Is it really possible to ‘defeat’ a terrorist group?

We should be very cautious in accepting claims that terrorist groups have been defeated: they have a tendency to last a long time

I imagine most of my readers could not find Corsica on a map. This island, south of France and west of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, is perhaps best known for its clan structure, accompanied by blood feuds and vendettas. It also has an odd relationship with France, called a ‘territorial collectivity’. Some on the isle want outright independence from Paris and are willing to fight for it.

Starting on Sunday, October 8 and continuing into Monday the 9th, a series of explosions rocked the island, although thankfully there was little damage and no casualties. The blasts were claimed by the separatist National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), a group that has been around for donkey’s years (since at least 1976). This shows that what can only be called a terrorist group has been active for almost a half century.

These recent actions came despite an announcement by French President Macron that maybe a form of autonomy for Corsica within the French Republic could be negotiated. In other words, a terrorist group that has been active for nigh on 50 years will not be satisfied until it gets what it wants.

Gee, where else have we heard this? The Colombian government and a dissident faction of the FARC terrorist group have postponed a scheduled ceasefire and peace talks for over a week in light of ‘escalating tensions’ (read: FARC will not stop terrorist attacks despite an alleged end to that group’s reign of terrorism for, wait for it, 60 years). Hamas just launched a major incursion into Israel, killing over 700 of that country’s citizens, setting the stage for Israeli retaliatory action which will inevitably lead to more terrorism. Hamas’ birthdate? 1987.

And yet, world leader after world leader stands up to say that their government has brought terrorist group X to the brink of ‘defeat’. For example, the Somali government says Al Shabaab (AS) is all but dead: AS is not complying as it carries out almost daily attacks in Somalia and Kenya. Many Israeli analysts and government officials maintained that Hamas was no longer interested in terrorism. How has that prediction faired?

One more, this time from India. That country’s Home Minister has come out with the prediction that the ‘left-wing threat’ – i.e. Maoists – will be ‘completely eradicated’ in the next two years. Why a bunch of terrorists who have been active since at least Canada’s centenary (i.e. 1967) are suddenly on their death beds is anyone’s guess. As recently as April 2021 at least 22 members of Indian security forces were killed and 31 injured during a four-hour gun battle with these actors in Chhatisgarh state.

Is there a lesson in all of this? I think so and it is a simple, but important, one. In essence, terrorist groups seldom if ever go quietly into the night. As long as there are enough to go around causing mayhem, this form of ideological (or political or religious) violence does not disappear. These groups have goals (destruction of Israel if you are Hamas, independence from France if you are the FLNC, etc.) and the lack of a final resolution in the direction of these desires means that violence will continue to be seen as a viable – and necessary – tactic, at least by diehards.

I get why leaders say these things. They want to be seen as strong, they want to instill confidence in their populations, they want to portray themselves as stalwarts against terrorism. But words are not necessarily indicative of reality (didn’t Donald Trump say back in 2019 that Islamic State (ISIS) was ‘totally defeated’? Ask the Iraqis/Syrians/Kurds and others suffering at the hands of ISIS and its ‘provinces’ how accurate those beliefs were!).

The next time you come across a national leader boast that he (it is usually a he) has rendered a particular terrorist group inoperative, or dead, pause for a second and look at the facts. Is the group still active? Has it carried out successful attacks recently? Have government alleged successes against it been independently corroborated? Is this really the end?

I’d wager that these organisations have more life in them than their enemies seem to think. That may be depressing but history shows us it is more accurate than rumours to the contrary.

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.