It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.
Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?
Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.
Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.
Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.
Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.