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When the fight for independence leads to terrorism

What do we do when independence movements which are not seen, at least not yet, as terrorist groups start to venture down that road.

Humans have an obsession with freedom. This is probably a good thing since the opposite of freedom – incarceration, subjugation, an absence of rights – is not viewed by many as an optimal situation.

When we think of freedom at the individual level we usually talk about several globally accepted rights. These are enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include:

  • the right to life, liberty and security of person;
  • the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law;
  • the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state;
  • the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
  • the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and
  • the right to a nationality.

It is this last one that is of most interest to me for the purposes of this piece. Nationality of course presumes the existence of a nation, or a nation state.

So, what is a nation state?

Is there any agreed-upon definition? According to Britannica a nation state is “a territorially bounded sovereign polity—i.e., a state—that is ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation.” Hmm, sounds tautologous to me! A nation is what a nation says it is? How does that help?

There are many examples of course where not everyone agrees on what constitutes a nation state within a given geographical area. The Kurds, for example, are often described as the world’s largest grouping that constitute a ‘nation’ but have no nation state to call home (although the upheaval in Iraq over the past few decades has afforded them what certainly looks like a nation state, albeit one without official recognition).

International acceptance aside there are cases where a part of an existing country decides that it does not want to be part of that nation state and would rather run its own affairs. There are good reasons for doing so – a lack of rights seems to underlie most of them – and a range of efforts to gain this new status. Some of those efforts are violent in nature. Examples include the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Basques in northern Spain.

RELATED: Borealis discusses how to distinguish Freedom Fighters from Terrorists

What is interesting about these two cited cases is that actual terrorist groups – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE and the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty) or ETA – arose to fight for independence and/or sovereignty. And both have been active for decades, causing much death and destruction.

We rightly condemn these groups for their use of violence. Even if the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter is blurred at the best of times the deliberate targeting of civilians in the quest for nationhood is unacceptable. Period.

And yet some states are not helping when it comes to these disputes.

Take Turkey.

Turkish governments have long maintained that there is no such thing as a ‘Kurd’, referring to these people as ‘mountain Turks‘,  outlawing the Kurdish language (or misrepresenting it as a dialect of Turkish), and forbidding them to wear distinctive Kurdish dress in or near the important administrative cities. That this ridiculous set of policies has led to Kurdish uprisings is understandable, even if we do agree that groups like the PKK – Partya Karkeren Kurdistan or Kurdistan Workers’ Party – are in fact terrorists (Canada lists them as such).

What then do we do when independence movements which are NOT seen, at least not yet, as terrorist groups start to venture down that road?

An interesting case has arisen in Morocco where the Polisario Front (PF) carved out the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, a polity now recognised by many governments and a full member of the African Union (AU). Not surprisingly, Morocco does not agree and has long fought the PF, even accusing Algeria of helping what it sees as an illegal group. A longstanding ceasefire between the PF and Morocco ended in late 2020.

Recently, Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) discovered photos of a PF member, Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, among the seized material after dismantling an Islamic State (ISIS)-linked terror cell in Tangier. Furthermore, Morocco claims to have identified 100 Polisario members who are associated with ISIS since 2017.

If true, this is not a good development. It does seem odd to that a ‘legitimate’ movement would choose to hook up with a loathsome terrorist outfit like ISIS. Why would the PF see ISIS as a necessary partner? Have its leaders been asleep for the past decade?

On the other hand

This development demonstrates that an organisation that has been fighting for what it sees as right for half a century may become desperate. True, getting in bed with ISIS is REALLY desperate and unjustifiable, but at the same time it is a good example of why these differences cannot be allowed to fester with no end in sight.

Alas, too many leaders seem to not realise this. The occasions on which I come across heads of state who immediately label any effort at subnational protest terrorism, whether there is any need to use that term, is concerning. Like Chile. And Nigeria. And Algeria. And there are more.

Terrorism is real and must be dealt with, harshly at times. Yet it should also be obvious that we should not make more terrorism as we have far more than enough already to manage. It is often said that if you are digging yourself a hole the first thing you need to do is stop digging. There are too many holes being dug.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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