When ‘nationalists’ turn to terrorism

A number of ethno-nationalist conflicts around the world are inching towards potential terrorist campaigns.

A number of ethno-nationalist conflicts around the world are inching towards potential terrorist campaigns.

That we humans are a warlike species is, or should be, obvious to everyone. We have engaged in mass exchanges of violence – between tribes, nations and alliances – since, well since forever.

Interestingly, there are those, like Steven Pinker, who argue that, if anything, we are LESS violent today than we ever have been. He has shown, quite well to my mind, that we kill each other at large scales at a much lower frequency than we once did. Maybe we are evolving since out ape days after all.

And yet war is not extinct. A cursory glance at the planet shows that, as of November 2020, there are active conflicts in – not an exhaustive list – Syria/Iraq, Ethiopia, much of the Sahel, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Philippines. They are driven by a variety of factions and causes and some are more lethal than others. Still, war is war and inevitably a lot of innocent people get caught in the middle and killed.

One of the most common motives for the decision to go to war is that of nationalism.

Nation A decides that Nation B has aggrieved it and elects to punish its ‘foe’ through the declaration of war. Leaders in Nation A also use nationalist arguments to convince its citizens that Nation B is evil, or aggressive or nasty (or more likely all of the above), and that ‘patriots’ have to rise up and defend national honour. There is nothing like the call of nationhood to get the blood flowing!

I am no expert on the history of war but my spidey sense tells me that this way of encouraging average people to take up arms and march against neighbouring states – or states far away – probably is dominant. I am sure you can come up with your own examples.

Currently, three conflicts have arisen of late that are clearly nationalist in nature: Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Ethiopia and the province of Tigray, and a renewed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. All three are still active, although the war in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to have ebbed for now, in Azerbaijan’s favour.

It is this last point that worries me.

When an armed force is defeated or decides that fighting is no longer viable a few outcomes are possible. That nation can elect to stop the war, or it can opt for a re-launch at a future date. There is a third option: the armed conflict can give way to terrorism.

If we define terrorism as an act of serious violence perpetrated for religious, political or ideological reasons than all war is terrorism. We tend, however, to not include acts of violence against armed combatants, but rather limit the use of the label ‘terrorism’ to the targeting of civilians. In this regard, all three of these conflicts could very well lead to terrorism campaigns.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia lost territory it had held since 1994. The dispute is complicated by the fact that Azerbaijan is largely Muslim and Armenia Christian. There are already reports that Azeri troops have ‘vandalised’ some churches, although the Azerbaijani President assured his Russian counterpart, who negotiated a ceasefire, that Christian churches would be protected. In response, some fleeing Armenians are setting houses ablaze so that incoming Azeris cannot occupy them, in what one Azeri official has called ‘ecological terrorism’.

It is not as if the Armenians do not have a history of terrorist tactics. In response to the 1915 genocide of Armenians perpetrated by the dregs of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian violent extremists have attacked and killed Turkish diplomats around the world, including in my own country, Canada. It is as if the Turkish heirs to their Ottoman forefathers have to pay for the latter’s sins.

In this light, it is very possible we will see renewed Armenian terrorism against Azerbaijan, or even Turkey, which backed its Turkic brothers in Baku. Watch this space.

The same can be said for the other two conflicts.

The situation in Ethiopia is rapidly descending into a potential civil war and already what looks like an act of terrorism may be linked. Gunmen killed at least 34 people in a “horrific” bus attack in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia on November 15. And while it is unclear whether this act is linked into the current war, it is highly likely that attacks of this nature will occur down the road, depending of course on how it works out. Killing passengers on a bus sure looks like terrorism to me, at least in theory (many facts are yet to be determined to any degree of certainty).

In Morocco, the leader of Western Sahara independence movement known as the Polisario Front vowed to end a 29-year-old ceasefire with Morocco, citing recent Moroccan border operations as a provocation. In response, Morocco will reinforce its military presence in the region. The Polisario Front was most certainly behind terrorist attacks in the 1980s and, given its numerical inferiority, losses on the battlefield could spur more attacks.

Some say one man’s terrorist is another’s ‘freedom fighter‘. Others say terrorism is a poor man’s war. I have never been a fan of the former but I do see some validity in the latter. I really hope I am wrong in all this but history is on my side I fear.

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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