How is security against terrorism risk with a domestic origin to be created in an effective and sustainable way? The first instinct of many politicians, especially on the populist right, is to turn to the state and its diverse apparatus of police, military, and intelligence agencies as the canonical supplier of protection against violent risk. The so-called “travel ban” recently enacted in the United States is one example; the aggressive use of Section 44 stop and search powers in the United Kingdom is another.
But a different dynamic is often at play when terrorism incidents are in fact interdicted—a dynamic that the state and its agents are less keen to publicize:
- In 2008, British police arrested a man named Isa Ibrahim (né Andrew Philip), a convert to Islam, in Bristol, England, on the basis of information from the city’s Muslim community. A detective leading the investigation stated, “He was an unknown. Without the information from the community we may not have got to him. Without the community’s help he could have killed dozens of people.”
- On February 17, 2015, three teenagers from the Bethnal Green neighborhood of east London boarded flightsfrom London’s Gatwick airport to Turkey with plans to join the Islamic State. Distraught, their families appealed for their return, but also criticized the Metropolitan Police for failing to share information that might have allowed parents and close friends to have intervened and thereby prevented the girls’ departure. Even if the state would have lacked the authority to act coercively against the girls, family members persuasion and appeals from close relations could have mitigated IS’ allure.
- In 2004, a Jamaican-born imam, Abdullah el-Faisal, was convicted in London of solicitation to murder and provocation of racial hatred. Yet a group of Salafists from Brixton had already brought el‑Faisal’s propaganda in favor of terrorism to the attention of London police some years earlier. The same Brixton-based Salafist group had also attempted (unsuccessfully) to persuade the English-born Richard Reid—later to secure renown as the ‘shoe bomber’—to reject el‑Faisal’s teachings.
In each of these examples—and they can be multiplied—a nongovernmental actor with ties of some sort to an alleged terrorism suspect independently took an action that mitigated the threat of terrorism without priming or prompting by the state. In almost every case, the sheer fact of daily interaction endowed the relevant actor with an epistemic or credibility advantage in comparison to the government. The resulting intervention, to be sure, was not always a success. Sometimes, it was not forceful enough. Other times, the state failed to follow through. But still, each intervention made a terrorist act less likely in expectation. At a minimum, these examples should provoke an investigation of what I call the social production of counterterrorism—social mechanisms external to state apparatus that are conducive to collective security against terrorism—to ascertain better its magnitude and significance, its causal predicates, and its policy entailments.
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