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Responding to Terrorism: A Global Stocktake

Keynote Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Calouste Gulbenkian Conference on Terrorism and International Relations, Lisbon, 25 October 2005

It is now four years since 9/11 and - with the invasion of Afghanistan - the commencement of the ‘War on Terrorism’. But it’s only eighteen months since Madrid, three months since London’s 7/7, only a month since the latest Bali bombing, and just hours since the latest outrage in Iraq. Unhappily, it seems just as possible to repeat now the comment your President Rui Vilar heard me make two years ago at Davos: “the most visible product of the war on terrorism so far has been more war and more terrorism”.

But is that judgement too superficial? Where do we stand in the global response to terrorism? How much have we learned about the menace we are confronting and how effective have we been in confronting it? What can we now conclude about what the elements of an effective strategy should be?

What have we learned?

Bearing in mind that none of us, least of all governments, know nearly as much as we would like to know, or sometimes say we know, let me sketch out what I think we do now know on the core questions of who are the terrorists, what are their motives, what causes them to act as they do, what capacity do they now have to cause harm, and how effective the so-called war on terrorism has actually been.

Who are the terrorists.

The terrorism causing most contemporary international concern is a very complex phenomenon, involving quite different levels of organization and group identity. If this is a war, we certainly don’t know as much as we should about who the enemy actually is, and where he is to be found.

The immediate focus after 9/11 was, understandably enough, on the organizational masterminds of international terrorism. Though finding them was something else, al- Qaeda and Osama bin Laden could easily, and accurately, be identified: they were at least notionally findable, targetable and destroyable. Concerns still rightly exist about activity around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but there is little doubt that the combination of military, intelligence and policing measures that have been deployed against al-Qaeda have been successful in dramatically diminishing their direct organizational effectiveness. Claims that periodically emerge, usually through videotapes surfacing on al-Jazeera, of direct al Qaeda responsibility for this or that new bombing outrage, should no longer be taken at face value.

There is a second level at which, however, the influence of al-Qaeda continues to be strongly felt, even if this is now much more inspirational than organizational. In a number of countries groups exist that identify with its stated objectives and methods, often on the basis of personal links forged in Afghanistan training camps or in certain notable religious schools in Pakistan and Indonesia in particular; it has to also now be increasingly assumed that the 1000 or so foreign jihadist fighters participating in the Iraq insurgency will sooner or later become dangerously influential elsewhere, like the Afghanistan fighters before them. (One of my International Crisis Group Middle East analysts has described Iraq in this respect as being ‘like Afghanistan on steroids’). There are also some documented instances of itinerant al-Qaeda operatives and bomb-makers acting as middlemen, giving strategic and technical advice to local cells of Islamist extremists who otherwise lacked the knowledge to launch sophisticated attacks.

But overall what is involved here is an at best amorphous network of loose affiliates and franchisees and imitators, whose component groups are constantly dissolving and reforming, often with highly localized factors being more important than anything else (as Crisis Group has meticulously documented, for example, in the case of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, and its multiple splinter groups in Indonesia). These groups might be notionally identifiable and targetable, but in practice they are extremely hard to pin down, not least because there are no control lines which can be readily cut: it cannot be assumed any longer, if it ever could, that any group with an extreme jihadist ideology must be directed by al-Qaeda, or by one of its regional offshoots.

The third category of terrorists of contemporary concern is the most difficult of all to identify and pin down because they involve small groups of self-starting, self-motivated individuals with no discernible organizational links with anyone else at all, getting whatever technical advice they need from the internet, and whatever bomb-making materials they need from readily publicly-available sources: the London bombers are the clearest and most disconcerting example, and the fear is that there are many more such individuals scattered through other European and Western countries.

What motivates terrorists.

For what might be described as ‘traditional’ terrorist organizations – like the Stern Gang, the Basques’ ETA, the IRA, and the Palestinian groups that have embraced terrorism – there are relatively clear and straightforward political grievance motives, that are at least notionally capable of being redressed. We can reasonably assume that if these grievances are addressed, so too would their terrorist activity cease.

But for the brand of terrorism that is causing overwhelmingly most contemporary concern – that perpetrated by certain Islamists – the answer as to what motivates them is much more complicated. It is critical, for a start, to appreciate that those Muslims engaged in terrorist activity are only a tiny proportion of those who can be described as Islamists (or Islamic activists), and that Islamists in turn are only a very small proportion in turn of those who practice the religion of Islam. It would be a grotesque travesty to regard Islam and terrorism as somehow indistinguishable, and would be few policymakers anywhere in the world who would these days think so crudely. But there is still an extraordinary disposition to identify Islamic activism, or Islamism, with terrorism, and a failure to recognise that there are, within the majority Sunni brand of such activism alone, very clear distinctions.

As described in the recent Crisis Group report, Understanding Islamism, the critical distinctions are between, first, those whose motives are entirely non-political and missionary in character, focused on preserving Muslim identity and Islamic faith; secondly, those who have Islamic political motives or objectives – the adoption of sharia law and so on – but who have completely renounced violence as a means of achieving them (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood being the best known example); and thirdly, those with political objectives who have not renounced violence as a means of achieving them.

This last group, of violence-inclined salafi jihadis, itself exists in three main variants: internal (combating nominally Muslim regimes considered impious); irredentist (fighting to redeem land ruled by non-Muslims or under occupation); and global (combating the West). For the first two of these, the political grievances in question - whether they involve the perceived apostasy of various governments in the Arab/Islamic world, foreign support for those apostate governments, the presence of foreign infidels on holy soil, or the perceived occupations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan – are at least notionally able to be addressed and accommodated.

These categories of jihadis are handful enough, but the most trouble of all comes from those really extreme anti-Western jihadis – for whom all non-Muslims are kafir (infidels) and therefore by definition enemies of Islam, for whom Muslims allied or associated with the West in any way are themselves kafir, and for whom the killing of innocent Muslims in order to attain victory over the kafir is acceptable collateral damage. This is not the kind of world-view susceptible to any kind of grievance-remedying strategy.

What causes terrorist behaviour.

When it comes to identifying the causes of terrorist behaviour – what leads people to develop the motives and objectives just described, and which then in turn to engaging in terrorist behaviour, we again don’t know as much as we need to know, although an impressive body of case-study research is beginning to emerge.

For traditional terrorist groups, and perhaps for what I’ve described as the internal and irredentist streams of violent salafi jihadism, cause and motive are perhaps almost indistinguishable: one does not need to look much further than the objective grievance to explain the behaviour. That said, there will always be room for exploring the factors - psychological and otherwise – that will lead some to take up arms to resolve a grievance while others feeling the grievance just as strongly will remain committed to peaceful means.

Clearly education and training and the role of religious mentors are significant factors, but as the work of Crisis Group in Indonesia has shown, that’s not the whole story: in West Java the young people that go into jihadist organizations are disproportionately from families with ties back to earlier rebellions or one particular local puritanical Islamic association; in Sulawesi the most radical are those who lost family members in earlier violence. It’s as much a cultural and historical and family legacy as an issue of ideology or religious belief.

While it is very hard to establish any direct connection of a statistically significant kind between poverty and terrorist behaviour – whether in the case of individuals, groups or whole societies - it is hard to shake off the impression that any environment in which a sense of deprivation, relative or absolute, despair, humiliation or general hopelessness about one’s future prevails is one in which terrorism will potentially flourish. And it is hard no to believe, in particular, that in that kind of environment young men and women will become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by those who play upon that insecurity, fire up a more focused sense of grievance, and critically, offer a religious justification for making holy war.

Since the London bombings there has of course sprung to centre-stage the notion of a sense of hopelessness or alienation, combined with the impact of particular religious mentors or role-models, as a significant cause of terrorist commitment among young, second generation immigrants who have not succeeded in their new world but who feel they are losing, or have lost, the cultural moorings of their old. The phenomenon is real, and its extent almost by definition is unknown. It has certainly created a whole new set of headaches for those trying to identify an appropriate policy response.

What capacity for harm do terrorists now have.

One possible response to the contemporary problem of terrorism is to say ‘don’t overestimate its significance’. Even the numbers for 9/11 and Iraq, for all their horror, don’t look so big by comparison, for example, with the 30 000 still dying every month in the Congo, and the 5,000 dying each month in Darfur, from continuing violence and war-related disease and starvation.

That said, there is a significant capacity for terrorists to do harm, and on a very large scale, and it should never be underestimated. Commuter transport systems remain immensely vulnerable in every major city in the world; highly destructive conventional bombs can be made from the cheapest and most freely available materials by those without professional technical skills; and while chemical and biological weapons are much more difficult to deploy, the fear that even small such attacks induce can be more paralyzing for large cities than bigger conventional attacks.

But the risk that really keeps policymakers awake at night around the world is that of the ‘big one’ - an attack bringing together the sophistication and ruthlessness of the attack on the twin towers with the use of nuclear weapons, perhaps delivered by something as simple as a large delivery van driving down a city street, with an accompanying loss of not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands, of lives. We know very well how limited our capacity is, and always will be, to deny access by terrorist groups to chemical, and especially biological, weapons, given their nature. But the same is also true of nuclear weapons. We are not doing any better than we were in keeping under control the stockpiles of fissile nuclear material that litter the landscape of the former Soviet Russia, and after the exposure in Pakistan we know far more than we did about the global market for nuclear technology, materials and expertise -and all of it is alarming.

The level of technical sophistication required to make a nuclear explosive device is certainly above the backyard level, but it is not beyond competent professionals. And there is enough already fabricated such uranium and plutonium lying around now to make some 240,000 such weapons. Much of it – particularly in Russia – is not just poorly, but appallingly, guarded. And when it comes to transporting the finished product, and it is worth remembering that only a tiny proportion of the millions of cargo containers arriving each year in the world’s ports will ever be opened for inspection.

The reality of any threat, or risk, is a function not just of capacity, but intention, and here again we simply don’t know enough to make confident judgements. What we do know about contemporary terrorism is that it has been a constantly mutating phenomenon, with a continuing capacity to surprise and shock us - in terms of who has been targeted, when and how and on what scale. Terrorists simply don’t always do what others expect them to do.

How effective has the war on terrorism so far been.

If the war on terrorism as it has so far been conducted has been an overall success, that’s a well kept secret. Terrorist attacks classified by the U.S. government as ‘significant’ more than tripled worldwide to 650 last year from 175 in 2003, and this was the highest annual number since Washington began to collect such statistics two decades ago. Nearly a third of those attacks – 198 of them, nine times the number of the year before - took place in Iraq, meant to be the central front of the war on terror. More than 4000 Iraqis have been killed by terrorists in Baghdad alone since April: while the terrorist connection was the least plausible of all the reasons for going to war in Iraq, terrorist violence has now become the most harrowing of all its consequences.

Of course there have been some apparent successes, like the capturing or killing of some two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership, but while this has undoubtedly diminished its organizational capacity, it hasn’t done anything to diminish its global following.

What are the elements of an effective global response?

Recognising, as we must, the huge complexity and difficulty of the issues with which we are now dealing, and how far we have come but how far we yet need to go, how can we pull the threads together and define the elements of an effective global response?

Two points need to be made at the outset. The first is that talking about ‘war on terrorism’ encourages thinking only about defence and attack, what we have to do, as in any other war, to rid ourselves of our enemies. But the language of war here contributes no more to clear operational thinking than talking about waging ‘war on evil’. Terrorism is not in and of itself a self-driving concept, or in and of itself an "enemy". It is not even an ideology, as anarchism was in the 19th century. Rather it is a technique or means, a tool or tactic – for the pursuit of political or ideological or even personal ends. And its manifestations are as many and various as its motivations.

Mercifully, some senior policymakers in the U.S. are at last starting to get this message: the preferred terminology, at least in the State Department, is no longer ‘Global War On Terrorism’ (GWOT), but ‘Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism’ (GSAVE). This epic linguistic shift – from GWOT to GSAVE - hasn’t quite captured the attention and emulation its proponents no doubt hoped, but at least it’s a move in the right direction.

The other preliminary point, following from everything I have said so far, is that contemporary terrorism is not something that remotely lends itself to one-track or two-track quick fixes. That much was agreed – although not much else – at last month’s World Summit, when the world’s assembled heads of state and government urged the General Assembly to develop a comprehensive strategy document, going beyond intelligence and policing.

The question remains how to characterize and articulate the necessary multi-dimensional response in a way that one sees the overall forest, and doesn’t get lost in a jungle of detail. Kofi Annan in Madrid in March sketched out what was needed in terms of ‘five Ds’:

dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals, deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks, deter states from supporting terrorists, develop state capacity to prevent terrorism, and defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism.

That list of objectives remains extremely helpful in capturing the flavour of what is required. But I would prefer to put the elements of the required strategy in slightly more operational terms, in terms of ‘five P’s’: a protection strategy, a policing strategy, a political strategy, a peacebuilding strategy and a psychological strategy.

Protection Strategy.

This speaks for itself so far as airline travel, border protection and all the rest of the familiar homeland security measures are concerned: these measures may only make a difference at the margin, and it is important to go on weighing the costs against benefits of each of them, but their relevance cannot be denied. An important addition to the repertoire would be to a much better job at denying potential access by terrorists to fissile material, at home and especially abroad – and abroad, as I have earlier said, especially in Russia.

Policing Strategy.

Good police work, supporting intelligence work, and ultimately (in occasional extreme situations) military operations, are all an indispensable part of the counter-terrorist repertoire, whatever else is needed as well. Enhancing the analytical capability and operational effectiveness of police and intelligence services remains a high priority.

The most controversial and difficult issue that arises with policing, in all its dimensions, is, of course, just how many intrusions on traditional civil liberties can be justified in the name of counter-terrorism. The basic principle must be that the risks have to be very great and very immediate to justify putting under strain core values about individual freedom and dignity that are at the heart of making our societies what they are, not what terrorists want them to be.

I don’t think the point has ever been better or more clearly made than by Israel’s Chief Justice Aharon Barak in his judgement last year on the West Bank Security Wall, in the course of which he quoted his own earlier judgement prohibiting the use of torture against Palestinian detainees:

We are aware that in the short term, this judgment will not make the state’s struggle against those rising up against it any easier…This is the destiny of a democracy: she does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back. Even so, democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and individual liberties constitute an important aspect of her security stance. At the end of the day, they strengthen her spirit, and this strength allows her to overcome her difficulties.

I just wish that governments in rather more countries - in Europe and North America, in Israel itself, and in my own country Australia not least – would take these principles a little more to heart.

Political Strategy.

A variety of familiar political grievances – the occupation of Palestine and Iraq pre-eminent among them, along with foreign support for so-called apostate governments and so on – are a significant part of the motivations of at least some categories of terrorists, and in this context it is important that Western governments be seen to be willing to somehow address them, however difficult that may be.

But the main point I want to make about addressing, and being seen to seriously address, political grievances, is that this is not just a strategy designed to appeal to violent extremists themselves, many of whom we know all too well will not be in the slightest moved by advances of this kind. It is above all, a strategy designed to change the atmospherics in the communities in which terrorists swim, to deny them some of the oxygen they breathe when there is support for their presumed objectives, if not always their most violent behaviour. And, in the case of governments in countries where there is strong street sentiment in favour of the political objectives in question, it is a strategy designed to improve the will and capacity of those governments to cooperate effectively internationally, and to crack down effectively domestically.

Political problems that are seen as such throughout the Arab/Islamic world, and which are unresolved, unaddressed, incompetently or counter-productively addressed, or deliberately left to fester until they become so acute they explode, are not the stuff of which willing local governments, capable of acting effectively, are made.

Peacebuilding Strategy.

‘Peacebuilding’ is perhaps an unusual word to use here: we usually think of it in the context of conflict within and between states, and the measures of reconstruction, economic development, human rights protection and overall governance that are necessary to ensure that conflict does not start, or re-start. But I use it deliberately to make the point that the kind of security threats we face in the 21st century are highly interdependent, and that some of the standard elements in the peacebuilding repertoire are highly relevant to the struggle against terrorism, or violent extremism.

The general point of peacebuilding in this context is to help states develop the capacity to prevent and deal with terrorism more effectively themselves. More particularly, one of the central preoccupations of peacebuilding is to avoid the emergence or continuation of failed states - in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone or wherever – and we are all acutely now conscious, after the Taliban in Afghanistan, of the role that such states are capable of playing in harbouring and nurturing terrorist groups capable of causing real damage elsewhere.

Other relevant elements are economic strategies designed to ensure that there is less of a pool of those without hope of any decent earthly future for terrorist recruiters and jihadists generally to be able to draw upon; and human rights and democracy strategies that will open up multiple channels for the expression of concerns and grievances. It is when the door of the mosque is the only one open that grievance does sometimes take more of an Islamist character than might otherwise be the case: one of Crisis Group’s most consistent messages to Central Asian governments, for example, is that those who are most anxious about Islamist extremism do most to promote it by cracking down relentlessly on free expression and association elsewhere.

Psychological Strategy.

The final element in what I would describe as an effective global strategy is straightforwardly psychological in character, designed to change the way people think and feel about terrorism, and to remove any vestige of a comfort zone around it either for the individuals engaged in terrorism, or for the countries and communities that to a greater or lesser extent support them.

At the global level what is needed above all, once and for all, is agreement on what actually constitutes terrorism, viz. a definition that makes attacks on civilians, whatever the context – resistance to foreign occupation or anything else – as absolutely and comprehensively prohibited, and as absolutely indefensible, in the 21st century as slavery and piracy became in the 19th. The UN, which remains hugely important as a global norm-setter on issues like this, has been enormously reluctant to go down this path, with a handful of resisting states ensuring at the September World Summit that there was, yet again, no agreement on this issue, although the leaders there gathered did go so far as to condemn terrorism ‘in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes’. Which is a start. But so long as anyone anywhere nurtures the belief that it is not always wrong to kill civilians – that maybe that’s not even terrorism, but rather an act of liberation or whatever – then a basic precondition for ridding the world of terrorism will not be there. The struggle against violent extremism starts with the battle of ideas.

At the individual and group level, among those who are or would be terrorists, the psychological task is very specific – to make them understand the wrongness, the indefensibility of their acts, and in the case of Muslims to make them appreciate that such acts, and the suicides so often involved in their perpetration, are absolutely not sanctioned by anything in the Koran. The absence of any kind of accepted institutional hierarchy of authority in Islam on a state or global as distinct from local level, like that which prevails in most other religions, makes very difficult the emergence of authoritative pronouncements in this respect. But efforts have increasingly been made to bring senior clerics and scholars together in Europe and North America and elsewhere to agree upon and pronounce appropriate fatwas, and those efforts should continue. Anything that spreads the belief that nothing can justify terrorism, that nothing can be an alibi for murder, cannot be anything but helpful.

We should not nurture too many illusions, however, about the likely effect of this on some of the individuals we worry about most. In Indonesia, for example, it is Crisis Group’s judgement that the kind of individuals who I referred to earlier as going into jihadist organizations in West Java and Sulawesi, are not the kind of constituencies that are likely to respond positively to exhortations from moderate Muslim leaders to eschew violence, let alone to the product of interfaith dialogues. It may be possible to turn away present members and potential recruits from using violence, but that can probably only be done through individuals who have legitimacy within the salafi jihadi network. And I suspect that what is true of Indonesia is true in most other parts of the world as well.

As much as I would like to be able to offer in conclusion a clear single prescription for how the global response to terrorism should be conducted, there simply isn’t one. We are dealing with a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon, which demands a complex, multi-layered response. Good policy sometimes requires not simplification but complexification.

With nearly all the international and national debate we have had on this subject, there has been an over-supply of rhetoric and an undersupply of thoughtful analysis. The struggle against violent extremism can be won, but it is going to be neither quick nor easy, and it is going to require a lot more thought and application and persistence, a lot more balanced approach, and a lot more attention to underlying causes and currents as distinct from surface manifestations, than comes easily to most of the world’s policy makers. Hopefully this important conference will play its part in sensitising them.