Are we in the first stages of a new century of terrorism? The analysts argue over whether ETA or al-Qa'ida are the perpetrators of the killings in Madrid on Thursday. Yet both of these two very different terror groups could have carried out the attacks. We live in a time when terror attacks may come from militant Islam, secessionist fighters, animal rights advocates, lunatic cults, anti-abortionists or drug dealing criminals. In the age of global news, terror is communicated far beyond the scene of a bombing.
The 20th century was the age of mass killing by governments. Two world wars, the holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing and totalitarian regimes brought premature violent deaths on a vast scale. It could have been worse. A nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union would have added countless millions to the body count.
With the end of the Cold War, we hoped for a better world. Democracies displaced dictatorships. Occupied countries in Europe were free again. Wars were fought for humanitarian reasons. We could look forward to a civilised world where trade and economic interdependence made conflicts between countries unthinkable and unnecessary.
Over the past century terrorism has become a primary security concern. It has been used by states as a way of waging war by other means, or to keep their citizens in order. Groups have used terror to further a political agenda. Some were successful, and eventually moved into government, as in China, South Africa and Israel.
The success of these terror movements depended on being eventually able to mobilise much wider support for their cause, and this constrained their tactics. Atrocities generated publicity for their cause, made governments look ineffectual, and triggered repressive measures on the population. This was designed to increase dissent against colonial or authoritarian governments. However, if the terror groups caused too much suffering with large numbers of deaths, they risked losing the support of the wider population. The scale of terrorism tended therefore to be limited. The Marxist Basque secessionist movement, Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), has in the past conformed to this traditional model of restricted aims.
In 1995 the comfortable assumption that terrorism could remain limited was dealt a fatal blow. Aum Shinrikyo Aleph, a Japanese religious cult, released Sarin nerve agent in the Tokyo underground, killing 12 people and injuring a further 6,000. A more effective dispersal system for the gas might have caused deaths in the thousands. Even so, a fanatical Japanese end of the world cult seemed to be an aberration without much wider significance. We believed that a closer watch on the lunatic religious fringe by intelligence agencies should be able to handle the threat. And then came 11 September.
The development of al-Qa'ida and its associated terror groups is now much more widely understood. In the Cold War, the West supported groups prepared to take on the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan. Those guerrilla fighters were motivated by their own version of Islam rather than a love of the West. Once the Soviet Union left Afghanistan and the West lost interest, Osama bin Laden had a ready source of trained and motivated recruits. Militant Islam has a long history, yet the training bases in Afghanistan, which were funded by bin Laden, have produced a new phenomenon: large numbers of disciplined extremists with technical training in modern killing methods.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to track the development of this threat. This brand of religious extremism has its roots in the radical doctrines of Wahhabism, which were developed two centuries ago in Saudi Arabia. A central tenet was the ideal of martyrdom when fighting for the cause. Now the pieces of a terrible puzzle fall into place. We have a large international movement as fanatical as Aum Shinrikyo, with followers who welcome martyrdom, who have the weaponry of the modern world coupled with the beliefs of medieval times. Their stated aim is to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world. Here there is no possibility of political negotiation or compromise. In that sense, we are at war.
The succession of al-Qa'ida sponsored attacks around the world have sought to maximise casualties. Bombings in August 1998 of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania killed more than 300 people and injured more than 5,000. The civil airliner attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001 killed nearly 3,000. A year later, 180 died in the bombing of a Bali nightclub. The scale of the Madrid atrocities - 200 dead and 1,400 injured - is not out of line with the group's previous attacks.
Terrorism, with the aim of high casualties, is now a very real threat everywhere. Spain must meet such threats from multiple sources. ETA and al-Qa'ida can both bring random death to the streets of Madrid. Little wonder that leaders everywhere search for quick and easy solutions. The first responsibility of government is the security of its citizens. Yet, it may be time for governments to face up to the limits of their powers. They cannot eliminate crime, disease or natural disasters. They work to reduce the incidence of such events, and over a longer period attempt to tackle the underlying causes. Similarly terrorism will not disappear in the near term, whatever governments may do. Nevertheless, there is much that can be done beyond the rhetoric of "the war on terrorism".
The first and perhaps most difficult task is to treat our citizens as adults. Modern living is full of risks from both natural and man-made hazards. Yet, in the developed world, we are living longer and more productive lives. Terrorism is designed to sow terror. It fails if we refuse to be terrified. The millions of Spaniards who demonstrated on the streets of every town on Friday night showed the way. In Britain, when Irish terrorism threatened security in London, commuters revived the spirit of the Blitz by getting to work through scares and bombs. Travelling to the US last month I found every seat on the American Airlines flight full. People are resilient and cope. In the face of much larger natural disasters such as the earthquake in Iran last December which killed 45,000 people, the people have had to rebuild their lives. In Iraq, we expect the country to establish itself against a backdrop of daily bombings and killings.
In their fight against terrorism governments must co-operate and share intelligence. They must provide adequate emergency response to cope with the aftermath of terror attacks - international co-operation can help here as well. They must work in the long term to isolate extremism wherever it occurs. This will require much more generous help for less fortunate regions of the world. Yet above all else, leaders must resist the temptation to throw away our individual liberties in the hopeless search for absolute security. Coping with terrorism is the challenge of the century.
Professor Sir Tim Garden is a former air marshal and works at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College London and at Indiana University.Reuse content