Please stop saying terrorism is ‘defeated’!!

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 17, 2018.

At the risk of engaging in pure self promotion I would like to announce that my fourth book on terrorism, entitled “An end to the ‘war on terrorism'”, is coming out later this month (for those in Ottawa who are  interested I will be holding a book launch on October 3 at Peter Devine’s in the Byward Market beginning at 7:30 PM).  In this book I look at how we have responded on multiple levels to terrorism since 9/11: military, societal, security intelligence and law enforcement, etc.  The main takeaway is that seeing our counter-terrorism efforts through the lens of ‘war’ is misguided and counterproductive.

If we see ourselves embroiled in a ‘war on terrorism’ the obvious implication is that the war will come to an end as all wars do – eventually.  Armed conflict terminates when both sides are exhausted or come to a peace arrangement or one side out and out surrenders.  The problem with ‘terrorism’ as a combatant is that none of these applies.  ‘Terrorism’ cannot surrender or participate in peace talks (although groups can: veteran terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw recently wrote a controversial article calling for negotiations with the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and given the wide range of terrorist groups and motivations it is hard to see any point at which all the groups tire of their activities.  As other have said, it is not a great idea to declare war against a common noun.

This does not stop some from declaring victory nonetheless.  In some instances officials will proclaim success against a specific group: this is what happens with disturbing regularity every year in Nigeria where the terrorist group Boko Haram is labelled as ‘defeated’.  That Boko Haram represents a very real and continuing threat was once again made clear just the other day when the terrorist organisation killed more than 30 soldiers in NE Nigeria.

On other occasions terrorism itself is declared vanquished.  This is exactly what the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff said in late August when he boasted that “the nation and the armed forces have faced and defeated terrorism with ‘bravery’“.  I do not want to take away from the successes enjoyed by the Pakistani army against far too many terrorist groups but I retain a healthy skepticism that terrorism has been ‘defeated’.  Should this scourge never again inflict misery on Pakistan I will admit my error.

It is possible that a given terrorist entity will unilaterally cease its activities, sometimes after decades of violence.  This is what appears to have happened with the Basque terrorist organisation ETA.  Back in May of this year it announced  its total ‘dissolution’ after 60 years of fighting for an independent Basque homeland.  The group did say, however, that the conflict between the Basque Country and Spain and France would continue, leading to a very good question: what does this mean?  Could a return to violence be in the cards?  We will have to wait and see.

We are thus left with a very nebulous set of statements and predictions.  ‘Defeating’ terrorism, whether we are referring to a specific group or a wider phenomenon, implies that for whatever reason those who employ this technique have stopped doing so.  In the absence of group exhaustion or dismemberment it is hard to see how this can be true.  Terrorism is the  use of violent means to achieve a goal that can be political, ideological or religious in nature (definitions vary but this is how we frame it in Canada).  If those goals are not met, what stops people from pursuing them?  If the original actors leave the stage why would others not rise to the occasion and replace them?  Recent Islamist extremist history has taught us that the exit of one group – say Al Qaeda – merely creates a vacuum for another – say Islamic State.  Further complicating matters is the fact that a ‘retired’ player sometimes goes back to work.  Many analysts these days talk of an Al Qaeda 3.0.  So much for the defeat of AQ.

In the end I get why leaders want to convince their populaces that terrorism no longer represents a threat.  Who, after all, wants to say the opposite?  Nevertheless, truth and humility are welcome characteristics in politicians.  We could use a bit of both when it comes to terrorism forecasting.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst with CSIS, an author and the Director of Intelligence and Security at the SecDev Group.



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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