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‘Terrorism is theatre and we are the audience’

After every attack, terrorism researchers are often asked the same question: who did it? Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, a researcher at Leiden University, doesn’t always have a ready-made answer.

‘When Anders Breivik carried out his attack, I heard several terrorism experts on TV saying they were certain that Al Qaeda was behind it. I wasn’t working here then, but I remember thinking: don’t jump to conclusions.’

The topic of ‘terrorism’ has fascinated De Roy van Zuijdewijn for some time. She wants to know what motivates terrorists, and what kind of impact their acts have on society. She has quite often been asked why a young woman finds terrorism so interesting, and in fact she’s getting a bit tired of that question. ‘It’s really such a cliché to think that women couldn’t be interested in it, and I’m certainly not the only woman working in the Institute of Security and Global Affairs in The Hague.’

At the same time, she realises that her research topic is very current. This automatically means that people ask questions. At every party, everyone wants the terrorism expert to explain what’s going on. The media, too, regularly request the young researcher’s assistance. The day after the attack in Manchester, Zuijdewijn received a phone call from Jeugdjournaal (the evening news for young viewers): could children still go to a pop concert? ‘I replied that I understood they were afraid, but I personally would still go.’ For Jeanine, the questions asked by Jeugdjournaal were difficult. ‘Then a child will ask: why do people do this? Well, yes, why? Because they’re angry.’

In every era

People are often angry. Consequently, terrorism occurs in every era. It goes in waves, explains Jeanine. ‘The historian Rapoport distinguishes four waves. At the end of the nineteenth century you had the anarchist wave, with assassinations of tsars and kings. In a period of thirty years, more than ten heads of state were killed by anarchists. If that happened today, everyone would go crazy. Later you had the anti-colonial wave between 1920 and 1960 with, for example, the FLN in Algeria. Then came the new left wave, with groups like the RAF in Germany. Now we’re in the religious wave. According to Rapoport, this started in 1979, a year with many events of symbolic importance: the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the Revolution in Iran, the storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.’

The common thread linking all those terrorist waves is attention, says Jeanine, where the main point is not the number of dead, but rather the onlookers. ‘Terrorism is theatre, and we are the audience. It is a violent form of communication, used by terrorists in the hope that the audience’s reaction will result in their political goals being achieved.’

Is she never afraid? ‘At most, I sometimes think of it on ‘King’s Day’. Apart from that, never.’ It’s best to beware of an over-reaction, which is what happened after 9/11. ‘Ironically, more people died on the road in consequence of that over-reaction than in the attacks themselves. What happened was that people in America started to travel more by car instead of by air, which resulted in more road accidents.’

Black tie

9/11 also had other effects. Such as an exponential growth in terrorism studies worldwide. Terrorism is a hot topic. Take, for example, the Massive Open Online Course ‘Terrorism and Counterterrorism’ taught by Edwin Bakker, Professor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism, to which Jeanine also contributed. ‘It has attracted a total of 150,000 participants from 80 countries,’ she reports enthusiastically. The 2018 Terrorism Masterclass, a series of three lectures held at the Leiden University faculty in The Hague, led by Edwin Bakker and Jeanine, was attended by 540 participants. The closing panel included Marcel Gelauff, Chief News Editor of the TV station NOS, and Dick Schoof, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism. The topic was crisis communication, which involves more than just words. ‘I remember that we asked Schoof whether he was ready for it, if anything were to happen in the Netherlands. The question was: do you always have a dark-coloured tie with you? He answered that the black tie was never very far away.’

Reactions to attacks

Zuijdewijn is uncertain whether she will continue to work in the academic world. ‘For the time being, I will, but who knows: maybe later I will move to one of the think tanks, or go to work for the government.’ In any case, she still has a lot of research to do first. Zuijdewijn wants to know what kind of impact terrorism has on society, and for this purpose spent a year travelling to various European cities to attend the anniversary commemorations of attacks. She described it as confrontational, but also good. ‘It’s important that academics make a connection with society. As an academic, you sometimes have to come down from your ivory tower. And so there I was, in Berlin, Manchester and Nice, as a researcher looking for the facts, surrounded by people who were filled with emotions. I found it very moving.’

In fact, the commemorations were different in all of those places, she observes. ‘In France, the first anniversary after the attack in Nice had a strongly nationalist character, with fighter jets flying over. In Berlin, a year after the Christmas Market attack, it was fairly chaotic; there were four demonstrations, ranging from extreme left to extreme right. But in Manchester – a year after the attack during the Ariana Grande concert – the emphasis was more on connectedness. We, as a city, have emerged stronger from this. That was the frame they wanted to establish, which is why all the pop concerts were organised.

‘My feeling is that the authorities in Manchester had the best sense of how you should react: the Mayor mingled with the crowd and thanked the volunteers. Merkel, on the other hand, was accused of giving no attention at all to the bereaved relatives and survivors after the Berlin Christmas Market attack. She wanted to avoid giving publicity to the terrorists, but in doing so, she forgot the victims.’

Text: Nicolline van der Spek
Images: Marius Roos

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This article appeared in Leidraad, Leiden University's alumni magazine. You can also read the magazine online (in Dutch).

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