Fear of an imminent terrorist attack is one of the top concerns of people across the globe, with most expecting extremist groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to a new poll conducted in eight countries.
The survey, commissioned by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), showed that many people think their governments are not doing enough to combat violent extremism. And a majority in every country polled, including the United States, overwhelmingly approved all 21 options presented to them — among them, requiring identification cards for citizens and visitors; rigorous screening of immigrants; bans on incendiary religious speech; and monitoring of phone calls, emails and social media.
Although most respondents consider the problem of violent extremism “solvable,” the poll underscored the challenges governments face as they confront radicalism at home and abroad.
“It shows there is so much fear and anxiety about terrorism and the reach of terrorism groups, people are willing to try just about anything, even give up constitutional protections on free speech, and identity cards, though it’s not even clear what that would do,” said Shannon Green, head of the CSIS Commission on Countering Violent Extremism.
“That’s where governments and experts have to take a survey, and put it through the lens of what’s going to be acceptable and legal, then decide which solutions make the most sense.”
The survey involved about 1,000 respondents in each of eight countries — the United States, France, Britain, Turkey, Egypt, China, India and Indonesia. An effort was made to balance the responses demographically by age and gender, although in Egypt, four men answered for every woman. It was conducted online, so in some countries the respondents tended to be affluent, urban and better educated.
The poll found differences in perceptions unique to each country. In Turkey, 7 out of 10 said terrorism was their No. 1 concern, as did 4 out of 10 in France. In the United States, it was the second-most important issue, after the economy. Indians also placed it second, after corruption.
In virtually every country, at least 3 in 4 said they expect a terrorist attack to occur within the next year. China was the outlier, with barely half thinking an imminent attack is likely. The French were the most concerned, with 94 percent calling it very or somewhat likely. In the United States, 89 percent said it was probably coming.
The pervasive trepidation has changed behaviors, particularly in countries that are largely Muslim.
In Indonesia, where almost 6 in 10 people said they personally know someone who has been a victim of violent extremism, more than half the respondents said they avoid visiting certain places more than they used to. In Turkey, where 4 in 10 know someone touched by terrorism, 6 in 10 avoid public gatherings. In France, Britain and the United States, in contrast, the percentages were significantly lower.
There was a striking gap in perceptions of the root causes of violent extremism between respondents in nations where Muslims are a majority and those where they are a minority.
In the three Western nations of France, Britain and the United States, majorities blame “radical Islamic fundamentalists” and think anti-Western sentiment contributes to radicalization. In the three Muslim-majority nations, blame was pointed at “those who want to make Islam look bad.”
“It speaks to how polarizing the issue is,” Green said. “People view the issue really differently, depending on which societies they come from and what their religious beliefs are.”
In every country, terrorism was viewed as a potentially existential threat, with majorities, ranging in age from young adults to senior citizens, saying they expect that within their lifetimes, violent extremists will use weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has led a coalition of more than 60 countries that are fighting Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq. Many respondents, particularly in the West, said military efforts have not been very effective and may be creating a backlash.
The largely Muslim countries reflected more nuanced views, supporting economic, social and mass-media programs as effective counterterrorism measures.
But in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike, there was strong support for using military force to combat the most well-known militant groups: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (or ISIS), the Taliban and Boko Haram. About 8 in 10 favor using remote drones “to hunt down and destroy terrorist leaders wherever they are hiding” and even sending ground troops to safe havens for terrorists.
There also is widespread support for other measures. The respondents overwhelmingly favor policing the Internet and banning religious speech condoning violence. They want Muslim religious leaders to denounce violent extremism in general and the concept of a caliphate, as the Islamic State has declared in Syria and Iraq. They want Internet companies to shut down all content from radical extremists and favor schools teaching that violent extremism is wrong.
The least popular idea is to allow the government to monitor all phone records, email and social media for contacts with terrorists. But overall, 7 in 10 people deem it a good idea. Even in the United States, where the idea had less support, 6 in 10 back it.
Mark Penn, a former pollster for former president Bill Clinton who is on the Commission on Countering Violent Extremism, said the poll reflects the demand for using soft and hard power.
“There’s a widespread frustration with the problem,” he said. “People agree that what’s needed is a comprehensive solution. Military force, particularly against groups like ISIS, makes sense. But in terms of stopping violent extremism, that can’t do it alone.”