CANBERRA – Mass killing morphs from criminality to terrorism when it is politically motivated and intended to produce political effects. With political violence, political grievances underpinning them must also be examined and countered or addressed: By our policies and actions, are we creating more terrorists than we are killing and capturing? The related question is: What would most profit the jihadis who want to recruit and motivate a growing army of angry Muslim youth to fight Westerners? The two biggest spurs are alienated and disaffected Muslims in Western countries and the sprawling presence of Western armies in Muslim countries.
Our intelligence must succeed every single time to thwart plots; the terrorists have to succeed only once to cause deadly mayhem. Within each plot, however, the terrorists have to succeed at every stage from start to finish. Intelligence has to succeed at any one stage of the plot to thwart it. Paris involved many agents in meticulous planning of simultaneous attacks on multiple sites. Their success represents a major intelligence failure. More extensive powers of surveillance may become necessary, but all increased police powers must be subject to independent oversight, periodic reviews and sunset clauses to preclude the rise of a police state as the new normal.
“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion,” says Steven Weinberg. Most Muslims just want to live peaceably and quietly. Only a tiny minority are jihadis. Yet most terrorist incidents in the world today are perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Most Western countries are vibrant multicultural democracies because of their open immigration policies. Laws to strip dual nationals of citizenship are retrograde for introducing second-class citizenship. The philosopher Hannah Arendt reminds us that citizenship confers the right to have rights. Yet often the presence of Muslims in significant numbers has posed unique challenges of adaptation and the mosque has been the center of radicalization by fiery clerics.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies must watch potential Muslim militants yet not alienate law-abiding Muslims through harassment and intimidation that would drive them into the hands of Islamists. In turn, Muslims must take to the streets in visibly large numbers to denounce acts of terror committed in their name and decide which of their home customs are essential to their faith and which are unnecessarily confronting to their host cultures.
The presence of Western troops on Muslim soil is a sore point for many Muslims. Western powers have toppled elected governments (Iran) and attacked secular tyrants (Iraq, Libya), but backed and armed autocratic sheikhdoms exporting the most extreme doctrines of fundamentalist Islam. Western rhetoric of democracy and human rights reeks of hypocrisy to Muslims and breeds widespread cynicism about their motives.
Can the West break its addiction to intervening, meddling and seeking to control the Middle East through endless wars of “liberation” followed by occupation? “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results,” said Winston Churchill. Else they will validate Einstein’s observation that doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of a different result is insanity. Fourteen years of the war on terror has not secured us against terrorist attacks. The swamp of terrorism, far from being drained, seems to be continually replenished. It is time to consider alternatives instead of doubling down on the same failed strategy.
The intervention addiction has led to an insanely complex set of relationships and equations in the Syrian imbroglio. Setting aside self-deluding fables and fantasies, there are only three groups fighting for territory and power in Syria: the Assad regime, the Islamic State and the al-Nusra extremist rebels. There is no viable “moderate” opposition. The maze of outside interests has entangled Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S., European powers and Russia in crisscrossing and fluid alliances. Their growing presence and expanding roles in the congested and contested Syrian space is an open invitation to escalation and crisis, as with the downing of the Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter plane.
Robert A. Lovett, the U.S. secretary of defense from 1951 to 1953, advised that when faced with political crises carrying great risks for small gains, we should “forget the cheese; let’s get out of the trap.” The “cheese” is the enticing prospect of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has the blood of his people on his hands. The trap is the history-defying belief that something better will follow the dictator’s departure by force of outside arms. Ousting Assad would leave IS free to roam the country in a murderous spree and let loose post-Gadhafi Libya-style chaos and anarchy.
For years Russia has warned that Western policy was putting Syria on the path to civil war; the U.N. Security Council is not in the business of imposing the parameters of an internal political settlement on member states and dictating to them who stays in power and who must go; opposition groups too had to be condemned for perpetrating violence and exhorted to engage constructively with the government; and the only solution to the crisis is through an inclusive, Syrian-led process to address the legitimate aspirations of the people in an environment free of violence and human rights abuses. The other BRICS countries subscribe to this view at odds with mainstream Western opinion. Syria’s army is the only military force in regular combat with IS. Instead of fighting both Assad and the IS, the Obama administration should reverse course, forget Assad and focus on IS in active collaboration with Russia.
Meant to protect us from attacks, overseas interventions can provoke terrorist reprisals. Robert Pape has studied over 2,000 suicide bombings between 1980 and 2009. Their biggest motivation is anger at the presence of foreign troops on their soil, not religion. When Russia escalated its military involvement in Syria, Western leaders and analysts warned of the risks of fueling extremism and radicalization. They drew a direct link between Moscow’s military intervention and the IS bombing of a civilian Russian plane that killed 244 people. One reporter speculated that President Vladimir Putin had possibly “incited” this terrorist attack on Russian civilians.
After Paris, the same reporter said it would be “wicked and irresponsible” to suggest it was payback for recent French interventions in Africa and the Middle East. When Paris was attacked by terrorists, Westerners found it easy to understand why France hit back hard with military strikes on IS targets.
We can connect the dots between Russian intervention and terrorist reprisals, and understand and support French retaliations against terrorist attacks. Why can’t we understand payback for our own strikes on foreign targets? Gore Vidal called the USA the United States of Amnesia. Western interventions have toppled strongmen who maintained brutal but effective control; destroyed state structures, political institutions, social order and infrastructure; multiplied failed states and ungoverned spaces; upset sectarian equilibria; and attracted violent extremists like flies to rotting corpses.
Western bombs have killed many more Muslims than the numbers of Westerners killed by terrorists. The trouble with an eye for any eye philosophy, Mahatma Gandhi noted wryly, is that soon the whole world will become blind.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.