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Don't panic over terrorism

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Gwynne Dyer, military historian, broadcaster, and international affairs columnist, spoke about the threat of terrorism Tuesday evening at Festival Hall as part of Algonquin College's speakers series. He said despite the horrors of the Brussels and Paris attacks, the threat posed by terrorism to the existence of nation-states is in fact very small to negligible.

Gwynne Dyer, military historian, broadcaster, and international affairs columnist, spoke about the threat of terrorism Tuesday evening at Festival Hall as part of Algonquin College's speakers series. He said despite the horrors of the Brussels and Paris attacks, the threat posed by terrorism to the existence of nation-states is in fact very small to negligible.

Gwynne Dyer has a message for those concerned about the threat of Islamic terrorism: don’t panic.

The military historian, broadcaster, and international affairs columnist spoke on the matter Tuesday evening at Festival Hall as part of Algonquin College's speakers series. He said despite the horrors of the Brussels and Paris attacks, the threat posed by terrorism to the existence of nation-states is in fact very small to negligible.

Dyer said terrorism is the tactic used by those who are in fact very weak militarily and politically, who lack the resources to project any power or message they are trying to get out to the world. He said for a small investment in men and equipment, a group can appear more powerful than they actually are, while also prodding a more powerful body like a government to lash out in ways which further its goals.

“Terrorism is always a lot less than it appears,” he said, being magnified beyond its capabilities by a frightened populace, government leadership goaded into action and a media dazzled by the explosions and the casualties. If one looked strictly at the numbers, the scale of the loss is actually very small. The Paris attacks, for instance, as terrible as they were, only affected one French citizen per million.

The real danger comes if governments rose to the bait and overreacted to acts of terrorism, such as by clamping down on its citizens or specific ethnic or religious groups in the name of security, or attacking or invading other countries in retaliation. This would play directly into the hands of those groups attacking it, who use the government’s actions as a means of recruiting more followers and expanding their popularity in their home territories.

“My advice to governments dealing with terrorism is to do as little as possible,” Dyer said, beyond law enforcement and intelligence work to catch those who did it, and to try and head off future attacks.

Speaking to a crowded theatre, Dyer said this latest wave of terrorist activities is Islamist led, specifically Arab Muslims who have been pushed to the brink by a long history of bad luck, oppression and poverty with a large dose of despair. He stressed while the terrorists are Arab Muslims, not all Arab Muslims are terrorists, a distinction which seems to be lost sometimes.

“The Arab perspective of history is “we were once the leading civilization on the planet, and then disaster struck,” Dyer said. After being conquered and ruled by others for hundreds of years, the Arab people finally get self government in the post war years, but efforts to modernize their states failed as the ones who took charge were an officer class which were good at military things, but not skilled at building economies, education systems and the like. After 20 years of this, the population was even poorer than before, and the ones in charge didn’t want to relinquish power.

The people wanted revolutionary change to try and improve their lots, Dyer said, but to do this, one needed ideas with which to build popular support around. Since the officer class had failed, and Westernized democracies were the ones who ruled over them in more recent times, neither option had any appeal.

The rise of Islamism comes out of that sense of desperation, in which people have been brought to believe if they follow the leaders’ interpretation of Islam to the letter, God would be pleased and give them what they want: power, prestige and prosperity.

“Magical thinking appeals to desperate people,” Dyer said, and even if only 10 per cent of the population buys into it, that is still a significant power base to build on.

Up to recently, the Islamist strategy has been to try and goad a great power to invade an Arab country in order to have a cause or jihad to rally around. They would wear the power out through an endless guerrilla war, the invaders would leave, and the Islamists would take over to have a state of their own. It was a strategy which worked in Afghanistan in the 1980s after the Soviets left in 1989 following a decade of bloodshed. Terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s leading up to 9-11 were based on goading the United States to invade the Middle East, and it nearly succeeded, except the CIA found a way around it in 2001-2002 by hiring the tribes in the north of Afghanistan (the Northern Alliance), and backed by special forces and precision air attacks, drove the Taliban from power.

In 2003, the U.S invasion of Iraq gave the Islamists exactly what they were looking for, and out of the chaos the Islamic State (known as ISIS for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) rose up, bleeding over into Syria when the civil war broke out.

“This Islamic State is a state,” Dyer said. “It has a government, it has an army, it has an economy funded by oil revenues, and it has declared itself a caliphate.” He said whatever the West may feel about it, those of the IS mean what they say.

As far as a threat to the world, Dyer said they do pose one in the immediate vicinity of the Middle East. Last summer, IS was on the verge of overrunning Syria, and it was only after the Russians supported the Assad government with air strikes was the threat pushed back. As far as being a global threat, he seriously doubts they have the resources to expand much beyond their current borders.

Now that the Islamists have their state, what are the latest terror attacks all about? Dyer said it is now all about recruitment. The Islamist forces have split between IS and al-Qaeda, and both have been fighting each other for the right to represent the revolution.

“Killing Westerners for them is a badge of honour, a way to show they are the competent organization to join,” Dyer said. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 were done by al-Qaeda, while IS is responsible for Paris and Brussels, using those who were citizens of both Belgium and France.

“These are advertisements of their prowess,” he said, noting unlike their earlier strategies, the Islamists don’t really want their caliphate invaded.

When asked about the government’s decision to pull out the six CF-18s and end Canada’s air combat mission, Dyer said he believes this was primarily a political move by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was done partly because he promised to do it in the election campaign, but mainly so his six-month honeymoon period with the Canadian public wouldn’t be soured by the chance one of our pilots gets shot down and ends up in the hands of IS people, who would torture and kill him for maximum propaganda value.

He added the Canadian jets only made a small contribution to the overall allied air campaign, which currently has far more aircraft in the air than targets to hit.

Redirecting Canadian resources to an expanded training mission is more useful, Dyer said, as the Kurds in the region need the training, along with modern weapons, in which to take on IS forces on the ground, the only sure way to deal with them.

The mission is also a way for Canada to continue to contribute.

“What we’re doing is enough to keep our allies happy,” he said.

SUhler@postmedia.ca