Where Europe and the Middle East meet
Terrorism is a phenomenon with which Europe is all too familiar. Consider World War I. The proximate cause of the conflict was an act of terrorism – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Consider the year 1972, when, in Munich, Black September, a secular Palestinian militant group, killed members of the Israeli Olympic team. That same year was also among the bloodiest of the Troubles of Northern Ireland. The situation was so bad that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon asked the United Nations “to combat the inhuman wave of terrorism that has been loosed on the world.”
The U.N. wasn’t able to do much. Just 13 years later, terrorist organisations carried out multiple attacks on civilian targets: TWA Flight 847, an Italian cruise ship, airports in Vienna and in Rome. In 1986, the Libyan government, led by Moammar Gadhafi, sponsored an attack at a club in West Berlin – to which the U.S. responded with airstrikes. Ronald Reagan said 1986 was the year “the world, at long last, came to grips with the plague of terrorism.” Two years later was the Lockerbie bombing.
The times we live in are not special. Terrorism has long been a part of European life.
In fact, more people died from terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s than in any recent decade. But, notably, in the 1990s and 2000s, terrorism-related fatalities in western Europe decreased substantially. It’s hard to know for sure why this was so. Europe wasn’t any more peaceful in the 1990s than in the previous decades, as the Balkan wars made abundantly clear. Perhaps the end of the Cold War indirectly had an effect.
Whatever the reason for their remission, casualties have since risen dramatically, especially in the past ten years. There was a lull before the relapse; the United States bore the brunt of the Islamic world’s attention after 9/11. But when the revolutions al-Qaida hoped to incite failed to launch, Islamists found new targets in western Europe. Partly, this is because of the influx of Muslim immigrants, some of whom struggled to integrate to the countries to which they migrated. Europeans consequently became more nationalistic, making Muslims the object of their resentment. Islamists saw this as a major opportunity for recruitment.
The threat posed by Islamist terrorism is undeniable, but the attention it receives exceeds its significance. Technology is certainly a factor in this regard. In the 1970s,
TV journalism changed the way we experienced war. War has always been brutal and unsparing, but seeing it made it real in ways it had not been before. The 24-hour news cycle similarly magnifies terrorism. 9/11 was shocking by any measure, but that an entire nation watched the Twin Towers fall in real time personalised the attack in previously unknown ways. With the rise of social media and the advancement of smartphone technology, virtually anyone is able to document the horrors of an attack, and every group that uses terrorism has that much larger a platform to share its grisly acts. How much more grisly and effective might the IRA or ETA have been if they had been able to use YouTube and Twitter?
Other factors abound. Some may argue that the religious motivations of Islamist terrorism add to its barbarity, but that misses the point. Terrorism is a tactic, and those who employ it are necessarily devoted to their causes. Some may argue that Islamist terrorism is tantamount to a foreign attack and, as such, cannot be compared to domestic affairs such as Irish civil unrest or Basque separatism. But civilians die either way. At some point, the distinction among the varietals of terrorism isn’t helpful. At some point, terrorism is just terrorism. Overemphasising its impact is what justifies its employment.
What happened in Spain two weeks ago, however, is not just about trends in terrorism on the European continent. The attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils did not just occur in Spain. They occurred in Catalonia, a region of Spain that may not be a region of Spain for much longer. Nationalism has been rising not just in Catalonia but throughout Europe, accelerated by the 2008 financial crisis. But nationalism is particularly pronounced, even resilient, in Catalonia. All attacks matter. But that the Spanish attacks occurred where they did and when they did, matters geopolitically.
Months ago, the Catalan government announced plans to hold an independence referendum on October 1 against the expressed wishes of the Spanish government in Madrid. This will be the second such referendum in three years. The first passed with more than 80% support, but less than half the population voted. Various opinion polls show that if this referendum does indeed go to a vote, it promises to be a close