When we prematurely pronounce a terrorist group dead

Here we go again!

The acting Afghan Interior Minister has just said that the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in the eastern province of Khurasan has been defeated. In his own words:

(ISIS) were defeated in Nangarhar, their centres were destroyed…We will soon destroy their last centres. With the people’s help, we will completely eliminate them. Some of their smaller groups are surrendering, other small groups will be eliminated in other provinces.

He went on to say that the ISIS was being “completely defeated” in Afghanistan.

Wow. If true this is big. Really big. After all, this particular branch of ISIS has been very effective and very brutal over the years. A real ‘defeat’ of these terrorists would be a great achievement.

Except that it is hard to say if it is accurate. The problem lies in what it actually means to see the end of a terrorist group. As I have written before, the Nigerian government regularly announces the death of their own scourge, Boko Haram every Christmas and yet the terrorist organisation is still with us and is showing little sign of going away.

Guilty of boasting

The US, of course, has been guilty of this boasting on multiple occasions. Not only did President Trump declare that ISIS had been ‘defeated’ in April of this year but officials have been pronouncing Al Qaeda (AQ) dead on many occasions. Which makes me wonder why the US government is now particularly worried about an AQ affiliate called Hurras al Din in Syria.

I think I may understand this need to shout ‘victory!’ from the rooftops. Among the reasons may be:

  • A real need for good news on the ‘war on terrorism’ front. We have been in this for almost 20 years and there is no end in sight;
  • A mistaken belief that terrorist groups are inherently weak: this seems to drive our conviction that killing leaders matters;
  • Bad analysis or gaps in analysis on actual group strength;
  • A lack of realisation that many, if not all, terrorist groups feed off the action of states in a tit-for-tat way. We hit them and they hit us. This is why much of counter terrorism is a case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

I am not part of the news cycle. My pieces do not need to be produced as events are unfolding and I do not need to carry out what I term ‘instant analysis’. I prefer to wait and see what all this means before weighing in. I guess that is one of the benefits of being retired and not having my work influence decision-making.

That being said I do wish our leaders would be a little more judicious in making sweeping announcements about terrorist group deaths. Can’t we wait a bit before we write the epitaphs and erect the gravestones?