The list of evil just got longer


All hands on board are needed as acts of terror increase around the world.

According to a study documenting the toll of Islamist violence worldwide, more than 5,000 people, mostly civilians and overwhelmingly Muslims, were killed in jihadi attacks in November. But the list lengthened considerably after the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda-linked killings of just this past week.

There was the massacre in Pakistan that left 145 people dead, most of them children.

The siege in Sydney which killed two people.

Two car bombs which killed at least 31 people, including 20 children, in central Yemen.

Around 100 Syrian soldiers killed during a two-day battle in which insurgents took the Wadi Al-Deif military base.

And a Qur’an teacher in central Somalia was the fifth beheading victim in one week at the hands of Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia.

From Australia to Yemen, some troubling truths are being brought home: the world is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Against people indoctrinated to firmly believe that by killing children, women and men they are doing God’s bidding in their attempt to create a land of purity from the blood of “infidels”. And nobody is immune. People from Down Under, Americans, Canadians and Europeans are just as vulnerable as those from the Third World and its upheavals.

The November investigation – conducted by the BBC and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation – is chilling: nearly seven people died every hour in November as a result of violence attributed to Al-Qaeda, its offshoots and groups that subscribe to a similar ideology. A daily average of 22 attacks. Of the 5,042 people killed in total, a majority — 2,079 — were civilians.

The four worst-affected countries were Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria, accounting for 80 percent of all deaths. But nobody is safe. Terrorists come to kill and be killed. This makes stopping them and rescuing those trapped by them hugely challenging. Authorities can only do so much to prevent attacks without prior warning and knowledge. All the anti-terror laws in the world can only do so much in the face of terrorism. A deluded loner is just as dangerous as a member of an organised terrorist group.

Even if the individual in the Sydney siege — as sick and disturbed an individual as he was — had been front and centre on watch lists, even if he had been monitored 24 hours a day, it’s quite likely, certainly possible, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott correctly pointed out, the incident could have taken place, because the level of control that would be necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life would be very high indeed.

This week Barack Obama gave a pep talk to US troops fighting Islamic State. His assessment that despite the troubles in Iraq, troops are continuing to hammer ISIL by taking out fighters, commanders, vehicles and tanks, oil and gas facilities, infrastructure, buildings, check points and barracks, while most likely true, is not enough. While the US “will find you… because we will get you” makes for catchy headlines, it’s not enough. Obama, like Bush before him, stresses the need to go on the offensive against terrorists, deploy US military force, and give the commander in chief expansive wartime powers.

Most countries accept the need to use force against terrorism but success will come not by muscle alone but by fighting fire with fire, by discrediting the terrorists and their wayward ideals. Fighting terrorism by brute force creates more terrorists than it eliminates — and it will continue to do so unless there is a radical change of course. Terrorism must be fought differently.

After the 9/11 attacks, George W Bush proclaimed the start of the global war on terror. Ever since, there has been a vigorous debate about how to win it. But what would “victory” in the war on terror actually look like? The traditional notion of winning a war is fairly clear: defeating an enemy on the battlefield. But what does victory — or defeat — mean in a war on terror? How long will it take? Would there be victory? Would we recognise it when it came, even if it hit us in the face?

It is essential to thinking seriously about these questions because it is impossible to win a war without knowing what its goal is. Considering possible outcomes of the war on terror makes clear that it can indeed be won, but only with the recognition that this is a new and different kind of war and that the conventional ways of winning it do not apply.

Victory will come not when terrorists are vanquished but when support for their ideology and strategy is undermined. It will come not by killing or capturing all terrorists or potential terrorists, for that is a physical impossibility, but when the ideology the terrorists espouse is discredited, when their tactics are seen to have failed.

It will mean not the complete elimination of any possible terrorist threat — pursuing that goal will almost certainly lead to more terrorism, not less. What we want is the reduction of the risk of terrorism to such a level that it does not significantly affect average citizens’ daily lives, preoccupy their thoughts, or provoke overreaction. At that point, even the terrorists will realise their violence is futile.

The risk of terrorism could be reduced if governments reallocated their treasuries from domestic spending to security measures, significantly curtailed civil liberties to ensure that no potential terrorists were on the streets, and invaded and occupied countries that might one day support or sponsor terrorism. Pursuing that goal in this way, however, would have costs that would vastly outweigh the benefits of reaching the goal.

The war on terror will end with the collapse of the violent ideology that caused it – when the causes of Bin Laden and Al-Baghdadi come to be seen by their adherents as a failure, when supporters turn against it.

But victory in the war on terror does not mean the end of terrorism, the end of tyranny, or the end of evil. Utopia is simply not on this planet. Terrorism, after all, has been around for a long time and will never go away entirely. It can be reduced and contained but it can never be totally eliminated.

If the hostage taker in Sydney or the perpetrators of the Peshawar massacre had claimed to be acting for some other cause, we wouldn’t call it terrorism. We would call it what it is: lunatics with guns. But that would overlook the deeper trend. The overall picture is that of increasingly ambitious, complex, sophisticated and far-reaching movements and their adherents. The deadliest groups now embrace strategies to hold and govern territory against the armies of weak or failing states. Militants in Pakistan and Yemen appeared to have been intent on killing as many children as possible, rather than taking hostages.

Many words are used to describe terrorism: hateful, treacherous, barbarous, mad, twisted, perverted, faithless, inhuman, and, most commonly, evil. Whatever the adjective, it was something that used to happen over there. Now it’s here. Now it’s everywhere.

Remember the poster ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’, arguably the most famous poster in the world? Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918, as the United States entered World War I.

We are at war with terrorism, too, and we need the help of everybody in a huge mobilisation effort. We must tell the ignorant that terrorism is murder. We must enable weak states, persuade reluctant states and compel unwilling states.

For a while, Australia remembered it was part of the world, not at the end of it. For a while, Pakistan, much more affected by terrorism, remembered it is very much a part of this world.

Countries are no longer so far away, and life has become a little less charmed.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.