We stand on a hill with a pocket full of stones. We watch the drone flying in from a distance crossing the borders of adjoining states. We watch as it drops a bomb which changes our lives and our humanity, irreparably. Our first response is to consider the drone ‘ours’ and the stone thrower, the terrorist. This assumption may be flawed.
Let’s consider the possibility that the terrorist is the drone, and the man on the hill, a state in the International system, rooted to the spot, defending itself with the only obvious weapon within reach.
This may be the reality we are currently facing. We are fighting an enemy we have never seen before and our response is understandably panicked, ineffective and futile. The state system, is arguably, not configured to fight transnational terrorism. We have borders and they don’t.
We call groups such as Boko Haram, ISIL, Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab, Islamic terrorists but if we call them Islamic terrorists we are doing a disservice to Islam and to ourselves. They do not represent any of the values of the religion of Islam. Referring to these groups as Islamic, perpetuates the idea that there is a crusader war against Islam. It creates division and disharmony within the borders of our societies and we become active participants in creating the reality, of the war they claim they are fighting. It reinforces THEIR position that WE are against Islam.
The more we agree with their version of reality and use their language, the more we empower them. When we refer to them as terrorists we are enabling them. We bring media attention and recruits to them. Islam is being hijacked by these armed, violent groups. We might instead, consider these groups as trans-national, criminal, social -movements.
The International state system has, arguably, not caught up with the strategic innovation and hybrid nature of transnational criminality. Even the term criminality might not be not valid, as this implies the existence of state laws which have been broken. But the spaces within which these groups operate have no laws. Groups like Boko Haram, ISIL, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda do not respect borders because they are global non-state actors. No rules apply to them because the rules of the International system do not apply to them.Our International system of law, justice and order is not well configured, to deal with actors who operate outside the system.
Non-state actors are flexible, dynamic and adapt quickly to their environments. They are asymmetric to our conventional. Our present approach to dealing with these groups is arguably making the problem worse because the cause against which these groups fight,is the very state system we employ, to try and stop them.State response becomes framed as state oppression against non-state actors.Each effort we make in that regard acts as a recruitment tool to attract more recruits to their cause.
These violent groups, arguably, have one thing in common, and it is not Islam. It is globalisation. Globalisation is simultaneously creating the enemy we fight and disempowering the responses available to us. This is arguably because we are defending a state system, which is out of date. The preservation of sovereignty and the maintenance of state borders,while the most important issues for individual countries, has no meaning for these groups. The spread of their idea is what they fight for.
Our understanding of, and ability to fight terrorists, comes from our understanding of the State system we live in. It does not equip us to deal with those who operate with a different agenda. This enemy is agile and transnational. They can operate in one state and hide in another. They gain support in multiple states. Their followers have multiple nationalities. Their ideas, and our responses, are arguably constructing a whole new, world order. The old, slow, state system is arguably ill equipped to fight the Hobbesian world that is being re-created.
Arguably states can only fight a transnational threat if their responses address the transnational nature of the threat. But even the question of state response, reveals a systemic inability, to deal with instant security threats. In order to act together, states need consensus, that national interest is being affected. What affects one state may not affect the national interest of another. States also need to fund their responses, by moving money from other areas, designed to promote and maintain national interest. Additionally, states have competing interests with each other. All of these considerations must be taken into account to explain why states are slow to respond to grievous injustices in other states. The rules of the system do not allow violations of sovereignty. Chapter 1 Article 2 Clause 4 of the UN Charter explicitly states this.
Non-state actors, on the other hand, gain support by publicising their agendas and then, they simply act. The sovereign states which we pledged our allegiances to, as citizens of our respective states, seem unable to provide the safety the social contract promised. With each new atrocity these groups or social movements make headlines. These headlines change the psychological fabric of our societies and affect all citizens, of all states. We are now more aware of the possibility, that a violent act might disrupt our daily life, unexpectedly.
The actions of these groups effectively shake the foundations of our social structures. This is what they are designed to do. When our own national interest, occupies our field of vision, we become distracted from the bigger global picture.
There is arguably no suitable name for groups who behave the way ISIL, Boko Haram, AL Shabaab and Al Qaeda behave. In the absence of any examples from the past, we are forced to use names which are familiar, or similar to, or the closest we have available. Perhaps we might shift paradigm again and view them, as violent global social movements. But we must also consider that there are some movements, who have not armed themselves, and are equally threatening. These groups, armed or unarmed, have objectives which appear to be similar. These groups seemingly seek structural change. Change to the system, the economics, the ideology, the very fabric of our human society.
By viewing the security problem they present, outside the paradigm of national interest, we might reveal a different understanding of the nature of the threat. It is possible that this global upheaval- those actions we have been calling Islamic terrorism- is not limited to those who call themselves Islamic terrorists. Non Islamic movements are also growing. They seemingly have the same agendas. There are mass appeal, right wing parties and social movements, who are aggressively active, within the western liberal system, in 12 European countries. The argument that Westernisation is creating terrorism, is rendered questionable, when groups which create fear and use violence, exist within the western system.
Let us consider the possibility that it is not a coincidence that these disparate groups have developed at the same time, with the same objective. Global terrorism cannot be about Islamification, as suggested, because the far right movements in Europe do not seek this. Their movements are about political change and they incite hatred and fear of ‘the other’. The fact that they are unarmed, as of yet, does not make them any less of a security threat. Words also incite hatred, and words motivate people to kill, in the name of a cause.
Let us consider the possibility that these groups do not seek to overthrow a state but seek, instead, systemic change. In a war against the false Islam, expressed by ‘armed systemic change, groups’ are we empowering ‘unarmed systemic change, groups’ of the far right? Are we effectively and unwittingly creating war? The edges of the far right movements blur into mainstream liberal politics. Anti-Islam blurs into anti-immigration and arguably into ‘anti-different.’ These groups on the far right, are no less dangerous than the armed violent groups. They have adapted their techniques, to suit the environment of their battlespace, like any good asymmetric force.
It is possible that emphasis on fighting Islamic terrorism grows anti-Islamic sentiment. This is arguably creating a newer version of a bi-polar world. It is an interesting thought that ‘the armed systemic change,’ groups seem to come from the ‘non-aligned movement,’ group of countries. The non-aligned group is also known as the Third world. This is the group of countries who chose not to follow the first world into capitalism, nor the second world, into communism. The violent actors from this sphere, might be viewed as shaping and creating a social inter-action with the rest of the world, on their terms. The choice of violence, is seemingly, a means of addressing an international system which marginalised them, and arguably continues to do so.
Responses to transnational social movements must be transnational in nature. Response cannot continue to be based on individual state interest. It must be based on global interests. It must be based on the need to preserve our humanity, and this possibly involves changing the nature, and shape, of the way the International system works.
Candyce Kelshall is a Fellow of Buckingham University’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies. She is the author of two books on Civil/ Military Relations. ”Armed Forces and Government” and “Revolution or Mutiny: Military Pressure Groups”