It should come as a surprise to no one that in a world apparently awash in terrorist groups and terrorist attacks that any glimpse of success is paraded loudly and widely. We are desperate for a victory in this ill-named ‘war on terror’ and so we celebrate every drone strike that takes out a leader of Islamic State and every capture of a member of the Taliban. Were we to record and remember every ‘significant blow’ to group X that has been proclaimed over the years and realise that in truth not much has changed, we might become cynical. But few people take the time to do that so the small wins are celebrated.
The same goes for the demise of terrorist groups. There has been a lot of news of late about this or that group ceasing hostilities, or signing a truce, or having been beaten into diseffectiveness that we seem to agree that the group in question no longer poses a threat.
The unfortunate truth is that complete victory is hard to declare and even harder to measure. Groups resort to terrorist tactics for a reason (or, more frequently, many reasons) and this reason is often tied to a sense of grievance, real or perceived. In this light, should the grievance not be resolved to the satisfaction of all, it is all too easy for a group to return to violence, or a faction of a group in the event that the leadership enters into an agreement to lay down its arms .
Four extremist movements fit this model to my mind:
- the ETA, a separatist group that sought independence for the Basques in northern Spain and southern France has apparently offered to give up its weapons after a forty-year campaign that led to more than 800 deaths. The French Interior Minister has stated that the disarmament is unconditional.
- Sikh extremists have been fighting for an independent Khalistan since the 1980s and one Sikh terrorist group was responsible for the downing of an Air India flight from Canada in 1985, the largest single act of terrorism in history prior to 9/11. With an ardently nationalist government led by Prime Minister Modi and a rise in Hindu extremism it is hard to see any opportunity for dialogue in this regard
- while the FARC in Colombia has reached a peace deal with the government after a half-century of war, it is unclear whether a majority of Colombians are interested in an amnesty for FARC fighters/terrorists
- it has been eight years since the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan army crushed the LTTE terrorist group, and yet conditions for northern Tamils are little improved.
In other words, none of the terrorist groups that fought for decades got what they were fighting for. The Sikhs, Basques and Tamils do not have an independent homeland and Colombia is still racked with social and economic inequality that drove many in the FARC to act. Irrespective of peace treaties and amnesties, there are bound to be some, particularly among the youth, that will feel a sense of betrayal. “We died for this?” they will ask. Some will return to violence as the only solution to their demands.
Even some in the governments of these nations recognise that they are not doing enough to address outstanding issues and that a failure to act will probably lead to more violence. I’d like to end with a quote from Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. His words are worth paying attention to. Were that more in positions of power felt the same.
“If we fail to address transitional justice and Tamil youth feels that the Sinhalese south will never address Tamil grievances, there’s nothing to stop the next generation being pushed towards a new terrorism.”