[A Close Point of View] What has happened to global terrorism?
Has global terrorism ceased to threaten us? For a while, we haven’t heard about tragic attacks like the ones that happened between 2014 and 2017 in Paris, Nice, and Manchester. What has happened to global terrorism?
If we analyze the news from the last months, we will notice that the word ‘terrorism’ does not occur as often as it used to. It has been replaced by ‘coronavirus’, currently the main topic on the TV, in the press, and the internet. To answer the question included in the title, first we need to explain what terrorism is and what causes it. Terrorist acts, namely any kind of criminal activities carried out by individuals or organized groups, have been with us from the dawn of humanity. The word ‘terrorism’ is rooted in Greek and Latin and can be translated as ‘causing great fear’. Usually, this precisely is the aim of those applying violence against specific individuals, groups, and societies. There are many kinds of terrorism, for example ideological, national-separatist, or religious. It can also be divided into individual and group terrorism.
In the past, terrorist organizations usually used assassinations to achieve their political goals. From the beginning of the 20th century, this has changed. In 2014, the Serbian organization called the Black Hand ordered an attack on the heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Francis Ferdinand. We all know the results of that. The First World War led to almost 8 million dead and more than 20 million injured, but it created circumstances for many countries, including Poland, to regain their independence. Exactly 100 years after that memorable attack, the whole world heard about ISIS. In 1916 IRA was born, which, despite many divisions and transformations, has become probably the oldest terrorist organization in the world, still existing today. From inception, its functioning was based on attacks and guerilla activities. Terrorism that applies methods similar to the ones that we associate it with today was born in the 70s and 80s. Palestinian organizations such as al-Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were the first ones to hijack airplanes and create training camps for militants recruited from around the world. Eventually, they started operations across borders, engaging in the wars in Jordan or Lebanon.
The Afghan clue
Another step in the evolution of global terrorism was Islamic fundamentalism. This was the basis of the establishment of such organizations as Hamas, Hezbollah, and finally Al-Qaeda. The latter one in particular was key in spreading terrorist threat globally, not only in the Middle East but in tens of countries around the world. Its origins can be traced to the 1979 – 1989 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American support for the anti-government opposition. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, said that the financing provided to Islamists was essential to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the ally quickly turned into an enemy and adopted a doctrine of fighting against the West. The list of attacks Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for (or which it praised without claiming responsibility unequivocally) is very long. It includes the WTC and Pentagon attacks, the Bali bombing, the Sham El Sheikh and Madrid bombings, and many others. I deliberately pointed out these places to show how wide Al-Qaeda’s reach is. Most often their victims have been random passersby, tourists taking vacations in resorts, and people using public transport. In other words, regular civilians who were unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The responsibility for the attacks I mentioned at the beginning, namely in Paris and Nicea, was claimed by the so-called Islamic State. What do ISIS and Al-Qaeda have in common? Apart from the obvious, such as the motives and the modus operandi, we should mention the person of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In the 80s, Zarqawi was fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Later he was the leader of Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which with time became the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. In Afghanistan, he met Osama bin Laden, the terrorist number one in the world, as he was declared by the USA after the 9/11 attack in 2001. Born near Amman, after coming back from Afghanistan to Jordan at the beginning of the 90s, al-Zarqawi was convicted to seven years in prison for preparing an attack on the King of Jordan. After serving the sentence he was sentenced again, this time to death, for previous crimes. He fled to Europe and later went back to Afghanistan. After the 2001 US invasion, he took part in the fighting and lost his leg. He later managed to get to Iraq, where he led the group mentioned above, attacking not only American forces but also the Shiites. He was killed during an air raid on a hideout where he was staying.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
The name of the organization best known as ISIS has changed numerous times. It began its activities after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Today, the most common names used are Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh. The last three are acronyms with practically the same meaning. The first ‘IS’ stands for ‘Islamic State’. The second ‘IS’, similarly to ‘IL’, designates the place where the organization is active, namely Iraq and Syria, and Iraq and Levant. The Levant (in Arabic ‘al-Sham’) is a historic designation of the region that encompasses today’s Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Israel.
Back to contemporary times and the question about global terrorism. Has it disappeared from the world? I think that many of you are familiar, at least to some extent, with the events from Iraq and Syria from the years 2014-2017, when ISIS was most active. I will list neither names nor dates here, as I would like this article to be easy to read for everyone. But I will focus on the questions I have asked.
Terrorists seasoned in battle on many fronts, after training in many special camps, haven’t changed their way. We need to mention that ISIS included many Chechens who had gained experience in two wars with Russia. They have not quit the idea of establishing a caliphate. They have been fighting for it for decades. I have deliberately mentioned al-Zarqawi – his story shows best that one does not stop being a fundamentalist overnight. Years of indoctrination consolidating one’s conviction about his worldview and goals allow for to cease activities merely temporarily. This time is usually spend on developing plans that sooner or later will be implemented.
The calm before the storm
If we look at the map of terrorist attacks that took place only between 2012 and 2015 (above) we will see thousands of red spots. They show attacks with fatalities. At the time, there were 11,000 attacks in Iraq alone! Sadly, we are most interested in acts of violence that happen in Europe or the United States, namely in the so-called West. But we are living in times when our planet has ‘shrunk’. We travel extensively for tourism and business. We visit the furthest corners of the world. The flight from Warsaw to Manila takes around 10 hours, including layovers. I’ve mentioned the Philipines because a month ago an attack on the Jolo island took place leaving 14 people dead. It is probably one of those places which you will not reach as tourists because some islands have been closed for visitors. But is this how our world should look like?
In the Philippines, there are ‘local’ extremists. Like in the case of ISIS, their goal is to create an enclave where they would impose sharia law. But ISIS is currently very active in Africa. Terrorist attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, or Nigeria are not widely reported in Europe, but they happen practically every day. In June, Islamists attacked three villages in central Mali, killing 27 Christians, most by burning them alive. Their targets are small towns and large cities. Closely related to ISIS Boko Haram controls entire northern Nigeria where they imposed sharia law which, among others, prohibits education. There have been mass abductions of women and children as well.
It could be said that the rapid development of terrorist groups in African, South Asian, or Middle Eastern countries has been caused by poor security which their governmental institutions are responsible for. Improperly trained and armed police or army is not able to deal with the scale of the problem. Europe on the other hand has much larger means to counter terrorism. Perhaps we have successfully eliminated this phenomenon from our continent? Nothing could be more wrong. It is just that we are currently in a phase when the goals of terrorist organizations remain outside the Old Continent. It is a period that could be compared to the summer of 1939, when everyone knew that the war was coming, but most hoped that it wouldn’t happen. Not aware of the danger that sooner or later will appear, we are leaving in a blissful state of hope. The announcement about the defeat of ISIS could be compared to the return of Neville Chamberlain from Munich when he triumphantly showed the journalists a worthless, as it turned out later, piece of paper which he called ‘the peace of our times’.
The prognosis for the future
I wouldn’t want to say that an apocalypse awaits us, but I am trying to put all the pieces together. For several years, we have been witnessing an uncontrolled flowed of migrants not only from the Middle East but mainly from Africa. Some of these people do search for a better, peaceful life. But among hundreds of thousands of incomers to Europe there are also those whose aims are different. Two years ago, the director of the World Food Programme David Beasley warned that ISIS activities aimed at destabilization of Northern Africa and triggering a new wave of migration. The purpose of cutting access to education by organizations such as Boko Haram is to find individuals who after proper indoctrination will become staunch supporters of the caliphate. We do not know how many people such as al-Zarqawi, who for decades have been planning a war against our culture, are in the world. When they get out of the closet, we may not be ready for their blow.
Author: Dawid Czyż