December 4, 2015 at 10:31
Terror: A new solution to an old problem
The problem of terrorism won't go away. Western leaders should stop making unhelpful declarations of war and start coming up with practical and effective responses to the threat
Alexander Ye. Lebedev & Vladislav Inozemtsev
The downing of the Russian passanger jet and subsequent shootings in Paris were hardly unexpected, but they have spurred politicians and intellectuals to come up with new responses to the old phenomenon of terrorism. The nature of these responses is a crucial question, especially if we are to avoid making the same mistakes we have been making for the past 15 years. Now is not the time for rash declarations of war, but for reflection on lessons learned.
Firstly, the civilised world should be more united in its response to terrorism. We all saw the outpouring of grief that followed the Paris shootings: the lowered banner over the White House; hundreds of mourners in Moscow and Beijing; songs of solidarity all over Europe. But let us also remember this year's other attacks (excluding, for argument's sake, war-ridden countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen): on 2 April, 147 students were massacred in Garissa, Kenya, by Al-Shabaab militants; on 17 August, over 20 people were killed by an explosion in Bangkok, Thailand; on 10 October, in Ankara, Turkey, 95 people lost their lives in two coordinated terrorist attacks; on 12 November, 43 people were brutally killed in Beirut, Lebanon.
None of these tragedies were met with such a unified outpouring of grief. Tight solidarity among all terrorist targets is essential to combat the rising tide of extremism. Any new coalition must be founded on a global, overarching solidarity.
The second lesson comes from recent military experience. Sad as it sounds, a final victory over terrorism is an illusion that cannot be achieved. Terrorism is fuelled by increasing global diversity – religious, ethical, social, economic – that came after the industrial age with its quest for universality and uniformity. We should abandon the very idea of universal principles governing the world and forget about trying to bring rogue states "into order" using military force. The Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan, the United States in 2000s in Afghanistan and Iraq, were unable to score a full and final military victory. Developed states cannot wage a successful war against guerrilla armies driven by religious fanaticism.
ISIS is more dangerous because of its strategy: regional and global expansion of its hate-filled ideology. Terror is the warfare of the poor, and the traditional response to it causes unacceptable costs that cannot be borne for a long time. Therefore, any classic war in terror-plagued territory will only succeed in making that territory more dangerous, and more hostile to the civilized world (unless a great power decides to govern such lands on a permanent basis, as was the case in the Russian pacification of Chechnya in the early 2000s). Once the West accepts that ungovernable territories exist in the 21st century, it can start to develop more effective and realistic responses to terrorism.
The third lesson follows directly from the second. For years, competing global powers have been reluctant to join forces against global terror. All too frequently, fundamentalism has been used as a means of countering political opponents. Right wing American commentators have advocated an alliance between Western and Islamic conservatives, arguing that this unity may help to defeat the liberals that are the real enemy within. (See Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11). In Russia, conservative commentators have dreamed of using hard-line Islamic movements in the Middle East against a “decadent” Europe.
o fight terror successfully, great powers must put aside internal quarrels and set up a joint task force acting on behalf of, but independently from, governments. Such a body could produce a comprehensive global database of terror suspects and sympathisers, who could be traced and excluded from coalition countries’ soil. President Hollande is right to request changes in laws allowing terrorist supporters to be deprived of European citizenship and entry rights. Russia, the UK, and the US should follow this path. This way we can fight terrorists within our own borders, rather than in the Arabian desert.
It is also vital that we do not sacrifice cherished ideals. The fight is already lost if it means a curtailment of democratic principles and civil liberties. Therefore one should not bridle upon cartoons and remarks released after cruel terrorist acts, but rather acclaim any response which keeps the society under siege free and self-critical.
The fifth point is about money. Terrorist activity cannot be conducted without funds from illicit activities that remain widespread. European banks and financial institutions have developed sophisticated mechanisms that prevent money-laundering schemes. Laundered petrodollars from Iraq or Syria go toward the planning and execution of terror attacks in the West. It is paramount that we strengthen firewalls against dirty money, and make doing so an integral part of renewed anti-terror measures.
There is nothing less helpful or relevant to the current situation than to depict the free world as being “at war” with the terrorists. Less than a century ago, Europe experienced actual war; war which claimed millions of lives, and laid waste to entire countries. What we are facing today is an emergency situation. It should be treated as such, in order to overcome the existing challenges and not return to a point further back than where we started. Terrorism is an old phenomenon, but we need a new approach if we are to succeed.
Alexander Lebedev is publisher of The Independent.Vladislav Inozemtsev, Ph.D. (Econ.) is Senior Visiting Fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC and Professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow