A zero-tolerance approach to terrorism

The Counter-Terrorism Committee of the UN Security Council held a special meeting on September 28, 2011, to mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1373 and urged “all Member States to ensure zero tolerance towards terrorism and take urgent action to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”. As the chair of the committee, I presided over this special session in which the “zero-tolerance” norm was adopted.

Two developments helped change that narrative: reaction to 9/11, and the use of military force in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011.

It became abundantly clear that organised terror outfits or non-state military actors cannot exist without the active arming and funding by some states, or at the very least acquiescence by them. Isalmic State (IS), for example, is the unwanted child of a failed, incompetently handled and neglected occupation (in Iraq).

There is a widespread tendency to underestimate the deep emotional and ideological reasons that prompt young men and women to take up arms and even lay down their lives for a cause they believe in, or have been persuaded to embrace. Radicalisation and violent extremism need to be understood if they are to be countered effectively. Locking up unemployed and radicalised youths only helps incubate Al Qaeda in jails.

Much of the global counterterrorism effort is delusional. It is laying the foundation for deeper polarisation and radicalisation that will make the world less safe than it already is.

Why do I make this claim? Well a closer look at the two approaches used in the war against terror reveals that they both fit the delusional category.

First, erosion of the rule of law. It is now widely accepted that the American-led invasion of Iraq was illegal. There were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and despite Saddam Hussain’s violently dictatorial regime, many more lives were lost as a result of the US invasion of the country.

By disregarding international law and without giving due consideration to the international ramifications of such an invasion (the UN Security Council was largely ignored prior to the misadventure) the US and its allies created the monster that we today refer to as the IS.

My previous book was on this very subject and studied the cases of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Crimea and Sri Lanka. It was aptly titled “Perilous Interventions”.

The second approach, a spectacular failure, is that of arming terror outfits. Often done under the garb of promoting democracy, the real motivation here is regime change for geopolitical gains.

The American-led support to militant political Islamic organisations is well documented, with its crowning glory being Al Qaeda.

As General William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, said: “By any measure the US has long used terrorism. In 1978-79 the Senate was trying to pass a law against international terrorism — in every version they produced, the lawyers said the US would be in violation.”

And it is not just Western nations which are complicit. Other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Iran and Turkey have also played their part. Turkey is known to provide a safe haven to the IS fighters, particularly those joining the terror organisation from Europe and the UK. And the rise of Pakistan’s ISI (the mastermind behind terror attacks in India) is predicated on importing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, along with a large helping of financial and technical resources.

Moving forward, violent extremism and terrorism can be better countered if it is approached through the prism of dialogue and discourse, and state responsibility.

The war on global terror can only be won through a process of dialogue among nations where the discourse is focused on the international repercussions of what is an international security threat. Such a discourse, which is anchored in human rights, but not constrained by it, must transcend national interest and look at terrorism for what is — a threat to delicately balanced peace and security architecture, effectively established post the devastation of World War II.

In the absence of an agreement over the definition of “terrorism”, what must be made clear is that there is no such thing as a “good” terrorist, and responsibility for the tragic loss of life and property as a result of this “good” theory must be affixed on states supporting these claims.

Terror plots only come to fruition with the help of governments/agencies that, under the garb of ‘non-state’ actors, propagate proxy wars and use terror as a tool for achieving their geostrategic goals. Just as no terror plot would be successful without this government support, no Countering Violent Extremism strategy will be successful without state responsibility.

Name and shame is, in the words of Victor Hugo, an idea whose time has come.