Why we will never ‘eradicate’ terrorism

Scientists have made great progress in eradicating diseases that once maimed or killed millions of people.  Think of smallpox.  Or polio, which a few years ago was on the verge of disappearance though state instability and war have allowed it to cling to life.  The reason why these scourges were defeated (apparently there is a difference between eradication and elimination but that distinction is beyond the scope of this blog) is that efforts at developing vaccines or removing the conditions under which the disease flourished were successful.  And we should all be grateful for that.

There is, however, a vast difference between eradicating a disease and eradicating terrorism.  The former is the result of a biological organism, the latter is a human-driven social phenomenon.  So when I hear a world leader claim that his government has ‘eradicated’ terrorism my skepticism peaks.  Recently, both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the Algerian Minister of the Interior have made such statements (and the Algerian Army has vowed to ‘resoundly defeat terrorism’).  In addition Malaysia’s new most senior police officer has said it is time to ‘weed out’ terrorism.  Here is why I am not so confident that they are correct.  (As a side note it is particularly galling to hear the Saudi king say that his regime has won out over terrorism given that it is precisely his kingdom’s aberrant version of Islam that has fed it for decades).

Terrorism is a tactic whereby a person, or more frequently a group of people or a whole movement, decide that the use of violence to advance some kind of ideological goal is required. These people want change and they have concluded that the only way to achieve this change is through the use of force.  In other words, dialogue, negotiations, talks, and compromise have been judged to be insufficient  – hence the move to more physical means.  I find that the founder of Al Qaeda, Abdallah Azzam, summed up this view very well when he proclaimed “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.”  It is really hard after all to defeat a tactic.

Even if, sorry Mr. Azzam, negotiations with terrorist groups are sometimes possible – we have seen for example what are very promising peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC – they are hard and they take time.  As a non-state actor, a terrorist group is a difficult negotiating partner that can make demands a state cannot.  And of course a given group can back out of a deal if it believes that the conditions have not been met or ‘rogue’ elements decide to return to violent means.

Secondly, as a tactic, terrorism is a tool available to a wide variety of ideological currents.  We focus a lot on Islamist extremism these days, and for good reason, but as my friend Jamie Bartlett recently wrote in Foreign Policy the next big threat may come from the far left/green movement.  If, as I expect, the jihadis aren’t going away any time soon (and a senior former UK intelligence official agrees with me), we may have to deal with multiple serious terrorist challenges simultaneously.  That will tax limited resources.

In the end, a given terrorist group can be (temporarily) defeated.  But terrorism cannot.  We cannot eliminate a tactic that is used by such a wide variety of groups of people for the simple reason that it is simple, works, and grabs our attention (Brian Jenkins’ notion of terrorism as theatre).  We generally date the genesis of  terrorism to the latter half of the 19th century during the anarchist wave (using US political scientist David Rapoport’s ‘wave theory’ of terrorism idea) but it has probably been around since the creation of societies (rather than bands of hunter-gatherers).  And it is here to stay.

Declaring victory against terrorism also suffers from the challenge of waging war against common nouns (think drugs, crime, etc.).  These wars never end because one of the protagonists, unlike a state, cannot surrender: did you ever hear a bag of heroin say “Don’t shoot!  I give up!”?  So these proclamations are made for political and propaganda reasons but they really should be taken with a grain of salt.

This is not a defeatist position, it is a real one.  And the sooner we can stop dreaming of unlikely goals the better off we will be.


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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