By İhsan Bal*
The coordinated and violent terror attacks in Paris which resulted in an agonizing tragedy elevated counter-terrorism once again to the top rank in the devilish list of items crowding the global security agenda today. To tell the truth, the modern-age struggle against terrorism can be best described as an unending quest against an unruly enemy which has reared its ugly head time and again over the last 240 years.
Neither Nechayev in Russia nor Karl-Heinz in Germany could have possibly foreseen the influence of their 19th-century ‘philosophy of the bomb’, which essentially laid the theoretical groundwork upon which terrorism has evolved into its contemporary form, reaching as far in time and space as exemplified in figures such as Bin Laden in Saudi Arabia and al-Baghdadi in Iraq in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Both the U.S. and Russia continue to intensely mull over how to eradicate the menace of terrorism despite being vested with the most-sophisticated weaponry in the entire globe and securing the support of nearly all other major powers that come to mind. Notwithstanding the relative and occasional successes they achieve as far as their all-out struggle against terrorism is concerned, it still seems joint efforts are swiftly driven to failure for the most part by the intervention of an invisible hand.
For instance, people around the world were expecting to see consensus replace confrontation and polarization as the Cold War came to an end. Proxy wars, the principle generators of terrorism, were thought to be but a disturbing memory that belonged to the past epoch; and Marxist guerillas would eventually feel compelled to give in. But shortly after this brief moment of idealism, such expectations were proven to be far from reality because states, i.e. the dominant actors of international relations, chose to lean towards conflict rather than compromise. As to the second and most important reason why terrorism has managed to stay alive: it is the persistent lack of focus on the root cause of widespread terrorism. That is, draining the ‘swamps’ where terrorism freely proliferates and takes shelter is still not regarded as the most important item on the global counter-terrorism agenda.
Then, why do states frequently fall into the traps set by terrorists, despite their overwhelming capacity and much-superior hardware? Why can’t the overall impact of counter-terrorism live up to expectations?
Paris attacks at first glance
Let’s start by narrowing down our perspective and focusing on the specific case of the Paris attacks – the most recent terrorist attack in our memories – before moving on to draw more general lessons from the broader subject. In the aftermath of the Paris events, we were immediately confronted with a situation in which tougher measures were being taken one after another against immigrants while members of Muslim minorities in Europe were once again forced to strongly demonstrate their loyalty as obedient citizens. In a sense, the frightening face of terrorism has taken complete hold of the decision-making mechanisms of European countries as their fundamental reasoning was instantly paralyzed by absolute shock.
Analyzing the circumstances accurately, ISIS has apparently realized multiple objectives at once by targeting France yet again after its attacks against Charlie Hebdo last January, and this has resulted in effective restrictions on civil liberties. This time, the terrorist group targeted a football game, a live performance by a popular band, and popular cafes, all of which lie at the heart of everyday urban life.
Firstly, no doubt ISIS directly challenges the Western way of life, culture, and civilization. Moreover, with its claim that it carries out such attacks in the name of Islam, it also turns Muslim minorities in Europe as a whole into a target. It would be naive to think ISIS had not calculated the probable consequences of the flood of rage that would sweep over Europe following the attacks. This rising tide of wrath will possibly rage out of control at some point, hitting resident Muslim communities in Europe with a Middle Eastern background – whether Arabs or members of another ethnic group. Thus, new militant identities based on antagonism, detachment, and fragmentation should be expected to emerge and consolidate throughout the following decades.
Many Western strategists such as Robin Niblett, the Director of the Chatham House, reiterate their warning that overreacting to these attacks by holding all Muslims and anyone with a Middle Eastern or Arab background responsible will play directly into the hands of terrorists. In this way, we may be entering a new period in which those pledging to “shoot the terrorists in their homes” increasingly become casualties in their own backyards.
The vicious cycle of counter-terrorism
The chaotic and tragic context confronting the entire globe today is the rational consequence of the chain of events preceding it. Therefore, constantly blaming terrorists is not enough by itself to solve the complex problem we are faced with. As a matter of fact, terrorists are referred to as such due to their blatant disregard for any laws and rules when pushing for their agenda. The real issue is whether states combating terrorism can maintain their superiority by preserving the rule of law, respecting democracy, and clinging to liberties, which taken together allows them to claim the moral and legitimate high ground.
The number of fighter jets flying over Syria increases after every terror attack. The extent of civilian casualties resulting from miscalculations and the true accuracy of air strikes in terms of their ability to hit actual terrorist targets will soon be revealed. France declared its intention to speed up the struggle against terrorism, and vowed to triple its bombing capacity by dispatching its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the region. Likewise, Russia has scaled up its military presence in Syria, declaring recently that over 400 civilians were killed during the airstrikes it has been carrying out since last September. But can we expect such steps to amount to lasting success in the long-term struggle against terrorism? How effectively is the vital distinction between terrorist targets and innocent people being made in practice? New tragedies stemming from repeated rounds of airstrikes will inevitably instigate renewed waves of immigrants flooding Europe’s borders. Will this type of engagement not fuel further rage, suffering, and despair?
Such constitutes the vicious circle that not only renders the moral and legitimate basis of the struggle debatable but also embodies the essential weakness of counter-terrorism policies. Westerners have spent considerable time and energy researching what can be summarized as ways to generate a ‘counter-discourse to tackle extremism’ and constrict ‘the free space that is being exploited by terrorist discourse and propaganda’, the outcome of which has manifested itself as nothing but a simple summation of pluses and minuses on a scoreboard.
However, what we call ‘counter-discourse’ should focus instead on translating related ideas and counter-terrorist operations into slogans, movies, books, newspapers, and opinion pieces with reference to existing circumstances. Trying to understand the intricacies of and drawing lessons from the early 21st century context in Afghanistan or Iraq will undoubtedly fit this purpose; this is in stark contrast to ill-motivated attempts at going back as far as 14 centuries or even two millennia for the sake of interpreting what the Quran or the Bible actually intended to say.
Why does history repeat itself?
The actions taken by the Americans in response to the largest terror attack in their history on September 11, 2001, have served as the ultimate model for the rest of the world for the last 15 years or so when it comes to how to handle counter-terrorism. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are salient examples of this.
It was in this period that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo gained horrible reputations as the very embodiments of torture and humiliation. Reverting to such practices stands as the primary mistake made by Americans in the war against terror. Terrorists have benefited immensely from a wide range of similar practices perpetrated by the West, in addition to tapping into the horror created by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, these facts still provide modern-day terrorists with a vast supply of key emotional ingredients such tension, ambition, and rage that allow their narrative to sustain itself.
To be fair, one should also mention some major steps that were taken in the right direction. In the case of Afghanistan, the loosening of purse strings for public infrastructure investments, the establishment of several light industrial facilities, the lifting of literacy rates among the youth from 30 to 47 percent thanks to a nationwide campaign that allowed both girls and boys to enjoy the benefits of education, and the introduction of elections notwithstanding all the related delays and drawbacks cannot be disregarded.
Then what is the principle problem here? Looking at previous years’ data on the U.S. federal budget, the total cost of the prolonged war in Afghanistan – i.e. the most time-consuming overseas intervention in U.S. history – is estimated at over 1 trillion USD, whereas the 100 billion USD that was spared for efforts to alter the socio-economic and political climate in this country which bred terrorism in the first place is only a fraction of this sum. However, the secret to achieving lasting success in the war against terror rests not in the ability to kill a handful of figureheads such as Bin Laden but rather in raising the number of those like Nobel-laureate teenage activist Malala Yousafzai.
Indeed, historical experience in counter-terrorism provides sufficient clues as to what sort of ruptures and wild fluctuations that repeated sorties by fighter jets over Syria will possibly engender in the following decades. Everyone with an interest on the subject should be able to realize by now that terrorist groups like ISIS, Al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, which can be best described as ‘neo-Al Qaeda’ variations, owe their rapid rise to the strategic mistakes made during the war against terror after 9/11 and are still feeding on the legacy of the U.S. campaign in Iraq. It seems now that we are once again setting out on the same path as if no lessons were drawn from the bitter experience of recent years.
The fact that counter-terrorism is evolving into a much more complicated, costly, and difficult task with each passing day is beyond dispute. However, repeating the basic mistakes of the past is obviously not the proper way to bear the brunt of this grave challenge. No doubt intelligence services, the police, special corps, and military troops are indispensable components of this struggle, however, humanity’s shared experience points to the necessity of incorporating a larger vision supported by wisdom, virtue, and extensive capacity into this struggle in order to obtain favorable results at the end of the day.
Considering this, the task of refuting those arguments that are frequently instrumentalized by terrorist propaganda networks necessitates basing our counter-arguments on solid examples, actual practices, and real life stories. Inspiring stories of individual struggles, workable education models, investments with a human face, and developmental leaps forward should be at the heart of an all-encompassing campaign against terror. Furthermore, prudent and farsighted ideas should also be expressed more loudly. As articulated by a politician in Washington, the time is ripe for a “New Marshall Plan” covering the whole of Middle East that “foresees the modernization of schools and moderation of curriculums, and thus generates a roadmap aimed at teaching the region’s children to use their hands to build and live together, rather than to blow up stuff.”
If such novel changes in perspective can be put into practice, the struggle against terror can gain substantial and sustained momentum. Otherwise, treatment methods that are costlier than the illness itself will yield serious challenges for future generations. Unfortunately, our experience since 9/11 clearly suggests that measures taken to combat terrorism have largely worked to the terrorists’ advantage instead. The acknowledgement of this ugly truth implies drastically amending our current methods in a way that ultimately denies terrorists what they actually desire.
*Prof. Ihsan Bal is Head of the Academic Council at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). Bal is a prominent expert on terrorism, ethnic conflict and security studies.