Terrorism: A Need for Complex Response

By Arbe, Samuel | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Terrorism: A Need for Complex Response


Arbe, Samuel, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


The global security environment is rapidly changing. Besides traditional actors in international relations, there is an ever-increasing number of new players. These new players force old actors to adjust their perceptions and redesign strategies and policies. The current environment is unprecedentedly affected by the events of 9/11. The scale, nature and, to some extent, simplicity of those events symbolise a turning point in the global approach towards terrorism. The Western world, led by the only superpower, the U.S., launched a "war on terror." The terrorist attacks in the U.S.-together with those in Spain and the United Kingdom-have set a new global agenda. The extraordinary aggression was carried out by a limited number of attackers while causing tremendous harm to these global powers. The threat of transnational terrorism became more evident than any kind of domestic threats. Western leaders have clearly understood the asymmetric nature of terrorism and the urgency to react. Moreover, the fight against terrorism has gained an international hallmark, and the post-Cold War non-interventionism of the 1990s has ceased to exist.

This text will attempt to shed light on how the international terrorist should be tackled and where the international effort, resources and emphasis on counter-terrorism should be put.

Elusive Foe or Delusive Strategy?

There is an ongoing debate about how to define terrorism. The internationalisation of terrorism does not make it any easier. The following lines will use the broader definition of terrorism as "unconventional violence against non-combatant targets."1 Due to nature of transnational terrorism, it is hard to hit or harm international terrorist organisations effectively. Moreover, recent experience shows that the international community (mostly actions taken by Western governments) is impotent to cause serious damage to such organisations and even impossible to truly decapitate them. Killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 was rather a symbolic moment than a genuine success in countering terrorism.

Therefore, this article will argue that counter-terrorism activities should not focus preponderantly on leaders of terrorist groups or networks. Countries involved in the struggle with terrorism would be ill-advised either to focus only on terrorist leaders or to neglect other elements of counter-terrorism. The dilemma about where the international community should put the most emphasis exposes a number of additional questions. Some of the dilemmas are mentioned below. Whatever the debate, such discussion should remain at the centre of international interest. There are no clear answers, but challenging current and tested policies or strategies might bring possible solutions in the future.

One question is whether the term "war on terror" is an appropriate label for the counter-terrorism efforts of the West. Does the West act like it is in a war or is this term used only as a metaphor? Hence, unlike conventional warfare, we cannot use the principle of deterrence, call for a ceasefire, or negotiate peace in a "war" against terrorism.

Is this fight aimed at countries or against international networks or organisations? Seemingly we cannot label one country or another as a terrorist country. We can only assume that in weak or failed states that terrorism enjoys more freedom to operate, even though this hypothesis might be false. However, the West is not fighting the states themselves. In weak or failed states, the state apparatus is dysfunctional or absent, consequently there is no one to fight.2

Hence, the causes of terrorism must be analysed. Are these causes only material, or are they also political, psychological, religious or cultural? Does the West stimulate them somehow? If we talk about anti-West terrorism, do we see more general hatred or issue-related actions? Answers to these questions might help to formulate complex counter-terrorist policies in the West. …

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