Why we need to be careful in declaring an end to terrorism

Terrorism is really hard to defeat. Governments often announce ‘victory’ over terrorist entities to sound positive, but these pronouncements are usually hollow.

In recent history we have seen a number of terrorist ‘campaigns’ that last for decades.

For starters and to clarify I am not even referring to the fact that Islamist extremism in general (i.e. worldwide), which has so dominated all discussion on what to do about terrorism since 9/11, has entered its fifth decade and is showing no signs of slowing down (David Rapoport‘s ‘wave theory’ of terrorism notwithstanding). No, here I am referring to specific terrorist groups at a much more local level.

We could cite the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka who wreaked havoc in that land (and in neighbouring India) from the mid-1970s to 2009, the FARC in Colombia which did so for more than half a century, or even ETA in Spain which fought for independence in the north of that country for an amount of time equal to that of the FARC.

All three of these are said to be ‘over’. The LTTE was ‘defeated’ by the Sri Lankan military in 2009; the FARC laid down its weapons a few years ago; and ETA said ‘basta’ (or whatever the equivalent is in Basque!) in 2018. Three cheers for an ‘end’ to these terrorist efforts!


What this all illustrates is that terrorism can indeed unfold over a long period of time, i.e. multiple generations. If a cause is that meaningful to a group of people their zeal in continuing their struggle to gain what they hold as important can transcend failures and the deaths of comrades only to be reborn again and again.

Some try to put a neat beginning and end to a particular terrorism period in a given place, concluding that the threat, which may have indeed been very serious, has ebbed or even disappeared. It is as if we seek to put a tombstone on a terrorist movement (B: 19__ D: 20__).

Oh if it were only that easy!

Algeria is a good case study in this regard.

The 1990s were very much a lost decade in the North African republic and a very deadly one as well. In the aftermath of the military’s decision to cancel an election in late 1991 which an Islamist party, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), was on the verge of winning, all hell broke loose.

By the time the ensuing dirty war ‘ended’ an estimated 44,000-200,000 Algerians died. A terrorist group named the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) rose to the fore and things got ugly. Through the use of car bombs and grisly throat-slitting of kidnapped civilians, the GIA became one of the most deadly terrorist outfits of its day (I suppose ISIS – Islamic State – now owns that infamous title).

The GIA was superseded by another Islamist terrorist group – the GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat) – emerged. This particular organisation later aligned itself with Al Qaeda (AQ) and carried out its own series of attacks in the region.

An end to Algeria’s terrorist threat? Perhaps not

Algeria claimed to have gotten the upper hand by the early 2000s and to have more or less ‘ended’ the terrorist threat. That, of course, is true, but only partially so. We are not – thankfully! – seeing the scale of horror we witnessed in the 1990s but that is not the same as saying that the terrorist scourge is completely gone.

I continue to read of counterterrorism ops by the Algerian army against jihadis in the country’s hinterlands and successful attacks against soldiers on occasion. Here are a few examples of the current conflict:

  • On November 6, 2019 Algerian forces killed three members of a terrorist group in Tipaza, west of Algiers.  Five Algerian soldiers were reported killed in the skirmish;
  • On November 18, Algerian forces killed two alleged ISIS members during an operation along the southern border with Mali.  ISIS media outlets characterized the same incident as an attack killing eight Algerian troops;
  • On February 11, 2020 ISIS said that it was behind an attack on an Algerian military barracks near the country’s border with Mali that killed one soldier;
  • On January 14, 2021 five civilians were killed and three wounded in a roadside bomb attack in eastern Algeria, the deadliest attack targeting civilians in recent years.

Links to larger terrorist groups

What may be the most worrisome in all this is the presence of an ISIS affiliate in the area. In addition, the GSPC has given way to another AQ-linked group, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Both are more active in neighbouring lands, especially in the Sahel, but Algeria is also on their radar. When the world’s two biggest terrorist groups set their sights on you that is not good.

As an aside, the US Department of State just raised its travel advisory for Algeria to level four, representing the highest risk for American travelers, effective February 1. Terrorism and kidnapping were cited as the main threats for US citizens in Algeria, which is now one of only 33 countries around the world where the US Department of State strongly advises to avoid travel.

So what does all this mean?

It’s simple. Terrorism is really hard to defeat. And I mean REALLY hard. Governments often announce ‘victory’ over terrorist entities (hello Donald Trump re ISIS in 2019 and every Nigerian President when it comes to Boko Haram since 2015!) both to sound positive and to give their populations something to feel good about. But these pronouncements are usually hollow.

As long as terrorist groups have a cause and willing soldiers to sacrifice their own lives to that cause they will continue to pose a threat. This applies as well, by the way, to ETA and the LTTE and the FARC. I would not be surprised in the least if these organisations resurrect themselves in some fashion one day as their goals (independence, etc.) were never achieved.

RELATED: Borealis discusses whether terrorism will ever end

The same goes for the jihadis. I know the flavour of the month is right wing extremism (RWE): it’s all anyone seems to want to talk about these days. But the jihadis – AQ, ISIS, the affiliates of these two, other groups – still pose by far the greatest threat on a GLOBAL scale.

And they are not going away. Best to remember that.

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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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