In the wake of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks on European and American soil governments felt the need to adapt their legislation to what was perceived as a new threat paradigm. Policymakers considered existing criminal laws as insufficient to combat terrorism. A contributing factor was that governments needed to be seen doing something about the threat. Enacting new laws is one of the things governments are very good at.
A large number of new laws have since then been enacted specially aimed at terrorism-related offenses. Examples include the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the UK, the US PATRIOT Act and various law amendments in Germany.
These special laws have been criticized on many accounts. Civil rights advocates disapprove of the sweeping powers some of these laws bestow upon authorities. The potential for abuse has been highlighted repeatedly. The main thrust of the argument has been that special laws for terrorism were not necessary, because killing people was a crime anyway, regardless of the ideology behind such acts.
While the process of radicalization is still poorly understood, it seems that adventure-seeking is an important part in the trajectory of many radicalized people. Terrorism, after all, is “exciting” business. That is the way it is depicted in jihadist videos and print publications with guns, explosives, and heroic battles against the West. This does not square with reality. An important number of uncovered plotters in the US and in Europe were amateurs and completely inept at their trade. They seemed to have little in common with their role models.
An unintended consequence of these aforementioned terrorism laws is that they give would-be terrorists a status which they clearly do not deserve. The label “terrorist” signals danger to society. In some circles this is seen as a badge of honor.
Denying those “terrorists” the glory of this label is a first but important step in making societies more resilient. They do not want to see themselves as criminals – they have much “higher” aspirations after all. Terrorists are to be feared, whereas criminals are a mere nuisance. This is how terrorism laws can create perverse incentives for would-be “terrorists”.
Some countries have adopted this point of view. Norway has consciously not enacted any special terrorism laws. Instead it relies on using regular criminal laws, deliberately putting “terrorists” on the same level as burglars, rapists and murderers.
If local police or the intelligence services spot a vulnerable person who is about to cross the threshold to illegality, local police will politely invite this individual for a coffee. This serves two purposes: Firstly, it gives the concerned individual the possibility to air their grievances and the authorities the possibility to do something about it when appropriate. Secondly, this invitation sends a clear and unambiguous message: You are on our radar.
In devising its policies Norway has drawn on its experiences with neo-Nazi groups and related “exit” programs. The neo-Nazi groups were framed in what was a criminal context, as opposed to the exceptionalist way violent jihadi extremists are being conceptualized elsewhere. This might explain why Norway differs in its response from other countries.
Stripping crime with a jihadist motivation from its supposedly glorious elements would contribute to lowering the attractiveness of waging “jihad”. Being a “terrorist” is exciting; being a criminal is just embarrassing.