How do you address terrorism?

How do you address terrorism?

The global war on terror has led to a string of human rights violations and left the world as dangerous, if not more so, than a decade or so before. It is, therefore, more imperative than ever to consider our approaches to the threat of terrorism. 

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By Kirthi Jayakumar

How do you address terrorism? If we’d got it right with the global war on terrorism that began over a decade and more ago, we wouldn’t be asking this question today. Looking at the range of terrorist attacks over the recent past, there are a few things one can infer: that these terror outfits aim to spread fear, they subscribe to an ideology that is most often radical or extremist in nature, they may or may not be backed by a government in one form or the other, they resort to large-scale violence to spread a message and, quite often, the mastermind behind the attacks and the ones carrying out the attack are two different units.

It’s not difficult to see why we haven’t been able to handle terrorism. Every strategy has become redundant. Most international legalese remains centered around the state as the subject, and our understanding of non-state actors in international relations still remains frugal at best. Consequently, global conduct in dealing with terror has been reactionary, not responsive. Band-aid legislation, anger-ridden political rhetoric and the retaliatory use of force have been pursued at the cost of the big picture.

We don’t have a definition for terrorism; not for want of effort, but predominantly because of the dynamism that it exhibits. Nevertheless, the lack of a definition neither invalidates the fact that terrorism does occur and continues to impose a pressing demand on countermeasures at every level, nor excuses the lack of legislative- and policy-driven responses. Defining terror is important. This is not a mere exercise in semantics, but rather a level playing field for nations to come together to respond to terrorism. While there are groups that confine their operations to the national level, there are also transnational groups and national groups that operate with transnational (governmental and non-governmental) support of different kinds. In bridling terror within the confines of a working definition – working, because the definition should be capable of flexible dynamism to encompass the rapidly changing phenomenon that it is – terrorism can be suitably addressed. From financial and military to sympathetic and implicit support, terror outfits receive all that they can to help enable their plans of action. Not defining terror leaves a gaping hole in the system that states enabling terror can escape through. Definitions can offer a fundamental measure of accountability and install a uniform standpoint of action that binds all quarters. It can standardise extradition and prosecution, it can facilitate and foster cooperation in addressing the crime and bringing those involved to book

The second common mistake is the nebulous perception that terrorism is a by-product of marginalisation, arising out of poverty. By and large, this may be true of those on the frontlines. There are many pieces of research that suitably testify to the fact that many from backgrounds laced with poverty and unemployment are inducted into terrorist outfits with the promise of affluence. However, this is a dangerous assumption to arrive at. First, because marginalisation is not the only factor that turns one to terrorism. Brainwashing, falsified religious and cultural sanctions and threats to their safety or the safety of loved ones can also play a role – and this is not something that ensnares only the poor. Second, because even assuming that marginalisation is the sole or major factor, it only accounts as an explanation for those on the frontlines. The ones masterminding an operation, spearheading the big plan and pursuing the political goal – they are perhaps, and arguably so, among the elite in terms of intellect, wealth and exposure. The belief that marginalisation accounts for a major cause of terror shuts out a very large section of the population that take to terror, but don’t fall under the profiled description of being poverty-ridden.

What is often ignored is the fact that most terrorist attacks need enablers. A mole in the system, a sympathetic supporter, financial aid, movement of weapons, an officer looking the other way after having his palms greased, a nation pursuing a political vendetta through the guise of an outfit – the possibilities are endless. Many are quick to dismiss terror attacks as having occurred as a consequence of a lapse in intelligence. But in reality, it is incredibly difficult for a state to respond when intelligence picks up on a potential attack. Plans are in place for a terror attack months, or perhaps even years in advance – the back-study of any terrorist attack will prove my point. Countless recces, dummy rounds, plans and what have you – clearly go into making it what it is. At the point of time when there is a tip-off for an oncoming attack, there is really very little that can be done. Instead of looking to the intelligence at the time of a tip-off, governments should really aim to be one step ahead of terror outfits. It is difficult, but definitely necessary to remain hard-nosed in handling terror.    

The immediate consequence of a hard-nosed approach, as the past has shown, has been a violation of human rights. Many innocent people will testify to torture, water-boarding, detention and so much more. Stories from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Kashmir and many of the world’s infamous prisons will testify to how terror “laws” have been brazenly manipulated to force cats to “confess” to being man-eating tigers. While history has demonstrated how anti-terror law and policy have been fallaciously implemented, it should not, and does not invalidate the fact that there is a need for an anti-terror legislative measure, and its sound implementation. This requires a two-part involvement. From the side of those responsible for the execution of the law, it is necessary to be sensitised yet cautious in handling people and potential suspects. Respect for the right to life, liberty and dignity should not be shamelessly sacrificed at the altar of baseless suspicions. From the side of the civilian population, a measure of cooperative support is necessary – frisking, security checks, vigilance and imposition of reasonable security measures.

At the end of the day, there needs to be a strong bifurcation of the politics and legalese that concern terrorism and governmental responses to terrorism. Respect for the rule of law, a measure of sensitisation and logic should prevail above everything else. Our egregious failings, blatant erudition of political prowess to better the other and our consistent ignorance of the enabling environment for terror have all led to enough bloodshed. If the children of Peshawar are not enough of a wake-up call for the world, I don’t know what else is.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here

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