The impossible task of stopping terrorism

The impossible task of stopping terrorism

Even as ISIS is failing in Syria and Iraq, its ideology lives on, leading to the murder of 440 people in the past three weeks alone

People react near the scene where a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. (Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters)

People react near the scene where a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. (Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters)

A wounded animal is a dangerous thing, and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is badly wounded. How else to explain the convulsions of violence the group that once considered itself the vanguard of a twisted Islamic world order has carried out, or inspired its followers to carry out, over the past two years? The group’s mission has failed; its  “caliphate” is collapsing. And its response, to lash out, has been predictable.

The rampage on Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, carries all the hallmarks of the defeated: A suicidal fanatic with suspected Islamic State sympathies drives a truck through crowds of revellers, killing 84 people, including children. There was nothing heroic or revolutionary in the act. It was nothing more than a powerless bully venting his anger on easy targets. So was the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, and the horrific bombing of a market in Baghdad, and the murder of innocents at a cafe in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

It’s what the weak do: they prey on the vulnerable.

In less than three weeks, Islamic extremists have murdered more than 440 innocent civilians on behalf of ISIS, including fellow Muslims, maimed hundreds more and left the world wondering if the senseless killing will ever end. They have, no doubt to the glee of their puppet masters in Raqqa, Syria, Islamic State’s self-declared capital, strengthened the narratives of fear and division that increasingly plague the world and demonstrated that even in defeat, Islamic State’s ideology will endure.

Countering that ideology is the next great battle and arguably the more difficult one. Even the world’s leading experts of radical Islam can’t seem to agree on what is behind it and what makes it so appealing.  The physical battle, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward: Islamic State has placed itself in an impossible military scenario, surrounded on all sides by enemies and reliant on a depleting stock of foreign fighters for recruits. Raqqa will fall, eventually. So will Mosul, the ISIS stronghold in Iraq where Canadian-trained Kurdish militiamen are manning the frontlines, supported by Canadian Special Forces. The demise of the “caliphate” will deal a serious blow to Islamic State’s credibility, considering it derived its authority from establishing a “caliphate” in the first place.

What it will not do is eliminate the root causes of radicalization that have produced tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined Islamic State’s ranks. It will not de-radicalize them, even as they attempt to return to their home countries, nor will it eliminate the poisonous socio-economic and political environments that are quickly turning Western democracies into breeding grounds for more radicals, Islamic or otherwise.

Equally worrying is the increasingly authoritarian turn the world is taking. The French have lived under a state of emergency since Nov. 13 last year, after a coordinated attack on soft targets in Paris killed 130. In addition to the thousands of soldiers deployed on France’s streets after the January 2015 attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the police were given extraordinary powers of search and detention. Hundreds of homes were raided and suspected terrorists arrested or placed under house arrest without any legal recourse. The emergency law was scheduled to sunset on July 26 but French President Francois Hollande announced hours after the Nice attack that it would be extended for another three months.

A similar state of fear has taken root in Turkey, which has been  under a de facto state of emergency for the past three years, following massive street demonstrations against the increasingly authoritarian leadership of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Police and anti-terrorism forces now dot virtually every major landmark in Istanbul, along with the water cannons and armoured personnel carriers that have become the symbol of Turkey’s burgeoning state repression. Laws have also been changed to broaden the definition of terrorist, leading to the arrest of thousands, including journalists.

The U.S., Bangladesh, and Pakistan—virtually every country where terrorism has struck has adopted an authoritarian posture reliant on countering terrorism with force. Still, the attacks continue, fuelled by radicalized individuals pushed to the margins of society who feel they have nothing to lose. There is no predicting the kinds of deranged, suicidal plots these lone wolves or small, independent terrorist cells will devise next. And if there is no way to predict them, there is no way to stop them, short of living under a Huxley-esque police state where everyone is a suspect. Even that is no guarantee.

Phil Gurski, an Ottawa consultant who spent three decades working for Canadian intelligence agencies, estimated that the threat of ISIS—and its inevitable successors—could last another 40 to 50 years. “The attacks in Paris [in 2015] may lead to an incredible international response that just decimates these [ISIS] sons of bitches, but the ideology will still be there—and that is the thing that’s worrisome,” he told Maclean’s last year.

So what can be done? Most experts agree, if not on the mechanics of radicalization, at least on the hard truth of its durability. Taking the steam out of the radical narrative will take years and require the kinds of reasonable debates that seem to have all but disappeared from the public discourse. Instead the world faces a rising cadre of populist leaders who advocate dystopian visions of a world deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Sadly, that is exactly the world in which the idea of the Islamic State thrives. We may kill its body but in the process we have gifted its spirit all it needs to survive.


The impossible task of stopping terrorism

  1. And dealing with the ideology is obviously the key as many moderate Muslims have pointed out. However that very ideology thrives in the countries like France. The political leaders won’t deal with it for fear of appearing “Islamophobic”. Obama and Clinton can’t even put the words of “Islam” and “terrorism” in the same sentence. Yes, the ideology is hard to kill, particularly when Western leaders refuse to acknowledge that it thrives on their home soil, and they do nothing about it.

    • The root cause is the Qu’ran. Why is no one suggesting that Qu’rans written in any language other than English or French be banned (In Canada)? Why is no one suggesting that the Qu’ran texts that give permission to kill non-believers be rewritten? Why are these questions so difficult?

      • If the Qu’ran is not true, why would people keep propagating it? If the people who propagate it know certain parts are prone to be misinterpreted, why do not more of them speak up more loudly about it? Is it a question of perversity, ineptitude, or simply a lack of political will?

  2. Terrorism isn’t an ideology, it’s a tactic.

    Most people on earth have used it at one time or another….including us.

  3. If a thinking person were to substitute “black people” for “Islamists” throughout this article, there would be no difference.

    The “narratives of fear and division”, the blind ideology, the rhetoric … all same.

    And there are certain individuals in the “black population” who just love the division. Jayna Khan, published recently in Maclean’s, is a classic example. This person has “Panther” stencilled on her forehead. She exudes anger, frustration and Pride over something as silly as skin pigment.

    And now the long-extinct Black Panthers are back … to do exactly what ISIS radical recruiters are doing. They will “teach the children well”.

    • Very good comment!

  4. Understand the thinking, however how many dead people are we willing to accept…
    I am also tired of the comments and inaction of the the so-called Islamic, Muslim moderates communities that do not take measures…Where is Saudi Arabia? Kuwait? and the others to fight these radicals…We (The west) ara making excuses for them but they are not supporting us while we are in the front lines…I understand many more Muslims are being killed…but what are they doing about it? What about their level of support for displaced Muslims…Time to question them very very seriously…

  5. Britain drew the borders to give the Saudi Wahhabists all the oil and wealth and to keep the vast majority of Arabs poor. The Saudi Wahhabists then fund all the madrasahs throughout throughout the Sunni world and in the West, spreading their nihilistic version of Islam.

    The United States overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran, and imposed the Shah, a ruthless strongman, and the only way to overthrow the beast was through Shia Islam.

    So until the United States stops trying to impose a government on Iran, and continues its alliance with the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, nothing will change.

  6. The impossible task , what a stupid thing to say good thing you aren’t fighting ISIS
    Pathetic !!
    Do you think Churchhill would have said that during the blitz !’
    No friggen back bone any more

  7. Poisonous socio-economic and political environments that are quickly turning Western democracies into breeding grounds for more radicals.Now THAT is a pretty scary comment considering that we live in times where governments are less and less concerned with her citizens and where police forces are constantly abusing power over her charges. To say that it is impossible to stop terrorism is to throw ones arms up in defeat. Our Power structures on earth have completely ignored any and all attempts at a utopian societies because they simply wouldn’t make any money doing it. Money isn’t the root of all all evil power hungry world leaders that are idiots are the root of every evil. , No unification of world leadership to work towards anything resembling a planet where no one would want to harm a flea. War begets war , power corrupts absolutely and Money and class systems does not help the situation. We worship sex and violence in the media because it makes great gobs of money at the box office but fills our souls with garbage. There are so many things we are doing wrong and so many ways we are influencing our populations in negative ways the list is far too to long to type here. Suffice it to say it is easier to do a half arse job of dealing with terrorism than to actually try to make this world a place worth living in. When the people have had enough abuse and when the lights finally come on , we will rise up in numbers so great that the old ways will be swallowed and we can get on with the task of burning down the old and giving birth to the new , making it a world worth living in for everyone, instead of one where ideologies duke it out for supreme leadership. If that is Radical , so be it. Better than the lies and half truths, like terrorism can not be beat.War is a bankers best buddy. Utopian Ideology. You would have us believe that, that’s wrong too. Bite Me.

  8. The root cause is the Qu’ran.

    Why is no one suggesting that Qu’rans written in any language other than English or French be banned (In Canada)?

    Why is no one suggesting that the Qu’ran texts that give permission to kill non-believers be rewritten?

    • How would you like it if say….India….did that to the bible?

      • I, and many others, would find that quite acceptable, I’m sure.

        Are you aware that India’s two official languages are Hindi and English?

        • LOL no you wouldn’t. It’s not the language, it’s the rewriting.

  9. if the silent majority of moderate Muslims, if there is such a thing, are happy to let the extremist do the heavy lifting and not act, such as identifying the trouble makers among them, then they to are responsible

    • They have been doing that since the beginning

      When are christians going to denounce and stop the trouble-makers in THEIR religion?

      • Emily; Consider yourself denounced. ;-)

        • LOL I’m not a christian

  10. So many of these comments miss the point of Khan’s article – the terrorist acts come from desperate individuals clinging to a failing ideology – but countries that turn authoritarian in response are just making it worse, by further marginalizing the desperate. These terrorists are not good Muslims any more than the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. are good Christians. (And there’s plenty of moderate Muslims speaking up for moderation – that’s a red herring. Check out the Amman Message.) Here in the U.S. we’ve got radicalized desperate ideologues too – like the right-wing gun-nut anti-government groups led by the Bundys who occupied that federal land. Notice how they weren’t bombed? Why not… well partly they’ve got American white privilege… but also, the feds have learned to move patiently, listen and negotiate, so as not to further radicalize them. Did the Dallas Texas police chief impose martial law after that terrible shooting of police? No. So, Khan’s point is that we’re facing the blowback from inflamed “narratives of fear and division” – and if we play into those narratives we’re only giving fuel to the terrorists. Let’s share cooling water instead.

    • Perhaps, you would like us all to convert to Islam?

      The wisdom of that would be an exposure to the words of hatred in the Qu’ran. Something, until this point, unknown by the majority of Christians … certainly, unknown by members of parliament, it seems.

      • No, I’m happy being Christian, and I’m fine with you staying whatever you are. But you know, the Bible has shocking words that sound hateful too. Joshua 6:23 is a simple example. Sad to say but true. (We could discuss narrative theology in a different thread.) But moderate Christians don’t advocate genocide nowadays no matter what our Scripture says. Neither do moderate Muslims.

        • Joshua 6:23 comments only about the punishment of certain sinners, that is hardly genocide.

          I would suggest that all honest Christians would be very vocal against all examples of genocide but, having worked in an Islamic country, I am convinced that the same could not be said of Muslims with regard to ‘non-believers’.

          • Beg your pardon – typo – I meant Joshua 6:21 (not 23) “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” We have to face the hateful language in our scripture – let us challenge the Muslims to deal with theirs.

            Not all Islamic countries are the same, you know. Indonesia rates a perfect score on the Freedom House Democracy Index, and is (one of) the largest Muslim-population countries in the world.