A man cries while carrying his daughter as he walks from Islamic State controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq. March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A man and his daughter flee Isis militants in Mosul, Iraq. When digging into the personal lives of terrorists, it is often hard to find any ideological conviction © Reuters

The lull in the tempo of terror attacks offers an appropriate moment to consider what might be coming. Terrorism of one sort or another, with a shifting definition, has been a feature of organised society since records began. Where it will go next — radical environmentalists, extreme Luddites, fanatical religious adherents, or some fringe ideology yet to materialise — is the great question for those who study terrorism.

The title of Christopher Wall and Walter Laquer’s book promises to provide an answer. In truth, The Future of Terrorism is more about the history of the phenomenon. Bringing together current trends in politics with their violent corollaries, it provides a concise narrative of the current state of terrorism, linked with history. Along the way, it rubbishes some sub-sets of terrorism research and reminds us that governments can produce the most destructive elements in a counter-terror campaign.

Determining the underlying motives and causes of terrorism has always been difficult. “Scratch any ideology and beneath it you will find a terrorist,” claimed Edmund Burke in 1796 in his Letters on a Regicide Peace. However true this articulation, Wall and Laqueur demonstrate that it tells only part of the story. It does not always work in reverse: when digging into the personal lives of terrorists, it is often hard to find any ideological conviction. Typical cases involve mildly troubled individuals who use extreme ideology as a means of bringing structure and purpose to their lives. Genuine ideologues are fortunately rare — but lethally dangerous when they emerge, such as Anders Breivik in Norway.

This is what makes terrorism so hard to eradicate. It is usually born from a wellspring of anger and disaffection founded on some basic failure or imbalance in society. But the people who advance it do not always seem to have a clear link to the ideology that they claim to be fighting for. And those that are selling it are very good at reaching out to a disaffected minority.

Book Review - The Future of Terrorism

One result is the fetishising of violence. In the absence of ideological clarity, terrorists latch on to purifying violence. This is evident in Isis’ nihilistic embrace of extreme violence. But, as Wall and Laqueur illustrate, it is not novel. In the early 1900s, the frontline of political violence was in Russia, where a campaign by social revolutionaries, that first appealed to the middle classes, gradually appealed to a wider part of society. As the authors characterise it: “They let emotion carry them forward and painted themselves as revolutionary heroes driven by hatred, inspired by honour and the willingness to sacrifice themselves. Violence was divine, and bomb-throwing was holy.”

Today’s extremes are nothing new; the concept of purifying society is something that has deep roots in our collective historical narrative. Worse than that, the authors write, “religiously inspired violence has always maintained an indelible apocalyptic flair”.

But consistently the biggest problem observable in terrorism is the damage caused by the response and over-reaction of governments. Looking to today, Wall and Laqueur highlight the fact that Islamist terrorism in the US is often overstated, in contrast to the worrying and often overlooked rise of the far-right. In the most forward-looking aspect of the book, the authors point to the extent to which the alt-right has become mainstream. The danger, they write, is that President Donald Trump “has made many of the alt-right’s ideas part of modern-day Republican orthodoxy. Though many Republicans will not buy into alt-right ideas, it would nevertheless only take a small grouping of individuals to stumble upon its thinking, to radicalise, and then to take up arms.”

This is a bleak future, where mainstream politicians advocate radical ideas that tear at the social fabric. And while it is likely that this overstates it, the authors highlight that while “terrorism will probably never end . . . its worst effects can absolutely be mitigated”. Not making hateful ideologies mainstream would seem a good place to start. This book may not sketch out the future of terrorism, but it is does an excellent job of showing us the long arc that brings us to where we are today.

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