Fighting an old war on terror requires new coordination

To fight terrorism, modern states need sophisticated intelligence and military skills, but also a firm focus on fighting the social ills that incubate terrorist groups.

The massive truck bomb that killed more than 100 people in the Somali capital Mogadishu last week is proof that terrorism will not simply disappear if developed nations choose to ignore the problems of less fortunate ones. The global community's failure to see socio-economic troubles as a driver of violence only serves to strengthen groups like Al Shabab, which fills the vacuum of leadership when no other options exist.

From Al Shabab's perspective this recent attack - which the group quickly took credit for - gives it new standing among groups that resort to using terror tactics as a means to an end.

But what is that end? Does Al Shabab, a ragtag collection of fighters with ties to pirates, have legitimate demands? The group has been associated with Al Qaeda and is considered a radical Islamist movement. But are their complaints justified? And how might the international community counter their deadly reach?

Fighting Islamic militants - or any group that resorts to terrorism - requires a three-pronged international approach, methods that must be closely coordinated.

First, the threat of military action is necessary to stress that terrorism will not go unpunished. This means that developed nations, both in the West and in the Arab and Muslim world, must close ranks and commit all the necessary forces to combat this threat, and prevent militants from gaining greater footholds in their areas of operation.

Second, excellent intelligence is a prerequisite, from both human sources operating on the ground to electronic intelligence gathered through eavesdropping techniques like satellites. Without proper intelligence the job of military forces will become more difficult.

Gathering proper intelligence on groups such as the ones operating in Somalia is complicated by the fact that western intelligence agencies have a hard time infiltrating them. Many of them are structured along close family, tribal, and clan lines, where many know each other and newcomers are closely vetted. This is where cooperation with local agencies pays.

The third element to achieve success in this ongoing war against terrorism is the most important: financial and social pressure.

Many terrorist groups find their followers and build support structures with economic and social incentives. The majority of people who turn to terrorism do so as a result of social and economic hardship, rather than ideology (although ideology has always been an important tool in recruiting adherents to any movement).

The big change in recent years has been that the ideology shifted from a geopolitical (mostly Marxist-based) to a global religious movement. It gives movements greater legitimacy to recruit followers in the name of a larger cause such as a political movement or a religion rather than simply fighting social injustice.

What must be done to eradicate the disease that is terrorism is to identify and root out the basic causes of discontent in the societies where new recruits reside, especially less developed states.

While it is important to maintain the military pressure on such groups, brute force alone will not solve or deter young men and women from joining these organisations, be it for financial or religious rewards or because they believe the perceived enemies are the cause of their current plight.

Crafting solutions to the problem of terrorism requires more than political will. It mandates an understanding of what type of group is being targeted. And not all militants are created equal.

There are two sorts of groups in this ongoing war against terrorism: those that can be negotiated with, and those that can't.

The first category, the "negotiable terrorists" are groups with whom governments can and should indeed engage in dialogue. Those groups include movements such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and quite possibly the Taliban in Afghanistan. These are not just marginal movements but significant political and social organisations representing important segments of the countries they operate in.

There are indeed a number of precedents throughout history of governments negotiating with groups that were once labelled as terrorists. The Algerian National Liberation Front which fought France for independence in the 1950s is one. The FLN were considered by the French to be "terrorists" as Paris considered Algeria to be an integral part of its territory, not simply a colony or an overseas territory.

What gives organisations like Hamas and Hizbollah their strength today is the absence of a strong state that is able to provide its people with basic needs such as health care, education and security. The absence of a strong central government allows for militant groups to proliferate, as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

As for "non-negotiable terrorists" such as Al Qaeda, their intransigence only means more emphasis must be given to the first two options, the military and the intelligence aspects, while pursuing the third - helping to ease the social-economic problems of countries where the recruitment of terrorists is widespread. Somalia ranks high here, as does Pakistan, Yemen and other troubled states.

How many more examples do we need before we realise that the way to eradicate terrorism is to first attack the social and economic malaises that pushes people to the edge? Someone with a job, a decent wage and a stable future for himself and his family will be reluctant to pick up a gun or to place a bomb in a crowded square to kill dozens of innocent people all supposedly in the name of their god. Follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani

Published: October 9, 2011 04:00 AM


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