Let’s assume that everything we think we know about the recent terror attacks in London and Boston turns out to be true. That the people who carried them out were not actually part of a formal, organized international effort to kill Westerners — that they were not paid a salary by a terror group, or given an explicit order to go operational.
They attacked because they believed in it, but they were not part of a command chain. They murdered because they were “inspired.”
If this is true, then the Western world might be facing a totally new kind of terrorism — one that is highly confusing to our liberty-loving hearts.
People in policy circles have known for a long time about the concept of “inspired” or “leaderless” terrorists, who act in the name of an ideology and not an organization. Indeed, unlike groups like Hezbollah and Lashkar e-Taiba (of the Mumbai attacks), which maintain massive organizational capabilities, bank accounts, budgets, supply chains and training bases — unlike these, a large part of Al Qaeda’s efforts lately have gone to reinventing itself as an inspirational, rather than organizational, form of terror.
Its goal is to teach like-minded individuals around the world not only how to make bombs (as the Tsarnaev brothers did from the aptly named magazine Inspire), but also how to organize locally, how to raise their own funds, how to cover their tracks — in short, how to make terrorism happen without the benefit of old-school organizations.
The effect of this, from America and Europe’s perspective, is to move terrorism into an entirely new place — one that takes greatest advantage of Western society’s biggest legal, cultural and political blind spots.
For the second time in a decade and a half, we may now need to rethink the nature of our struggle against terror. After 9/11, Western policymakers woke up to the realization that they faced a new kind of war, organized by a non-state enemy who could not function without the sponsorship of states.
Because terrorists defied all the regular laws of war, you could legitimately operate militarily against their bases, their leaders, their camps and inside of countries that harbored them, and you could hold those states directly accountable, as well, destroying the terror groups’ ability to organize.
The downside, of course, was that Western countries found themselves blurring the lines between domestic and foreign enemies, deploying tools of surveillance against their citizenry, taking down walls that had separated intelligence gathering from law enforcement. The war on terror tested the boundaries of freedom.