When is a war not a war?

The new Liberal government in Canada has been talking about terrorism quite a bit lately.  We now have a decision on what Trudeau’s policy on Islamic State (IS) will be as well as a renewed – and much needed – emphasis on countering radicalisation in this country.

And the Defence Minister, Harjit “bad-ass” Sajjan, has come out and said that we are not at war with IS.  We are involved in a military conflict with the group that entails “high-risk”, but that does not constitute war (see article here)

Touche to the Minister and the government.

I have long argued, as have others, that the phrase “war on terrorism” is both unnecessary and counterproductive.  We have long tried to frame our struggles with other social ills – poverty, drugs, smoking, etc. – in militaristic terms despite the lack of success.  As a US scholar once said wars against common nouns seldom end well as those nouns cannot surrender, unlike proper nouns (e.g. Germany and Japan in WWII)) which can.

Calling the fight against groups like IS, AQ, Al Shabaab, the Taliban and others a “war” at least complies with the fact that these are proper nouns.  But we still should refrain from using the term for several reasons.

Terrorist groups usually claim that they are at war with something.  The West.  Corrupt or immoral governments.  Other religious groups.  Decadent Western society.  They see their actions as part of a bigger struggle for change, a change that can only be achieved through the use of violence.

Furthermore, many Islamist extremist groups use terms linked to war (or jihad – what they see as Islamic war) in their names.  Here are a few examples:

  • Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) – Pakistan
  • Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) – Pakistan
  • Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Jhangvi) – Pakistan
  • Islamic Jihad Union – Afghanistan
  • Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami (Islamic Jihad Movement) – Bangladesh
  • Jundallah (Army of God) – Balochistan (SW Iran)
  • Indian Mujahideen
  • Palestinian Islamic Jihad
  • Jama’at at-Tawhid wal Jihad (Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad) – Iraq (former group led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi
  • Egyptian Islamic Jihad

But terrorist groups do not deserve to have their actions defined in terms of war.  They may see themselves as combatants in battle, but what they normally do is commit crimes, and often crimes that are mass casualty in nature.  They are not soldiers and they do not constitute armies, regardless of what they claim.

IS is different in that we have never before seen a terrorist group seize and hold territory to the extent that this group has.  The group also has military equipment seized from Iraqi forces.  They have the apparent trappings of a state (governance, tax collection, law enforcement duties, etc.) and their existence relies crucially on their ability to convince others of the reality of this state.  States go to war.

And yet many have argued at great length that referring to IS as a viable state is a wrong move since it gives them credibility and stature, neither of which is helpful in our efforts to defeat them.  Yes I have always been a realist, citing the need to call things by what they are and not by what we want them to be.   And yet the threat that IS poses and the potential for that threat to increase through the recruitment of others around the world that see its successes and facts on the ground as admirable and worthy of support demand that we not give the group the oxygen it needs.

IS is a bunch of murderous thugs.   Yes, they have more capacity and projection ability than normal groups of thugs, but they are criminals nonetheless.  And you don’t go to war against criminals – you track them and bring them to justice where you can (or where this is not feasible you kill them).   Law enforcement, security intelligence and the military all have a role to play in this conflict.  But we should not call it war.

Let us not dignify these extremists by granting them the war they crave.





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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