No, a dip in terrorism does not mean that we are ‘winning’ or that terrorism will disappear

We live in a win-lose world.  Whether we are referring to sports, politics, game shows or whatever, there is usually a winner and one or more losers.   We may simply be wired for dividing things into two categories, at least after initial analysis: good-bad, black-white, winner-loser.  As I know I have read somewhere, way back when we found our two feet on the savanna taking the time to decide whether a tawny blur was a predator or just some vegetation waving in the breeze seldom turned out well for you if it was the former: better to hightail it away and ponder the possibilities later.

This win-lose scenario seems to have grabbed hold of how we look at terrorism.  We are either ahead of the terrorists or they are ahead of us.  In the first case we have a parade – let’s call it ‘Mission Accomplished’ (wait, let’s not) – and in the second we are on the road to hell in a handbasket for hell it surely will be if monsters like Islamic State (IS) were to gain control.

But what if it were more complicated than that (hint: if you have been reading my blogs over the past few years you know where I stand on this)?  What if we are winning and losing at the same time?

A few recent stories and articles have been published that led to these thoughts. First I came across an op-ed piece in the New York Times last weekend by terrorism specialist Dan Byman entitled “The Good News About Terrorism: The Islamic State is weakened, and the jihadist threat to the U.S. has diminished”.  Mr. Byman claims that there was  only one death from jihadi terrorists in the US  in all of 2018 and that even in Europe the death toll is down from 2015.  This thinking is in line with the Global Terrorism Index which stated that deaths from terrorism in 2017 were down 27% worldwide.  So, I guess it is time to plan that parade!

Hmm, maybe not so fast.  Norwegian terrorism scholar Petter Nesser wrote his own piece in which he said that declaring victory over terrorism in Europe may be a tad premature. Yes, the number of successful plots may be down – although a stabbing in Manchester on New Year’s Eve was a painful reminder that there are still successes – but the numbers of foiled plans and arrests are not (Mr. Nesser gave a really good interview to the European Eye on Radicalization on the importance to not forget the jihadis who are stopped).

As a former counter terrorism practitioner I could not agree with Mr. Nesser more.  When I was at CSIS there was no shortage of individuals and cells to monitor, even if they all did not end up buying ammonium nitrate to build bombs or carry their uncle’s shotgun into the Centre Block of Parliament.  And we – the collective ‘we’: CSIS, the RCMP and other partners – did prevent a few very serious plots from occurring.  If we were only to count deaths as a reflection of the terrorist threat to Canada, 2 deaths from jihadis (add in another 17 from far right and incel protagonists) in 18 years would be as close to zero as is statistically possible and would not merit a mention if these were attributed to other more mundane causes (such as road accidents or drug overdoses.

The truth remains that the threat from terrorism is probably as big as it ever has been.  Not only are groups like Al Qaeda still with us, but IS, despite the multiple declarations of its death (should we compare IS to Mark Twain I wonder, rumours of the death of whom were largely exaggerated?), is still a force to be reckoned with, either in its birthplace of Iraq and Syria or through its many affiliates around the world and the numbers of ‘foreign fighters’ that did not get droned or airstriked to death.  And when you add in other terrorist groups that fit somewhere within the Islamist extremist domain and those ‘inspired’ by terrorist groups, it is really hard to see where this optimism comes from.  Then there is the far-right threat that everyone says is an even bigger danger.

I have no intention of blowing the menace up (hmm, maybe a bad metaphor to use when blogging about terrorism!) out of proportion since I have been saying for a very long time that seeing terrorism as existentially dangerous is wrong.  At the same time, however, for leaders to try to convince us that we are ‘winning’ is also wrong.  Yes, I know why they do that: the opposite message – i.e. we are ‘losing’  – is both unpalatable and a surefire way to lose the next election.

So we are back to where we started – winners and losers.  What I think we need is a different paradigm, one where there is no ultimate announcement of victory, no peace treaty, no neat ‘end’ to the problem of terrorism.  Gee, I am starting to sound like Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual founder of AQ, who famously said “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.”

We need to accept that terrorism is a tactic, not a thing, and that it has been around since the first group of urban dwellers attacked the second group over religion, belief or ideology.  And, as it goes back that far there is no good reason to believe it is going to disappear.  It will evolve and we will have to evolve with it as groups and MOs wax and wane.  So let’s keep terrorism in perspective, devote the necessary resources to prevent it (both at the hard and soft ends) and stop wishing for the game to be over.  Fighting terrorism is a little like tic-tac-toe: two able competitors will play to a draw most times.

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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