By Emma Emeozor
It was least expected, the terror attack outside the British Parliament on Wednesday. Jolted by the horror, the lawmakers immediately shut down the Parliament. No. 10 Downing Street was also locked down. The attacker had earlier crashed a rented car on the busy Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer within the precinct of the Parliament with a knife. Four people died and over 20 were injured. The Islamic State (IS) was quick to claim responsibility for the attack.
Interestingly, the attack took place on the same day the United States government was reported to be hosting 68 nations to discuss how to obliterate IS and the rebuilding of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, just recaptured from the militant group. The meeting was the first international engagement the President Donald Trump administration would be taking to drum home its zero-tolerance stance against terrorism.
Over the years, especially since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Washington has made the fight against terrorism top priority. Former President Bill Clinton launched a massive campaign against terrorism after the US military compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, was bombed. In his time, former President George W. Bush prioritised the war against terror, even as he made a blunder of it when he ordered the invasion of Iraq, alleging that former President Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons. Though Saddam was killed, the scars of that misadventure have not healed.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration took the bull by the horns when, on May 2, 2011, US Special Forces killed Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, following a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Obama administration did not stop there. On September 29, 2015, it hosted more than 100 nations at the United Nations, to discuss how to tackle and eradicate IS and violent extremism.
At the time, Obama warned that the fight against terrorism was “not a conventional battle” but “a long-term campaign.”
Though upbeat about the summit, he said: “There are going to be successes and there are going to be setbacks.” One year after the summit, the successes in the fight against terrorism across the globe could best be described as infinitesimal. IS and its affiliate groups in other regions outside the Middle East such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have remained a nightmare to millions of people, particularly the vulnerable class. In Libya, Yemen, Turkey and Afghanistan, to mention a few, combating terrorism remains a big distraction for home governments.
The decision of the Trump administration to convene a summit on terrorism, though a welcome development, however, raises several questions on the ability of the administration to deliver good results.
Trump has convened a summit on ending terrorism even as he is stoking the situation through unpopular policies such as the travel ban on six major Muslim countries. The ban did not distinguish the innocent from the guilty. Rather, it created anger and frustration for the people and governments of the affected countries, as well as their allies. Trump’s travel ban is an aggressive policy that negates the adage that says ‘when a house is burning, you don’t put out the fire with fuel.’
While political leaders may be patient with the Trump administration and listen to it, it may be different with vulnerable youths who are daily being recruited by terrorist organisations. Interestingly, American youths are part of the army of recruits fighting on the side of terrorists in Iraq, Somalia and Syria. One little misstep by Washington immediately sparks hatred and the thirst for revenge, pushing them over to the camp of the ‘enemy.’ Therefore, if Trump must spearhead the fight against terrorism, it is imperative for his government to win the confidence of the people and the international community at large by adopting friendly socio-economic policies.
Already, his administration has acknowledged that military might alone cannot halt terrorism. The admission was made on Monday during a meeting between Trump and the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Washington. A White House statement after the meeting said both Trump and Abadi agreed that “terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone.” Therefore, “the two leaders called for deepening commercial ties.”
But deepening commercial ties should not be with only Iraq. The US and Europe must deepen commercial ties with all countries being ravaged by the scourge of terrorism. No one region is safe without the others being safe too.
It is not enough for the US and the European Union (EU) to make donations to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in affected countries. In Somalia, al-Shabaab still has a stronghold because the government is financially weak and unable to adequately respond to the needs of the people, particularly the rural population and the youths. According to reports, al-Shabaab attracts the support of the impoverished by distributing food and money to them. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has a similar programme and even promises to provide youths with employment.
But as Trump stands up to the challenge of terrorism, it seems his government has not learnt from the diplomatic mistakes of his predecessors. America cannot be seen to be fighting terrorism on the one hand and supporting it discreetly. It remains a subject of public debate the allegation of “CIA assistance to Osama bin Laden.”
According to reports, “a commonly expressed belief states that the CIA had ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its Afghan Arab fighters when it armed Mujahideen groups to fight the Soviet Union during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.” Bin Laden would later turn the weapons against Washington and its allies.
This scenario has played out again in the fight against IS in Syria. Though Turkey and the US are allies in the war, there was a disturbing phenomenon in their respective approval of the militia groups fighting against IS. Turkey has repeatedly accused the US of giving support to organisations it listed as terrorists engaged in a decades-old separatist insurgency.
“Anger has simmered for months in Ankara over what it says has been US support for such militias as the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD),” a report said. On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevhit Cavusoglu, acknowledged that Ankara and the Trump administration don’t see eye-to-eye on the matter. Yet, Turkey was one of the major countries invited to the summit in Washington on Wednesday.
Analysts say the matter has been a source of heated behind-the-scenes debate, even at the security summit. Cavusoglu publicly expressed the anger and frustration of Ankara on Tuesday when he addressed the National Press Club in Washington ahead of the summit.
He said: “In our fight against (the Islamic State), we do not rely on other terrorist organisations.” Continuing, he rhetorically asked “Why? Because there is not a good terrorist. Yet some Washingtonians do not seem to care about this.”
Cavusoglu told his audience that he has raised the issue in a meeting with the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster and he would also raise it with the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
An angry Cavusoglu wants the US and all allies involved in the fight against IS to note that “this is a very sensitive issue and, unfortunately, they support and legitimise YPG and PYD just because they are in the fight against (the Islamic State).”
Meanwhile, as Cavusoglu was lamenting the refusal of Washington to see reason and cooperate with Ankara, reports quoted Pentagon and State Department officials on the same day as saying privately that the strategy shift the Trump White House was considering includes significant increases in weapons for US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Turkey may kick but, as far as Washington is concerned, Ankara’s perception of the Kurdish fighters is a purely internal matter that should not be brought to the fore of the coalition against IS. The Trump administration believes strongly that the Kurdish fighters are a key ground force in “the looming battle for Islamic State’s de facto headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa.”
The disagreement between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish fighters is not the only source of the cacophony in the coalition group against IS. Moscow and Washington have been embroiled in protracted face-offs several times, bordering on Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad and the bombing of perceived terrorist targets.
Similarly, Ankara and Moscow have had a brush over Russia’s military campaign along the Turkey-Syria border believed to be an enclave of terrorists. The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was instigated by the anti-Russia campaign by those who claimed that Russian forces were targeting Sunni fighters in Syria, among other allegations.
Majority of Turks are Sunnis while Assad and majority of his supporters in Syria are Shiites. Besides Russia, his other major ally is Iran, and Iranians are also Shiites. Apparently, the anti-IS coalition group is faced with a jumble of religious and political contradictions.
Overcoming these challenges is crucial to winning the fight against IS and all its allies in other parts of the world. It has, therefore, become necessary to define who is a terrorist and when an organisation could be branded a terrorist group.
According to an expert, Col. E.A.S Bokhari (rtd), “Terrorism consists of a series of acts intended to spread intimidation, panic and destruction in a population. These acts can be carried out by individuals and groups opposing a state, or acting on its behalf.”
But even as Washington emphasises the importance of ground forces in the fight against terrorism, it would seem the role of the Internet is being downplayed. Reports have quoted experts as warning on the need for national governments to consider how best to curb abuse of the Internet, info-terrorism and cyber warfare.
They argue that, “Society has also become vulnerable to a new kind of terrorism in which the destructive power of both the individual terrorist and terrorism as a tactic are infinitely greater.”
Bokhari once drew attention to an unnamed US intelligence official who had boasted that, with $1 billion and 20 capable hackers, he could shut down America.
“What he could, a terrorist could too,” Bokhari noted.
An aircraft cabin ban on large electronic devices was prompted by intelligence suggesting a terror threat to US-bound flights, US media said on Friday. But action should go beyond bans of laptops.
There is a lot of work to be done in the fight against terrorism.