A lot of people and a lot of governments are getting tired of the so-called “War on Terrorism”. More and more attacks seem to be happening all the time. What we used to think was a problem “over there” is now “over here”: Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, Ottawa… We cannot seem to get away from terrorism. When will all this end?
In response we have adopted a number of counter measures. There is a lot of talk of counter radicalisation, early intervention and hard actions – i.e. military. We in Canada sent troops to battle Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for over a decade and we are playing a smaller role in the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq. And we are doing more on the various “counter” fronts.
With all this going on, it is not surprising that our leaders want to be seen as putting into place effective policies that will get us to the end of this struggle sooner rather than later. Our politicians and senior officials, not surprisingly, want to portray some of the news on terrorism as good news, since it is all too easy for the bad news to dominate. Some statements go further, announcing that Group X is on the verge of defeat. Here are a few examples of these claims gathered over the last few months:
- Nigeria’s President Buhari promised that the terrorist group Boko Haram would be vanquished by Christmas 2015 and stated on December 24 that they were “technically defeated”;
- Sri Lankan military intelligence told the Prime Minister that the Tamil Tigers had been “wiped out” and that there was “absolutely no likelihood” of a comeback
- the Yemeni government stated in mid-May 2016 that the local Al Qaeda affiliate, AQAP, was “near its last breath”
- a senior US official said in April 2016 that the territory controlled by IS was “rapidly shrinking” and that the anti-IS coalition was gaining ground on “multiple levels”, including social media
This is all very good news and is a tribute to the efforts being made by many countries around the world. We should congratulate those involved, especially those who put their lives in danger to chase after and neutralise terrorists.
But is it enough?
Terrorist groups come and go, some quickly, some more slowly. Who remembers the Red Brigade (Italy) or the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Germany) these days? Some terrorist groups abandon violence and go mainstream – the PLO, the African National Congress and the IRA are but three examples, and sometimes terrorists end up running the very countries they were fighting against (former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the leader of the terrorist group Irgun). It is thus clear that terrorist organisations can fold or at least become much less dangerous.
Is that what is happening in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Yemen and Nigeria? Are the LTTE, IS, AQAP and Boko Haram finished or on their way out? Perhaps, and if so we can celebrate. But there is a more important point to be made about terrorism and it has little to do with the current crop of membership or even leadership.
Terrorism is all about ideology. Ideas are what matter and if these are left unchallenged they will appear to go to ground only to revive phoenix-like from the ashes of the particular group that holds them. We have seen this time and time again with Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. One set of actors is “defeated” and yet another springs to life holding to the same ideology, albeit sometimes with modest modifications. In Algeria the Salafist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) gave way to the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) which morphed into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose death has been proclaimed many, many times. In Iraq, the post-US invasion period spawned Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) among other groups and we now have Islamic State. The list goes on and on.
Returning to the example of Sri Lanka, it is absolutely true that the government and the military dealt a severe blow to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam back in 2009 but, aside from that Pyrrhic victory, nothing has fundamentally changed. The minority Tamils still suffer at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, war crimes committed at the end of the civil conflict are being swept under the rug and there is still no independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. In other words, the very issues that contributed to the creation of the LTTE still exist and it would not take much for a new group, or a remodeled LTTE, to rise up and resume the campaign of violence. Similar arguments could be made for Sikh extremists in India and others.
We need to focus on eliminating today’s crop of terrorists across the ideological spectrum and we appear to be doing a pretty good job of that, at least in most places. But we also need to address the underlying ethos of each group so that today’s victories will not simply clear the way for tomorrow’s new manifestations of political violence. And that kind of victory can neither be achieved on the battlefield nor be imposed by outside powers.