Once a terrorist group always a terrorist group?

From time to time you will read articles or longer treatises about how this group or that one has in effect abandoned terrorism as its ethos. The reasons for this organisational decision range from outright military defeat by the state, loss of key leadership, declining support from the rank and file, etc. If all this were true, and certain terrorist outfits did indeed put down their guns (and knives and suicide vests and mortars and…), the world would be a better place as one thing we collectively do not need more of is terrorism.

But what if it is not true? What if terrorist groups never really give up the cause for which they fight? What if truces and the laying down of weapons are only temporary? What if the groups that appear to opt for peace do nothing of the sort?

A case in point may be the FARC in Colombia – the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Despite a November 2016 treaty between the group’s leader and the then Colombian President, signed symbolically with a pen crafted from a bullet, the former #2, Luciano Marín (aka Iván Márquez), announced yesterday (August 29) that the FARC would return to fighting because of the Colombian government’s violations of the peace agreement. In a video Marquez called for  “a new phase of the struggle” for the group under “the universal right that all people have to raise arms against oppression.” In response, Colombia’s new President Ivan Duque offered $882,000 (£725,000) for the capture of each of the rebels who appeared in the video.

Sigh. We have been here before and we will be here again in the future.

This development should tell us a lot about terrorism: where it comes from and where it ends up. Terrorism does not emerge out of a vacuum. It arises out of a sense of injustice, an imbalance of power, a lack of opportunity, or perceived bias. People join terrorist groups to right wrongs (yes some do because they are violent individuals who like to kill and blow shit up). I write this not to support terrorism but to try to explain it.

When we hear that group X has elected to stop ‘doing’ terrorism we should ask ourselves whether or not the conditions that led to its emergence have actually changed. If the drivers are still in place and there is little hope for improvement it is then likely that some will never truly exit while others will join down the road.

What then is a government to do? Not allowing the grievances to fester would be a good start. Preventing these from arising in the first place would be even better. Implementing real change would also help.

Of course a state has every right to use force in fighting terrorism. After all a government has the duty to protect a country’s citizens, who are often the victims of terrorist attacks. Any state that does not do this finds itself out of power PDQ.

Those of us who study or write on terrorism have a different responsibility however. When we see stories such as the agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government we need to not give in to polyannish optimism – we all want to see and end to the violence – but to direct our attention to whether or not this development is durable. Good analysis looks at the underlying issues and comes up with well-thought out hypotheses on what is likely to happen down the road (even if no one can predict the future with any accuracy). We can both celebrate a potential decrease in violence and prepare for the worst case scenario.

Colombia has suffered a lot throughout the existence of the FARC: more than 260,000 people died from violence during six decades of the conflict. For the record I am not a Marxist who sees the group as heroes. They are brutal terrorists and responsible for much of Colombia’s cocaine. Those who resort to violence will be met with violence.

In the end I suppose my question is: when and how does the violence stop? If I had an answer to that I would be a wise man indeed. Alas, I am not.

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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