It stands to reason that senior officials, be they civilian leaders or military officers, want to provide the public with good news. Whether it is to gain votes or to instill pride in a country’s armed forces, these individuals see the benefit of telling the (voting) population that success is at hand or that whatever programme or operation that is being unrolled is going well. Being the messenger of positive news sure beats being the harbinger of doom.
This is particularly true when it comes to the (ill-named) ‘war on terrorism’, a task where there is no shortage of proclamations of victory. We have been at this for a long time, well before 9/11 although that event certainly concentrated our attention on terrorism, and we have seen terrorists and groups come and go. The immediate enemy was Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda which then led to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and Islamic State, with a variety of other actors in between. Bin Laden is dead and IS is a shell of its former self and both accomplishments have been sold as tremendous wins against terrorism. But are they?
Don’t get me wrong – a dead terrorist is a good terrorist and a less capable terrorist organisation poses less of a threat. So of course these developments are good things. Unfortunately, many people in positions of power and influence have a tendency to oversell these successes and exaggerate what they mean for our struggle to deal with terrorism.
There is also a dilemma in agreeing on what success means. When should we declare victory over a terrorist group? When it no longer poses a threat? When the last true believer dies or is neutralised? When the ideology disappears (and how does one make that determination?)?
Unquestionably the demise of IS is indeed good news when one puts it in the context of its last few years: thousands of ‘foreign fighters’, huge swaths of territory in its self-styled Caliphate, hundreds of terrorist attacks. We can take justifiable pride in the sense of a job well done with IS. And yet although IS central may be a much smaller organisation, its affiliates in several places – Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and other lands – are strong and may be getting stronger. Furthermore, the ideology underpinning the group and other Islamist extremist organisations is not diminishing, at least not from my vantage point.
With a view to selling audiences on ‘mission accomplished’ several governments have declared that their particular terrorist scourge is all but dead. Nigeria has made it a Christmas tradition to say that Boko Haram is no more, and yet the group is still carrying out lethal attacks: more than 5200 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in one state (Adamawa) over the past five years. The total in neighbouring Borno State must be much higher as that is where the terrorist group has a stronger presence. The Philippines has boasted that a multi-month campaign to defeat the IS-linked Maute rebels in the southern area of Mindinao has ended in victory. And yet there are reports that the group is still active in recruiting ‘vulnerable ‘ youth in the region. Are these two cases good examples of a job well done?
It is thus clear that there is a great deal of leeway in determining whether ‘victory’ is as total as maintained. As consumers of information we need to read statements made both by terrorists and by states with care, as both sides have a tendency to exaggerate. Taking either side at face value is foolish.
I have often said that I am not a fan of the analogy that we are at ‘war’ with terrorism and I won’t repeat the reasons for my misgivings here. But I will use two phrases often associated with the pursuit of warfare to make my point. It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth and that once hostilities are engaged we are immersed into the ‘fog of war’. It seems to me that both metaphors apply here.
So the next time you read that a state has ‘defeated’ a terrorist group take that news with a grain of salt. Truly overcoming a terrorist organisation is harder than it looks, and not so neat as it is claimed.