It has been twelve years since President George W. Bush declared a ‘war on terror’ and, with the death of Osama bin Laden, the expectation was that the war was over. However, terrorism is not like conventional war where once we kill the enemy the threat is gone.
Hardly a week goes by without a terrorist attack taking place somewhere in the world. Recently, the Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group also known as the new face of Al-Qaeda stunned the world by raiding the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, holding hostages for days, and killing 67 civilians.
What started out as a small group of radicals in Somalia, which once worked with a political group called Islamic Courts Union, rapidly established control over large parts of Somalia and strengthened after it overthrew a longtime authoritarian ruler in 1991. However, in 2011 the militant group weakened after the UN backed the use of force with Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Djibouti and sent forces into Somalia who successfully in pushed them out of Mogadishu. Conversely, the Al-Shabaab recruited Somalis in the diaspora, became affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and pledged allegiance to the jihadist movement. This begs the following question: is the capture of terrorists outpacing the recruitment of terrorists?
Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘Through violence you may murder the hater, but not the hate.’[i] The phrase ‘war on terror’ implies that the use of military force is the only technique to counter terrorism. This tactic, as counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen remarks, ‘is only short term and results in a desire for revenge and more radicals being recruited’.[ii] Such policies focus on the terrorists themselves and not the root causes of terrorism. Unlike conventional wars that took place on the frontline and largely involved state actors, terrorism is a multifaceted war where the enemy mixes in with the civilian and attacks indiscriminately.
It is important to note that all terrorists are radicals. However, not all radicals are terrorists. Likewise, radicals have every right to express their ideals and beliefs; however, terrorists choose to express these using violent means. That said; it is important to understand the ‘enemy’ by focusing on the social conditions that make the dissent movement more likely to happen. Simply put, states should implement a ‘development first’ approach rather than a ‘security first ’ approach. Focusing on socioeconomic improvements will meet common needs and chip away at the foundations of terrorism. For instance, schoolboys in Somalia are often tempted to join Al-Shabaab by being given a piece of fruit everyday. The poverty in Somalia may have intensified and to some extent caused the formation of militant groups like Al-Shabaab.
Consequently, the phrase ‘war on terror’ doesn’t depict just a war but also an ideology. Labeling it as a war creates hostility between ‘us’ and the followers of Islam around the world giving them more reason to join terrorist movements in the name of religion and by politicising Islam. The majority of the radicalised militants are youth who have no jobs and no way of contributing to the political discourse. Therefore, the mosque becomes their only outlet, and becomes a place where extremism is fostered. Hence, fighting terrorism as a war creates animosity causing the radicalised Muslims to defend their religion through the use of violence.
We can all agree on the need to fight the causes and effects of terrorism. But there is no mutually agreed upon blueprint to end the war on terror. The extremist acts of terrorism require stepping up efforts to address the fundamental social issues, which could in turn offer a more long-lasting solution to appease extremist Islamic tendencies. This could help future generations from being lured to terrorism. As we speak, the most powerful military in the world cannot destroy every terrorist group. We need to come up with a more effective strategy. Establishing a strong network with other states and supra-state and multinational organisations will help pool together resources, ideas, intelligence to counter the terrorist networks which are flexible, volatile, and spread out across the world. Terrorism is a complex, global threat that needs dynamic thinking from world leaders beyond our current, limited conception of war.