Twenty years of War on Terror have yielded more loss than gain, argues Willemijn Verkoren. The growing fear of terror has played into the hands of terrorists.The attacks of 11 September 2001 are forever etched in our collective memory. It was almost beyond imagination for a power like the US to be struck in its very heart. For days on end, we watched the gripping images of the collapsing World Trade Center. It is therefore hardly surprising that 9/11 engendered such a strong fear of terrorism in the West. Year after year – until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – opinion polls pointed to terrorism as the greatest threat to our society. Also in the Netherlands, which was spared any major terrorist attacks.The response was clear. Led by the Bush administration, the US proclaimed a War on Terror with no limits in terms of time or space. The US claimed the right to take action against real or presumed terrorists across the globe, leading to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, later followed by bomb attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But also in dozens of other countries did and do the US act against terrorism, with drone attacks and special forces’ operations.The war on terror was also waged on home ground. Under US pressure, the Member States of the UN and the EU agreed to implement new anti-terrorism laws, outlawing not only the use of violence, but also membership of terrorist organisations and support of terrorism.These days, fewer concrete indications are needed to eavesdrop on, observe, arrest or impose a constraining order on suspected terrorists without recourse to the courts. Governments have also started collecting large amounts of digital data about their citizens. People whose opinions are considered radical, even if they do not advocate for the use of violence, are being watched (see for example disclosures in the NRC about politicians and activists being tracked online by the Dutch counter-terrorism unit Nationaal Coördinator Terrorismebestrijding en Veiligheid). Many of these measures are at odds with the rule of law, interfering with the freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the principle that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet we accept them because our fear of terrorism is so strong.Extreme rightBut is this fear actually justified? No matter how dramatic the 9/11 attacks were, terrorism does not form a great threat to the West. The large majority of victims of terrorism fall in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria. With the exception of the 2001 outlier, outside conflict zones, terrorist attacks claim 300 to 700 casualties per year. The odds of falling victim to a terrorist attack in a country like the Netherlands are extremely small.And there is something else. Although most attention has gone to jihadist terrorism, in Europe and the US, many more people have fallen victim to extreme-right terrorism in the past years. The rise of extreme-right violence can partially be explained by the strong fear of Islamic terrorism post-9/11, which has also led to a hardening of the debate on migration and the Islam. Perpetrators such as Norwegian Anders Breivik (Oslo and Utøya 2011, 77 victims) and Australian Brenton Tarrant (Christchurch 2019, 51 victims) fight what they perceive to be the threat Islam poses to the West. Following the Tarrant shooting, New-Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologised because the police and secret services had paid too little attention to the right-wing extremism due to their preoccupation with jihadism.Even more painful is the fact that all the attention and measures seem to have strengthened not only the extreme right, but also jihadist ideology. The jihadist worldview, in which the West is out to destroy Muslims, was given new munition by the war on terror, and the resulting civilian casualties have created bad blood. Many terrorists, also in the West, say that their actions are driven by anger about these attacks.Terrorism is provocationIn Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror has triggered a civil war and, paradoxically, a strong increase in terrorism. The later anti-IS bomb attacks may have been successful in the short run, but they ultimately led to IS going underground and further extending its influence. From Afghanistan to Southern Africa, there are now active groups that claim alliance to IS or identify with it In the West, large-scale complex attacks have become more difficult due to all the attention from police and intelligence services, but as extremism continues to flourish, it finds new outlets, and there has been a strong increase in smaller attacks with light weapons or vehicles.All in all, the hard and exceptional measures taken after 9/11 have not been very effective and have produced undesirable consequences, including the radicalisation of young Muslims and right-wing extremists, the curtailment of civil rights and polarisation. They have also further strengthened the public’s fear of terrorism by continuously drawing attention to the dangers of terrorist attacks. This has played into the terrorists’ hands, as terrorism is provocation. Terrorist groups use attacks to generate attention, spread fear, and provoke a hard reaction from their opponent. This allows them to portray their opponent as an oppressor, thus drawing moderates to their side. Which is exactly what happened after 9/11.We must stop giving terrorists what they want. By putting the threat in perspective, we can create room for well-informed policy that upholds our values.Text: Willemijn Verkoren. This article appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 6 September 2021. Photo: David Mark via Pixabay.