On Newshub Nation Mike Wesley-Smith interviews terrorism expert Professor Martha Crenshaw
Lisa Owen: The terror threat posed by Isis may be waning, but does that mean terrorism itself is declining? And is our
small area of the Pacific safe or just as much at risk? Martha Crenshaw is a senior fellow at the Center for
International Security and Co-operation at Stanford University. Mike Wesley-Smith asked her what is classed as terrorism
Martha Crenshaw: Well, that’s a very contentious question, so it’s a good thing you started off with it. We think of terrorism as a form
of violent communication. It typically is directed at civilian targets. It’s intended to shock. It’s intended sometimes
to intimidate, sometimes to motivate enthusiasm on the part of supporters. And it depends largely on a psychological
effect on a watching audience. So it’s designed with that purpose in mind. So that really distinguishes it from other
forms of political violence, but I think it’s important to remember it is a form of political violence.
Right, so it’s really about promulgating the message.
What role does the media play? Do they become unwitting agents of extending that message out to a wider audience?
Well, there’s certainly been a widespread perception that the media are the lifeblood of terrorism. I think Margaret
Thatcher famously said something like that with regard to the IRA many, many years ago. It’s actually a mixed
relationship. Many terrorist groups are not sympathetic to the mainstream media. They want attention from the media, but
they don’t trust it entirely. They’ve been known to attack journalists. I’m sure we’re all familiar with many instances
of that. And what you see these days is they provide their own media through — very easily — social media, YouTube. They
record their own attacks, and they broadcast them through their own websites and media channels. So I think it would be
unfair to say that the mainstream media is an instrument of these actors.
Okay. Going back to the definition of terrorism, I just want to look at some recent examples. We had the terrible
massacre in Las Vegas perpetrated by Stephen Paddock — I think 58 people were killed; more than 500 were injured. Would
analysts consider that an act of terrorism?
That’s a really good case to bring up. There is a database called the Global Terrorism Database that’s held at the
University of Maryland, and they have defined that incident as an act of terrorism. And some of us questioned that
definition. Their argument was that the perpetrator did issue some statements that indicated that he had a political
motive, but I think most people think that his motive is unknown. The police certainly said that they found his motive
to be unknown. And this points to a basic problem in deciding whether something is terrorism - you don’t always know
someone’s motivation. You know what they did, you know that it resembles many acts of terrorism, but you don’t know
their motivation, so you’re sort of hampered. But in this case, after fairly careful investigation, they decided that it
was terrorism. But many people disagree.
And then in the United Kingdom, you had the Finsbury Park incident in June 2017, where a van was driven into a group of
people outside a mosque by a person saying, they ‘want to kill all Muslims’ and ‘this is for London Bridge’. Would
analysts consider that an act of terrorism?
I think, in most cases, they would. And I think that many people feel that sometimes defining something as terrorism is
biased, that we are all inclined to label our opponents as terrorists and not say that a group with which we might agree
is a terrorist. In this case, of course, it was an anti-Muslim attack outside the Finsbury Park mosque, but, certainly,
that — I think by any standard — would be regarded as an act of terrorism. The perpetrator announced his purpose. London
Bridge, also, I think that most people think that was an act of terrorism. And in particular, the fact that some
well-known, well-established organisations, such as the Islamic State, have deliberately called for individuals to, in
effect, take up arms on their own and act in any way they can — this leads us more and more to think these are, indeed,
acts of terrorism that have been inspired by these appeals.
Reading through your research, you said that foreign intervention in internal conflicts can contribute to the rise of
terrorism. And some would say, ‘Well, what’s the alternative? Do countries just stand by and do nothing?’
Well, I think the thing is that a country that wants to intervene has to consider this to be one of the risks they’re
going to run. That through intervention, they may, in effect, incur the wrath of a group like al-Qaeda or the Islamic
State or one of their many affiliates around the world. So the government simply says, ‘All right, here are the costs
and the benefits to intervention, and it’s worth the cost. We realise that this will be something that our public might
suffer from, but we think that the intervention is sufficiently important. We’re going to go ahead'. The important thing
is not to ignore the fact that it’s going to create this risk.
Yes. And Syria’s obviously the most recent quagmire that the international community is struggling with. In your view,
is there any particular strategy that they should be using that they haven’t implemented to try and solve what’s going
I think that Syria, as you say, is, indeed, a quagmire with so many different outside interventions, not just one side —
the West or the United States — but many different outside actors — Russia, Iran, even Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Jordan,
the Emirates — and at cross purposes as well. So it’s enormously complicated. I think that there needs to be some sort
of settlement of the conflict. I don’t think there’s going to be a solution that is entirely satisfactory to Western
governments, particularly the United States. But it appears to me now that Russia and Iran have the initiative, joined
by Turkey. And it looks to me like there’s going to be some sort of settlement that will maintain Assad in power. Not
what the United States wanted, but I think the American administration very badly wants to get out of Syria.
And I think in the context of 9/11, you’ve talked about the tendency with which some governments have overreacted to
domestic attacks. And, indeed, that’s been a stated objective of terrorism. How should governments respond to attacks
post-9/11 and the lessons we’ve learnt from that?
Well, I think, first, they can step back and take a very deep breath and think, ‘All right, what are my options for
responding? Do I need to respond within the next 24 hours with a bombing strike?’ Or might decision-makers take a little
more time, think through different options, think of ways of responding that are perhaps less attention worthy, more
subtle, more behind-the-scenes and think of a way to deal with it. I think governments, particularly democratic
governments with a public to answer to, are inclined to act very quickly without thinking through their options and
thinking through the long-term effects of what they might do. So this is not advice that governments typically welcome —
be patient, think through your options, take some time, you don’t have to respond right away. But sometimes I think
governments exaggerate the amount of public pressure that’s going to be brought to bear in such an incident. And there
is opportunity to educate the public when something happens.
What do you consider is the biggest terror threat in the Asia-Pacific region — the area which we call home?
Well, I think for some countries like Australia, it remains Islamist-inspired, jihadist-inspired groups, and there are
many of them, as we all know. Certainly, in countries like the Philippines and, to a certain extent, Indonesia, it
remains a problem. We’re still concerned with the ability of the central groups, like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda,
to, in effect, metastasize around the world. It’s not an existing threat to countries in this region or anywhere, unless
it’s a very weak country already destabilized by other factors. But I think this is going to remain the threat for the
foreseeable future, in effect.
I suppose this is a question without an easy answer, but most New Zealanders watching this may have it foremost in their
mind, and for an expert like yourself, what are the chances of a country like New Zealand experiencing a terrorist
attack, maybe like we’ve seen in Australia or Canada?
It’s really impossible to say. These attacks are so unpredictable. It’s not unimaginable to think that someone might
think that New Zealand was an appropriate target. How likely it is, is just impossible to say. If you look at many of
the sort of ‘lone wolf’, as they’re often called, attacks, they were really, I’m sorry to say, extremely unpredictable.
You might be able to draw up a mathematical model, but it’s really very, very difficult to say. There’s a lot of study
now of what is called ‘radicalisation’ — that is, developing the sort of beliefs that would lead someone to justify
violence — but we still don’t quite know what causes it.
And so, again, for a country like New Zealand, which is a part of the Five Eyes, what should we be doing, do you see, in
the fight against global terrorism?
I think probably good intelligence work still outweighs the main bow work against terrorism. It’s not easy. It’s not
easy to penetrate these types of groups. But, let us say, a sort of watchful eye by all the Five Eyes is the best
preventive for terrorism. That’s not to say there are not limits to how far we want intelligence operations to go in
democracies, but this is still the best way of figuring out what’s going on and trying to forestall it.
And when New Zealand governments are considering assisting in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, should they have in their mind,
‘Well, if we do intervene, even in a humanitarian sense, it will elevate our risk of a domestic attack’. Should that
realistically factor in their decision?
It elevates the risk, to a certain extent, but so do many other things that governments do. Whether this is a higher
risk than many other things, but yes, anything that associates a country with what radical jihadists view as a crusader
alliance, depending on a particular incident, a publicity incident, where a potential perpetrator happens to be located,
ease of access to a target — all these sorts of imponderables enter into it.
Well, Professor, thank you so much for your time.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Great. Thank you very much.
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