Terrorism is the use of violence for furthering political ends; it seeks to create a climate of fear, apprehension and uncertainty. Global terrorism is aimed at inflicting damage and humiliation on a global power or at transforming global civilisational relations with the key example being 9/11 and al-Qaeda. The significance of terrorism has increased as its impact has become more threatening on global security, for instance 9/11 demonstrated how a global hegemon could still be struck by terrorism – the idea that no country is exempt from terror. However, this argument is limited, while America was attacked, it only happened once, proving that terrorism does not pose a ‘major threat’ to global security as it it is quite rare compared to other global disasters such as famine. However, it is undeniable to ignore that terrorism has acquired a truly global reach. Mass fear has been prompted by terrorism, attacks has quadrupled since 9/11. The Global Terrorist Index showed that in 2002 there were 982 separate attacks. By 2011 that had risen to 4,564.
A strong argument to suggest that terrorism is a threat to global security stems from one of the most highly discussed events, 9/11. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated how the world’s most powerful state, in military as well as economic terms, can be vulnerable to external attack when it is no longer vulnerable to conventional attacks by rival states. 9/11 demonstrated that no country was immune to the potential threat of an attack. But it became even more significant when grouped with its scale with almost 3000 dead and 6,000 injured leading to the term ‘catastrophic terrorism’. Those in support of counter-terror policies under the ‘war on terror’ argue that 9/11 demonstrated just how threatening global terror is and justified action to counter it. Because of 9/11, we initially saw an increase in multilateral cooperation — the establishment of the International Security Assistance Force for the war in Afghanistan. Initially, the multilateral impact of 9/11 was seen through the United States seeking UN support to intervene in Afghanistan, targeting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in recognition of their breech of international law. Moreover, the US also secured support from a broad range of countries, including those from within the region. Eventually NATO became another principal actor, with a coalition of countries supporting military action, but also development and state-building efforts.
Additionally, global terrorism is seen to be even more dangerous when considering the impact of globalisation and the simplicity of an attack. With increased global flows of people, ideas and information it is becoming increasingly difficult to contain or prevent terrorist attacks. Security checks are seen to be ineffective and often offensive with ethnic minorities who are 42 times more likely to be checked than ‘white people’. Equally the attacks take few people and given suicide bombings are often committed by individuals (as with the 2005 University of Oklahoma bombing) with products bought from the supermarket and Al-Qaeda regularly posts instruction videos on making bombs on the internet. This shows that terrorism is not only hard to contain, but hard to identify in the first place
Furthermore, the threats are seen to be even greater with the growing possibility that terrorist networks may be able to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps even nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden stated that the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other WMDs was a ‘religious duty’. The IAEA has reported 18 incidences of theft/loss of potentially dangerous chemical compounds and in 2007/8 terrorists attacked the Pakistani nuclear facilities three times. Also in 2006 MI5 warned that al-Qaeda were planning on using nuclear weapons against cities in the UK. So far nothing has occurred but many believe it is only a matter of time and increases fear within the state. Equally the rebels in Syria are said to now be using chemical weapons and have allied themselves with al-Qaeda which could become a potential threat in the future.
The actions of recent terror groups have provoked a response from the major powers, the United States in particular, which may make a global ‘clash of civilisations’ more likely. Meaning that twenty-first century global order will be characterised by growing tension and conflict between rival cultures or civilisations, as opposed to the political, ideological or economic conflict of old.
However, it can be argued that terrorism is not a major threat to global security. For example: Terrorism, by its nature, consists of a series of sporadic attacks on a variety of targets, and is very different from the concerted, sustained and systematic destruction that is wreaked by mass warfare conducted between states. Terrorism, in itself, cannot overthrow a government, unlike revolution and inter-state war. For instance in WWII cost Britain 450,000 deaths and wounded figures as high as 139,000. Terrorism is effective because it creates a heightened level of fear due to the shock tactics employed – particularly in the west which hasn’t really seen domestic warfare since WWII. It is therefore easy to overestimate its impact whereas in reality there is a 1 in 20 million chance of dying of a terrorist attack in the US according to the UN Taliban Monitoring Team which makes it around 14x more likely to win the lottery. Equally between the period of 2001 – 2011 there have only been 21 terrorist attacks within the US with 9/11 making up 85% of the death toll.
In addition, global epidemics like famine and disease outbreak provide a much more imminent and pressing problem that states guard their security against. For example with the 2014 Ebola outbreak, over 10,000 people died or were first hand effected from the disease, worsened by globalisation (the idea that states are becoming ‘porous’) and the unfamiliarity of the disease made it hard to spot and contain the spread of the outbreak within the nation state. As this effects a larger group of people, it clearly outweighs the effects of terrorism, although 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, this is very small by comparison with the scale of death that has occurred as a result of conventional warfare.
Finally, radical realists such as Noam Chomsky say that countries such as the US overstate the impact of terrorism in order to create a collective enemy to unite the people and assert their authority as a global hegemon. It is therefore more an example of the USA as a malign hegemon as Chomsky states fear is created “with a dual purpose; partly to get rid of people you don’t like but partly to frighten the rest. Because if people are frightened, they will accept authority”. Global terrorism is therefore seen to be a tool of the state to reach their own foreign and domestic policy goals – such as invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Global terrorism is clearly dangerous, particularly in terms of the potential for nuclear terrorism. However, ultimately the threat does seem to have been over exaggerated and also manipulated. The war on terror can also be seen to have exacerbated the entire situation and raised it to the prominence of a ‘war’.
Undeniably, terrorism is a threat to global security as it is clearly dangerous, particularly in terms of the potential for nuclear terrorism; also because of how difficult it is to contain and spot in the first place. However describing it as a ‘major threat’ is somewhat overstated because the threat itself seems to have been exaggerated and also manipulated – the war on terror can also be seen to have exacerbated the entire situation.