We are living in a world where the phrase one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter has never been more pertinent. It would seem that the idea of terror is no longer one that exists in some far-off land, happening to far-off people. It has become a reality that one minute you’re sitting having a coffee, waiting in traffic or cursing the ATM for swallowing your card and the next you’re running for your life.
So the response worldwide has been to find the “hubs of terror” and destroy them, cutting off the proverbial head of the snake. This is not just something that superpowers engage in any more. Anyone who has been attacked by an extremist organisation can bring it out the big guns and “put boots on the ground”. This can be seen with Kenya in Somalia and Nigeria within its domestic realm, and the African Union (when it gets its mess together).
The problem is with the way people view terrorist organisations as organised groups, which like governments or even multinational organisations can be found in one locale. Terror does not have a home address. It’s like that uncle who owes child support, a good chunk of cash to a loan shark and cannot keep a stable job. We only know where he was last seen but not where he’ll be next.
Terror does not work on the premise of having a “return violence to sender” address , it is not, in the formal sense, based anywhere. Much as terrorists can have twitter accounts, supposedly sell oil to fund their activities and have ad hoc military bases the ethereal nature of these groups means they are ready to move on from wherever they are in the blink of an eye. When France calls on her allies to take the fight “to the heart of Isis”, the notion is ridiculous because there is no heart, there is barely a body.
This is what makes the actions of France, the US and other GI Joe “boys with toys” countries so counterproductive. The areas these extremist groups occupy are predominantly civilian centres. They are not formalised military bases. They are not Area 51, state houses, global headquarters or even head offices. They are regions and spaces in which people who have little to nothing to do with the actual organisation have been occupied and taken hostage.
Therefore to bomb these areas in the name of “rooting out the organisation” amounts to an act of terrorism in itself because just like the terrorist attack a group has come and enacted violence on innocent people in the name of ideology and to change the minds of a few. Terrorists do not bomb nations because they do not like how the people spend too much time in cafes or despise the local beer, but to challenge the institutional powers in that country. So when a government retaliates and bombs innocents because they do not like the organisation what’s the difference?
It is the innocent that suffer within these spaces when terror is fought with force. One needs only look at those killed in an Afghanistan hospital due to human error on the part of the Americans. Their general response was “but we are fighting terrorism so … ” In this battle of ideologies and political will it is not only those within “terrorist areas” who suffer but also those in “counter-terror” nations, retaliation results in the Garissa attacks, Paris attacks and Nigeria attacks. It results in violence against people who have nothing to do with the conflict. Innocent people are embroiled in a cycle of bombing and violence.
Another problem with fighting extremist groups in a fight fire-with-fire sort of way is that it does not take into consideration that the core problem is not being addressed, namely “why are these activities taking place”. Killing people who one believes are evil does not kill the idea they represented and perpetuated. In fact, more often than not, it turns them into a martyr further fuelling the fire one is trying to fight. Take for example the Nazi regime. The fall of Hitler has not stopped the spread of neo-Nazism around the world. The end of apartheid has not meant that all apartheid enthusiasts woke up in 1994 and said “these ANC chaps are actually quite a solid bunch”. In fact, according to an Institute for Justice and Reconciliation barometer South Africa is more divided now than it was before 1994.
Terrorism cannot be fought physically because ideology does not exist in the physical, it is in the psyches and emotions of those who engage with it. Unlike a house filled with furniture, or an office filled with computers one can very quickly pack up it up and move along when the going gets tough.
The current way in which the fight against terror has been approached, and continues to be approached shows a lack of understanding in the way in which terror fundamentally works. It is the reason why, despite occupying countries for upwards of 14 years, bombing whole nations to dust and holding dialogue after international dialogue, terror, like a bad rash, has gotten worse.
We have gone from only worrying about al Qaeda to worrying about Boko Haram, Isis and even some miscellaneous groups who seem to be doing the independent thing. We are clearly not winning the war against terror because terror cannot be fought. Understanding the ghost-like nature of it, homing in on the psychological and ideological aspects and acknowledging the fact that it is in the hearts and minds of the people will help in understanding how best to move forward and avoid civilian casualties on both sides.