EER was pleased to host an interview with the editor of the Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness, Alex P. Schmid, a Distinguished Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), the Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), and a prolific author and editor of books, journals, and focused on terrorism and extremism.
EER: Would you like to begin by talking about the objectives of the Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness?
Schmid: This Handbook has been long in the making. It has been on my personal agenda for more than twenty years – ever since I was Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna (1999-2005). In those days, I had neither the mandate, the money nor the time to assemble an authoritative volume on terrorism prevention. Once I retired from the universities of St. Andrews (2009) and Leiden (2018), I had the time to produce such a Handbook, writing six of the 35 chapters myself and inviting colleagues in the field of terrorism studies to provide the others. We tried to combine what is known about terrorism and its prevention; separating the chaff from the wheat in the existing literature so that other members of the research community would not have to start from scratch. Some of the chapter authors are promising newcomers to the field while others are old hands. I myself had started research on terrorism in 1976 and while I since then also have published on many other subjects, I kept up-to-date with developments in the fields of Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, first as Co-Editor of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence and later – and to this day – as Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives on Terrorism.
EER: What was the idea behind combining prevention with preparedness in your book?
Schmid: You cannot prevent something if you are not prepared. The two go together.
EER: How does the book contribute to the current efforts to prevent terrorism?
Schmid: While much of the current work in the field of political violence focuses on the prevention on radicalisation or on the prevention of (violent) extremism, this Handbook is narrower in its focus but digs deeper than the existing literature and offers “Lessons Learned”.
EER: In terms of terrorism “prevention”, what are the conceptual issues related to definitions, typologies, and theories?
Schmid: Too many to mention here: I discussed these in another volume I have edited and co-authored: The Handbook of Terrorism Research (New York: Routledge, 2011). There is no single theory of prevention as there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. As to typologies: The Handbook distinguishes between Upstream Prevention (reducing the risk of the formation of a terrorist group or organization); Midstream Prevention (reducing the risk of such a group or organization being able to prepare a terrorist campaign); and Downstream Prevention (reducing the risk of execution of individual terrorist operations by foiling and deterring these).
EER: In one of the chapters in the book, you focused on radicalization in refugee camps. In theory, these camps are under the control of non-terrorist entities: what is being exploited by terrorists to woo refugees, and how can this exploitation be prevented?
Schmid: There are refugee camps housing hundreds of thousands of people (e.g. in Kenya or Iraq); they are generally under-policed and corruption is rampant. If you grow up in such a camp and someone offers you money, a Kalashnikov and a life outside the camp, the temptation is real for young people, some of whom have spent all their lives there. The short answer is resettlement and education.
EER: How do terrorists use the mass media to serve their ideology and reach their goals? And what could be done to tackle this issue?
Schmid: There is no short answer to this question. I have published several books and articles on this question, starting with ‘Violence as Communication. Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media’ (1980). The problem has become much more acute with the rise of the social media which allow publication with no effective editorial control in advance. Unfortunately, many media exploit terrorist news as much as terrorists exploit mass and social media.
EER: One of the chapters deals with terrorism through the lens of criminology, since terrorism is by definition a form of crime. Is there a “broken windows” approach that can be taken to terrorism to stifle it in the early stages, before it becomes a major problem?
Schmid: There are certain parallels between non-political crime prevention and prevention of political terrorism. However, the “broken window” theory of crime prevention which posits a causal relationship between public order and absence of crime has been simplistic and applicable only for certain forms of crime in certain neighbourhoods. Situational crime prevention and its applicability to terrorism prevention is covered in one of the 35 chapters of the Handbook. It is at best a partial solution for some types of terrorism. There exists no one-solution-fits-all types of terrorism as there is none for all forms of crime (crimes of need, crimes of greed, crimes of passion, etc.).
EER: The fight against terrorism is, again by definition, a political struggle. What are the key ways this should shape our approach to combatting terrorism?
Schmid: There are more than a dozen types of terrorism (ranging from Narco-Terrorism to Cyber-Terrorism, from Single-Issue Terrorism to State Terrorism.) Terrorism is not a unitary method of conflict waging; it can be a strong form of protest or a special type of warfare. Key is to study the conflict that gives rise to acts or campaigns of terrorism and address the factors behind that. Like you cannot study war crimes without studying war, one cannot study acts of terrorism – which are often the peacetime equivalent of war crimes – without studying and addressing the social, political and religious conflicts that give rise to terrorism.
EER: Radicalization in prisons has been a major issue with jihadism, both in the Muslim world and in the West. What practical steps can be taken to minimise this problem?
Schmid: Prisons have often become schools for non-political crime wherever punishment rather than rehabilitation has been the priority of the prison authorities. The same goes for terrorist criminals. Some countries isolate terrorists from non-political criminals while others do not. Both methods have their pros and cons. Prevention should be focusing on the pre-crime and pre-prison situation of vulnerable youth and the same goes for radicalisation which involves socialisation and mobilisation to indiscriminate political violence.
EER: Terrorist groups are trying to develop their resources and skills in carrying out cyber-attacks, notably ISIS recruited highly skilled people from the Western world. Are these kinds of tactics having an impact in increasing terrorists’ ability to carry out cyber terrorist attacks?
Schmid: The possibilities of the internet are used to their advantage by many individuals and groups. Abuse in the form of cyber-espionage, cyber-fraud, cyber-crime and cyber-sabotage have become widespread. Terrorist groups use the internet for fund-raising, recruitment, propaganda, intelligence gathering and more. However, a cyber operation by terrorists is not the same as cyber-terrorism. I have yet to see the first case of real cyber-terrorism.
EER: ISIS in particular made use of drones. Is this trend of terrorists exploiting new technologies widespread, or does it remain more limited?
Schmid: Terrorists used to be ‘bombers without an air force’. In recent years, there have been hundreds of attacks by armed drones in the Middle East and beyond. The use of drones by Ukrainians resisting the Russian invasion has shown the great potential of armed unmanned aerial vehicles in warfare. There can be little doubt that terrorists will learn lessons from that – and so will organised crime groups.
EER: A central objective of terrorist groups – it is in the name – is to create terror, that is fear and anxiety, among targeted peoples and societies. How can states react, in their policies and practices, to ensure they do not play into the terrorists’ hands?
Schmid: Creating terror is only a means, not an end of terrorists. Whether or not they reach some of their objectives depends very much on how governments and societies react to terrorist provocations. If states want to avoid falling into the terrorist trap, they should not over-react in the form of acts of conflict escalation, they should stick to human rights and to the rule of law, they should address the causes of conflict and encourage mass and social media not to sensationalise and exaggerate the terrorist threat.
EER: There have been various laws introduced and others proposed to combat terrorism that some critics suggest impinge on human rights. How dangerous is this for counter-terrorism policy, or can more firm repressive measures be effective?
Schmid: Government reactions to act of terrorism ought to be guided by actional intelligence narrowly targeting and repressing members of the terrorist group and their sources of funding. Broad repression of members of the constituencies from which the terrorists originate is counter-productive and so are human rights violations involving detention without trial and the use of torture. That sort of policies only helps the other side to recruit new terrorists.
EER: What are the similarities between the UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism presented by the UN Secretary-General in late 2015 and the findings of this handbook? And what should be amended in the UN Plan of Action (2015) to ensure its effectiveness in countering violent extremism based on solid empirical foundations?
Schmid: I found it very encouraging that the findings of the group of more than thirty researchers whom I had brought together for this Handbook were largely in line with the findings and recommendations of the UN Plan of Action. The UN report was released in the last days of the outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who by that time was a “lame duck”. While its recommendations were solid, its implementation was left largely to the UN member states themselves. Unfortunately, many developing countries who objected to the way the War on Terror was conducted in Iraq and Syria, were less than enthusiastic to accept the UN report’s recommendations. Now that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are more active in Africa than in the Middle East, some of those governments might have another look at the 2015 UN recommendations. In the West, there has been a policy shift away from concern about Islamist terrorism to home-grown far-right terrorism – something which requires new answers. However, the issues of climate change, energy security, inflation, pandemic and the Russian military threat have pushed the issue of counter-terrorism in the background of the attention of most governments in Europe and in the United Nations as well.