Terrorism as political tool

Terrorism eats up a lot of our time as citizens and news consumers.  IS.  AQ.  Boko Haram.  Hizballah.  Hindu extremists.  Anti-abortion extremists.  Boy, things have really changed since I was a kid.  Sure there was the odd story about a hijacked airplane and the Troubles in Ireland, but it wasn’t a daily occurrence (maybe it was and I was too young or naive to pay attention).

Governments too are seized with the problem.  Whether they are trying to thwart homeland attacks or deciding whether to contribute to foreign military missions aimed at terrorist groups, or both simultaneously, leaders are having to devote more resources and energy to the issue.  Which means they are speaking publicly on occasion to keep their citizenry informed.

Some of these public statements are quite good.  I would put US President Obama’s comments after San Bernardino in this category.  Some are not so good.  I would put Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s discourse after the Paris attacks in this bank (full disclosure, I have never been a Netanyahu fan but that has nothing to do with this blog).

The Israeli leader has been telling anyone who will listen that the surge in Palestinian violence has not sprung from frustration over decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but is goaded by Islamist violence.  He said something similar after 9/11.  He was wrong then and he is wrong now.

I wade into this debate with some trepidation.  I successfully avoided working on the Israel-Palestine issue over my career in intelligence.  I say “successfully” as I see this decades-long dispute as largely intractable (although my heart goes out to those who have tried to resolve it).  What I write here is bound to upset and insult someone – so be it.

While, as I have always said, terrorism is complicated, there is no question that over half a century of terrible Israeli policies and equally inept Palestinian strategies over who gets to live where and under what regime is the primary driver behind terrorism and extremism in both countries.  For Netanyahu to claim that the recent uptick in low level, lone actor attacks in his country can be reduced to mere religious extremism is laughable.  The fact that he may believe this – then again he may be saying this for strategic reasons – scares me as it shows that the Israeli leadership is no closer to coming up with meaningful solutions to this problem.  Recent history is not good: Netanyahu used the terrorism fear factor to steal an improbable win in the last general election.

Oddly enough, previous Israeli governments saw the rise of religious groups as a great way to steal the thunder away from the secular and largely nationalist PLO (back in the day).  Shades of the West seeing Al Qaeda as a good antidote to the Soviets in Afghanistan, no?

If, however, Netanyahu is right and we are seeing a shift from the traditional terrorism to a new wave of Islamist extremism (yes, I know that there have always been religiously-cloaked groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but I am not so sure that Islam was the principle motivator), then Israel is in big trouble.  Despite a lack of will on both sides, nationalists in Israel and Palestine can, in theory, sit down and talk this out, make concessions and reach some kind of arrangement, albeit temporary (the peace accords sponsored by US Presidents Carter and Clinton are good examples).  There is no hope of dialogue with the jihadists (as AQ founder Abdallah Azzam said: “No negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues – jihad and the rifle alone).  They will not back down or give in.  Which means more deaths and more destruction.

We’ll watch upcoming events carefully to see what is really going on here.  I hope for Israel’s sake that Bibi is wrong.

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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