Is there a link between terrorism and elections in the West?

Terrorists are hateful people, of that there is no doubt.  What they hate varies based on the underlying ideology of the group to which they belong or through which they derive their inspiration and yet there are similarities at times.  Most of them hate society or governments or policies or something else and have concluded that the only way to satisfy their hate and effect change is through violence.  That, in a nutshell, is terrorism.

For those we describe as Islamist extremists – members, followers or wannabes of organisations such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, etc. – the laundry list of hate is long.  They hate anyone who does not share their warped interpretation of Islam (including most other Muslims).  They hate Western society, which they characterise as nothing more than pornography, drugs and gay.  They hate our policies and our actions – such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq – all of which they see as inherently anti-Islamic.  And they hate the democratic system.

To the terrorists democracy is haram (forbidden) under Islam for a very simple reason.  They see all laws and systems of governance as coming from God and clearly outlined in the Quran and the Sharia.  Any deviation from these sources is wrong and must be fought with a view to eradicating it.  Extremist scholars have been railing against democracy for decades.  Voting is a sin because those elected make laws and everyone knows only God can make laws.

In light of this hatred a question arises: are acts of terrorism sometimes planned to occur during elections?  Do terrorists carry out their heinous acts to effect election results? Do they want to make people afraid to cast a ballot and thus undermine the integrity of the democratic process?

The answers to these questions is unclear.  It is far from certain that terrorists execute their operations with upcoming elections in mind.  Many saw the 2004 Madrid metro attack as a prime example of such a juxtaposition (national elections were held a few days later)  and some have speculated that Saturday’s attack on London Bridge was carried out in a similar vein (UK voters go to the polls on June 8).

Does it make sense to plan an  attack for an election campaign?  Yes and no: it depends on what effect the terrorists want to achieve.  If the desire is to overthrow an incumbent government by giving voters the impression that the State cannot protect them from terrorism then this is indeed possible.  That may have been what happened in Madrid although it must be pointed out that both the ham-handed government response to the carnage – it blamed the Basque separatist movement ETA despite all evidence to the contrary – as well as the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Spain’s participation in the US occupation of Iraq were also weighing on citizens’ minds. Nevertheless, the ruling government fell and jihadis have been taking credit for it ever since despite the fact that there is no evidence (that I have seen) that the terrorists planned their action to coincide with the election.  They certainly see the Spanish government’s decision to withdraw its forces from Iraq as a victory that came about only after their act of terrorism.

On the other hand perhaps terrorists want to influence the re-election of a party that will come down hard on extremism, start limiting freedom of speech and maybe even have a coterie of people that are racist and Islamophobic.  In this event, policy responses and general reactions actually further the terrorists’ agenda by entrenching us vs. them attitudes and help in the recruitment of future jihadis.

It is ironic though that the extremists’ hatred for democracy could also have a contradictory effect, i.e. by raising the percentage of those who exercise their democratic privilege and go to the voting stations.  Rather than quiver in fear at home, many will give the terrorists a figurative middle finger and cast a ballot to confirm their belief that, to quote Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

In the end it does not matter whether the London (or Madrid) attack deliberately targeted an election.  Yes, the carnage may have an impact on the final result but what is important is that we collectively continue to embrace democracy as our system of governance, warts and all.  The last thing we want to do is to hand the terrorists a victory, however small.

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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