Asymmetric warfare and the new terrorism

Sunday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Conservatory, Barbican War and peace

The world has looked on horrified in recent years at the rise of groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and Islamic State (IS). Such organisations often seem to have formed almost overnight before making rapid military gains using brutal tactics aimed at maximising their notoriety through gory killings. Governments are seemingly at a loss at how to confront belligerents who are undermanned and less equipped, play by no rules, and whose targets can be indiscriminate.

Despite bring regularly branded as ‘medieval’, IS’s savvy use of social media as a propaganda tool is a reminder that they are an unusually modern foe. Some, like Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell, have controversially suggested negotiating with ‘fourth wave’ Islamist terrorists, arguing it is little different from talking to terror groups associated with national liberation movements, whether the IRA, PLO or ANC. Certainly, the decision by the Turkish government to treat its domestic insurgency by Kurdish separatists in the PKK – hailed as heroes in the West following their defence of Kobane - as on a par with IS was a reminder that terrorism is a highly contested concept.

For many others, the apolitical nihilism of much contemporary terrorism marks a profound shift from terrorism in the past: with some suggesting acts such as the slaughter of Western tourists in Tunisia have more in common with the racist murders of black church-goers in Charleston than political responses to Western foreign policy. Yet with the potential damage wrought by such ‘lone wolf’ attacks increasing, security forces and governments inevitably search for more authoritarian and pre-emptive measures to prevent them occurring: some would say much to the benefit of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Are we confronting the rise of a ‘new terrorism’ or are we simply more exposed to the grisly nature of brutal civil wars and disintegrating states than previously? In an age in which a highly skilled hacker could potentially cause as much harm as a car bomber, how can liberal societies hope to meaningfully protect their citizens? Is a rejection of the political justifications behind these acts an implicit endorsement of similar atrocities under different circumstances – the good old days of ‘proper terrorists’? Or does the sheer barbarity of these movements necessitate a harsher response than before, whether it’s ‘boots on the ground’ abroad or Extremism Disruption Orders at home? Who precisely is the enemy these days?

Listen to the debate

Jonathan Birdwell
head of policy and research, Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Dr Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
lecturer, King's College London; head of research, ICSR

Beverley Milton-Edwards
professor of politics, Queen’s University Belfast; author, Muslim Brotherhood: the Arab Spring and its future face

Peter Taylor
award winning reporter, BBC; documentaries include Provos, Loyalists , Brits and Generation Jihad; author, Talking to Terrorists: face to face with the enemy

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
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