/ 9 December 2014

Myopic global war on terror is not winning hearts and minds

Isis militants.
Isis militants.

As if to underline the recent release of the 2014 Global Terrorism Index – which shows that rates of terrorism are increasing in breadth, frequency and intensity – on November 20, members of Somalia’s al-Shabab terror group hijacked a Kenyan bus near the border town of Mandera, interrogated its 60 passengers and executed the 28 non-Muslims on board.

On November 28, in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram sought to establish its own Islamic State-like caliphate, militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Kano and killed 100 Muslims gathered for Friday prayers.

In the wake of these seemingly incoherent acts of ultraviolence increasingly punctuating our headlines, it is easy to lose track of what motivates terrorism and what methods of counterterrorism actually work to bring conflict to an end. Being that variations of extreme interpretations of Islam are common to the several organisations most responsible for rising rates of terrorism, it is also easy to confer too much weight on religion as an explanatory factor driving the scourge of terror.

Drawing from a data set of 125 000 codified terrorist incidents to generate a comprehensive picture of the dynamics that give rise to terrorism and encourage groups to use it as an act of warfare, the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) helps to shed light on terrorism as one of the defining political phenomena of the 21st century.

The recent GTI report is concerning. Terrorism is getting worse. Much worse. Last year, 55 countries recorded one or more deaths from terrorist activity and the number of countries that experienced more than 50 deaths rose from 15 to 24. Over the past decade, there has been a 61% increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3 361 in 2000 to 17 958 in 2013. Not only is terrorism becoming more widespread, it is also increasing in intensity.

A new type of war
Africa is already home to Boko Haram, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which are responsible for a significant number of increasing terrorism-related deaths. The GTI report also identifies 13 countries at risk of increased future terrorist activity. Half of these are in Africa.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was famously theorised by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history”; the radical ideologies of the 20th century had lost, which would see states begin to move towards a liberal-democratic utopia. Yet everywhere we see ideology forcing its way into the public space. Boko Haram, the Taliban, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda and its affiliates are only the most radical incarnations of this trend.

Yet despite the radical interpretations of Islam common to all these groups, most terrorist organisations are responding to the same political, social and economic grievances that at earlier points in history may have been expressed in separatist, nationalist or Marxist rhetoric, even though masked in a religious narrative. Structural inequality did not change, but the response to it did.

This is not to say that conflict framed in religious terms does not make negotiated peace settlements especially difficult to achieve. It does. As terrorism analyst Mark Juergensmeyer writes, religion can turn conflict into a zero-sum game forcing rivals into vastly opposing positions and making compromise difficult.

It can also provide moral justification for the use of extreme violence and offer personal reward for the perpetrators of violence. War waged in a godly time span also need not be won immediately but can grind on indefinitely.

A forced response
The Global Terrorism Index identifies three factors that are the most common drivers of terrorism: social hostility between different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups; the presence of state-sponsored violence such as extrajudicial killings and human rights violations; and a high level of other forms of violence, such as violent demonstrations and violent crime.

In the light of these factors that we know fuel terrorism, strongly militaristic approaches towards counterterrorism seem wholly unable to combat the problem. In March, after two al-Shabab attacks in Kenya, the Kenyan government began a security crackdown on Somali refugees called Operation Usalama Watch, which Amnesty International reported led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, harassment, forcible relocation and expulsion.

In 2009, the Nigerian police arrested some of the founding members of Boko Haram and publically executed them without trial, marking a turning point in the group’s trajectory of terror.

And the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is to date the largest deployment of AU forces on the continent, is wholly reliant on the United States for operational and technical support in carrying out targeted killings of al-Shabab leadership figures.

Conflict breeds conflict
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the great US war machine again rolled into the Middle East to disastrous effect, then-president George Bush made a speech in which he proclaimed the US’s purpose to be to “rid this world of evil and terror”.

“The evil ones have roused a mighty nation, a mighty land. And for however long it takes, I am determined that we will prevail.”

In this myopic vision of a “war on terror” to end “evil”, US counterterrorism policy had been decided. “Disrupt and destroy” became the mantra of US leadership and it echoed around the world.

There was little attention given to structural inequalities, state-sanctioned violence, aggressive foreign policy – all those things that create the frustrated and disenfranchised classes easily recruited into terrorist groups. It was easier to paint with broad strokes. Terrorists are evil and evil is the enemy.

Since the 1960s, 80% of all terrorist groups have disbanded as a result of negotiation by being brought into the political process. The US’s militaristic approach to combating terrorism has been a complete failure, yet it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Too many resources have been committed to developing the capabilities to fight an indefinite war on terror, a war that African leaders are slowly being co-opted into waging on their behalf. It is going to be up to African leaders to explore soft approaches to creating the reconciled and just societies that best guard against terrorism.

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is an intern with the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, www.ijr.org.za. He is completing his master’s thesis in conflict transformation with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with a focus on counterterrorism strategies in Africa. Follow him on Twitter @stephen_bclarke.