The links between genocide and terrorism

If there is one activity that humans engage in that is worse than genocide I’d like to know what it is. Genocide is the deliberate intent to wipe an entire people off the face of the earth. The UN defines it as: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

There have been far too many instances of genocide, or attempted genocide, in human history. The Holocaust – the Nazi plan to kill all the world’s Jews – is perhaps the best known not only for the sheer scale of the slaughter but thanks to the efforts of many to keep the memory of this heinous program alive (especially important in the face of ‘Holocaust deniers’: morons who pretend nothing happened). It is not the only one alas: the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide, the 1994 massacres in Rwanda and Islamic State’s recent campaign against the Yazidis are all representative as well of this scourge.

A dear friend of mine put the following question to me yesterday: is genocide terrorism? It gave me pause. My immediate reaction was ‘no’ but upon further reflection I am not so sure. Using only the four examples above (I probably could have added China’s treatment of the Uyghurs) here is an inadequate analysis of the relationship between genocide and terrorism:

  • the Nazi-driven Holocaust was definitely an ideologically-motivated campaign of mass violence. As terrorism needs some kind of underlying ideology to qualify as such it would meet the definition. It is hard, however, at least for me to picture a multi-year program as an ‘act of terrorism’
  • the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to eliminate its Armenian population through murder, starvation and forced marches through the desert killed at least 1.5 million people. It too had some ideological basis as well as a religious one (the Ottomans were Muslim while the Armenians were largely Christian). Nevertheless it is difficult to see starvation as an ‘act of terror’
  • the Rwandan massacre of the Tutsis in 1994 was the outgrowth of that country’s civil war and was catapulted to the level of genocide following a plane crash in which the Hutu president died. This was an ethnic slaughter in which propaganda played a key role and there was talk of a ‘final solution’ (echoes of the Jewish Holocaust).
  • Islamic State is a terrorist group that is Islamist in nature and hence believes that anyone who does not practice its hateful strand of Islam must be killed. The Yazidis in northern Iraq were subject to genocide by IS starting in 2014: the men were killed and the women raped and forced to marry IS ‘fighters’.

Where does this leave us? I am not sure. There is little doubt that each of these crimes against humanity were driven by those full of intense hatred and convinced that they had the right to erase an entire people from the face of the planet. But as I have argued in the past, hatred is not necessarily ideological. In some cases there appears to have been a well-developed ideological framework: in others, nothing more or less than bloodlust. The case of IS is complicated as the entire band is one of terrorists.

I think perhaps we are used to seeing terrorism as a series of one-off events, even if there is a theme that joins them. We can label an act terrorism and then assign it to a category: Islamist, far right, religious, etc. We can even see a whole bunch of analogous events as examples of a terrorist phenomenon defined by the particular ideology its adherents propound. What we do with a systematic effort to remove all traces of a nation falls somewhere else maybe. I don’t know – what do you think?

What all of this shows is that we are sadly capable of enormous acts of the cruelest violence carried out because some of us don’t like the skin colour or faith of someone else. Whether this is genocide, terrorism or simply hate on a grand scale may not really matter. What is perhaps more important is that we do what we can to prevent it from happening in the first place.

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