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How Charles Darwin can help us understand terrorism

In the past decades terrorists have regularly surprised us with unexpected and spectacular attacks, such as the one on the World Trade Centre in New York. How can intelligence services stay one step ahead of them? Consult Charles Darwin and Steven Spielberg is the advice of terrorism expert Yannick Veilleux-Lepage.

For your book How Terror Evolves you researched the long history of aircraft hijacking, from Peruvian rebels in 1930 to the jihadist attacks on 11 September 2001. How did you come up with the idea?

‘Although radical Islamic terrorism is currently attracting a lot of attention, the phenomenon of terrorism has been around for much longer. These terrorist attacks don’t happen in a vacuum. Terrorist groups gain their inspiration from past terrorists or the actions of ‘regular’ criminals. They study how they went about their attack and how they can perfect this method to achieve the best results. If you see it like that, terrorism is a continuously changing process. I then applied this reasoning to aircraft hijackings.’

In the book, this brings you on to Charles Darwin, the famous biologist. What does he have to do with terrorism?

‘If you remove the biological aspect from Darwin’s theory, you’re left with a system. Darwinian evolutionary theory says that there’s always change, or in effect, innovation. That a mechanism is at work that passes the good characteristics on to the next generation. And that the innovation yields a reward. A giraffe, for instance, that has a longer neck thanks to a mutation and thus has an advantage over its peers. I wanted to find out how political violence evolves over the years. To research that, I made a list of all the times that an aircraft has been hijacked, and sought to understand how the hijacking changed over the ages, how it spread, and most importantly what factors determined whether a group would choose to use it or not.’

What does this say about attacks such as the one on the World Trade Centre in New York?

‘You could say that 9/11 is just one successful mutation in a long-running evolution of aircraft hijacks. It was not, as many people believe, a one off. The plan was several years in the making, and in that time the hijackers gathered masses of information about similar crimes; not just about successful attacks but above all about foiled or failed plots. We tend to forget that each failed attack represents a learning opportunity.’

You have come up with a special way to prevent such attacks in the future: hire Hollywood screenwriters. What would this solve?

‘In the aftermath of 9/11, US intelligence officials gathered filmmakers to brainstorm potential future terrorist plots. They had recognized that the success of the attacks on New York was thanks in part to a failure of imagination on the part of the intelligence service. They hadn’t been able to make the conceptual leap from previous aircraft hijacks to an attack in which planes would be flown into skyscrapers. That’s why I suggest hiring people who are good at conceiving all sorts of crazy mutations, people who are used to thinking out of the box. And who is better at that than filmmakers?’

Could Steven Spielberg really prevent all future attacks?

‘I wouldn’t go as far as that. There’s always interaction between terrorists and intelligence services. As soon as one door is closed, another opens elsewhere. You see that at the moment in London, for instance, where the latest attacks were very low tech, with knives or vehicles. That’s often a sign that other techniques such as using explosives weren’t as feasible because law enforcement were on top of things. What is perhaps more important is looking at the role of the media spreading information about emerging techniques; if terrorists cannot learn from the mistakes and successes of others, techniques might not be replicated so easily.

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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