In all the debates about what is more important today from a terrorism angle, i.e. where we should put the greatest concentration of resources to counter it, I find there is one glaring omission. As we go back and forth on whether to put all our eggs in the jihadi basket or the far right basket, or whatever focus, we are missing something very important and this error stems from two fundamental weaknesses. First, most people have no real appreciation for what terrorism is, where it came from and where it may be going. Secondly, humans tend to react to events, not prepare for them in advance, and hence we run around higgledy-piggledy (I have ALWAYS wanted to use that wonderful idiom in a blog and today’s the day!) pulling people from A to B only to reassign them back to A when something else happens.
All this hit me like a puck to the noggin – this occurs with alarming regularity when I try to play goal but should not bedevil a real goaltender – as I began to research what transpired in terrorism on this day in history. FYI I am not going to pretend that I have access to a comprehensive database on terrorist incidents: I am just using a Wikipedia page, although I do use other sources to confirm details. So when I was looking for what happened on September 26 I found many attacks in many countries in many different years and tied to many different ideological causes. I will elaborate on one in particular for reasons I hope will be clear, but here are a few of the others:
- 2017 A Palestinian man killed three Israeli security officers and critically wounded a fourth, at the entrance to the Har Adar settlement outside Jerusalem
- 2017 A Boko Haram female suicide bomber killed five people in a mosque in northeast Nigeria. Three other worshipers were injured in the attack;
- 2016 Islamic State in the Sinai killed five civilians (beheading two) in Sheikh Zuweid and dumped their bodies, clad in orange jumpsuits (shades of Guantanamo Bay), on the road;
- 1980 A bomb killed 13 people and injured hundreds at Munich’s Oktoberfest. Originally blamed on a lone right-wing extremist new evidence has raised questions about whether this was accurate; and
- 1971 The Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) attacked a squadron of soldiers in Tolima.
The one I want to focus on today has important ties to what is happening right now, in the PRC. On this day in 2014 a violent clash in the Xinjiang region of western China left 50 people dead and more than 50 others injured. Explosions occurred at two police stations, a shop and a produce market and multiple civilians were targeted. Chinese officials blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an Islamist terrorist group
There is no question that Islamist extremism in the PRC is real (I cover it at some length in The Lesser Jihads). Hundreds have died in recent years in attacks. The Chinese government, however, has elected to deal with a very real problem by essentially incarcerating upwards of 1 million Uyghur Muslims in vast ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang and cracking down on normative Islam throughout the country. This is bad CT policy and bad governance. It will not help eliminate terrorism (not that that is really possible anyway).
Let me bring this back to what I want to stress here. My point is just as we had a significant number of attacks from a wide variety of actors in previous years we are faced with the same challenge today. What does this mean? It means that we do not have the luxury to laser-focus our attention on any one threat. Doing counter terrorism is never about one overwhelming danger; it is about all of the above all the time. We may choose to front load the lion’s share of our resources on one particular set of actors because of political pressure: this is exactly what rolled out after 9/11 and has dominated our approach for almost two decades. As a result we took eyes off other priorities and the results were not good.
I don’t want to come across as repetitive – I feel I have flogged this horse to death in recent months – but this is how things are. I wish they were simple and we could come up with simple responses. We can’t. Get used to it.