World on fire! Invisible war; Invincible Ideology
By Uchenna Ekwo November 19
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris; France has again brought the attention of the international community to the horrors of global terrorism. In five words, the world is on fire. In the past 15 years, the world witnessed horrific incidents across countries and continents notably the terrorist attacks in New York, Bombay-Mumbai-Indian Hotel attack, Boston Marathon, Bali Night Club attack in Indonesia, the train attack on Madrid, Spain, the London subway bombing, Beirut Embassy attack, Nairobi Shopping Mall attack, Benghazi embassy attack, the bombing of Russian plane in Egypt, and of course the rampant attacks on Nigerians by Boko Haram. Clearly, disorder is the new norm in today’s world order.
In less than three weeks, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched three major terror attacks: the downing of a Russian airplane over Sinai, two suicide bombings in Beirut and coordinated suicide attacks against civilians in Paris, the second major attack after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January this year. To target Russia, Egypt, Hezbollah, Lebanon and France in such sequence and precision is telling about the sophistication of terrorists and the need to think outside the box in confronting the pervasive evil of contemporary times.
In a response that echoed President George W. Bush’s reaction after the terrorist attack in the US in September 11th 2001, French President François Hollande promised a “merciless” response against ISIL and declared that his country was at war.
The natural impulse is for politicians to appear to be strong in order to win elections. In moments of crisis and uncertainty, when anxiety and fear rule the minds of the people, presidents often find ways of tapping into
popular emotion and channeling it — or at least trying to satisfy it with expressions of resolve and determination. President Bush did it along with the swagger to demolish Al Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin but he succeeded in achieving neither. President Hollande has stepped into the same quagmire that Bush found himself and that made him unpopular eventually. So Hollande’s declaration of the Second World War on Terror after Bush’s inconclusive First World War on Terror may be counter productive if the world failed to learn from lessons of the past 15 years. Does France risk squandering the international goodwill generated in the wake of the tragic attack on innocent civilians in Paris last Friday? Understandably, politics is about percep
tion and politicians often play to the gallery often mindful of polls and aware of the public acceptance of strong persona of leaders. Consequently, leaders want to demonstrate at least in public that they are strong and capable of defending their citizens.
However, balancing the optics of bolster and the reality of governance becomes a major challenge in an era that terrorism has redefined conflict and war. Indeed, it is good to hear the French President say the country is at war but the important question is: at war with who? ISIL, one may say. But the terrorist group is invisible and not a state in the real sense of it. It is not like a conventional war with visible enemies or soldiers.
The difficulty in fighting a war with
terrorists is that unlike a state with conventional army, you cannot identify the adversary easily. President Obama acknowledged this much when he addressed a press conference in Turkey at the end of the G-20 Summit this week. One of the challenges of terrorism, Obama told newsmen in Antalya, Turkey, is that “if you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people… It’s not their sophistication or the particular weaponry that they possess, but it is the ideology they carry with them and their willingness to die.”
Put differently, Obama seems to be saying that defeating an idea cannot be achieved with simply military prowess. With all the bombings in Afghanistan, destruction of Iraq, and killing of Osama bin Ladin, the world continues to witness the metastasizing of terrorism and terrorist activities. Terrorism evolves in different shapes and sizes and epochs. At this point, instead of dwelling exclusively on military tactics, the world must understand that time has come to consider other alternatives. There has to be a shift from tradition to transformation; from traditional combat techniques to a transformation of strategy to fight an invisible but determined army. Military attacks must be combined with other measures that can address the underlying political, economic, and social concerns that drive young people into extremism and fanaticism. What is it that fuels the discontent among the recruits towards terrorism? It is not enough for politicians to ask local populations to reject extremist ideology when in fact the politicians themselves are unbridled ideologues themselves and unresponsive to the yearnings and aspirations of citizens.
In Nigerian for instance, Boko Haram the Islamic extremist group based mainly in the northern region of the West African country has killed more people than the combined onslaught of ISIS and other terrorist organizations in East Africa and Middle East. According to the Global Terrorism Index, released December 17, 2015, Boko Haram was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, an increase of 317% from the previous year. By contrast, ISIS, the terror group to which Boko Haram reportedly pledged allegiance in March of this year, was responsible for 6,073 deaths. Whereas Boko Haram’s killings do not capture international headlines like those of ISIL and others, the world media perpetuates dichotomy between countries and also treats deaths of innocent lives with discrimination. But for the abduction of schoolgirls last year, the nefarious activities of Boko Haram are not a priority for the media and policy makers in US and Europe. Earlier in the year during the shooting at the Charlie Hebo satirical magazine in Paris in which 17 people died, Boko Haram massacred about 2000 people in Baga and yet the world witnessed global solidarity; ring of world leaders with clutched elbows mourning17 deaths in Paris and ignoring 2000 deaths in Nigeria. Perhaps, this was a Shakespearean conception of “when beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” All lives matter but leaders of rich countries make it look like there are more precious lives than others. On the other hand, Nigerian leaders may have a role to play in projecting empathy and demonstrating that the lives of their citizens matter and convey such by their actions, even of perfunctorily. For example, the world should see images of Nigerian leaders visit homes of victims of Boko Haram, wrap their arm around them, show empathy even if they don’t mean it.
In the final analysis, one thing is clear: if United States is unable to defeat domestic and international terrorism, it is unlikely that France or any other country can by mere military means. Similarly, Nigeria cannot defeat Boko Haram by bombing their locations alone. The world has to unite and devise other methods to complement military tactics. Leaders must respond to the genuine demands of citizens in relation to free expression, employment, transparency, equity, justice, and good governance. Victory over terrorist groups requires inclusion of local populations and consideration of genuine grievances of disaffected populations. Bombing terrorists’ havens has not solved the problem so far; it is time to change course if we are serious about wining the invisible war against invincible adversaries determined to set the world on fire.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo is a public policy expert commentator on global affairs.