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State terrorism is making a comeback – of sorts

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on August 26, 2019.

These days when we read or think about terrorism we tend to go in two directions. Either we think about terrorist groups: Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, etc. Or we talk about ‘lone wolves’ even if that term is inaccurate. The former are of course larger and usually have some kind of internal hierarchy or structure, even if both are loosely based. The latter are one-offs, those ‘inspired’ by the former or by other terrorists who acted previously (for instance, several right wing white supremacist attacks of late have seen perpetrators cite earlier perpetrators).

Islamic State (IS) is a bit of an outlier in all this. It actually created a ‘state’ in northern Iraq and Syria beginning in 2014 with all the trappings of a government, including bureaucracy. IS is apparently no more as we have been told by US President Trump: unfortunately, like many of Mr. Trump’s statements this one too is false as many, even the US military, know that IS has been wounded but is still very dangerous.

What happens though when a real state becomes a terrorist outfit? Two examples come to mind. The first is the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin, a topic I am currently learning more about as I read Anne Applebaum’s excellent account of the Ukrainian famine in 1932-3 Red Famine (my mother was Ukrainian so I have a personal historical interest in this period of history). Millions died as a result of forced agricultural collectivisation and food confiscation, as well as mass killings. Some may call this genocide but it also qualifies as terrorism: serious violence carried out for ideological or political reasons. What Stalin was trying to impose was ideological in nature and he used violence to achieve his goals. Ergo terrorism.

The second is of course the Nazi regime in Germany. Hitler’s use of internal and external violence to impose Nazi ideals on Germans and then the rest of Europe was equally ideological. Again, we refer to the Holocaust in particular as a genocide but terrorism would apply as well.

Both regimes are history. Stalinism did not survive long after his death and eventually the Soviet system itself crumbled. Nazi Germany was defeated in WWII and the whole terrible experiment failed. We know a lot about each horrible regime, enough to see through the lies and deceit so that we do not repeat these errors. It should be clear to all that future forms of state-sponsored terrorism like these must be avoided at all costs.

Not everyone seems to be getting the message. Stalin is making a comeback, with statues and plaques honoring the dictator going up throughout Russia.  Not only are memories of the dictators atrocities fading (almost half of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 had never heard of Stalin’s Great Purge) but his new ‘fans’ see him as a hero who defeated fascism. Support for ‘Uncle Joe’ appears to be on the ascendant.

At the same time we all have heard of the neo-Nazi brand of right-wing white supremacist extremism/terrorism. Groups around the world revere the Nazis and feature swastikas, calling themselves WWII names such as ‘Blood and Honour’ after their Nazi heroes (Canada listed Blood and Honour as an officially designated terrorist group back in June). Hitler himself is worshiped by some: just last week a Polish court banned a neo-Nazi group called Pride and Modernity for celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday in 2017.

I am sure that many of us struggle to understand how, in 2019, anyone could ignore all the evidence of atrocities committed by these two state sponsors of terrorism and wish for their return. It may seem unlikely that either regime will resurface and rule again. Nevertheless, adherents and hangers-on of both are dangerous people capable of serious violence. We need to continue to be vigilant and do our best to identify and undermine these violent extremists (I am unaware of any pro-Stalin groups in Canada but it is clear that neo-Nazis exist).

Terrorism poses enough of a challenge to our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies already without having to deal with those bent on re-establishing state-driven terrorism. Let’s nip this one in the bud, shall we?

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. His fifth book, When Religion Kills, will be published by Lynne Rienner in December.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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