrorism. One way of achieving this would be to create a centralised press release or response to a particular event or issue. While coordinating the views of multiple departments might be difficult, and potentially slow the process, there would be clear benefits.

Firstly, it would reduce the volume of official commentary, providing a standardised response that would be applicable across multiple media formats. The ability for this to be spun into different news stories over multiple days would be significantly reduced.

The multi-agency and department spread of responsibility also risks producing statements and responses to media queries that lack consistency and coherence. Different or conflicting messages allow the media to choose the one most likely to produce an interesting story or angle. And, as all good advertising agencies know, fear sells. A centralised message should be, by its very nature, consistent.

Consistency and accuracy can be challenging, given the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of terrorist threats, and particularly when the incident is ongoing. Reliable information is scarce, even for those ‘in the know’, yet the media and public demand immediate answers. Several recent incidents in Australia and elsewhere have highlighted the risks of giving comment on or off the record before key facts are known.

Shifting initial perceptions is difficult – once an attacker’s motivation has been ‘identified’, the narrative is hard to challenge. Misconceptions about the nature of an attack can add to a narrative that the terrorist threat is out of control. Conversely, violent incidents where terrorism is explicitly and quickly ruled out as the motivating factor attract relatively little media and hence public attention.

Governments should therefore be extremely cautious about labelling an attack as terrorism before a thorough investigation has taken place. Isolated (and notoriously unreliable) eye-witness accounts are no substitute for detailed analysis of seized devices, financial records, and in-depth interviews of friends and associates.

To counter this risk, guidelines should be put in place to ensure that the decision to label an attack as terrorism is only taken once certain questions can be answered, and that the decision to do so is coordinated and approved at a senior level.

Having demonstrated competence and provided a less frequent but more consistent and coherent message, the final element of an improved communications strategy would be to remind the public of their role in countering the terrorist threat. While the ultimate responsibility for counter-terrorism lies with the government, it can only do so with the support of the population.

August 2016 figures from the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom provide some indication of the scale of this support. The UK police force receives 3369 ‘contributions’ from the public every day, many of which are crucial to counter-terrorism investigations. In Australia, the ‘if you see something, say something’ campaign has similarly attempted to harness the collective support of the community at large.

While this type of campaign is unlikely to fundamentally shift an individual’s perception of threat and risk, empowering individuals and reminding them that control lies not just with the government may have a positive impact on perceptions of fear. It can also feed critical intelligence back to counter-terrorism authorities, increasing their competence, and hopefully perceptions of competence.

Communicating successfully about terrorism and counter-terrorism is not easy, and inflating the capabilities of either has real-life consequences. The challenge for governments is to identify the communications sweet-spot: increasing resilience to a terrorist attack without increasing fear of such an attack occurring. Governments should also recognise that in an inter-connected world, government control over their population’s response to a transnational threat is finite.

This limitation shouldn’t dissuade governments from doing better, however. There are ways in which communication strategy can reduce perceptions of fear and limit the extent to which the media can share stories that risk inflating the domestic terrorist threat.

Above all, the strategy should accurately convey the government’s counter-terrorism competence. Knowing that the authorities charged with countering the terrorist threat are equipped to do so should reduce perceptions of fear.

In addition to reducing the number of official sources to help ensure messaging is consistent, the language used should be accurate but cautious, particularly when seeking to attribute terrorism as the motivation behind an ongoing or recent incident. Finally, it should actively encourage the general public to contribute to the government’s counter-terrorism mission.

David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.


2 thoughts on “Taking the terror out of terrorism

    […] This is the second post of a three-part series. For part one, click here. […]


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