Terrorism for financial gain is a real threat – but it's also nothing we haven't seen before

Tom Smith
The attacker of the Dortmund team bus tried to put the blame on Islamist extremism: Getty

The suspect in the attack on the Borussia Dortmund Team bus on 11 April was looking to profit financially in a convoluted plan reliant on a share price crash. This is a step change, all be it with some heritage, but it is ultimately a flawed one.

Already labelled as “speculator terrorism”, such a strategy relies on the terror effect, and therein lies the flaw. Fear of terrorism is rarely seen for all the headlines, alerts and policies it generates. Instead terrorism has become the prominent means of “othering”, those in our societies and distinguishing politicised identities.

Terrorism reporting regularly exposes our sadly less than deep prejudices and the Dortmund attack is just another expose of that. Muslims are the go-to “other”, and the author of the fake claims of responsibility knew he was feeding on an insatiable appetite that barely needed baiting. The presumption of militant Islam is sadly understandable but no less a trap. It provides cover and the Dortmund attack was taking advantage of it.

In this respect, the novelty in taking advantage of that cover is something we should watch out for. The prospects of “false flag” terrorism from far right groups looking to undermine German policy toward refugees from Syria was mooted last week. Nobody was suggesting a ”false flag” for individual commercial profit.

Though terrorism has often had a commercial element. Not least in Germany, where from the 1970s the Red Army Faction robbed banks to service their anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolution. While political reform is the banner, financial gain has formed a regular undercurrent in terrorism. Terrorism is classically misunderstood as violence in service of a collective strategy rather than an individualistic one.

“Carlos the Jackal” may not have gone short on M&S stocks before he attempted to assassinate Joseph Sieff, the companies chairman (and leading figure in the British Zionist Federation), in 1973 on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). But the prospect of attacks on financially sensitive figures was made clear, though until now it seemed more theoretical than practical.

Terrorism that is primarily commercial and individual is most definitely on the agenda now as never before, and while our prejudices might misguide us, they don't fuel it. Some human beings can profit from the death, injury and imposition of fear on other human beings. But it is not very easy. We do not scare that easy.

Relying on the stock market to react rationally to a terrorist attacks is hardly a sound investment strategy. Borussia Dortmund shares actually rose the day after the attack. Quantifying the fear effect is a mugs game. Fear of terrorism is largely overblown, even when commercially manifest. After 9/11, the US stock markets bounced back within a month while there was still smoke coming from the rubble of the World Trade Centre. After 7/7, for most Londoners 8/7 was a sad working day, not a fear-filled one. We can go back to the IRA and beyond these shores for more such evidence.

Beyond those immediately affected, terrorism is principally a media event. One that politicians, and yes commentators, nearly always fall for. In spite of the risks presented by their mental health issues, individuals with everyday objects should not make us fear one another. Politicians regularly profit from manufacturing fear around terrorism. Theresa May’s staggering over-reaction to the Westminster attack, calling it no less than an “attack on us and our freedom” came as she was also stating the obvious, that “we will not be cowed”. Cars and kitchen knives kill, but they don’t constitute an attack on our country or our values. We can maybe forgive some hyperbole given that was an attack on the Westminster Bubble. But Dortmund shows us that it is long past time to burst the terrorism fear bubble.

By at least reducing the hot air from the fear mongering on terrorism, we reduce the scope for over reaction, and for political and financial profiteering.

Tom Smith is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Portsmouth.