Once a terrorist always a terrorist? Sometimes…yes

A lot of people have spent a lot of time and a lot of money especially in recent years trying to figure out how to ‘undo’ terrorism. By this I am referring to programs and efforts to ‘deradicalise’ or ‘disengage’ those who have embraced terrorism and joined terrorist groups, even if not all have participated in human rights atrocities such as rape and beheadings. There seems to be this notion that it is possible to get these people to renounce the beliefs they once held and thus put them in a position to rejoin society – although the need to hold them accountable for their actions is still something most would demand. There is also the stigma of having been a terrorist and what that implies for reintegration and social acceptance.

I have been a healthy skeptic of most of these attempts even if I do acknowledge that some violent extremists do appear to have indeed abandoned their hateful ideology (but how to determine whether they are honest in their renunciation is very hard and will probably always be). Nevertheless, even if some approaches have been successful we must always remember that some terrorists will remain terrorists until they die or are killed.

A good example of this is what is happening now in Colombia. The government and the local brand of terrorism – the Frente Armada Revolucionaria de Colombia or FARC – signed a peace accord in 2016 which brought an end to a five-decade war that killed over 260,000 people and displaced millions. At the time of this agreement 13,000 members of the FARC, including more than 6,000 fighters, handed in their weapons to be destroyed. All in all a very good sign.

Except that a recent report shows that the number of ‘combatants’ within FARC has risen to 2,300 from 300 back in 2016. Among the reasons for this return to violence are frustration over a lack of economic opportunities and anger over stigmatisation and violence against them. It is not helping that the government of Ivan Duque does not like the deal struck by his predecessor Juan Manual Santos – who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts – because he sees it as ‘too lenient’ on the FARC.

It is thus possible that Colombia could once again see terrorist violence that paralysed it for 50 years, should the FARC continue to grow. The returnees are allegedly currently operating in regions that grow coca – the raw material for cocaine – and in areas of illegal gold mining. That they could escalate again to terrorism is a real possibility. Complicating matters is that another terrorist group that was dropped in talks after a terrorist attack in the capital Bogota earlier this year – the Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion or ELN – has increased its numbers by nearly 8% to 2,400 since the end of last year.

I do not want to oversimplify what is undoubtedly a complex situation in Colombia. The reasons for FARC’s resurgence are the fault of the group itself as well as the stubbornness of the Duque government, together with a segment of the population not willing to move on after a half-century of terrorism. But the point I want to make is that not all terrorists are willing to give up the cause. Some are too deeply entrenched and will keep to an agenda to right what they see as wrongs through the use of violence.

In other words, the only way to 100% guarantee that someone will never pose a terrorist threat is to have that someone not become a terrorist in the first place. If you don’t embrace the cause you don’t need to be led out of it. We must realise as well that we cannot ‘save’ everyone. Those behind counter radicalisation and ‘de-radicalisation’ programs would be wise to take this to heart.

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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