BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, who’s been reporting from the world’s hotspots for 25 years, told delegates in his keynote speech at the recent European Insurance Forum in Dublin that the terrorist mind set, which leads ordinary people to do terrible things, has been causing global disruption for a very long time, and, contrary to what many people believe, most terrorists aren’t psychopaths.
Keane grew up in the Irish Republic. He joined the BBC in 1989, and has reported from hot spots around the world ever since he was posted to Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” there in 1990. South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia and most recently the Ukraine, are only a few of the places he’s reported from. In 1996 he was awarded an OBE in recognition of his work.
His “on the ground view of changing political risks,” as DIMA CEO Sarah Goddard put it, has led him to conclude that self-justification plays a significant role, convincing otherwise ordinary people to commit terrorist acts. They basically see themselves as becoming part of a larger idea they can help to achieve its goals, even if it means killing, maiming and displacing other people. They see themselves as soldiers fighting for a cause that frequently requires that brutal acts be committed if it is to succeed.
The history of terrorism goes back centuries. It’s pretty fair to say that the Christian, i.e. “Western World,” and the “Islamic World” have been at odds since the 6th century, with big wars, – the Crusades and Ottoman invasions of Europe – small wars and acts of terrorism by both sides taking place over all that time up to the present day.
Religious differences are one of the root causes of terrorism, as evidenced in the turmoil between Protestants and Catholics, which dates back to the 15th century, and are still a source of conflict in many countries, notably Ireland. Sunnis and Shiites still dispute the heritage of the Prophet Mohammed.
But religion isn’t the only source of conflict, although it may be the most intractable. Keane’s view highlighted poverty, corruption and the lack of state control, as all being major factors in the rise of terrorism. Sometimes it’s augmented by religious differences, typified in the ongoing dispute between Hindus and Muslims in India, as well as many parts of Africa, but for the most part people suffering Under these conditions are eventually driven to desperation, as many of them are convinced they have nothing to lose.
He urged his audience to try to understand the reasons behind terrorist acts, as well as the social movements, such as the “Arab Spring,” that stem from the same sources. In order to do so good intelligence is vital. You have to know what you’re dealing with in order to understand it, and perhaps over time to diffuse some of the enmity that creates the seeds where terrorism can arise and flourish.
For all of his experience Keane said he had rarely been able to actually get any person, who had committed acts of terrorism, to face what they had actually done. He told the story of one Northern Irish terrorist who after a long interview was asked whether he actually recognized what he had done. Keane said the response he finally got was surprising, as the man broke down in remembering the terrible things he had done. Was he sorry? Yes, he was. Would he commit those acts again in the same circumstances? Yes, he probably would.
Keane’s thoughtful analysis of why terorrism exists leads to only one conclusion: Unless the root causes that lead to people to commit themselves to terrorist solutions to address the wrongs they perceive as directed against them are addressed, terrorism will continue to be a fact of life.