Leena Malkki: 'How We React to Terrorism Is The Biggest Part of Its Consequences'

Leena Malkki’s passion for the study of terrorism started with her master’s thesis: 'I was initially interested in ethnic minorities and nationalism. Within that theme, I got interested in the violent aspects of what ethnic minorities in Europe had done'. That is why, after doing her Erasmus in the Netherlands, she decided to do her thesis on the 1970s terrorist attacks of Moluccan second generation immigrants in the Netherlands. As she explains, 'the reason why I became interested in ethnic minorities in the first place was because I wanted to look at society through other people’s eyes – not just from the majority’s point of view, but to understand the plurality of how you can look at society and how being a member of society can be a very different experience from different points of view'.

Today, Dr. Malkki is a lecturer at the University of Helsinki’s Network for European Studies and guest researcher at the University of Leiden’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs. She is a specialist on the topic of terrorism and political violence, having published numerous articles and investigations on the history of terrorism, lone-wolf attacks, policies of counterterrorism and more. If her name sounds familiar to you, it is not your imagination: Leena has often appeared in the media giving her expert perspective on terrorism, most prominently on the public broadcaster Yle.

On a sunny (and therefore rare) Helsinki morning, Leena met with Her Campus to reflect on terrorism – a topic that, in today’s hectic society, we are constantly talking about, but only rarely do we stop to think about what its implications are.  

Dr Leena Malkki / Photo: Courtesy of Leena Malkki


In short, what is terrorism?

Oh… you are not going to get a short answer. It depends on the point of view – that is why we discuss it so much. There are actually different meanings and ways to use the term that get mixed up in the public debate a lot. One of the perspectives is the legal standpoint: whether an attack is terrorism according to the law. Now, in the post 9/11 situation, every European country has legislation concerning terrorist crimes. So that is one part of it.

The second perspective is a more political one, where terrorism is not an objective term. When you use it in the political debate, you are not just describing the nature of an attack – you are actually expressing your opinion on its legitimacy and justification.

To call somebody a terrorist in the political debate is a way to condemn their attack. There is, of course, some kind of understanding that not just any form of violence can be terrorist – it needs to be something that appears to be threatening and perpetrated in order to cause a fear that affects a larger number of people than just the victims. But, still, in the public debate (and especially in the political debate), when we discuss whether an act of violence is terrorism or not, we are also discussing whether we find it is justified. That is why there is this debate that started in the post WWII situation about who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter, which, in a way, is a debate about who has the right to rebel against the state. If you think about the people who struggled against colonial powers, some of them were seen as freedom fighters because their cause was seen by the European state and the international community as justified – while others were labeled as terrorists because their fight was not seen as a legitimate struggle. So that is the kind of second aspect of the term, that it is highly politicized and has a highly negative meaning: you would not call your friends terrorists, it is always the enemy.

The third one is then what research thinks of terrorism. For academic research, it is a problematic term because it is so negatively and politically loaded, and when you use a concept in academic research you are supposed to define it objectively and not to make any kind of political statement with it. Some researchers try to avoid using it because they think it does no good. But, quite a few researchers think that research should also engage with that term and then define it so that it can be used objectively in academic research.

So, terrorism is basically the use of violence (or threat of using violence) which targets a certain group of victims but actually aims to send a message to a much wider audience, with the idea of a psychological impact – an impact that brings the perpetrator of the attack closer to certain political objectives. That is the core idea of the term. The reason why you just got this long introduction before the answer is that this is not actually how we usually use the term. When we ask ourselves whether a certain act is terrorism or not, often we are not actually asking whether it fits into that academic definition – we are actually dealing with the question of the legitimacy of the attack and what we think about the perpetrators, whether they are enemies or friends, and also, in some cases, what we think of the attack in legal terms.

Within that, in your research you often mention lone-wolf terrorism, autonomous cell terrorism and (I am not sure how to call this last one) network-led terrorism. What is the difference between these concepts?

They are all related to a much wider debate about the changes in terrorism – again there is a little bit of background needed. There has been a big debate in the academic research, and especially the American political debate, about the changing nature of terrorism. It has become common knowledge to think that terrorism has changed in significant ways. One of the aspects is the organization or structures behind those who commit the attacks. All those terms that you mentioned are used to describe the realities of today. Our common image of terrorism in history is that it has been committed by more or less organized groups that have some kind of hierarchical and permanent structure. Examples of this are the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Ireland or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain, which have been involved in decades-long terrorist campaigns. That is what terrorism was before. Nowadays, it is common to claim that what we are seeing in Europe is an increasing number of lone-actors – that is, individuals who commit an attack on their own or together with a small group of people. Autonomous cells would be more than just one or two individuals, so a bigger bunch of people, doing it without any real connections with bigger networks. What has also been seen typically is that the groups who commit the attacks gather to commit only that one attack, so they are also ad hoc groups instead of a bigger organization. Whether lone-wolves are different or not from what existed before… well, they are different from the IRA and ETA for sure. It is true that, although these kind of loose structures have also existed before, they are maybe more prevalent nowadays – and that is why we talk about them so much. Also, note that it is pretty difficult for a proper terrorist organization to operate in Europe anymore, so that is one of the reasons why we see an increase in loose structures and smaller attacks. It is actually very difficult to have something more permanent in Europe today, because of the security measures. But the change also reflects how, not only terrorist communication, but communications and organizations at large have changed. The development of communication technologies has enabled companies and organizations to come up with new structures. So, the organization behind terrorist attacks also reflects those changes now. As a lone-actor or an autonomous cell, you do not need to have a physical contact with a bigger terrorist network anymore, but you can find all kinds of things online from agendas to actual concrete advice on how to actually commit attacks.

So then, would you say that the radicalization process towards becoming a terrorist is also different depending on whether we’re talking about a lone-wolf or about structured and bigger organizations?

Yes. But, also the whole focus on radicalization is something new. Nowadays, because terrorism is perceived as a bigger problem than before, there is a lot of political pressure to prevent attacks from happening in the first place. So, radicalization is the term we use for what happens before you actually start planning an attack, and there is a lot of pressure to influence that radicalization process. There has also been quite a lot of research on what could be said about the radicalization process. What we now know is that there is not a radicalization process that would allow you to describe stages or indicators of radicalization so that you could forecast how an individual becomes interested in a certain radical idea that would eventually lead him to commit violence. It is logical to think that it is a different process to join a terrorist organization than committing an attack on your own; but, both of these processes are actually very difficult to describe. You might see some sort of similarities between cases but there are actually so many different possible pathways that it is difficult to find a single descriptive pattern. In fact, looking at the motivations behind terrorists to participate in attacks, the differences are maybe not as great between lone-wolf and structured organizational terrorism; but, of course the whole social environment is different, so there are some variances.

And when it comes to dismantling the planning prior to an attack, is it much more difficult for security forces to tackle loosely organized terrorism than big-organization-led terrorism?

It is, it is. The traditional way for the security authorities to keep up with terrorist campaigns has been infiltration; so either they sneak in their own informant, or they recruit people who are already close to the organization to tell them what is going on. That is not possible with lone-actors – you could only maybe do this if you were able to find the person that you should be following. This is exactly why we talk so much about lone-actor terrorism, because it is so difficult to prevent. It is actually very interesting that this phenomenon of individuals planning attacks on their own is not new. You could see it happening already in previous decades. But, what happened was that, in previous decades, if someone was planning an attack alone, it was not even considered terrorism because it was just one person. The mentality was that if you arrested that one person, that was the end of it. So, back in the day it was not found to be threatening at all. But, nowadays, it is the other way around, and it is probably the most difficult kind of attack to prevent from the beginning – even though, interestingly, the majority of those who are planning an attack alone do actually hint about it to somebody. This also happens a lot in school shootings. And, had that person told about what they knew and gotten together with other people and put the puzzle together… but of course there is not always enough evidence for a person to get really worried. There is also the loyalty aspect: you do not want to go to the police and tell on your friend unless you are really sure that something is up.

Nowadays in Europe I feel like there is a lot of fear. I perceive it in the way terrorism comes up in the media, in political debates, in daily conversations … even from the sight of policemen walking around with machine guns at public events. Do you think that, specifically in Europe, the public’s perceived terrorist threat is proportional to the real level of risk?

You can maybe look at that from the perspective of statistics: how many people get killed by terrorist attacks now, versus in the earlier decades. There is actually an exceptionally small amount of terrorism in Europe today. The number of people killed in terrorist attacks was significantly higher in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Europe than nowadays, even with the recent attacks. The '90s and 2000s were exceptionally peaceful. But the number of people that get killed in an attack is not always a good indicator of the terrorist threat in itself, because that number can also reflect the efficiency of security forces in preventing attacks – and counterterrorism nowadays is more efficient than it used to be in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For example, the majority of attacks of jihadi kind – that are related to ISIS, Al Qaeda or that sort of networks – get prevented before anything actually happens. So, what you see in the number of deaths is only one part of the phenomenon that causes a concern for security forces. In that sense, there is definitely a reason for security authorities to be concerned. Also, the prospects from now on, with the impact of the Syrian and the Iraqi wars, cause a lot of concern among researchers about what is going to happen in the future. So, there is definitely a need for their attention there.

But, again, terrorism is not something new for Europe. It might seem new for two reasons: on one hand, we have just had a really peaceful couple of decades before us, and on the other, terrorism of a new era is always something that is seen as new and more threatening than before because we do not fully understand it at the moment. The nature of jihadist terrorism is different than the terrorism in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Most deaths in terrorist attacks in the ‘70s and ‘80s happened in Northern Ireland, with the Basque conflict and its area of impact being second in number. So, when looking at where people were being killed in terrorist attacks, the areas were well delimited, as the IRA and ETA worked in specific zones. But, nowadays, if you look at the patterns of jihadist terrorism you can see that it is more widespread. There is still heavy concentration of terrorist attacks in certain areas, especially in big cities and especially in France, for example – the attacks do not happen equally in every European country. However, there is more uncertainty, because it is not that the attacks happen now in just Northern Ireland or the Basque country; but they can happen in Stockholm, Berlin, Nice, and basically any major European city.

Sometimes I even wonder if I should not be scared about terrorism itself, but instead about the answer to terrorism. Many times after attacks, issues such as racism, hate speech, political manipulation or even the eventuality of an emergency state come up. So, sometimes I get more scared about that.

For a good reason. One thing that I often say about the attacks or remind people of, is that the biggest part of the consequences of terrorism comes from how people react to it and what kind of decisions are taken in order to prevent attacks from happening again. Everybody can first of all reflect from their personal perspective: is your reaction the kind of response that terrorist attacks look for in order to influence European states? The logical position would be for you to allow terrorist attacks to influence you as little as possible; because the actual threat of you getting killed or even witnessing a terrorist attack is really, really low – the probability is almost as low as winning the lottery. The other thing is that terrorism as a threat is something politicians play with – it has always happened and it keeps on happening currently. So, definitely there is cause for citizens to be concerned and critical, and ask for explanations when certain things are being done in the name of counter terrorism. Also, it is important to stay critical towards the explanations given for radicalization, because they tend to be very simple and pointed to characteristics that are common to hundreds of thousands of people when around only a hundred of them ever get involved in terrorism. For example, being a Muslim is not enough to explain why somebody becomes a terrorist – those who become terrorists might feel like they are being true Muslims, but that does not mean that being a Muslim automatically makes you vulnerable to becoming a terrorist.

Do you think that the Western media’s coverage of terrorist attacks has been adequate lately?

Yes, and no. I think the changing media landscape is one reason why we think terrorism is more threatening nowadays. I have seen this very well in my own work, because when something happens I get a lot of calls. With every attack, the media’s response seems to become bigger and bigger and the threshold, for example in Finnish media, to start a real time coverage, special news program and that sort of thing seems to get lower and lower. It does not all have to do with terrorism as such, it is also related with how media in general has changed – the media coverage has become more real-time, and broader. So, in a way it is unfortunate; but, not necessarily related to terrorism only – it is a bigger tendency in the media. On the other hand, now that terrorism has become such a big issue, what we see in many countries – at least in Finland but also in other countries – is that there is an increasing number of investigative journalists who are reporting on terrorism. Even in Finland nowadays, journalists write stories about terrorism also when there has not been an attack. In the past, it used to be that we would talk about terrorism only when an attack had just happened. That is probably the worst possible timing for having that conversation for a number of reasons; one of them being the emotional response, which makes the discussion more difficult, and the second reason is that, immediately after an attack, we usually do not know much about what happened, the information comes weeks after. So, if you look at the kind of stories that you can find about terrorism in, for example, the Finnish media, the majority of the attention goes to the attacks themselves; but, there are also more background stories than there used to be – so there are both positive and negative aspects to the more real-time, broader media coverage. To an extent, that also applies to other European countries also in the form of investigative journalism. The American media, however, is highly problematic with everything that has to do with terrorism – the problems are so numerous that I do not even know where to begin… For example, when there is an expert interviewed on CNN, I rarely ever know that person – and I pretty much know everybody in the field. So, they are using a lot of pundits and talking heads for their own purposes. Also, the question of terrorism is even more politically loaded there.

What would be some examples of poor ways of combating terrorism?

The first thing that needs to be said is that there is no one policy that could be recommended. It always depends on the context a lot. The second thing has to do with the way that terrorist campaigns develop. What the security forces are doing is, of course, having an impact; but, if you look more generally at why terrorist campaigns end, what the state does is only one part of it. A much bigger issue is usually the opinion of the larger public. So, if you are working for the state, what you definitely would not want to do is feed into the terrorist’s interpretation of the state in the eyes of potential supporters of a certain terrorist campaign. You should also avoid adopting anything that is against society’s shared norms, values and laws – because, if you start making that kind of compromises, it might lead the state to lose its legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the potential supporters of the campaign. What other people think about the terrorist campaign is at least as relevant as what the state does in terms of security measures against those who are involved in the campaign. Also, this is something that does not really work in every case, but there are cases in which there was a terrorist campaign but it did not get much of the crown because nobody got provoked by it. So, if it was possible to stay in a more matter-of-fact type of reporting and communication about terrorist attacks, that would probably help. It is very difficult to rebel against the state if the state is not fighting back in a way that feeds into your own framework of what you think you are doing.

What would be historical examples of, on one hand, ineffective answers to terrorism and, on the other, efficient ways to counter it? I mean, historical examples that we can learn from.

That is a difficult question… Usually the bad examples deal with excessive use of force. You can find that kind of problem pretty much in every terrorist campaign in the early stages. A very classical kind of mistake would concern what the police does in demonstrations – where protests become radicalized and then that leads to terrorism. You have for example the Bloody Sunday of the Northern Ireland conflict, where the police dealt in a heavy-handed way with the civil rights demonstration of 1972. You find that kind of incidents also in West Germany in the ‘60s, when the police shot one demonstrator in a protest against the state visit of the Iranian Shah, which then became a generational experience for radicalizing the student movement. So, those would be the two most obvious examples of mistakes where there was an overreaction to legal forms of protests.

Good examples? They are also easier to find in the same stage as the bad ones I just mentioned. That would be something we can look at in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So, what you had in West Germany was a sort of reluctance to take young people into the political process and, therefore, a quite heavy-handed repression of the process. On the other hand, what you had in Finland and the Netherlands was a kind of invitation from the political elite towards the young people to come and tell what they had to say – an openness in the political system so that, once the protesters were done with the demonstrations, they had possibilities to still join parliamentary politics if they wished or participate in other kinds of social movements. So, more than actually responding to terrorism that is already there, this is more about preventing terrorism from happening. I guess that, at that earlier stage, the two most important things to take care of are the openness of the political system and the behavior of the police towards the demonstrations. But, if there is a terrorist campaign already going on, it becomes much more complicated, time consuming and also context-specific. Sometimes negotiations work and sometimes they do not. Sometimes you have such an isolated and small group that repressive measures work, sometimes you just damage a lot of people by doing that. So, you really need to have a very good understanding of the situation in order to know which kind of approach will work and which one will not.