Bonds of trust are terrorists’ target in the age of ‘leaderless jihad’

A wave of small-scale assaults has shaken public confidence in governments’ capacity to protect citizens from terrorism. AAP/Yann Korbi

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the subsequent attack on the Hyper Cache kosher market in France are merely the latest and most bloody jihadist atrocities to have traumatised the West. From Ottawa to Sydney, a wave of small-scale assaults has shaken public confidence in governments’ capacity to protect citizens from terrorism.

While the attackers’ specific targets and motives vary, “lone wolves” and more professional terrorist cells share the common aim of destroying citizens’ trust – both in their governments and each other.

Far from being a by-product of their violence, this assault on trust is central to jihadist strategy. Understanding the logic behind this strategy is key to comprehending the terrorist threat, and to mitigating its threat to open multicultural societies.

Trust and terror

Recent jihadist attacks have targeted two types of trust relationships integral to modern society. The first is the social contract between governments and citizens, in which citizens submit to public authority in exchange for security from violence.

Governments’ promise to protect citizens from violence provides the ultimate warrant for their authority. But it is a promise they can only ever be imperfectly meet. No government – however determined – can possibly detect and disrupt all terrorist plots before they occur.

Small-scale terror attacks ferociously exploit this gap between promise and performance. Even failed assaults threaten public trust in the protection bargain between citizens and governments.

The second trust relationship jihadists target is that between citizens living in open multicultural societies. Since the 1970s, Australia and other Western governments have officially embraced multiculturalism, wagering that liberal values – especially toleration of religious difference – are fundamentally compatible with expanding cultural diversity.

Jihadist terrorism deliberately seeks to disprove this wager by engaging in spectacular violence aimed at corroding the popular trust needed to sustain successful multicultural societies. Jihadists terrorise to polarise. Every act of violence is intended to divide communities and ultimately destroy the fabric of popular support on which multiculturalism depends.

‘Leaderless jihad’: a threat that is here to stay

That a coherent strategy underpins recent jihadist attacks may affront those who dismiss them as the actions of isolated and mentally unbalanced individuals. But we ignore the strategic logic of so-called “leaderless jihad” at our peril.

For the past decade, leading Syrian jihadist ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri has called for self-styled jihadists in Western countries to strike out at their host societies. Al-Suri argues against jihadists pursuing more 9/11-style terrorist spectaculars, finding them too costly, time-intensive and vulnerable to disruption in the planning phase.

Instead, al-Suri advocates destroying Western social cohesion and political resolve through numerous small-scale attacks on the homeland, perpetrated by jihadists working alone or in small groups.

Al-Suri’s vision of leaderless jihad has gained worldwide traction, spread via an extraordinarily adaptive online jihadist infrastructure that authorities have found impossible to dismantle. Consequently, the jihadist imperative of targeting trust through terror is now broadly understood, both by terrorist amateurs such as Man Haron Monis, the perpetrator of the Sydney siege, through to the apparently more experienced assassins responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cache massacres.

For this reason, such attacks will not stop any time soon. Though they are undoubtedly evil, small-scale terrorist attacks on Western societies are strategically intelligible. Difficult to detect and disrupt in advance, they offer jihadists an extremely cost-effective means to advance their political goals.

These attacks also enable radicalised individuals to trade off the “brand name” of more established jihadist networks, while permitting these very same networks to claim credit for such attacks and boost their standing in the jihadist sphere.

Most importantly, these attacks inflict disproportionate damage, both by weakening public trust in governments’ capacity to protect their citizens and by corroding popular faith in multiculturalism.

Sydney siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis was but one example of the ‘leaderless jihad’ phenomenon. AAP/Sergio Dionisio

Managing the challenge of ‘leaderless jihad’

No government can guarantee its citizens 100% immunity from terrorist violence. But beyond usual efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist plots in advance, governments must also work to strengthen societies’ resilience when terror plots do succeed.

In the wake of recent attacks, Western governments have been quick to re-affirm liberal values and to correctly denounce terrorists as being entirely unrepresentative of Islam. We should not cynically dismiss these pronouncements as empty platitudes. In the face of atrocity, there is a special urgency in our leaders publicly defending values of pluralism and toleration.

There is also a strategic as much as moral imperative for our leaders to distinguish jihadists from the religion they seek to hijack, lest the terrorists succeed in polarising communities and destroying multiculturalism.

But beyond these well-rehearsed imperatives, governments must do more to educate the public about the toxic political aims that motivate jihadist terrorism if the community fallout from terrorist violence is to be contained.

Governments too often make sense of jihadist violence by pathologising it. They characterise terrorist outrages either as the random action of a deranged loner, or as the fanatical excess of an irrational “death cult”.

Individual lone wolves are often mentally unbalanced. And jihadists’ ideological extremism cannot be denied. But the public is not well-served by being left ignorant of the cold-blooded strategic logic behind leaderless jihad.

Jihadists like al-Suri have spent years studying the West. They have carefully crafted the strategy of leaderless jihad to try to exploit latent xenophobia and so destroy the trust relationships that sustain open multicultural societies.

For this reason, it is essential not only that governments publicly defend values of pluralism and toleration, but that they also fortify public resolve and understanding to stay true to those values when they are deliberately and murderously challenged.