Why the phrase ‘war on terrorism’ is ill thought

It is rare that one can look back on something composed years ago and see it as relevant today as it was thought to be back then.  So much changes as new variables enter into play and our own understanding and appreciation for phenomena matures to reflect these new additions.  That is indeed a good thing: we should not chain ourselves to older analysis and conclusions just because they were once seen to be valid.

I cannot claim to be the author of the idea that seeing the ‘war on terrorism’ (or ‘war on terror’ as it also called) as a particularly bad way to view our response to violent extremism, whether in our backyards or in lands far away.  Others saw the foolishness of this framing as well.  Nevertheless, it is a theme I have helped to develop as far back s the early 2000s and one that I continue to try to pass on to this day.  It has in fact formed an  important part of each of my first three books and – spoiler alert – will feature in the fourth one I am currently drafting.

The ill-advised use of this phrase came up again today when I read that the Somali government intends to declare war on Al Shabaab.  This decision comes in the immediate aftermath of last week’s catastrophic truck bomb attacks in Mogadishu in which the death toll is now 359.  It is hard enough to process the regularlity with which terrorism has struck Somalia let alone the enormity of this one heinous act.  For many, the only justified response is to go to war against the perpetrators.  As we will see, naming a specific group in this declaration of war is better than naming the enemy as ‘terrorism’, but only marginally.

I want to excerpt something I wrote back in 2o14 and which was published in my first book, The Threat from Within, back in 2015.

The following quote was penned by Paris-based researcher Grenville Byford and appeared in an article in Foreign Affairs in 2002:

“Wars have typically been fought against proper nouns (Germany, say) for the good reason that proper nouns can surrender and promise not to do it again. Wars against common nouns (poverty, crime, drugs) have been less successful. Such opponents never give up. The war on terrorism, unfortunately, falls into the second category. “

This quote is profound.  It speaks to the improbability if not impossibility of waging a war against a concept.  While progress may have been made in fighting certain societal ills – smoking, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, etc. – these have not been eliminated completely and arguably never will.  This point of view is reflected in a 2014 report by five Nobel Prize winning economists entitled “Ending the drug wars” (a report of the London School of Economics expert group on the economics of drug policy) which calls for an end to the “war on drugs” and a battle to change international drug policies.  

A better-named campaign may have been to declare a war on Al Qaeda (one can substitute any other group’s name here).  Al Qaeda is a tangible organization with borders and finite members, even if these have shifted and changed over the decades.  As a group or organization, its members can be killed, arrested, or neutralized and its attraction can wane.  Furthermore Al Qaeda is a proper noun.  And, as we have seen in the years since 9/11, the group has suffered significant losses, arguably culminating with the death of Bin Laden in May 2011.  Many have claimed that Al Qaeda is all but finished and that we no longer need to spend as much blood and treasure pursuing it.

We now know that even Al Qaeda, the terrorist group we all assumed was all but dead after US Special Forces killed bin Laden and we turned our collective attention to Islamic State, is still with us and some analysts think  it is well placed to fill the vacuum left by a ‘defeated’ IS (although we should be careful with that one as well).

So yes the Somali government should pursue Al Shabaab and kill/arrest/try as many as it can.  But what ‘victory’ against this gang of thugs looks like is anyone’s guess. I advise caution in resorting to martial language, even if there is clearly a role for the military in counter terrorism.  Let’s not make the same mistakes we have before.

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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