Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Paris

by Professor Richard English FBA

18 Nov 2015

The appalling events in Paris on 13 November force us, once again, to think carefully about the paradoxically intimate relationship between terrorism and counter-terrorism. The immediate response we should all feel is one of horror at the callous violence, and empathy regarding the victims. Beyond this, however, serious analysis is required if we genuinely want to minimize the recurrence of such atrocities in the future.

One aspect of our thinking should concern the West’s post-9/11 response to that even larger atrocity. Tony Blair’s recent admission that the Iraq War played an important part in generating ISIS might, perhaps, be thought to change very little. For, unless one has been living on another planet for the past twelve years, then one will know that what Mr Blair admits here is not merely true, but also rather obvious.

Yet Blair’s comments do point to something less frequently acknowledged and of far wider significance in international politics: namely, that there is indeed an intimate, mutually shaping, profoundly antiphonal relationship between what we normally refer to as terrorism and what states (often violently) themselves do.

This is an uncomfortable truth for those holding state power, which is why the word terrorism much more often gets deployed to refer to non-state actors (despite the unarguable fact that, historically, states have carried out far more terrorizing violence in pursuit of political goals than non-state actors have managed to do).

Recognition of the paradoxical intimacy of terrorists and their counter-terrorist state opponents can help us to understand – even, perhaps, to respond more effectively to –  those conflicts which generate so much brutal and maiming violence. This should not, I think, merely involve a pendulum swing towards the far opposite direction. To replace an unjustified pro-state bias (‘al-Qaida, Hamas, ETA, and ISIS – these are the bad guys in the story’) with an equally simplistic focus only on state iniquity (‘Israel is evil, the CIA has done terrible things’, and so forth) would merely be to replace one myopia with another.

What we need is an historically rich, long-term understanding of why rival actors have behaved as they do, and the crucial relational aspects to this process. To recognize that the Iraq War helped to create the conditions within which ISIS brutality could emerge has to be complemented by acknowledgment that al-Qaida violence against the United States in 2001 had prompted the War on Terror within which the Iraq War was itself justified; that – before that – US foreign policy had had complex effects, one of which was to generate resistance from those who became al-Qaida; and so forth. The point is less to establish clear blame for wrongdoing, than to produce a context within which fuller understanding of human conflict can be created.  It is no help to the victims in Paris to point out that the negative aspects of the war in Iraq helped to produce the organization which killed or maimed them; but this depressing reflection should – and must – inform post-Paris counter-terrorist response if we want to limit the future occurrence of terrorism.

Within this process, it’s worth recognizing some ironies. There is the ironic echo between – say – al-Qaida and their post-9/11 US-led enemies, that both sides have displayed greater technical and tactical sophistication than they have political wisdom or strategic understanding.

And there is the related irony that humanity’s most sustained ever attempt to rid the world of terrorism – the post-9/11 War on Terror – inaugurated a period within which the number of terrorist attacks and the number of terrorist-generated fatalities actually increased – most strikingly in those very arenas in which the War on Terror had been most concentratedly focused.

Which brings us back to Tony Blair. His weird 2010 memoir, A Journey, contains within it extended considerations of how to deal with non-state terrorism in, respectively, a Northern Irish and a post-9/11, jihadist context. The lessons of the former (focusing on the political, trying to address root causes, moving away from prior emphasis on military primacy) strikingly diverged from the emphasis that Blair placed in the same book (and during the same broad period of political office) in relation to al-Qaida and associated jihadists. Now, clearly, there are profound difference between the IRA and al-Qaida. Equally clearly, as we now know, much that went wrong after 9/11 – from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond – seems eerily familiar to those who  think about the failed Northern Ireland policy against which Blair was later reacting. In 1970s Northern Ireland, as in the post-9/11 anti-terror crusade, there was an over-militarization of response which prompted more, rather than less, non-state terrorism. Of all states, the UK should have known the dangers of relying on a military instrument to deal with a terrorist problem. And, of all the mutually shaping aspects of the relationship between states and their terrorist enemies, the likelihood that callous violence by each side will prompt polarization and escalation is arguably the clearest. Or it should be.

Richard English is Wardlaw Professor of Politics at the University of St Andrews, where he is Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, edited by Richard English (Proceedings of the British Academy, 203) is just published by Oxford University Press.

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