As I write this, a well-known café in the heart of Sydney, Australia is under siege from a “gunman” holding hostages. Of course, he’s not just a “gunman” – hostages have held up a black flag with the “shehada” – the Muslim declaration of faith – in the window. Let’s not jump to conclusions, although our Prime Minister has quickly acknowledged that there are “some indications” the attack may be politically motivated. A large part of the Sydney Central Business District (CBD) has been cleared, some key landmarks have been closed down, and many people are locked in their offices.
This particular incident will pass, and we pray for the safety of the hostages. But however this ends, the effect on the broader community is already obvious. This has terrorised everyday people going about their business in what is generally regarded as a very safe part of the world. People are scared and uncertain.
The attacks that have been taking place in Israel recently, and quite possibly the one happening in Sydney now, are symptomatic of a major shift in the practice of terrorism. You might call it version 2.0 (although we are probably up to version 8.0 by now).
Terrorism used to be about large-scale, well-planned and coordinated attacks: blowing up air-planes and buildings, and people with bombs strapped to their bodies exploding themselves in crowded markets and buses. The “war on terror” fought these tactically by restricting people’s movement and the availability of certain tools that can potentially be used in an attack, and by using intelligence to tap into the networks as these events were planned.
They won that battle, but not the war.
The proponents of terror – ISIS, Hamas and their ilk – have learnt and adapted their methods, and more importantly have taken a leaf out of Western culture’s book in their fight against us.
They understand that the threat of a very random, low-scale attack causes just as much fear as the threat of an airplane falling out of the sky – perhaps more. They also understand the power of digital social media, especially when used to engage people who are passionate enough to take action.
Consider the current state of Western activism. Boko Haram kidnap schoolchildren in Africa, and how do we express our outrage? A pouty Michelle Obama launches an international campaign by posing for a photo while holding a card with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Around the world, millions retweet and share her outrage, and somewhere in Africa, the senior terrorists sit and laugh at us. When we want to rally about an important cause, we tweet and share, and if it’s a cause we really care about, we share a video of someone pouring a bucket of ice over us. Campaigns like this go ‘viral’ because the act of participating is cheap – all it usually takes is a click to show you care. But what does it really achieve? Your photo, video or pithy slogan may get a few million likes, but it will still take that plus $4 to get you a latte. Social media activism has connected so many of us, but has led to precious little in the way of action. Indeed, it has cheapened the value of social campaigns by making participation so easy.
The terrorists see the power of social media as a tool to spread ideas, and they have used these tools against us. They spread messages to an audience that are blinkered enough to take anything they say as the truth, yet passionate enough about the cause to do more than just retweet or share. Their adherents don’t need months of planning to drive a car into some pedestrians, or to connect with a friend and walk into a synagogue and start murdering innocents. What they need is the belief that in doing so, they are serving a higher purpose.
The West sits back and talks about “lone wolf” attacks and tries to understand what could possibly transform an everyday person into a violent terrorist. They wonder what could possibly motivate people to fly halfway across the world and participate in a war. Meanwhile, the terrorist masters sit back and keeping laughing at us: “That’s not activism“, they say, “this is activism”.
The war on terror has shifted to a war of ideologies, the battleground has shifted to the backyard of our own creation – social media, and Western culture is being exposed as vacuous and helpless to do anything about it.