‘Counter’ terrorism policies that breed more terrorism are not smart

When it comes to terrorism we all have a role to play.

Citizens have a responsibility to call authorities when they see suspicious behaviour (‘See it, Say it’ is one such campaign) or notice those on the possible pathway to violent extremism and get in touch with those who have CVE (countering violent extremism) programs (even if these really don’t work or where the results are hard to measure).

A few recently surfaced stories have reminded me that on occasion the decisions made by those who should know better are really dumbSecurity intelligence and law enforcement agencies are there to investigate and neutralise real threats. And then there is the state, which is supposed to bring it all together, whether that is through funding or some kind of coordinating function.

Why, then, do states sometimes make stupid decisions that only makes things worse? A few recently surfaced stories have reminded me that on occasion the decisions made by those who should know better are really dumb. Here they are:

Iraq’s Shia-dominant government is lashing out at that country’s Sunni population based on the misguided belief that all Sunnis collaborated with Islamic State (IS).

Demography is complicated in Iraq and this is not the first instance of state-led sectarian unrest, but this new campaign is doing nothing but fuel Islamist extremist ideology. For a nation that is enjoying a ‘post-IS’ time (not really but let’s go with that for now), pissing off a large part of the population and feeding deep-seated Sunni extremist hatred of the Shia is probably a bad idea.

Several Israeli governments have carried out the destruction of the homes of Palestinian terrorists (as if the homes were guilty of violence).

This policy has apparently extended to a bill which proposes ”the forcible relocation of the families of Palestinian terrorists from their homes.” If families are complicit in the commission of terrorism crimes, charge them. If not, why would you expel them, thus ensuring resentment and possibly more terrorism down the road? At least the Israeli Attorney General is pushing back against the bill, which he says “infringes human rights and defames Israel”. For the record, Israeli PM Netanyahu backs the measure.

Into this mix, I would add all those who advocate the revocation of citizenship for convicted terrorists.

Citizenship should be removed – and only where there is a second one to fall back on as no one should be rendered stateless – when it can be demonstrated that it was obtained fraudulently. Any crimes committed by new citizens have to be dealt with by the state that granted that status. These crooks or terrorists are our problem, not someone else’s. Taking away citizenship may feel good but it is pointless.

I understand that governments want to appear tough on terrorism.

I also get that they want to keep their electorates safe since any government that fails to do so won’t remain in power for very long. But counter terrorism actions, whether these be ‘kinetic’ (i.e. military), law enforcement, legal or otherwise, have to be carefully calculated so that they don’t make matters worse.

Every time a leader, politician, or senior bureaucrat comes up with “Hey! Why don’t we do this?” there should be an immediate sanity check for the possible repercussions, good, bad or neutral. Anything that smacks of punishment solely for punishment’s sake or overly general punitive measures should be deep-sixed – stat!

We really need to get a lot smarter ASAP in our response to terrorism. The ill-named ‘war’ is not going well and it ain’t gonna go any better until we stop calling it a ‘war’ and stop implementing counterproductive policies. Reversing the ones mentioned above would constitute a good start.

How the decision to go to war made the ‘War on Terrorism’ worse

A little less than a month ago we marked (‘celebrated’ is definitely the wrong word) the centenary of the end of the First World War. This was a solemn occasion on which we recalled the deaths, injuries and destruction in not only the ‘Great War’ but also in WWII, the Korean War and others.

It was a reminder that war is a bad idea and that we really should exhaust every other option before making the decision to go to it.

Tell that to the Russian government.

War is a bad idea and that we really should exhaust every other option before making the decision to go to it.There is a movement in that country’s Parliament (the Duma) to have the 1979 invasion by the Red Army into Afghanistan justified (in the first post-Soviet government in 1991 the decision to go to Afghanistan was labelled a ‘criminal gamble’ and a ‘moral and political condemnation’ was issued). This current crop of politicians believe that condemnation went against “historical justice,” and that Soviet military action in Afghanistan was conducted “in full accordance with the norms of international law.

Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in April 1988

Wow! What’s next – casting the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as a wise act?

Sticking with Afghanistan for a moment, Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie has told the US Congress that the current war in that country is ‘at a stalemate‘, although that did not stop a PhD student in Singapore from writing that China and India can succeed in Afghanistan where US, Russia failed. News alert: they don’t call Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.

News alert: they don’t call Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.Aside from my disgust at seeing war so cavalierly – can we ever forget the dismissiveness with which leaders sent men ‘over the top’ to face certain death in the mud of Flanders in WWI? – does no one see the link between war and terrorism? And no, I am not referring to the unhelpful ‘war on terrorism’: I am referring to the fact that by sending troops to occupy a foreign land we are actually creating terrorists and terrorist groups where none existed before.

Need some examples?

  • The Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979 led directly to the creation of Al Qaeda;
  • The US entry into Iraq in 2003 led indirectly to the creation of Islamic State (via the former Al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate);
  • The Ethiopian entry into Somalia in 2006 led to the creation of Al Shabaab.

This is not a good track record. And if you want to go back even further you could cite the joint UK/US-sponsored coup in Iran in 1952 that led directly to the Iranian Revolution, the rise of the Ayatollahs, and Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. You would really think that smarter officials would have learned this by now. I guess not: the Philippines government is planning to extend martial law in the southern part of that nation to fight terrorism.

Another one-year extension of martial law is needed to hunt down foreign terrorists who have entered the country through the southern backdoor, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Tuesday.
Some military moves are probably efficient and maybe even necessary but they have to be used in very limited circumstances.You would imagine that we would want to stop doing things that make terrorism – a threat that is very real but also very over-exaggerated in many ways – worse. So why do we see the deployment of military forces as a solution? Sure, I realise that on occasion some military moves are probably efficient and maybe even necessary (drone and airstrikes for example although these too can aggravate matters since both cause civilian casualties that lead to grievance – and grieving – and a desire for revenge) but they have to be used in very limited circumstances.

On no grounds should armies be sent to invade and occupy other countries as this never leads to a better situation, despite the myth that soldiers will be seen as ‘liberators’.

Furthermore, war can feed terrorism as we have seen. Using this instrument is the equivalent of pouring gas on an open fire. When was the last time you saw a firefighter do that? No, we have to re-frame our struggle in ways so that we can both contain existing terrorists and terrorist groups and figure out how to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place – terrorists are made not born. We have to get rid of the war metaphor: this is one battle we will not win.