Terrorism. There seems to be nothing more frightening than terrorism or the unstoppable thought about when and who might be under attack next. The global threat that has now completely arrived in Europe makes us so very afraid that we abandon core values of the European Union like open borders and free movement across the continent. This article shows the failures of approaches adopted by Western governments to tackle terrorism and re-establishing security – felt and real. Furthermore, it should illuminate a different angle towards terrorism and show how our fears stand in the way of peaceful coexistence.
Terrorism is highly emotional
Terrorism makes us upset, angry, horrified, sad. Our emotional response to terrorism is human. That means it is alright to have these feelings and we are not alone with our fears. More so, it is an instinct. Our minds alarm us when we perceive a dangerous situation, a threat. Nevertheless, these feelings are also overwhelming and blurring our minds. In this state of mind, an imagined threat can be mistaken for a real threat. According to research revealed by the New York Times this disconnection from reality is dangerous and leads us to be more prejudicial, discriminative and suspicious towards others. This too, is an emotional response and it is human. Nevertheless, our emotional response towards terrorism makes us vulnerable. Fear and the feeling of insecurity in response to terrorism hands governments the political rhetoric, because it enables them to justify security interventions abroad. The problem with that though, is that paradoxically, it seems like “Western” security interventions have not made the world more secure, but rather the opposite.
The blurry line between peace and war
A case in point is Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the biggest contributor of troops to UN Peacekeeping missions. Moreover, the international community accorded a key role to the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) in the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Ethiopian counterinsurgents shine by the quality of its forces. One can argue that this finds explanation in the country’s culture and historical background. Ethiopia has been through a long and rough period of communism and Ethiopian culture is based on strong communities. Hence, the community-based approach of counterinsurgency operations might be especially successful. Yet, this does not mean strengthening the community’s culture from a local perspective, but from a “Western” view. Counterinsurgency is nothing else than the forceful implementation of “Western” values and morals – a moral imperialism.
General David H. Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and Iraq about counterinsurgency:
“that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.”
He highlights two crucial aspects: First, “counterinsurgency operations are wars” on non-Western territory. Hence, this approach to tackle terrorism accepts that armed conflict becomes part of the every-day life of local populations. Second, “Securing those people” meaning securing the people who agree to adapt to Western norms and values and eliminating the others. The researcher Louise Wiuff Moe from the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) exhibited in “The strange wars of liberal peace: hybridity, complexity and the governing rationalities of counterinsurgency in Somalia” (2015) how counterinsurgency operations connect the politics of peacebuilding with warfare and she coins the term ”weaponisation of culture”. With her extensive research, Moe illustrates that local populations even turn to terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab when facing the forceful cultural adaption of Western norms. This in turn leads to rising terrorist attacks.
Where it starts to go wrong
In order to gain a deeper understanding of international relations the world has to be seen through the Western eye. The global divide into North and South is a Western idea of a world of inclusion and exclusion. The fundamental differentiation happens between “us” and “them” where we see “us” as: scientific, modern, civilized – superior; and “them” as: religious, backward, chaotic – inferior. The terms North and South fall into that same categorisation. It is essential to comprehend this way of thinking, when wanting to understand the aims of Western security interventions in the Global South and for examining their effects and side effects. Current Western approaches to tackle terrorism and establish global security like counterinsurgency and peacekeeping operations reinforce the categorisation of “them” and “us”. They divide populations into two groups: those who adapt to Western norms and values and those who do not. This makes the “war on terror” an ideological and/or a cultural war. These conflicting perspectives are not new and have been emphasized by scholars like Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations, 1996).
Counterinsurgency proponents argue that building strong communities eliminates the root causes of terrorism. Meanwhile, the ignorance of local needs and the cultural arrogance towards the other only fuels the rise of terrorism. In the documentary “100 Years of War in the Middle-East” (German: “100 Jahre Krieg in Nahost”), aired on arte recently, it was argued that the emergence of Al Qaeda and ISIS today can even be traced back to Western Imperialism in 1916. Apparently, there is a vicious circle of security interventions leading to terror attacks and the fear of terrorism making us want more security interventions. The New Yorker suggests that the only one way out of this vicious cycle is to take international forces out of the “Middle East”.
Towards global peace and security
Our existence is based on how we see or perceive the world and how we are seen or perceived by others. The roots of terrorism are as diverse as humankind is. We have to consider more aspects to the rise of extremism. After all, the examples of counterinsurgency and peacekeeping operations in the “Middle East” and the “Horn of Africa” show us that armed confrontations did not lead to more peace and security anywhere. Instead, we need to overcome our fear of terrorism and question our own perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. Edward Said elucidates on how we need to become more connected to each other as human beings for the purpose of peaceful coexistence:
“There is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of coexistence and enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control.”
Photo: Daily routine at Merkato, Addis Ababa, the biggest market in the capital of Ethiopia and once place of a terror attack. Due to fear of future attacks tourists are told not to go there, but as the photo clearly shows, not all people bow down to fear. Photo taken by Gino Ephrem.
Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.