Two key questions to consider are:
How likely are you to fall victim to terrorism?
What increases or decreases that likelihood?
Our natural way of thinking about the first question should be similar to considering crime (murder or robbery, for instance), mortality (infant mortality at birth, or cancer), car accidents, or other threats. And the salient point is not so much the total number of murders in a large country, but rather the total number in relation to the size of the population.
Put simply, we should consider the number of affected people on a per-capita basis – that is, murder rates, or mortality rates.
For example, from a policy perspective, it makes sense that ten murders in a populous country like China (which has 1,371,000,000 citizens) would be much less significant than ten murders in a tiny country like Liechtenstein, with its 37,000 citizens.
However, when it comes to terrorism, almost all the knowledge that drives policy decisions comes from studies analysing the total number of terror casualties in a given country and year.
India is a good example. It ranks fourth on the list of terror-prone countries since 1970, with 408 deaths from terrorism in an average year.
But the average Indian need not be particularly worried about terrorism. The country is home to 1.27 billion people, and terrorism kills only one in 2,500,000 people – or 0.0000004% of the population – per year, once we translate total terror deaths to terror deaths per capita. The likelihood of dying from crime or in a road accident is far higher.
India ranks only 82nd in the world when we compare terrorism victims per capita.
So, although India has a relatively high number of terrorist attacks, an individual’s likelihood of dying in such an attack is minimal – because India has such a large population.
Once we switch from focusing on total terror deaths (or attacks) per country to terror deaths per capita, relevant conclusions about what drives terrorism change dramatically. And thus potential policy reactions also change when focusing on terror deaths per capita.
A somewhat baffling conclusion from a long list of research articles states that terrorism is more likely to emerge in democracies, rather than non-democracies. This idea is difficult to reconcile with our intuition of democracy giving people political (and usually religious) freedom – so why should we see terrorism in such free countries?
It turns out that once we analyse terror per capita, democratic nations are less likely to witness terrorism. Again, take India, a large democracy that, at first glance, suffers a lot from terrorism. But, in per-capita terms, terrorism becomes less important.
Another popular belief states that countries with a sizeable Muslim population – such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh or Nigeria – are experiencing more terrorism than non-Muslim countries. This is true when looking at the total numbers of deaths.
But that result is also overturned once we consider terror per capita. A larger share of Muslims in a given country relates to marginally less terrorism. Pakistan (202 million people), Indonesia (258 million), Bangladesh (156 million) and Nigeria (186 million) all feature exceptionally large populations.
This result is informative for the current policy debate. More caution is needed before classifying certain countries as more prone to terrorism based on their religion.
Another – admittedly simplistic – way of considering the link between Islam and terrorism comes from comparing the share of terror attacks conducted by Muslim groups with the share of the world population identifying as Muslim. If Muslims were more likely to be terrorists, we should expect the latter figure to be lower.
Approximately 23% of the world population identifies as Muslim. But, since September 11, Islamist groups have conducted about 20% of terrorist attacks worldwide. Thus, terrorist attacks are – historically and today – less likely to be conducted by a Muslim than by a non-Muslim group.
Our results suggest it may be time to rethink the way we approach terrorism.
The likelihood of dying at the hands of a terrorist is comparable to the odds of drowning in one’s own bathtub.
This does not mean we should be afraid of bathtubs, nor does it mean terrorism is not among the problems that need to be solved with a high priority.
Rather, in the fight against terrorism, seemingly easy conclusions may be drawn too quickly – and we should not forget other matters that affect people’s lives far more than terrorism does.
On Sunday, Ariana Grande played to a packed house of 60,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground, in tribute to the 22 people killed at Grande’s Dangerous Woman concert in the same city two weeks ago. She was joined on stage by pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.
One Love Manchester aimed to counter the effects of terrorism by spreading messages of unity and love through music, harnessing pop as a personal and collective coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. But in troubled times, can music really heal?
The Manchester bombing is the latest in a line of assaults on entertainment venues, including the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last year. These are seemingly inspired by a desire to curtail Western liberal freedoms, and specifically the freedom of women, the gay community and the young people who are celebrated in pop music.
Given the sentiment of the event, Grande drew some backlash on Twitter for performing her risqué song Side to Side. But as she revealed during the concert, she had changed her set list after talking with the mother of 15-year-old Olivia, who was killed in the bombing. During their emotional meeting, Olivia’s mum said that she “would’ve wanted to hear the hits”.
Evidence shows that bereaved families increasingly choose to commemorate loved ones with contemporary songs with which they, or the deceased, personally identify.
An Australian funeral services provider reported Queen’s The Show Must Go On or Another One Bites the Dust were increasingly popular funeral songs. In the same way, pop concerts are built on a known repertoire of songs, which the audience predicts. This assists in the ritual communication of emotion.
It was music’s capacity to arouse different emotions that allowed One Love Manchester to achieve Grande’s aim for her concerts to be, “a place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves.” It is now well established that mechanisms such as rhythm, shared emotions and the memory of specific events make music a powerful tool for connecting with other people.
Pharrell Williams’ upbeat Happy embodied the concert’s defiant stance on terrorism, suggesting that fear can be triumphantly overcome through the enactment of happiness and joy. Coldplay’s touching performance of Fix You allowed for the expression of mourning and collective grief.
Robbie Williams led the audience in a version of his song Strong, changing the lyrics to, “Manchester we’re strong, we’re strong”. Cultural studies theorist Graeme Turner has argued that this sort of sharing brings with it a temporary experience of equality and comradeship between many people.
Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love?, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, has become an anthem for countering terrorism and related anti-Islamic sentiment. It provided the Manchester audience with an emotional bridge to the larger, global community of those affected by terrorism.
We need to do more research to understand how these shared emotions and experiences can be galvanised to create longer-term resilience and solidarity. But for this night, One Love Manchester demonstrated the power of music to heal an urban community and bring people together.
Samantha Dieckmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne
The US president’s impetuous reaction was to tweet that the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market proved that American courts should “give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Note the exemplary use of the exclamation mark. However, Trump did have the grace eight minutes later to offer a form of condolence to the British people – “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
The capitals presumably mean either that he was shouting or that he really means it. Not so the One Nation leader, who chose to use Twitter to desecrate the warning from the British authorities for people to “run, hide and tell” by declaring that it was time to “stop Islamic immigration before it is too late”.
Labor’s Penny Wong rightly declared Hanson’s eructation “irresponsible and crass”. One of Australia’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Greg Barton of Deakin University, went further, telling me that what the One Nation leader was saying was “downright dangerous” on at least two counts.
One, in this age of postmodern terrorism, Islamic State operates as the first metaphysical nation with no dependence on physical territory or traditional communication to wield its power. In that environment, the security authorities rely on tips from the communities from which impressionable operatives emerge.
Maligning those very communities, Barton says, tends to make its members turn inward, reducing their trust in the authorities and diminishing the likelihood that they will report the wayward behaviour of people they know. Witness the bizarre spectacle of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, praying loudly in the street.
Second, it encourages the very sense of alienation, the feeling that they are stigmatised outsiders, that leads people to lose their sense of belonging. That makes them more vulnerable to the brutal siren call of murderous extremists.
Hanson either does not know this or does not care, because it is likely that her anti-Muslim message, basically a reworking of her initial hostility to Aborigines and then to Asians, appeals to much of One Nation’s base. What more would you expect from a person who over two decades has used the public purse to turn politics into a highly successful small business?
There are legitimate questions, though, about this latest attack in the UK, the third in as many months. One is whether Britain has a peculiar problem when it comes to these apparently autonomous acts of ghastly violence. The other is whether the London Bridge/Borough Market attack had anything to do with the UK election, now only days away.
The answer to the latter is probably not. As Barton points out, if the perpetrators had wanted to influence voters, they or their sponsors would have made a statement to that effect in some form, either direct or allusive.
That is not to say that the violence of Saturday night won’t affect the result of Thursday’s poll. Conventional analysis has it that assaults on security tend to favour the incumbent, especially if they are from the centre right.
Theresa May’s Tories consistently poll as “better for” national security than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this has not been a conventional UK election campaign and there are also questions about whether a sense may take root within the electorate that the government is failing to protect the community, following two fatal acts of terrorism in just a fortnight – Manchester and now London. May was, after all, home secretary, responsible for domestic security, for six years before she became prime minister.
She has not had a good election. Gone are the days, less than two months ago, when it looked as if she could gain a majority of 100 in the House of Commons, knocking Corbyn for six. Her refusal to engage with Corbyn was seen as arrogant, and UK voters are sick of going to the polls (three times in less than two years). There was also her blunder on a “dementia” tax, essentially a proposal to make the elderly contribute to their health care if they have combined assets of more than £100,000.
Immediate public outcry forced a U-turn, but the damage had been done. As campaign managers would say, May had gone “off-message”. The election was no longer a plebiscite on her managing of Brexit, but an argument about health and welfare, traditional Labour turf.
It was a surprising mistake, especially given that as a political up-and-comer May warned the Conservatives back in 2002 that it had become the “nasty party”. Its base was “too narrow” and on occasion so were its sympathies, a sermon this child of the manse had clearly forgotten delivering.
On the question of security, the message from the voters is decidedly mixed. In the wake of the Manchester attack Corbyn boldly, but deliberately, stated:
Many … professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported … and terrorism here at home.
From the G7 summit, May went thermonuclear:
I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault.
Corbyn was “not up to the job”, she said. He also faced criticism from within his own ranks, but it seems May’s decision to play the security card was not as effective as she might have hoped, because the opinion polls continued to tighten in Labour’s favour.
None of this means May will lose when the votes come in on Thursday. Rather, it shows that national security is a more complex issue in the UK these days, after a decade and a half of unpopular wars and years punctuated by regular, fatal terrorist attacks.
It is not clear whether the story is the same in either the United States or Australia. It is possible this is one way the UK is grimly unique.
As the terrorist organisation Islamic State (IS) suffers further losses in Syria and Iraq, increasing numbers of Australians fighting in those conflicts will likely seek to return home. Around 100 Australians are fighting with IS in the Middle East, and around 40 have already returned.
Reports that only two of these 40 fighters have been prosecuted on return are concerning. This suggests there are serious deficiencies in the government’s ability to successfully prosecute fighters returning from these foreign war zones.
This is despite recent changes to the law in which the federal parliament strengthened many foreign incursion offences. It is an offence for a person to enter a foreign country with intent to engage in hostile activity, or even to prepare to do so. Both these offences are punishable by life imprisonment.
So what makes it so difficult to prosecute returning foreign fighters? And what other options are available?
When police investigate a terrorism plot within Australia, they can collect a wide range of evidence to later prove terrorism offences in the courtroom.
A significant category of evidence used in terrorism trials is transcripts of conversations that Australian police or intelligence agencies have covertly recorded. The statements of witnesses, including undercover intelligence officers, can also be used to prove a person’s guilt.
In theory, similar kinds of evidence could be obtained from overseas and used in an Australian courtroom. Amendments made in 2014 to the Foreign Evidence Act allow for foreign evidence to be adduced in terrorism trials, provided the evidence would not have a “substantial adverse” impact on the ability of the accused to receive a fair trial.
Foreign evidence will not be admissible if the judge is satisfied it was obtained through torture or duress.
In reality, collecting evidence in a foreign war zone is near impossible. Ordinarily, evidence could be provided to the Australian government by a foreign authority, collected through a joint operation with a foreign police service, or recorded on surveillance devices with the consent of an appropriate foreign official.
Syria and Iraq remain in a serious state of armed conflict and lack the governance structures for these to be realistic possibilities.
Another obstacle is that much of the information about Australians fighting overseas comes from foreign intelligence services, including the UK’s MI6 and the US Central Intelligence Agency. Conditions imposed on the sharing of this material mean the vast majority of it cannot be used as evidence in case it is exposed in open court.
Witness statements could be used to support claims of Australians engaging in terrorism overseas, but unless these are from reliable eyewitnesses, much of this could be excluded as hearsay.
In short, in the absence of an admission, confession or guilty plea, it is likely to prove extremely difficult to prosecute fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.
The most viable option would be to prosecute a returning foreign fighter for entering or remaining in a declared area. This offence, punishable by ten years’ imprisonment, was introduced in 2014. It does not require proof that an individual engaged in hostile activity. It merely requires that the person was present in an area that the foreign minister has declared a “no-go” zone.
Currently, the only declared areas are al-Raqqa province in Syria and the city of Mosul in Iraq. It may still be very difficult to prove that a fighter was in one of these areas. It is possible that video evidence could provide proof, if somebody happened to film a fighter in a recognisable location and the footage was posted online or could otherwise be reliably obtained.
The difficulties in prosecuting returning foreign fighters does not mean Australia faces a “deluge” of foreign fighters “roaming free” without consequence. Many more may still be killed overseas, and others may choose not to return.
At a minimum, those who do return will be subject to close scrutiny and surveillance by ASIO and the Australian Federal Police. If their behaviour becomes criminal – and there is a long list of broad terrorism offences – prosecution could become viable.
Returning foreign fighters may also be subject to control orders. These court-imposed orders enforce requirements such as abiding by a curfew, reporting regularly to police, and wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.
A control order does not require proof that a person has committed a criminal offence. If a person breaches the conditions of an order, they will face five years in prison.
Australian police and intelligence agencies will explore these and other possibilities to ensure returning foreign fighters do not cause harm to the community. It is possible that prosecution may still be the intended strategy in many cases. But it takes time to build a solid case given the difficulties of gathering evidence.
Even so, the apparent challenges with prosecution suggest that returning fighters will pose a difficult security challenge for Australia in coming years. Surveillance of large numbers of returning fighters will be expensive and require significant resources, so this is not a realistic long-term solution.
These difficulties also demonstrate the limits in continually responding to terrorism with ever-stronger counter-terrorism powers. Many of the laws now proving difficult to prosecute were framed by the Abbott government as an urgent and necessary response to terrorism.