Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"The terrorism industry"

In a reply to this earlier posting, regular commenter KGS said he doesn't like the term "terrorism industry" as he thinks it is meant to echo "holocaust industry". I disagree and started writing a reply in the comments but thought it's an interesting point so I would turn it into a post.

I don't want to discuss the idea of a "holocaust industry" itself (although there is a book review in this weeks Economist of a Danish novel "The Exception" by Christian Jungersen that is set in the "bizarre international 'genocide industry' with its swish seminars, show piece survivors and squabbling professors" that suggests how academia can turn anything into an industry even by mistake), but I don't think talking about the "terrorism industry" echoes this. Post 9-11, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is now a mature "terrorism industry" - and when myself and my mate Mikko started doing our research in 2003 for the report on terrorism that we researched and wrote we realised very quickly we were now part of it. I get lots of invites to expensive conferences, to subscribe to paying "intelligence provision services", to buy new journals etc.

As I noted in reference to the book review, all academic areas of study have their own little industries - conferences, journals, networks etc. - but what makes the "terrorism industry" so much more is the size and the amounts of money sloshing about. This isn't a good or bad thing per se, just a fact. You can see it very clearly with the amount of private sector interest: it is the job of companies to make money and there are plenty of opportunities for this in the terrorism industry. I used to mainly focus my research on questions of European security: NATO; EU common security and defence policy and the like. There were and still are thriving policy-making and academic networks focused on these issues - but whilst at conferences on these matters you will get professors and post-grads, civil servants and soldiers there was never too much interest from the private sector unless it was something of particular interest toa few defence contractors.

I remember going to a conference in Sweden a few years back on bioterrorism. It was jointly organised by a Swedish and a US think-tank, with sponsorship from pharma companies. In the opening address a Swedish government researcher said pretty much the following:
"There are two important issues to bio-terrorism; the question of whether terrorists want and are able to get biological weapons and use them and, secondly, what measures we need to take to defend against an attack. We can call this the 'terrorism'- half and the 'bio'- half of the 'bioterrorism' issue.
Now the 'terrorism'-half is very hard to understand and to get information on so we really need to focus on the 'bio'-half..."
At this point my jaw hit the floor whilst the people present from the various drug companies rubbed their hands with glee (OK, so that's a slight exaggeration but you get the point). It's as if they had said with the space programme: "all that rocket science is really tricky so lets just focus on the actual moon landing". Errrr.... hang on....

Fortunately, when I got my chance to make my "lets not get the cart before the horses" point, the person who supported me was a bloke from JTAC (and I think I saw the guy from the Swedish security police nod in agreement). What was really clear was that people there were there to talk about how to defend against bio-terrorism, not if and how bioterrorism is likely to take place. They were interested in emergency management issues, medical preparation, prophylatic drugs that could be manufactured, and traditional bio-arms controls issues with the former-Soviet countries. All of these things are perfectly respectable aims and ideas in their own right, but what brought them together was the idea of terrorism and it just seemed few people understood much about it or were even very interested in it! No one seemed to be aware, for example, of the discussion on jihadi websites about the Koranic legitimacy of bio-warfare (some are all for it, others think due to certain verses of the Koran is not allowed); few people had actually looked in detail at the evidence that came out the Afghan camps about al-Qaeda's experiments with chemical and biological weapons (rather amateurish); and no-one had really delved into the murky world of the various European "ricin plots" and the "Pankisi-connection" (most being dubious and some just clearly never having existed).

You can see this "technologisation" of counter-terrorism happening all over as both the US government and EU pump money into research on developing ways to protect against terrorism. Where clearly a lot the money goes is to companies that make some kind of technology or product that is meant stop terrorism in some physical way: this could be credit card data-mining software, shipping-container radiation detectors, or stronger airline doors. The aim is generally to stop acts of terrorism being carried out rather than to stop people wanting to carry out acts of terrorism. Of course the latter is a whole lot more complex and I'm yet to see a stun-gun or some software that could do the trick.

(p.s. the photos were randomly selected by putting "counter terrorism technology" into google images and seeing what came up.)

1 comment:

KGS said...

Toby,
Thanks for the special post, I believe that you have made your point and see no case for stating otherwise. It is as you say, developed into a full fledged industry in much the same way as the arms, medical and global warming industries. I guess it was inevitable.

I will however leave myself an out, and say that Gerges was alluding to more than just that, and given the history of his many statements vis-a-vis Israel, I do not find it too much a stretch to say that he was connecting the two.

However, since I cannot prove it in concrete terms, I can only include it as a priori, and leave it at that. I do however will put his book on my waiting to read list. :-)

Cheers

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