No escaping the truth that battle with terror will be a long, drawn-out affair

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A terrorist usually has an escape route. He plans the operation, but he also plans the getaway, the safe house, the backup and the alibi. He reckons that the police will come knocking at his door at some point; that he’ll be questioned – which he has been trained for – and maybe even convicted and imprisoned (during which there’ll be support inside and outside).

And while he accepts that his own death during an attack is a possibility, he also knows that the odds of survival are fairly high. Events and family circumstances may have predisposed him towards terrorism, or something, like a Bloody Sunday or La Mon, for instance, may have ‘radicalised’ him. The crucial factors, though, are that the terrorist organisation has a vested interest in keeping him alive; while he has a vested interest in staying alive to reap the rewards of his terrorism.

All of that makes it much easier for the security forces to plan a response. Partly because terrorism of this variety involves a very specific end goal in terms of political/constitutional/social/governmental change; and also because terrorist organisations of that kind can be infiltrated, influenced and negotiated with through ‘back channel’ links. And most terrorist groups also have political fronts and mouthpieces, meaning that they will be prepared to end the terrorism if a deal can be reached.

But what do governments and security forces do when the people carrying out the attacks do not have an escape route, getaway, backup and alibi? They don’t need them because their own death is an essential part of the attack. They want to die and they want to kill as many people as they can. They don’t care who they kill. They don’t care if it’s a barracks or a cafe. They don’t care if it’s soldiers or civilians. They don’t care if the death toll involves children. They don’t care if they’re caught on film. They will use any weapon at their disposal: guns, grenades, machetes, meat cleavers, lorries, petrol, gas and, if they can lay their hands upon them, biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. For them, all that matters is the toll, the brutality and the fear-fuelling publicity.

The end goal is fear. And fear can be generated by six men with machine guns in a concert hall, or by one man in a lorry in Nice. It can be generated by uploading videos of beheadings and burnings. It can be generated by making governments and ordinary people look over their shoulders. It can be generated by the rise of extremist parties who make anti-immigration and tougher security the central planks of their manifesto. It can be generated by a bomb at an airport or an attack on a beach. It can be Brussels one day, Nice the next, London or anywhere else the day after. Fear spreads when it becomes clear that anyone, anywhere, is a target. Fear thrives when you don’t know your specific enemy.

All that can be said with any degree of certainty is that most of these groups can be bunched together into something defined as ‘Islamic extremists’: although it’s a mistake to assume that religion necessarily plays a part in their end goal, or that they even have the same end goals. It’s also a mistake to assume – and it’s something that the social media keyboard warriors are keen to do – that groups like ISIS (the best known of the organisations) are actually winning. They aren’t. They won’t. That’s not to say that their barbarity won’t continue, but only a fool would conclude that western Europe, or America or most other parts of the world are about to return to some form of religious ‘dark age’.

So it’s utter, utter nonsense to talk about the need for a ‘war against Islam’. There are people today who remember the last war against a religion in the 1940s. Open your history books and see what happened when Protestant and Catholic states went to war against each other; or when the Inquisition ordered the slaughter of unbelievers; or when Christianity went to war against Islam during the Crusades. Historically speaking I’m not sure that any religion can claim to have always been a ‘religion of peace’ and I’m also pretty sure that declaring war against a religion will always end badly.

In the same way that it’s impossible to prevent every fatal car crash caused by a drunk or drugged driver; or stop every new disease or contagion from killing people; or save everyone from cancer; or ensure that legally held weapons won’t be used for murder; or protect all children from rapists and abusers, it is always going to be impossible to stop certain kinds of people from being ‘radicalised’ and converted into killers. And in an era when everything can be filmed and distributed within seconds it’s going to be impossible to stop brutality and fear from being similarly spread and for that fear to result in panic and overreaction, as well as manipulation by those with their own political/social agendas.

One thing is certain: European governments are not going to deport millions of Muslims and nor are they going to declare war on something which describes itself as an Islamic ‘state’. They will continue to cooperate and pool intelligence and resources in what will be a long counter-terrorism operation. There’s not much more they can do. If someone knows of a better option then perhaps they could set out the costs, details and potential consequences for our own freedoms and way of life.