Feb 11, 2019

Why terrorist movements seldom ever really go away

This post appeared in The Hill Times on February 4, 2019

When we think of the major terrorist threats facing us today we tend to think of phenomena like Islamist extremism (Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the like). If we want to sound more avant garde we might say far right extremism (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc.). And if you want to sound positively Nostradamusian (is that even a word?) you would say watch out for the wave of left-wing terrorism (driven by inaction over global warming and environmental degradation).

If, on the other hand, I were to ask you what you thought about Irish republican or Sikh terrorism you may be tempted to say “Oh, those old things?” Irish republican terrorism is seen as a threat of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Sikh terrorism had its pinnacle with the Air India attack in 1985. Surely these two are not something we need to worry about in 2019, are they?

Well, you would be wrong for thinking that way. Starting with Irish republican terrorism, it may not be as rampant as it was decades ago but it is still around. In fact, a car bomb exploded in Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry) on January 19. No one, thankfully, was killed or injured and the event was treated with a shrug by many people, if they even knew it took place. The group which police think was behind the explosion is called the New IRA – now I should have your attention! The original IRA dates back to the years after WWI and was responsible for the deaths of close to 2000 people in England and Ireland and regularly featured in the headlines for decades.

And as for Sikh extremism, not only are there frequent attacks in India by those seeking to carve out an independent Khalistan through acts of violence but even Canada mentioned Sikh terrorism as a threat to monitor in the 2018 Public Report on Terrorism. That the government chose to include this threat led to all kinds of protests by Canadian Sikhs of kowtowing to Indian pressure and making stuff up. So no, it is not quite dead yet either.

What then does all this mean? It is actually quite simple. Terrorism is the attempt to seek some kind of political or religious/ideological goal through the use of violence. Sometimes the goal is achieved and groups morph into regular political actors (the African National Congress might be an example of this). More often the goals are not obtained and groups fade away (ETA in Basque country would illustrate this although this terrorist group could easily join the third group described next). And then there are cases where the fight never really ends. Actors might change but the overall goal remains, as does the conviction that desires can only be satisfied through violent means. Enter the IRA and its various manifestations and Sikh terrorists.

We fool only ourselves when we try to say that terrorism is defeated. Yes, groups may surrender or be effectively downgraded to the extent where they are no longer very effective in what they are trying to do. Ideas, however, are a different beast: they do not tend to lay down and give up as easily. There will always be those willing to kill and die for a cause. It would be wise to remember that.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former strategic analyst at CSIS