Skip to main content
Migration and Home Affairs

Responding to terror attacks

2020 has seen a number of terrorist incidents in Europe so far, including Villejuif and Metz in France, in Hanau in Germany and in London in the UK. This spate of incidents demonstrates that there is still much work to do to prevent vulnerable individuals across Europe from being radicalised. While many of our interventions focus on early prevention, engaging vulnerable individuals and young people long before they are capable of carrying out a violent act, we have to remain alert and vigilant to the possibility, perhaps certainty, of future terror attacks. How we respond to terror attacks is extremely important in preventing more people from being radicalised by the events themselves.

A terror attack has greater impact than just the loss of life and grief to families of victims that it causes. By its very design a terror attack is strategically intended to terrorise populations and strike fear and panic among people and communities.

Terrorist and extremist groups capitalise on attacks to lay claim to, take credit for or align themselves with the motivations for the attack and in so doing fuel responses from other extremist groups. A terror attack therefore provides a hook around which terrorist and extremist groups can propagate mutually supporting narratives online and in communities. The resulting scale of media coverage and online commentary provides the platform for them to reach audiences in large numbers.

During an attack people are looking for someone to blame, looking for simple answers and retreating into a defensive mindset. Simplistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives propagated online and, in the media, have the ability to stigmatise whole communities. This atmosphere of tension and division can create the fertile ground for terrorist and extremist groups to radicalise and recruit to their cause.

How we respond during and immediately after a terror attack is therefore critical to reduce the ability of terrorist and extremist organisations to exploit attacks for their own gain and in doing so minimise the impact on communities and the safeguarding of potentially vulnerable individuals. In the short-term this can reduce the likelihood of copy-cat or retaliatory attacks. In the long-term this can reduce the numbers of possible recruits.

Strategic communications in response to an attack is essential to properly reassure the public, mitigate or allay fears of further attacks, tackle fake news and misperceptions and challenge extremist narratives. If we don’t communicate others will; the communications space is filled by multiple voices from extremist groups, the media, authorities, social media users and many others, all competing for the attention of audiences. We must contest the space.

We must carefully consider the nature and speed of our response. It is a response that requires a collective effort, not just by authorities and emergency services, but also by communities themselves. As frontline practitioners, intervention providers and community leaders we have the access, credibility, trust and indeed responsibility to ensure that each is engaging and communicating with one another.

It will be important to engage with authorities and the media during a terror attack, to help them to properly understand the impact of government responses to, and media reporting around an attack on communities and vulnerable individuals. Open channels of communications can help to inform and shape the nature of the response in a way that is sensitive to communities that are affected.

Meanwhile, through our existing networks we can identify, mobilise and support the amplification of credible, moderate and positive voices from communities to challenge divisive narratives both online and in the media. Community voices have the power to engage and disarm. They can display leadership by being assertive and decisive, show solidarity by embracing communities that have been affected and be reassuring by decrying terrorist and extremist narratives.

Preparation is key. It is the relationships that we develop, the networks that we build over time, both in communities and with authorities, and the platforms and channels both online and offline that we have create that will enable us to properly respond. These networks and platforms will enable us to bring communities together and empower them to drive the response.

Related coverage

Practitioners and experts reflect upon these and other issues in the film. For more information about communication after a terrorist attack, check out the RAN Ex Post Communications After an Attack. Also refer to the GAMMA+ model. The RAN´s Communication and Narratives working group (RAN C&N) has developed practical guidelines for carrying out effective alternative and counter-narrative campaigns.

Video: Responding to a terror attack

Practitioners reflect on the role of civil society in intervening with communities in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack.

Video: The aftermath of a terror attack

Practitioners reflect on the role of civil society in intervening with communities in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack.

Written by RAN