The recently released US State Department Country Reports on terrorism for 2014 isn’t likely to become popular beach reading this summer, but it may well be one of the most sobering publications to appear this month. Outlining both terrorist activity and government responses, this lengthy document provides a useful overview and timeline, on a country-by-country basis, of global terror activity.
A document such as this does not stand alone, and requires much more background information to be understood in context. For this reason, I found comments made by Tina S. Kaidanow, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and posted on the State Department website, to be particularly noteworthy. Addressing the need for greater collaboration and engagement by police and civil society actors around the issue of terrorism, Ambassador Kaidanow also highlighted the importance of respecting human rights and the rule of law, saying, “The United States needs partners who can not only contribute to military operations, but also conduct arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration of terrorists with their facilitation networks. Addressing terrorism in a rule of law framework with respect for human rights is critical both for ensuring the sustainability of their efforts and for preventing the rise of new forms of violent extremism.”
Trying to strike the proper balance between security and respect for foundational elements of civil society is not an easy thing to do, and has been an endless source of public debate these last 14 years in both the US and abroad. At this very moment, congress is wrestling with this issue against the backdrop of a looking presidential contest, a factor which only further fuels the intensity of this debate.
While many countries are working both domestically and in partnerships across borders to counter violent extremism, there are, as the report notes, several which are doing the opposite. In some places, such as Cuba, the government has taken meaningful steps to demonstrate it is distancing itself from terrorism, while in others, such as Iran, the official leadership continues to actively support terrorism, contributing to instability and violence across the globe. In fact, in the case of Iran, the report notes of the country, that, “While its main effort focused on supporting goals in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iran and its proxies also continued subtle efforts at growing influence elsewhere including in Africa, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to implement foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East.” As author Matthew Levitt and others have extensively documented, such actions by Iran and the IRGC are nothing new and this report confirms that these activities continue apace, raising serious questions ahead of the June 30 deadline about how committed to peace and stability Tehran actually is.
Aside from governments which actual sponsor terrorist activity, there are also a number of places with weak central governments, including failed or failing states, where terrorists and their supporters are able to operate with a great deal of freedom. In such places, the breakdown in political infrastructure has undoubtedly put even greater stress on civil society and community-level institutions, creating an even more fertile environment for crime and terror activity. These places include the southern Philippines as well as those which are more often reported on in the US news as terrorist havens, including Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. In these areas the problem is not that the central government is actively sponsoring terrorism or has declined to work with international partners to combat it for overtly political or ideological reasons, but rather that the governments themselves lack the capacity to adequately muster the police, intelligence and civil society resources needed to prevent terrorist groups from planning and operating within the borders of their state.
These two very broad questions – how to respond to state-sponsored terrorism, and what to do about places which attract terrorists by virtue of their lack of adequate security or political infrastructure – appear somewhat simple on the surface, but are incredibly vexing upon closer examination. In the case of state-sponsored terrorism virtually all of the activity surrounding such sponsorship is carried out clandestinely. The role of Iran in the bombing the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in July of 1994 is a good example of this. By acting in the shadows these nations can engage in a thinly-veiled kind of plausible deniability, making it very hard for another nation or international body to hold them accountable. It’s not impossible, just difficult. In this sense, combating state-sponsored terrorism should involve shining a bright light on these covert relationships and activities. Exposure may have the practical, short-term affect of limiting government involvement in supporting attacks and over the longer term could degrade these relationships to the point where they do not pose a serious threat. The other necessary element is to try and hold these nations accountable for their role in terrorism through aggressive sanctions and efforts to limit their influence in international organizations. Doing this will not bring about an immediate end to state-sponsored terror, but it could reduce its efficacy, and by extension, perhaps save some lives.
The question of what to do about failed, failing and under-governed states is equally as challenging. The first hurdle we must get over is convincing citizens of Western countries that vital national interests are at stake when other nations anywhere in the world begin to fall apart. When the central government is corrupt, bankrupt or so distracted by other issues that it does not pay attention to who is crossing its borders or what they are doing there when no one is looking, terrorists who are likely to have western countries in their sights are going to take advantage of this opportunity.
At the same time, people living in the countries which have become unstable need to feel like there is a possibility of a return to normalcy. In other words, the people who will rebuild government and civil society need to see the value in it, and be willing to take the required risks to make it happen. Aside from cooperation between military, intelligence and police forces, this is the kind of collaboration which is needed to make a real long-term difference when it comes to terrorist exploitation of political instability.
Anyone reading the State Department report will see that there are indeed many programs and initiatives designed to do these things, often in conjunction with civil society partners. Outside of such partnerships I think that all people have a responsibility to support this kind of work, because ultimately we all have a stake in its success. In my mind, this is what makes reports like this one valuable, by serving to remind us that the threat of terrorism is not monolithic, nor is it rooted in one particular place or motivation. Instead, what we broadly call “terrorism” is a multi-faceted, ever-evolving threat that takes many forms and requires an equally varied response. I’m not usually one to suggest that bureaucracy, government or otherwise, is often a source of clarity, but as a reminder of the complicated nature of the threats we face, this report offers a refreshing note of clarity amidst so much media noise about the nature and extent of terrorism today.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.