Declaring ‘victory’ over a terrorist group/terrorism may be a nice sound bite but it is rarely accurate.
Governments are in the business of selling good news, particularly when it comes to their policies and programs. After all, if you cannot convince the electorate that what you are doing is working, and making citizens’ lives better, you will probably not be re-elected to office. On the other hand, if you are a totalitarian state like China, or North Korea, or (yes) Saudi Arabia, you can say what you want and frame your achievements in glowing terms since what your people think does not matter.
When it comes to terrorism states have an equal stake in convincing their populations that the ‘war on terrorism’ is being won. Individual ‘victories’ are painted as part of a master plan and evidence that all is well and sure to get better. The end of the terrorist threat is just around the corner!
If you are a totalitarian state like China, or North Korea, or (yes) Saudi Arabia, you can say what you want since what your people think does not matter.
We see this kind of confident statement many, many times. In Nigeria, scarcely a Christmas goes by without the President giving a speech in which he boasts that the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is on the verge of collapse (not). Then again there was US President Donald Trump’s bravado that Islamic State had been vanquished (not). There are more examples I assure you.
One such claim is now coming out of Afghanistan, a country woefully bereft of good news on the terrorism front. That nation’s President, Ashraf Ghani, has said that the ISIS affiliate in the eastern province of Nangarhar, known as IS in Khorasan (ISK), has been ‘obliterated’. Is that true?
A cursory glance at the Afghan news online does suggest that ISK has been having a rough time of late. There are credible reports of defections and surrenders on a regular basis, suggesting one of two things:
- Some members are just tired of terrorism, or;
- The group has lost the support and confidence of some of its members and really is on a downslide.
What is the ‘truth’ in all this? That is very hard to say. On the one hand it is often very difficult to determine just how many terrorists a given group has, making it hard to figure out how critical such losses are. On the other, counting up ‘formers’ may indeed point to a weakening of a specific group of terrorists but does nothing to address the conditions under which that group coalesced in the first place or mean that other groups are not poised to take advantage of the vacuum created.
In other words, even if ISK is on the outs a much more worrisome terrorist organisation, i.e. the Taliban, is in a very different position. It is responsible for attacks on Afghan government and military officials and, more ominously civilians, on a daily basis and shows no indication that it intends to change course. Quite the contrary: President Trump’s eagerness for a ‘peace deal’ to open the door for a withdrawal of US troops will merely give the Taliban freer rein to continue its campaign of destruction.
President Trump’s eagerness for a ‘peace deal’ to open the door for a withdrawal of US troops will merely give the Taliban freer rein to continue its campaign of destruction.
Furthermore, terrorist groups that ‘decline’ have a nasty tendency to re-assemble. The ideology underlying the use of violence does not change, only the temporary circumstances under which they are in a less favourable position do, and circumstances do change. Al Qaeda (AQ), a group once believed to have been put down, is a case in point.
We therefore have to temper our judgment when it comes to celebrating success against terrorist groups. One less terrorist or one weaker terrorist group is indeed a good thing but it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind.
Terrorism will never disappear completely (NB an upcoming podcast in the series ‘An Intelligent Look at Terrorism‘ will discuss this in much more detail) as terrorism is a tactic, not a tangible entity. We can do our best to prevent attacks from happening or to remove the conditions that breed terrorists, although I am very skeptical on the latter front since those conditions are so multifaceted.
So yes, minimise terrorism the best you can but don’t pretend you can ‘defeat’ it.
When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)
Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.