September 6, 2021   6 mins

Perhaps it is shameful to admit it, but when 9/11 happened I felt a keen desire to watch the carnage. I was working as a labourer at the time and had knocked off early after hearing the news on the radio. I sat in front of the television and didn’t move from my father’s tobacco-stained living room until early evening.

“It was an awful crime,” the British journalist Andrew Anthony wrote later, “but it was also, as its perpetrators would have known, an awesome televisual event.” Anthony, for his part, was in a bar in London’s Soho, transfixed to a television screen with a gasping crowd. “There was something disturbingly pornographic about the need to see more and different angles of the impact over and over again,” he noted. “I’ve never understood the question: ‘Where were you when [fill in the significant historical event] happened?’ Because the answer is almost always: ‘In front of the television.’”

Now, two decades on from the attack, the answer is almost always: on a smartphone, into which television and much else, including the spectacle of international terrorism, has since disappeared.

Terrorism, too, has changed dramatically since 9/11, and in ways that are closely related to the rise of the smartphone and the global proliferation of social media. Most obviously, its style has become more immediate and intimate. Had the 9/11 hijackers possessed smartphones, we wouldn’t have had to rely on network television for footage and speculative commentary.

The hijackers would have live-streamed their depredations inside the planes in real-time, disseminating the footage on Facebook, just as Brenton Tarrant did in 2019 when he slaughtered 51 Muslim worshippers in two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We would have seen their wolfish smiles as they terrorised the passengers and attacked the pilots and flight attendants. We would have heard them shout “Allahu Akbar” moments before the impact, and we would have seen cockpit footage of the planes plunging into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But of course we saw and heard none of this, and Martin Amis could only write about how “That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien”. But what about the chaos inside the plane, as it came, in Amis’s words, “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty”?

On 11 September, 2001, we could only imagine it — or, mercifully, try not to. Today, we don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be in the midst of a terrorist atrocity, because terrorists are all-too-eager to show us their POV. Nor do we have to imagine what it’s like when a prisoner is beheaded: thanks to ISIS, we can now see this up close and in High Definition. Like gonzo porn, terrorism’s new ruling credo is to show everything. Indeed, terrorists have become auteurs of a horrifying new type of theatre, where the myth of the snuff movie becomes a grim reality.

Yet paradoxically, at the same, terrorism has also become less spectacular. When Osama bin Laden dispatched the 19 hijackers who pulled off the 9/11 attacks, he knew that the whole world would be watching, and it was. Indeed, he didn’t just want to murder vast numbers of innocent people, but to create what the sociologist Douglas Kellner has called a “mega-spectacle”.

And he was unquestionably successful in that. On NBC, within minutes of the second plane slamming into the South Tower, one eyewitness, gasping for breath, told news anchor Matt Lauer via a telephone line: “It looks like a movie… I’ve never seen anything like it.” Lauer concurred, describing the footage as “the most shocking video tape I’ve ever seen”.

No terrorist group since 9/11 has carried out an attack of such lethality and ambition or produced a propaganda image as symbolically potent as the collapse of the Twin Towers. This, chiefly, is because the soft targets of civil aviation have decidedly hardened: today, you can’t take a hip-flask on a plane, let alone Mace and a four-inch blade. Mass surveillance has also made it much harder for terrorists to plan and coordinate large-scale attacks.

More crucially, the US invasion of Afghanistan, which killed nearly 80% of al Qaeda’s core members in that country, meant that the group no longer had a sanctuary in which to plan future terrorist attacks. With bin Laden and his chief lieutenants scattered and on the run, al Qaeda’s terrorism shape-shifted into something less terrorising: what Marc Sageman called “leaderless jihad”.

This was the jihad of the self-financed and self-trained terrorist whose headquarters was his bedroom. It was the jihad of the “jihadi next door”, who, to their neighbours, were just ordinary guys, if a little quiet and reserved. While these “inspired” killers proved deadly, they lacked the skills, resources and support to wreak havoc on the scale of 9/11; their jihad was more squalid than spectacular.

In the summer of 2014, when ISIS rose to power in Syria and Iraq, that all threatened to change: the leaderless jihadis now had a leader (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and territory (the caliphate) to profess allegiance to and defend. Some of them returned to Europe, carrying out large-scale attacks in Paris and Brussels. Jihadi terrorism, for a short period, became “directed” again.

Even so-called “lone wolves” who had never been to Syria or Iraq could communicate with ISIS operatives online and receive operational guidance and support from them. Others, who had neither been to ISIS-controlled territory nor received guidance from the group, nevertheless took “inspiration” from it, using carstrucks, or knives to conduct killing sprees against random civilians in Western cities.

Today, this seems to be the dominant form of jihadi terrorism in the West: low-tech, amateurish attacks devoid of any real logic or political rationale. Indeed, this type of terrorism seems more performative and personal than instrumental and political.

What, for example, was the point of Usman Khan’s rampage at Fishmonger’s Hall in London in November 2019? What set of political demands did Khan have? Given that Khan’s violence was directed at those associated with the “Learning Together” programme, a liberal-minded prison education initiative he took part in, and given his desire to become a martyr, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Khan’s motives were more personal than political or a complex combination of both. Perhaps terrorism has always been like this, but in its current incarnation it seems that the gap between terrorist atrocities and real-world politics has never been so far apart.

Yet as terrorism in the West has become more banal and less lethal, the response to it, in contrast, has become insistently more hysterical. ISIS, as the recent attack in Kabul has demonstrated, remains a potent threat in Muslim-majority countries, but its military defeat in Syria and Iraq has massively hampered its ability to direct and inspire attacks in the West.

This has left a large void which our over-bloated security state and counter-extremism industry has tried to fill by amplifying the threat of far-Right groups. Not so long ago they were sounding the alarm about the dangers of “slick” online ISIS propaganda, and how vulnerable young people were being radicalised by it. Today, widely respected extremism scholars are sounding the alarm about far-Right online “echo-chambers” and writing feverish articles on: “How parents can learn to recognize online radicalization and prevent tragedy – in 7 minutes”.

While far-Right violence is certainly a serious issue in America and Europe, it’s nonsensical to compare it to the far greater global threat of jihadism – or to exclude 9/11 from your calculus in an effort to show, as one terrorism expert recently did, that “excluding the coordinated attacks of 9/11, domestic right-wing terrorism has caused more harm to American citizens at home than radical Islamist attacks over the past two decade”.

It’s also hysterical to believe that far-Right terrorists are using the internet to turn children into white supremacist terrorists, or to think that a meme or an ironic joke “can be a gateway to extremist views”. This is part of a deeper confusion, where the counter-extremism industry, instead of focusing on specific violent groups and their kinetic threat level and capabilities, has sought to expand its remit (and potential revenue) by inventing useless and nebulous categories like “hateful extremism” and “extremist narratives”.

The cartoonish notion that terrorists are “hateful” has somehow caught on among policy-makers post-9/11, but it has little to do with how and why people decide to kill themselves and others in service to a sacred cause. While hate and reductive thinking are clearly bad, they’re useless as predictors of terrorism, which, as every terrorism scholar knows, is rare and committed by very few individuals.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of today’s confusion about terrorism came after the breaching of the Capitol Building on 6 January, 2021. “This is terrorism,” scholar John Horgan gravely tweeted on the day of the riots. Kathleen Belew, another expert, was similarly emphatic and self-certain, tweeting on the day of the riots and about the rioters: “They are certainly anti-democratic, since they are using terrorism to attack fair electoral process. The word you want, I think, is fascist.”

But whatever happened on 6 January, it wasn’t terrorism; if by terrorism we mean, in accordance with standard non-politicised definitions, violence aimed at civilians to achieve some political goal. No civilians were deliberately targeted and harmed in the Capitol building, except for one of the rioters who was shot dead by the police. According to the FBI, the motives of the vast majority of the rioters were unclear since they had not given any thought to what they would do once they were inside the Capitol building, and there was scant evidence of any plot or coordination among them.

The world has changed markedly since 9/11, and in no small part because of it. Terrorism remains a potent global threat. But we should not overstate the threat, still less pretend that people who disgust us with their ideas and hatreds are really terrorists.

“Terrorism is theatre,” the seasoned terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins observed more than 40 years ago. He was referring to how terrorist atrocities “are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press”. He was right about that, but I doubt that even someone as prescient and sharp as Jenkins could have envisaged an act of terrorism as theatrically spectacular as 9/11.

Today, however, terrorism is still a spectacle, while no longer being all that spectacular. Indeed, while terrorists continue to horrify us with their violence and contempt for life, most — like the fool who tried to blow up a group of gendarmes on the Champs-Élysées in 2017, but only managed to asphyxiate himself after the gas canister in the car he was driving failed to properly explode — will be half-remembered and enjoy no infamy whatsoever.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.