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al-Shabaab Kämpfer in Somalia
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Sheikh Nor

We need a new plan

Grahame Lucas / dc
November 18, 2014

The Global Terrorism Index now published in London records an alarming rise in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide. Present strategies are not working, says DW's Grahame Lucas.


The terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 triggered a US-led military campaign dubbed a "war on terror" by US President George W Bush. Seen from today's perspective some 13 years later, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the war on terror has not ended terror at all. Rather, as the Global Terrorism Index notes, acts of terrorism are actually increasing alarmingly. In 2013 there were nearly 10,000 terrorist attacks worldwide - an increase of 44 percent compared to 2012. Moreover, nearly 18,000 people were killed in these acts, a rise of 61 percent. If anything the war on terror has created more terror.

If we take a close look at the history of terrorism we see something quite clearly. In the past 50 years, the most effective way to end a terrorist campaign has been to draw the insurgents into a political process with the object of reaching a settlement. Northern Ireland is a classic example of this. As the report notes, 80 percent of the terrorist organizations that disbanded did so because an acceptable agreement had been brokered. During this time only ten percent of terrorist organizations ended their campaign of terror because they had reached their goals. But what is really interesting is that only seven percent of terrorist campaigns were ended by military means. That is an alarmingly low figure considering the cost in human life.

Deutsche Welle DW Grahame Lucas
DW's Grahame LucasImage: DW/P. Henriksen

This suggests very strongly indeed that negotiations and participation should be at the forefront when it comes to dealing with terrorists. But in many countries military or paramilitary action remains the gut reaction of governments. The only problem is that in the age of asymmetric warfare insurgents are able to fight well organized armies with a considerable degree of success by restricting themselves to well publicized terrorist attacks and avoiding pitched battles. Nothing shows this more clearly than the failure of the Western mission in Afghanistan to stamp out the Taliban and their poisonous Islamist ideology. In other words, the military option is highly unlikely to achieve the required goals.

Talk or don't talk?

But the other significant finding in the report is that the countries most affected by terrorism, namely Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria, are for the most part plagued by Islamist terrorism. This kind of religiously inspired violence seeks to impose a strict Islamic state against the will of the majority of the respective population. It is totalitarian by nature. Thus, the dilemma is clear: negotiations will not lead anywhere because pragmatic solutions have no chance in the face of Islamist ideology. And military action is unlikely to work. At best it can contain such movements, not defeat them.

Against this background one must fear the worst and expect that 2015 will see a further deterioration of the situation worldwide, while groups like Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban spread their message of fear and hatred through more atrocities. Most of the victims are likely to be Muslims, as Sunni extremists slaughter Shias, and Shias for their part kill Sunnis.

There can only really be one course of action. The states most affected have failed to promote the participation of ordinary people in their own societies. They must work to improve the economic situation of the disaffected, give them access to education, prevent death squads from carrying out extrajudicial killings, and strengthen democratic structures. In the long run, this is the only way run to deprive terrorists of the support they need, and to isolate them in the countries where they operate. The West can foster this process but it has to start from within.

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