Terrorism is a dirty, dangerous business. Terrorists are nasty people who engage in nasty acts. To thwart attacks you have to work with sources and groups whose reputations are, shall we say, unsavoury. As former CSIS Deputy Director Jack Hooper once said, however indelicately, “sometimes you have to take the ugly girl to the dance”. Limiting your contacts to upstanding citizens will not get you far in the counter terrorism world.
Interdicting terrorism also means that at times you have to consider the short term benefit and ignore the long-term implications. Stopping death and destruction today supersedes rumps add-on effects down the road. In a perfect world and with infinite time and resources we would look simultaneously at the here and now as well as the future. Alas, our world is a tad short of perfect.
A news story out of a Middle Eastern on-line paper brought this to the fore today. I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of this item, but as you will see it is not beyond plausible. Apparently, the UK government, and especially MI5, ‘turned a blind eye’ to the return to Libya of exiles and UK-born of Libyan descent to overthrow the Qaddhafi regime, even some who were known to be extremist.
I am not a fan of ‘I told you so’ because we always have to put into perspective what we knew at the time and what our goals were. In 2011 everyone wanted to see the back end of the Libyan Colonel. Not only had he brutalised his own citizenry and dabbled in nuclear weapons, but he was behind the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland resulting in the death on all 259 passengers on board and 11 unfortunate souls on the ground. For the UK to want a bit of revenge was understandable.
What better actors to encourage to help oust Qaddhafi than fellow Libyans? They knew the language and culture and as ex-pats would have had the motivation to do their part to regain their country. It made perfect tactical sense at the time and, as we all know, the quixotic colonel was eventually dethroned and killed by his own former subjects. Mission accomplished.
However, it turns out that perhaps a genie was inadvertently let out of the bottle. Libya today is a morass of chaos, competing governments and militias, and home to anywhere between 3 and 5,000 Islamic State-affiliated terrorists. Indeed, the Manchester bomber may have had contact, or more (such as training), from IS (or AQ-linked terrorists). A recent article in The Economist sums up how bad the situation in Libya really is and suggests that it may get a lot worse, up to and including attacks in Europe.
The analogy here of course is Afghanistan where the US (and others it must be said) supported Al Qaeda against the Soviets. Again, back then no one questioned the wisdom of this move. The world was still defined by the Cold War and anything that could set back the Commies was seen as a good thing. Methinks we all know how that story has shifted since the mid-1990s.
The problem, I think, is that in view of the serious (but not existential we must again emphasise) current threat from terrorism, we are forced to focus solely on putting out fires, and not pruning dead wood to prevent future conflagration. Not only are we shortsighted, we are getting worse at this, at least in the US where the Trump Administration has cancelled all DHS CVE (countering violent extremism) funding. This pretty well ensures that we will be putting out fires for a very long time.
What we need to do is to execute counter terrorism operations and longer term CVE simultaneously. CT ops will mean working with bad characters as that is the nature of the business. There are, thankfully, a lot more good characters out there but it seems that some don’t want to work with them.
And that is a shame.