Are we playing “Whack-a-mole” with terrorism?

I see that the US has undertaken airstrikes against the Libyan “province” of Islamic State (see article here).  The initial focus seem to be tied to targeting an individual behind two attacks  in Tunisia.  It is likely that more strikes will take place and it is even possible that Canada will get involved in this conflict (see Globe and Mail article here).

As I have noted on many, many occasions, I am not even remotely expert in matters military.  I prefer to leave the blogosphere on these issues to those that are.  And yet, there are a few aspects of the airstrike tool that warrant discussion.

The first surrounds the effectiveness of using aircraft or drones against enemies on the ground.  There are those that see airstrikes as minimally successful (a UK report says that the Brits have killed only 7 IS fighters so far despite probably hundreds of missions) while others are calling for the increased use of drones (e.g. former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden – story).  General Hayden in particular dismisses reports of massive civilian casualties and evidence that drone strikes are alienating local populations and, in the words of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “creating more terrorists than we are killing”.  I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle as it usually is.  There is no question that unintended deaths happen: the aforementioned US strikes in Libya killed 2 Serb diplomats seized back in November (see account here)

The second is our practice of playing Whack-a-mole with terrorist groups.  You know the game, right?  A fake mole pokes his head out of a hole and you slam him with a mallet before he disappears.  No sooner have you “killed” one mole before another varmint pokes his head up.  And the game goes on and on and on and on and…

There are four aspects to Whack-a-mole, as it is applied to the military response to terrorism, that I wish to comment on.  Firstly, whacking moles is expensive.  You have to keep putting quarters in, except that in the case of bombs and missiles the cost is in the billions and is rising quickly.  When do we run out of quarters?

Secondly, playing Whack-a-mole gets tiresome.  Mole – mallet.  Mole  – mallet.  You get the pattern.  Most people walk away after a while.  Leaving does not stop the moles surfacing however.  The game never really ends.

Thirdly, the same moles keep coming back.  It doesn’t matter how many you kill, more pop up.  Sometimes ones that you have whacked multiple times rise zombie-fashion.  This is, of course, analogous to all those Twainian premature death notices of terrorist groups.

Lastly, the ideology of the moles is not being discussed or undermined.  Once dead, their mindset of hate and violence leaves their bodies, Sauron-like, only to infect the next group to arrive on the scene.

So, how do we stop playing Whack-a-mole and achieve greater effectiveness in our counter terrorism policies?  There is no pat answer.  It is certain that we need to keep using our militaries to hit at current threats.  IS is one of those and we need to destroy these guys before they gain more territory and kill more people.

But we need at the same time to do a lot better at creating environments where terrorist ideology has a harder time taking root.  If we build tolerant, inclusive societies where differences are celebrated and not denigrated – and not call for walls to go up –  the IS claptrap that Muslims are not welcome in our countries has no leg to stand on.  Their narrative loses by default and we don’t even have to deconstruct it line by line, hence giving it the attention it does not deserve.  Now, that is not the only part of the narrative that needs attention, but it is a good start.

We can do this people, especially here in Canada, a nation built mosaic-like from the best our world has to offer.  There are individuals waiting to take up this challenge – let us empower them to do so.

And let’s stop playing Whack-a-mole – it’s a stupid game anyway.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply