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Alex P. Schmid: Terrorism Prevention

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


Prof. Alex P. Schmid is a Distinguished Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) and Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI). His research interests lie in Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Extremism, Foreign Terrorist Fighters, and Religious Extremism. He has also held various other positions, including, for nearly seven years, Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of UNODC in Vienna in the rank of a Senior Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer. Moreover, until 2009 he was co-editor of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Since then he is Co-Editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, the largest scholarly online journal in the field of Terrorism Studies.


Terrorism Prevention: upstream prevention needs more attention


The Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness is an authoritative volume on terrorism prevention, including diverse insights from over 40 experienced scholars. In this book, typologies of terrorism and prevention are presented and a tri-partition into upstream-, midstream- and downstream-terrorism prevention is suggested. In addition, the Handbook focuses on the prevention of radicalization on social media and the internet under the development of science and technology. Concerning the increasing complexity of terrorism, SPCIS has interviewed Alex P. Schmid to understand his intention to put together the Handbook and the roles played by the United Nations and countries on Terrorism Prevention. What’s more, they have asked him to share his views on the radicalization and terrorism with the development of social media and the Internet in the digital age.


The vision for an authoritative guide to terrorism prevention originated during Alex P. Schmid's service as the Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of UNODC in Vienna from 1999 to 2005. Despite the desire, the project was constrained by various limitations including a lack of mandate from the UN Crime Commission, time constraints, and insufficient financial resources. However, the concept remained undeterred. Upon Schmid's retirement from Leiden University in 2018, although financial limitations persisted, the absence of time restrictions and the necessity for a UN mandate allowed the objective to be rekindled. To promote widespread accessibility, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague made the Handbook freely available on its website, where it has been downloaded almost 20,000 times. There are even ongoing efforts to produce an Arabic translation.


Also, the Handbook fully considers the efforts made by the United Nations on terrorism prevention. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed in 2006 a four-pronged anti-terrorist strategy which has been reviewed several times since then, most recently in June 2023. It contains many elements that fit into this tripartite framework. However, since the General Assembly left the definition of terrorism to UN member states, each government can interpret what it considers “terrorism” in its own way. This has made cooperation (e.g., when it comes to extradition of terrorists) difficult while national implementation of UN-recommended anti-terrorist measures remains uneven. While there has been a partial and gradual shift away from the use of force against terrorist groups in favour of countering violent extremism in other ways, the interpretation of what counts as (violent) extremism is also disputed. In general, upstream prevention receives least attention while downstream measures predominate in most national contexts.


With the advent of media, terrorism is a combination of violence and communication. The instruments of violence have not changed much for non-state terrorists in the last two hundred years: the bomb and the gun are still their main tools. However, the propaganda instruments have greatly increased since the invention of the rotary press in the second half of the 19th century, the spread of television in the twentieth century, and the arrival of Internet-based social media in the 21st century. By abducting, maiming and killing civilians in media-saturated environments, terrorists can grab the attention of millions of people and convey their demands to governments and intimidate members of societies worldwide. As long as those who control the Internet are not also held accountable for violent content they freely propagate in support of their own search for attention, terrorists have in fact a partner in crime who goes unpunished. Sure, some of the major social media have so-called content moderators but that has so far not significantly reduced the terrorists’ ability to coerce governments and shock and awe mass audiences. Whether the increasing use of artificial intelligence for content moderation will make a decisive difference in the years to come remains to be seen.


In the end, terrorism remains an inhumane by-product of political and religious conflicts and upstream prevention has to begin with conflict resolution and transformation. Downstream media control is by itself not a permanent solution.


Editor: Ye Jiewen

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