Policing Terrorism

Matthew Deflem
Terrorism Expert, Professor of Sociology, University of South Carolina
Thursday, July 7, 2005; 11:00 AM

Explosions rocked the transportation system across an arc of central London Thursday morning, injuring over 300 people and killing at least three with the numbers expected to rise, according to early reports.

Read the story: London Explosions Kill at Least 33 (Post, July 7)

Terrorism expert Matthew Deflem (sociology professor, University of South Carolina) was online Thursday, July 7, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the apparent terrorist attacks in London and, in particular, the policing of terrorism.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

A transcript follows.


Falls Church, Va.: Won't public transporation systems, such as buses and subways, always be easy prey for terrorists? It's too cumbersome to inspect everyone's purse, gym bag, or brief case; so don't we just have to hope that we're never sharing a ride with a suicide bomber? There seems to be no security in place to prevent it.

Matthew Deflem: That is, sadly, a good point you make, and as the terrorist attacks in London shows, one that terrorist organizations know very well. That is also the big difference with airlines, because there is only one place where people board a plane, and once it is in the air it is safe as long as the point of entry was secured.

However, having said that, security personnel can also be stationed at major bus terminals and subway stations, and that is also being done. Also transit personnel is also more vigilant and on the look-out for suspicious activities.


Washington, D.C.: Short of equipping subway stations with security checkpoints and metal detectors, is there anything authorities can do to make sure something like the London attacks don't happen again?

Matthew Deflem: The best response, the most effective one too, would be to prevent terrorism at the ideological level. If you can oprevent people from thinking that terrorism is a good thing, that it is an acceptable strategy, then more detailed security operations become redundant. But we're far away from that. Therefore, at this point, we have to work on different levels, political, ideological, but also on the level of security and intelligence.


San Antonio, Tex.: May we establish your credentials first: What makes a sociology professor an expert on terrorism?

What do these low-tech--but highly coordinated attacks on London's transportation system tell us about terrorism in Europe?

If, as early reporting indicates (according to Der Spiegel this morning)that al Qaeda in Europe is responsible for today's series of bombings, what does this mean for terrorism in Europe? Are we to believe this terrorist group's claim that it will mount similar attacks in Denmark and Italy if these smaller countries don't withdraw their troops from Afghanistan and Iraq?

Do you think these attacks will change the focus of G8?

Matthew Deflem: My expertise is based on my research on the policing of terrorism and, especially, the cooperation among police across the world to fight terrorism. Such security and intelligence issues have moved center stage in matters of terrorism at least since 9/11. my Web site has many of my related writings online:

Terrorism has a longer history in Europe than in the US, much longer in fact. But today's terrorism is different, as much of it is based in radical Islamic organizations.

In terms of the response this attack will get, it may be too soon to say, but it may very well have a unifying effect among the nations of Europe and the United States. Difference may continue to exist on Iraq, but not on terrorism and terrorist organization and the dangers they pose for democratic societies. So my guess, or better: my hope is that there will be more cooperation and unity as a result of this attack.


Washington, D.C.: Is there any possibility that the recent terrorist attacks in London were executed only once it was announced that the 2012 Olympics would be held in the city? Or were the attacks this morning planned far before the Olympics announcement? If not, do you believe that if Paris had been the Olympic Host for 2012, then we would have seen terrorist attacks in France instead?

Matthew Deflem: No, it is very unlikely that the Olympics have a role in the choice of the site, because these attacks take a long time to plan, especially when there are 4 coordinated attacks. This was planned months in advance. The coinciding with the G8 meeting may have been more important. B


Washington, D.C.: Why are we so reactive to potential terrorist threats? As soon as something happens overseas (e.g., London or Madrid bombings), we "beef-up" our security. We need to have increased security constantly to avoid the threat. The terrorists aren't stupid. They are going to hit us when our guard is down, not when our guard is up ...

Matthew Deflem: This raises an important point, namely that reactive policing (after the facts( alone is not enough, although that is necessary too. But it does show that intelligence is very important, intelligence that can lead us to know what is being planned, so that such attacks can be prevented. My impression is that we are lacking in intelligence capabilities, in part because the communities from which terrorist come are very different with respect to culture, language, and so on. Israel has much experience in this, because of its huge terrorism issues, in infiltrating communities that are hostile.



Washington, D.C.: Hello -- I feel so vulnerable on the Metro and bus (which I use everyday around D.C.). Would you continue to use public transportation? Am I not as vulnerable as I fear (i.e., the government is watching as has things somewhat under control)?


Matthew Deflem: I understand your concerns, of course. But you should also keep in mind that security has been stepped up in our country since 9/11 and that more than ever before is being done to make sure a terrorist attack cannot happen. Also, being afraid is precisely what the terrorists are after. So getting on with our lives as best as we can is all we can do. Also, relative to many other problems and disasters, such as traffic accidents, terrorism is really a very rare occurrence. Sadly, when it does hit, it is very devastating.


Falls Church, Va.: This unknown al Qaeda group that claimed responsibility today for the attacks on London, are they truly affiliated with al Qaeda or is every terrorist group around the world now inspired to act on behalf of bin Laden??

Matthew Deflem: Good point. There is a clear sense that every group nowadays that shares some or most aspects of the ideology of Al Qaeda will say that it is related, when there may not be any organizational links. Now that is precisely one of the characteristics of these new terrorist groups, namely that they are "loosely organized" with no real center or central headquarters, with strong symbolic links, but not a real organizations. This also makes it much harder to police these groups.


Arlington, Va.: Why does it take a long time to plan a coordinated terrorist attack? If 6 people decided to attack a fairly unguarded public transportation system, other than securing bomb making materials, how much planning is necessary? Couldn't they carry it out fairly quickly?

Matthew Deflem: No, not really, see first you need people willing to do this. people committed to die if necessary in executing such an attack. then you need the equipment, that takes time as well. And then you need to select a target. This was clearly carefully chosen. Four attacks in London, at strategic sites (subway and bus), all around the same time, by several people. It is not just something that can be done in a few days.


Belmond, Iowa: To your knowledge, was there any threat against London made by any terrorist group or organization?? This seems to have taken everyone by surprise.

Matthew Deflem: Yes, it is a surprise. The security and intelligence community has already said so. Again, had intelligence been better, then maybe it would have been different...

Also, Homeland Security this morning said that it has no knowledge of any similar plans here in the US>


Baltimore, Md.: I understand that London has an extensive network of cameras in its transit stations. If this is true, will it make it easier to identify those who placed the bombs on the trains.

Matthew Deflem: Yes, London (and much of England) has a very dense network of cameras. Hopefully they will at least have recorded the perpetrators, and maybe something can be learned from that. But it remains mostly a response system that does not really deter such highly committed terrorists. Also, I do not know what the response would be here in the US with a similar system, because the cameras see everything including perfectly legitimate activities, raising privacy issues.


Washington, D.C.: Immediately following the March 11, 2004 al Qeada attacks on Madrid's transportation system, Spain responded by ousting the incumbent Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Many argue that his defeat was largely the result of his participation in the Iraq war, in spite of public opposition. It seems that the March 11 attacks made clear to the Spanish public the reasons it should not have entered the war: it makes them a target of terrorism and it exacerbates an already adversarial relationship with Islamic fundamentalists. Now my question: How will the attacks in London resonate with the British public in its view of England's participation in the war? Will they feel regret for reelecting Tony Blair in May? How can Blair reestablish a feeling of safety?

Matthew Deflem: In Spain the situation was a little different, especially because a majority of the Spanish people was already opposed to the war in Iraq before the March 11 attacks. So the Spanish election results may have been the same even without the attacks there.

In the UK, sentiments are different. Also, the UK has a stronger tradition of nationalism, more comparable with that here in the US, so these attacks may very well have the reverse effects. That is, because of these attacks, the Brits will be more likely to rally together, to unite in a common cause. I am not sure if this will apply to Iraq (casualties play a role too), but I do think it will determine the response to crack down on terrorism.


Austin, Tex.: Surprised? By what? The Associated Press reports that Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu was alerted by Scotland Yard of a "possible terrorist attack" before the bombings and he changed his plans accordingly. Why wasn't this information shared with the public prior to the attack?

Matthew Deflem: I heard this too, but I later heard that this was not true. That this story was a hoax. Let's wait and see.


Kensington, Md.: Should we realistically expect the U.S. to "police" terrorism around the world? How can we effectively "police" terrorism when different countries have different policies, laws, etc.? Should countries coordinate to police terrorism or should it be the responsibility of each, respective, nation?

Matthew Deflem: Very good and important point. From my research, I can say that the most effective response is not for one nation, whether it be the US or anyone else, to police the world, at least not alone. What is more effective to get results is to foster collaboration among nations in terms of their security and intelligence as well as at the political level. So I do think the US has a special role, but not so much in policing the world, as helping to coordinate an international response to terrorism, and being able to receive support from many nations. I personally do not think there is a viable alternative to international cooperation among nations.


Washington, D.C.: As a general rule European governments are very reluctant to retaliate to a terrorist attack by using military force --- a tactic which seems to be the MO of both the Americans and the Israelis. How do you think Blair might respond to this attack, given that his neighbors tend to view the use of force as truly a tactic of last resort?

Matthew Deflem: Correct. The European attitude towards military interventions is different. If anything, I think that Blair will now be even more steadfast in terms of Iraq than he was before. Any withdrawal from his commitment in Iraq will be seen as a sign of weakness. But I assume that the response in Europe in non-military ways will be more important. For instance, Europe has a specialized anti-terrorism agency within its new international police organization Europol (the European Police Office). There has been some reluctance among the nations of the EU to work on this international level, but I think that will change now.


Baltimore, Md.: Are devices available that can detect the presence of explosives before a terrorist sets foot on a train? If so, how feasible is it to install explosive detectors in metro stations?

Matthew Deflem: Very difficult indeed. The screening of people boarding airlines is very detailed but takes a very long time. The sheer volume of people boarding buses and subways every day is enormous.


Greenbelt, Md.: Does Great Britain have a Patriot Act similar to ours. If not, do you think it will adopt a similar one. Will the country put restrictions on immigration.

Matthew Deflem: Yes, the UK as well as other countries in Europe have adopted similar laws against terrorism. However, none of them went as far as the PATRIOT law here in the US. In my mind, the PATRIOT act was only possible because of the devastating impact of 9/11. Now the Madrid and London bombings are similar but they are not quite of the same magnitude. So sad but true, unless something really big happens, the response may not go as far. Still, the London bombings will strengthen the legal and police response.


Anonymous: I heard that this attack was possible in Great Britain because that country has a large Muslim population that is not being as watched as much as it is in the U.S.

Matthew Deflem: I don't think it is so much the size of the Muslim populations the diversity of London that enables certain terrorist groups and individuals to hide better in large cosmopolitan communities such as London, Paris, Berlin, New York, etc. Such cities are very diverse and at the same time open societies, so there is much that can go on there. Sadly, such freedoms are not only used, but can also be abused.


Michael, Washington, D.C.: Britain has a history of terrorist bombings - especially with the IRA. Do you think this will go down as their 9/11?

Matthew Deflem: Not quite, because like you said, there has been so much more terrorism in the UK before this. And some of those other problems are still present as well. We will have to wait and see, because the senseless of these attacks is obvious, as there was no semblance to cover it up as a symbolic attack on a political or economic center. Instead these attacks were oriented explicitly and completely at people, getting as many as they can, getting a high body count, and precisely there where people are doing routine activities such as taking the bus and the subway. All of London is connected by these transit systems and everybody uses them all the time. So people's sense of safety is seriously hurt.


Washington, D.C.: What sort of implications, if any, do you think today's attack in G.B. will have on the fledgling E.U.? If the E.U. becomes more solidified, wouldn't it mean more collaboration in preventing future attacks and apprehending perpetrators?

Matthew Deflem: I would say, yes, this will increase cooperation in the EU. Providing that this increased sense of international cooperation also includes other countries, the US but also other nations across the globe, the effects can only be positive. Perhaps that is the one good thing that can come of these attacks... it has in fact often been the case that tragedies have positive consequences, that because something bad happens that people rally, come together, and try to make sure such a tragedy cannot happen again. If that is the case, the terrorists have made a serious miscalculation. Also, the use of extreme violence may lead people to become very unsympathetic even if there was something about the proclaimed cause that they liked (e.g. opposition to the Iraq war). The unabomber is an example in the US.


Dale City, Va.: There were reports last week of Iraqis caught trying to enter the U.S. through Mexico. Is there any concern that they may have been part of a larger group coming here for a specific attack?

Matthew Deflem: There have indeed been concerns that certain individuals have been trying to enter the US via Mexico, and that they are less likely to be caught there, because the US-Mexican border is seen in a very different light (illegal Mexican workers, drug trade). But the problem is bigger than that because as an open and free society, the US has always been very accessible to many foreigners (most of us are or are descendants of immigrants). Sadly, that has also brought about that a hostile community towards the US already exists in the US... There is a good documentary about this, called The Jihad in America/USA, about the presence of such groups here in the US.


Reston, Va.: Why can't we shut down the Web sites used by terrorist organizations or at least find out who runs these sites?

Matthew Deflem: Anybody can run a website anywhere. It is one of the characteristics of the medium that is accessible to anybody all over the globe. Criminal opportunities have so also expanded. It will also be difficult to police Web sites in terms of speech without getting into constitutional trouble. Also, systems of communication are more important because that is where the organization gets together and can come up with plans etc. The only concrete way that one can get at this is by better intelligence. I am sometimes surprised to see how little has been learned from 9/11 in this respect. Everyone said so after 9/11, that *human intelligence* was the key. But now, nonetheless, there is so much emphasis on technology. For instance, there are billions of dollars spend on securing our airports (rightly so), but what about infiltrating terrorist groups, what about recruiting informants, etc. We still have a long way to go here.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: I'm really curious as to why these kinds of bombings continue to be used by terrorist groups? They don't seem to be effective in changing any country's policies. As you pointed out about Spain, the same result was likely there anyway, bombing or not, since the Spanish public was heavily against their involvement in the Iraq war and the party that said it would pull out had already been elected.

Matthew Deflem: Well, it is difficult indeed to speculate on the mind of the terrorist. It is not a rational act to begin with. So maybe direct effectiveness or concrete results is not what they have in mind, as is a more general showing of strength and force. In that sense terrorism is very powerful, just look at all the responses it gets, how we think and talk about it, the money that is spend on getting them, etc. Also, let's not forget that the main audience, if you will, of the terrorists is not England, or the US, or Europe, but their own communities. To show that you're not afraid of Bush or Blair may garner support there.


Anonymous: Do you think our elevating bin Laden and al Quaeda to "U.S. war opponent" status may have enhanced their credibility and ability to recruit? Would a dispassionate and determined police effort at apprehension and prosecution been more effective than the "war" framing in terms of the overall level of terror threat to the U.S?

Matthew Deflem: Tough questions indeed. If you do a lot against them, you give them a platform. But on the other hand, before 9/11 we weren't too concerned about bin Laden, despite his involvement in World Trade Center bombing 1993, Kenya and Tanzania 1998, U.S.S. Cole, etc... The fight against terrorism is always a catch 22 to some extent.


Washington, D.C.: It seems that there's no way to know this, but... once a coordinated terrorist attack such as this happens on any one day in any one city, is it more likely that the energy and planning of the group responsible is spent, and it will take time for them to "reload," or is it more expected by experts that attacks such as these are step 1 in a much larger attack?

Matthew Deflem: Good point. I think that a terrorist attack can indeed bring about a displacement, that is a moving away of the problem from one area to another. For one, now that London has been hit, it need not be hit again. Second, other groups elsewhere may now have the courage to do something similar. In that sense, it is no bad idea, such the President said, to be more vigilant in the US now. Security here and in other parts of Europe is on alert.


Matthew Deflem: Thank you for participating in this discussion. I enjoyed your questions on this important matter. I also hope that we as citizens continue to contemplate these issues and what we ought to do about these problems, and that we can contribute to our free and democratic society in ways that will not allow violence.

Feel free to email me and/or visit my Web site for related information:

Mathieu Deflem

Associate Professor

University of South Carolina


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