Islamist terrorism is real but some responses to it are bad

States have a need and a duty to combat terrorism on their soil but this does not mean that every method of doing so is a good idea.

By now you may be growing tired of reading my screeds about Islamist terrorism.

After all, most of my blogs and podcasts deal with it, as did all six of my books to date. My focus on this aspect of terrorism stems from two sides, one personal and one factual:

a) I worked on Islamist terrorism in Canada from 2001 to 2015 while I was a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and so I know a little bit about the topic, and;

b) the 2020 Global Terrorism Index spelled out quite convincingly that this type of violent extremism still dominates the terrorism landscape worldwide. So, yes, we still need to talk about it.

As a consequence of the latter fact, most nations which experience terrorist threats and which have implemented counter terrorism policies and operations have had to channel most of their resources against Islamist terrorism. That some in the West see other forms of violent extremism, namely the foggily-defined right-wing extremism (RWE) beast, as somehow catastrophic in nature, is irrelevant to our conversation today.

RELATED: Borealis asks whether more resources are needed for RWE

Responses vary from country to country and in effectiveness. Each nation can of course choose which approach to take – that is its sovereign right after all – but that does not entail that these choices are wise. Some in fact are utterly counterproductive if not immoral.

Three stories in a recent edition of The Economist – my go-to news source since I ‘discovered’ it in 1982! – struck me as undeniable cases of bad counter-terrorism moves on the part of governments. As it turns out, all three relate to (south)east Asian nations. The juxtaposition by the editors was an interesting one to say the least.


First, we turn to Myanmar which is in the throes of a popular uprising against a coup carried out by the military, which has responded with lethal force against protesters: more than 728 people have been killed, and at least 3,000 have been detained to date.

At the same time that country’s military has been engaged for some years in a conflict in the northwest which had led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh. The origins of the campaign are complicated but it is nevertheless certain that there is at least one Islamist terrorist group operating in the region: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA (although some would say they are in fact ‘freedom fighters‘).

Complicating the matter is the unhelpful presence of highly Islamophobic Buddhist monks, including U Wirathu, nicknamed the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden‘ (for a more complete discussion see my third book The Lesser Jihads). And, as The Economist put it, he is not the only monk who “shares its ((i.e the army’s)) paranoid xenophobia…they have helped propagate the baseless but widely held view that Buddhism is under threat from Islam“. Such beliefs inevitably lead to bad policy, counter-terrorism and otherwise.


Secondly, China has also engaged in over the top rhetoric about Islam. In its obsession with making everything ‘Chinese‘, including religion, authorities have railed against ‘foreign influences’ in an effort to ‘sinify‘ – what a great word! – faith. That of course spreads to Islam. As we all know, the Xi Jinping government has labeled the entire Uyghur Muslim population of East Turkestan one big terrorist threat and essentially transformed the area into a vast concentration camp (which it euphemistically calls ‘vocational centres’).

Again, there has historically been an Islamist terrorist threat in China – and again I covered it in The Lesser Jihads – so there has been a need for a response. Just not this kind of response. What China is doing, and getting away with, is not only counterproductive but may almost constitute genocide.

These stories should come as a bit of a non sequitur for one simple reason: Islam is very much a minority faith in both China and Myanmar. As a consequence, how can either pose an existential threat to either? A handful of terrorists notwithstanding, why would either nation take these moves? Do the leaders not know that they will not solve in this overbearing way whatever problem rears its ugly head?


And then thirdly there is a tempest in a teapot in another southeast Asian country that just goes to show that unreasonableness and lunacy is not limited to one side. In Malaysia there has been a silly debate over the use of the word ‘Allah‘. In Malay, the language that is, Allah is the term for ‘god’ and not just the ‘Muslim‘ god. In an incredibly dense move, the Home Ministry decreed way back in 1986 that the word could only be used by the country’s Muslims, forcing the sizeable Christian minority to come up with a new way to refer to their creator.

There have been appeals back and forth on this matter but the sultans of two states are digging in. This may be a very unimportant matter but it can lead to violence as intolerance builds. And to what end? So that one bunch of people holds a monopoly on what to call its deity? Is this not pure insanity?

I hate to sound like a broken record but Islamist terrorism is real and constitutes by several orders of magnitude the single greatest menace from a terrorism perspective around the globe. Ergo, states have to do something to prevent it. Prevention, however, should not include the idiotic actions and policies referred to above. There IS a better way.

Read More about China and the Uyghurs

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.

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