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Terrorist groups became indispensable part of regional conflicts

Voice of Russia
Sunday, December 16, 2012

Adam Dolnik, professor of counterterrorism at the George Marshall European Center for Security Studies, about terrorist croups and its tactics in regional conflicts.

Mr. Dolnik, thank you so much for sparing us the time. So, it looks like the terrorist groups have become an indispensible part of regional conflicts, both in the ME and beyond.

Yes, definitely! And I think you would find it very difficult to find any historical regional conflict where some non state actors who would use terrorist tactics, meaning attacks against civilians for the purposes of spreading fear and panic, have not been used, I think you would find it in every single conflict. The extent to which all this is tired together, in the sense that it is one particular global organization that is trying to infiltrate these regional conflicts, I think is a matter of discussion. But yes, they have been prevalent in every single regional conflict.

Some experts are saying that sometimes those groups are used as instruments by more powerful organizations, or perhaps, by more prominent powers.

It is definitely not unheard of that terrorist organizations would receive sponsorship or some sort of aid, both in terms of material aid, providing intelligence, providing weapons, to those groups from state powers who found it useful to use those groups to weaken specific rivals in the same region. This is basically a war by proxy and the whole idea is deniability of direct involvement. However, we have also seen quite prevalently the independent infiltration of conflicts by groups that are not in any way directly manipulated by any state.

Does that perhaps imply that in a contemporary world any conflict is prone to be somehow affected by the presence of terrorist groups, by the involvement of terrorist groups which then would be so very difficult to take back under control?

It certainly is within the interests of global terrorist organizations to be seen or to present themselves as being involved in particular conflicts that are ideologically aligned with the global narrative of those groups. Al Qaeda for instance is an organization that has been trying to infiltrate conflicts anywhere, from Bosnia and Chechnya to Eritrea, to the whole of Africa, in Somalia and other places around the planet basically supporting its global narrative about a global Jewish crusader alliance trying to subdue and defeat Islam. And any time they could come into a conflict and be seen as liberators of the Muslims who were perceived as oppressed by at least some segments of the society there, then certainly they could earn political points that way.

But the involvement of terrorist organizations is not limited to simple use of terrorism as a means of political violence. We have also seen terrorist organizations coming with humanitarian aid and getting support that way. Al Qaeda has been particularly active in Somalia during the draft where international aid organizations were kicked out of the country by Al Shabab after being accused of being spies. And then you would have these Al Qaeda recruiters who would come in and they would bring in supplies and basically say that this is Al Qaeda helping its Muslim brothers and so forth. So typically, the involvement of these terrorist organizations is much more sophisticated than simply use of violence.

What you’ve been telling me about Al Qaeda in Somalia resembles the mafia style of expanding and asserting their influence in the region. They are also very instrumental in helping poor families with money, with protection. And then it all appears that those people are indebted to mafia. But tell me, do you think that the so called moderate Islamist movements which are coming to power in Arab Spring countries, do you think that they are in a position to exert certain control over the terrorist organizations in those countries?

I think control is way too strong of a word. I think Islamist movements, if they are peaceful Islamist movements, can find some level of common language with militant organizations and can be seen as more credible partners than, say, the US Government or European governments, that gives them some leverage. But when it comes to control, I don’t think they have any control whatsoever.

So, these guys are just like genies let out of the bottle.

In some cases yes. And the scary thing about it is that we have allowed through our ultimate fear of terrorism and the fact that we terrorism on the pages of newspapers every day, we have allowed so much power to even small groups of individuals, which have 100-200 people organizing violent activities in a particular conflict, to get completely disproportionate perception of how much influence they have. And I think that is one of the big problems in terms of information management and how we have allowed the so called terrorist groups to really get this disproportionate power.

True, because they are looking for publicity and we are giving them that publicity.

They are looking for the publicity and they have a very useful tactics for getting publicity. The more radical the action they engage in, the more likely they are to attract the attention and media coverage. Certainly, beheading videos had been a particularly useful way of doing that. And we started talking about Syria, and of course there had been a video recently revealed of a young boy beheading Government soldiers in the street in Syria. So, that certainly captured the attention of the world very quickly.

But wouldn’t it really be perceived as something awesome by ordinary people in the street?

Well, terrorist is very much a double-edged sword, in the sense that a terrorist needs to strike a balance between shocking violence, typically against civilians, which will attract attention to their grievance and to whatever they are saying and they need to balance it out with trying achieve that coverage to be favourable in some way. So, they need to perpetrate violence but not a way that gets people to hate them or to dismiss as too violent and radical. And it is a very fine line to balance. But what we have seen in the recent years, which is a very disturbing development, that terrorist organizations despite very radical moves, such as the beheading videos for instance, which are totally gruesome and absolutely shocking for anyone, that they still have been able to recruit and to achieve support for their calls despite the brutality of their actions.

Why does that happen?

Well, I think there are multiple layers. But the overall desensitization to violence that we are exposed to through media coverage of conflicts, and I think we’ve seen so much violence that we just don’t have the same level of sensitivity anymore. Certainly, it comes to very radical tactics like suicide bombings. 15 years ago people would ask you all the time in terms of the motivation – how can somebody actually go and blow himself up and kill others in the process. Today, I think any television viewer sees it as a basically daily occurance that doesn’t shock anyone anymore. So, I think the overall threshold in terms of what shocks us is moving forward.

Now, we also should say that this is not a one way street only. Certainly, Al Qaeda in Iraq and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in their use of beheading videos had been criticized even by the most senior leaders of Al Qaeda. And Ayman al-Zawahiri had written several letters to Zarqawi in which he criticized this tactic of beheading videos because he said that this would turn potential supporters into enemies for Al Qaeda. So, there is a level of sensitivity on the inside of terrorist groups to these questions as well. But yes, over time we have become desensitized.


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