Soldiers as targets for homegrown terrorists

One of the most central tenets of the ideology that drives terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram and others is the belief that Islam and the West are in a state of war.  This war, they maintain, was not instigated from within or by the Ummah, or Islamic world, but rather is one of aggression visited on the Muslim world by us, i.e. the West.  We are seen as in a constant state of enmity with Muslims and extremist literature repeats this conviction ad nauseum.  Examples to underscore this belief are both historic (e.g. the Crusades) as well as current (e.g. Iraq).

It is also a common current in extremist literature for the “true believers” to identify military personnel wherever they may be for retributive attack.  These calls can be found in magazines such as Dabiq and Inspire and some have claimed that all Israelis, for instance, could be seen as legitimate targets since, under Israeli law, all citizens must at some point perform military service (and hence are potential soldiers).

We should not be surprised, then, when individuals inspired by these promotions of violence do exactly what they are asked to do: kill soldiers.  The examples are many unfortunately:

  • A French soldier was recently stabbed by two men apparently angry at the French role in the bombing campaign in Syria
  • Drummer Lee Rigby was killed and nearly beheaded by two men in the UK in 2013
  • the ANZAC Day ceremonies in both 2015 and 2016 were targeted unsuccessfully in Australia
  • a man attacked a naval reserve facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 2015
  • for Canadians, there is no more somber reminder of this threat than the two attacks in October 2014 that killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.  We cannot forget as well that many of the foiled terrorist plots (Toronto 18, Project Samossa, etc.) had wanted to hit military installations.

It is very likely, if not inevitable, that more such attacks will occur.  Extremists have made much effort to tie our foreign military policies to the alleged eternal war on Islam and each new invasion or campaign only serves to feed their propaganda beast.  As there does not appear at this point to be any end to the deployment of our troops to areas of the world where terrorists operate, we should see more plots against our men and women in uniform, even in our home countries.

We are thus damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  If we elect to keep giving our armies and air forces a major role in the ill-named “war on terror” we will continue to provide ammunition (no pun intended) to those who need hard facts to help them convince others that the West does hate Islam and is seeking its destruction and keep the narrative alive.  If on the other hand we choose not to employ military assets against groups like IS, we allow them free rein to commit atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa (or even further afield if the IS “affiliates” ever gain strength).  A choice of two evils indeed.

The decisions before us are hard.  I have long argued that the West’s armies do have a role to play in combating terrorism but that the military cannot and should not be our primary tool (alas, it has been for the past few decades).  We need more creative programming that can complement the use of force if we can ever expect to go back to “normal”, i.e. to the days when terrorist attacks were an infrequent nuisance and not an everyday occurrence and obsession of both the media and the residents of Western societies.

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.

Leave a Reply