When Monty Python meets terrorism

I was saddened to hear recently that a member of one of the funniest group of comedians ever to grace the screen is suffering from dementia.  Terry Jones of the irreverent and very clever Monty Python troupe announced that he has the condition and will no longer be able to give interviews.  A very dark day indeed.

I grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS and am the proud owner of the 216 megatonne DVD set of all the episodes.  Throughout high school I never missed a Python movie and to this day believe that their offering Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the greatest films ever (although the scene in Life of Brian about the rivalry among Palestinian militant groups is an amazingly accurate depiction of terrorist groups in that part of the world).

Holy Grail has so many unforgettable lines that it would take many blogs to do the film justice but one in particular resonates with me today.  In one of the early scenes, Eric Idle is moving a cart full of dead bodies through a village in what is clearly some kind of plague time and John Cleese stops him to throw a body on the cart.  The body, however, is not a corpse as it repeatedly says “I’m not quite dead yet”.  In the end, Cleese hits the poor sod over the head and he joins the pile on the cart.

Abubakr Shekau strikes me as the guy in the movie.  The leader (former? current? sidelined?) of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram has appeared in a new video to show that rumours of his death were greatly exaggerated.  Mr. Shekau has been either proclaimed dead or declared unimportant and thus of lesser relevance so many times that I have lost count.  Those mistakes, together with the Nigerian government’s propensity for telling its people that Boko Haram no longer poses a threat to them, would be farcical if they were not so tragic.

It is cases like these that remind us that we place too much emphasis on the elimination of terrorist group leaders.  We seem to follow the mantra that terrorist groups repeat ad nauseum of “cutting off the head of snake”.  Except that in a lot of instances the snake turns out to be a hydra.  One severed head spawns two new ones.

Don’t get me wrong – as I have written on many occasions I do believe that a dead terrorist is a good terrorist.  Taking out bin Laden, Abubakr Al Baghdadi and other leaders of terrorist organisations is a good thing and we should continue to target and kill them.  But we need to realise that this so-called “decapitation” theory of relegating terrorist books to the history shelf does not work.  Or rather that even if it seems to work at first (examples would include the Kurdish PKK and Peru’s Shining Path) it often turns out that the groups reorganise and bounce back.  Not to mention how foolish states look when the terrorists they have “killed” miraculously reappear very much alive.

The lesson of all this is simple: you cannot put a bullet (or a drone strike) in the back of the head of an ideology.  And ideology is what makes terrorism terrorism.  Leaders can be, and have been, replaced.  If ideology is not undermined it remains, waiting for the next leader or generation of leaders to embrace it.  We really need to stop framing the deaths of individuals as the death of terrorist groups.

So, let us celebrate the sidelining of people like Abubakr Shekau and keep helping the Nigerians fight Boko Haram.  For the Nigerian people, however, the fate of Mr. Shekau has little to do with the violence and terror that Boko Haram will likely visit upon them.

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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