The one thing that won’t stop terror is more war

Provoking retaliation is a key part of the jihadists' strategy, writes Alex Nunns – we need a different approach

November 14, 2015
4 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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Call me selfish, but I don’t want to get killed in a terrorist attack at a gig. So perhaps we could try something different from the War on Terror spiral? After all, it’s not going so well. In 2001, when 9/11 happened, the jihadis were a small group of Saudi ex-pats in the mountains of Afghanistan. Now jihadi groups control more than half of Syria, a third of Iraq, and large swathes of Libya. They’re fighting in Yemen, in Afghanistan (still), in Pakistan, in Somalia and in Nigeria. They’ve attacked in Paris (twice), Sousse, Sharm el-Sheikh, Beirut and other places just this year. If the West has been trying to stop jihadis since 9/11, it hasn’t worked.

But it’s much worse than that. The aim of jihadis is to shock Muslims in order to – as they see it – wake them up and get them to join their struggle. Bin Laden was explicit about it. One tactic to do that is to provoke an over-reaction from the West – and the West has been willing to oblige.

Invading and occupying Iraq is the most obvious example, which led directly to the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2007. But terrorist attacks also provoke increased government surveillance on all of us, the targeting of Muslim communities and social division.

The jihadis’ great allies are the politicians and journalists who shut down any attempt to understand this. The airwaves are full today of facile people saying that what happened in Paris is an attack on Western freedom and culture, so there’s no point in thinking any more deeply about it. But on Thursday ISIS killed 43 people in Beirut with two suicide bombs – because they hate Arab culture?

Pulling up the roots

I expect we’ll carry on acting out the cycle that has worked so successfully for the jihadis since 2001. But personally, out of a sense of self-interest, I’d prefer it if we tried something different. Like: tackling the problem of Saudi Arabia, where the jihadi ideology comes from, and which prefers ISIS and the other jihadi groups to succeed if it means Shia Muslims can’t live.

Like: withdrawing support from Turkey while its intelligence agencies help the Nusra Front and turn a blind eye to ISIS, all because it hates the Kurds more than the jihadis and bombs them with NATO’s blessing. Like: trying to refrain from destroying countries like Iraq and Libya, both now overrun by jihadis.

Like: actually attempting to end the war in Syria, which is complicated and difficult, but Britain could help by at least not blocking negotiations as it did in the Geneva I and II peace conferences in 2012 and 2014. The British, French and American governments thought for a few years that it was in their strategic interests for the Syrian war to go on, weakening Syria’s ally Iran and knocking out an enemy of Israel. But it wasn’t in the interests of us, the people, and certainly not of the thousands of Syrians who have died as a result.

Like: helping refugees who are fleeing from horror, mostly because we should obviously help people in need but also because it’s not wise to have millions of people languishing in squalid camps building up resentment.

I know people’s first impulse when a terrorist attack happens is to want to hit back in a direct way, to punish the people who did it and deter others. But that impulse has been tested to destruction since 2001. Jihadis bank on it, it’s a central part of their strategy. I don’t know why we always go along with it. It’d be better to do things that might work instead.


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns