As terrorism becomes a fact of life, western societies must balance security needs with maintaining personal liberties
Canadian authorities on Monday charged a Somali refugee with five counts of attempted murder, after he stabbed a police officer outside a football match before running down several pedestrians with his car, in what authorities have designated a terrorist act.
A flag of the Islamic State group was later found in the perpetrator’s vehicle.
The unidentified suspect had reportedly been investigated two years ago for promoting “extremist ideology,” but was not deemed enough of a threat for police to pursue charges or warrant the man’s deportation.
The attack in Edmonton, Alberta came just hours ahead of yet another deadly terror incident in France, where a man shouting “Allahu Akbar”—Arabic for “God is greatest”—killed two women outside the main train station in Marseille. According to media reports, the assailant did not have French residency papers and had been released from custody the previous day after being arrested for shoplifting.
Notably, the terrorist was shot dead by military troops, 7,000 of whom have been deployed throughout France as part of the anti-terrorism Operation Sentinelle.
The Marseille killings, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, occurred the day before the start of the trial of two alleged accomplices of Mohamed Merah, who murdered seven people in 2012 in a rampage targeting French soldiers and a Jewish school in Toulouse. His was the first jihadist attack on French soil in decades and is considered “ground zero” in France’s ongoing battle against terrorism.
The weekend’s carnage, in turn, came on the heels of the recent bombing of the London subway and, across the globe, the Har Adar terrorist attack in Israel, in which a Palestinian shot dead three security guards outside the Jewish community.
“Terrorism has become a fact of daily life and one that is not going away any time soon,” Colonel (Res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, Director of Research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center—Herzliya, told The Media Line. “One of the main characteristics of terrorism is that it is a worldwide phenomenon, making experience in one place relevant in another.
“In Israel,” he asserted, “the government will try to do everything to prevent attacks—and helps other countries to do so as well—but there is a clear understanding that they will happen. The goal therefore is to try to reduce their incidence and lethality.
“It is like a disease that cannot be cured but can be lived with—you can minimize the effects while still suffering from the phenomenon.”
According to Dr. Arie Kruglanski, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Maryland and leading expert on psychological dimensions of terrorism, “The West has not come to terms with the permanency of attacks and the enduring threat that violent extremism pos[es].” As such, he stressed to The Media Line, the need for security to be strengthened in public places, to better train first respondents and for increased vigilance among the public.
In terms of the effects on society, Dr. Kruglanski contended that the “threat of terrorism leads to existential uncertainty…and this undermines community and encourages tribalism. The recent referendum in Catalonia, Brexit and the strengthening of right-wing parties are all symptoms of this.”
In response, he concluded, “social institutions should promote this awareness and counteract these tendencies through programs and initiatives.”
By contrast, in Israel measures have been implemented in nearly every domain both to prepare people for and to prevent terrorism. For Israelis, it is natural to pass through metal detectors and to have security guards check to their bags at the entrance to shopping centers, for example, a procedure that is even more stringent when frequenting business or government buildings.
“In Europe, this is still unusual,” Dr. Shay explained, “as people may think that this violate their freedoms. It is a matter of educating people that certain steps will be necessary to keep them safe.”
In this respect, France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday approved a new counter-terrorism bill, which would give authorities the power to place suspects under house arrest, search people’s homes and ban public assemblies without judicial approval; this, after Interior Minister Gerard Collomb confirmed late last month that 241 people have been killed in terror attacks in the country since the ISIS-inspired massacre in Paris in November 2015.
Gerard also revealed that already this year more than a dozen planned attacks had been foiled by French security forces.
The prospective law has nevertheless been widely criticized, with Christine Lazerges, the head of the state-run National Consultative Committee on Human Rights, claiming that the new legislation would permanently enshrine the state of emergency in France while “rolling back our freedoms.”
According to a recent survey, though, 57 percent of French respondents are in favor of the bill—with nearly 90 % agreeing that it would improve security—even though more than nearly two-thirds of those polled believed the law would limit their personal liberty. This is perhaps indicative of a gradual shift in mindset, a requirement Dr. Shay described as “a theoretical understanding that there will be a compromise between personal liberties and upholding national security.”
It is a delicate balancing act, especially in western countries where democratic societies are founded on “inalienable rights,” the fundamental freedoms that terrorists seek to destroy.
To counter potential disenfranchisement, Aviv Oreg, founder of the consulting firm CeifiT, engages civil society with the aim of empowering regular people to join the fight against terrorism. “In the West, many of the perpetrators go through a process of radicalization. It is a very lengthy one and there are many early indicators that people can spot.
“Such factors,” he outlined to The Media Line, “include secular people beginning to frequent mosques—often extremist ones—dismissing old friends, changing the way they dress or their activities, in general.”
Oreg, formerly the head of the Al Qa’ida and Global Jihad Desk in the Israeli Military Intelligence, believes that “everyone from educators to bank clerks to hospital workers are well positioned on the ground to spot any changes in people’s behavior.” He also advocates for the development of “mechanisms between law enforcement agencies and Muslim communities, in particular, to monitor potential radicals. It is very important to harness Islamic leaders in the fight against terrorism.”
At the governmental level, meanwhile, Dr. Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, says more can be done immediately and outlined a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. “The first and most important element is intelligence, and in this respect Israel is at the forefront of contributing information to friendly countries. The second aspect is technology, which Israel is a leader in as well; and the third is operational, how to train security forces to contend with terrorism.”
They are techniques and technologies that Israelis have learned and developed the hard way—and which the government has made a point of sharing globally, allowing the Jewish state to cultivate relationships that were previously unthinkable.
At the same time, Dr. Shay highlighted, “the main characteristic in Israel is the resilience and strength of our society.” This perseverance should perhaps more than any other aspect be held up as a model by Jerusalem, as a way of providing a degree of comfort and hope to those increasingly accustomed to having their daily routines rocked by bombs and bullets.