Allan Massie: Syria teaches us truths about war

Syrians inspect a damaged shop after two explosions in central Damascus. Picture: AP
Syrians inspect a damaged shop after two explosions in central Damascus. Picture: AP
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THE dilemma now facing us in Syria simply highlights the complex nature of waging a war on terror, writes Allan Massie

General David Petraeus, the former US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, said this week that counter-insurgency operations were not over, because the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency was not over. It was active in countries like Libya, Mali, Syria and Algeria.

So indeed it is, though bizarrely, there was a report yesterday that President Obama is once again considering the case for arming the rebel forces in Syria – even though their most effective fighters are Islamist al-Qaeda associates.

Now it is arguable that what happens in the countries named by the general may not matter greatly to us. However it is also arguable that vigorous counter-insurgency action there may actually serve to promote further radicalisation of some young British Muslims. Few after all, except perhaps Tony Blair, doubt that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already had that effect. It is sadly clear, as Kevin Toolis wrote in his excellent article in this paper yesterday, that lessons learned from our engagement with the IRA in Northern Ireland are almost irrelevant when it comes to dealing with this new brand of home-grown terrorism, because the Islamists have no command structure comparable to the IRA Army Council, which MI5 successfully infiltrated.

Now we are dealing with what may be called DIY terrorism, and the simpler and more improvised the terrorist act, the more difficult it is to forestall. The two men accused of killing Drummer Lee Rigby may indeed have figured on the security services’ radar, but the Woolwich alleged murder could have been planned, inasmuch as it was planned, in a five-minute conversation. That essentially was all that was needed.

Kevin Toolis identified another important difference. The IRA had, he wrote, “limited nationalist and rational aims”. You might disagree with them. You might deplore their methods. But they made sense. The Islamists here in Britain make no such sense. Their aim is irrational because it cannot be achieved.

A long time ago I wrote a novel based, loosely, on the kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades of the Italian politician Aldo Moro. In it the politician’s brother, speak about “the novelty” of the Red Brigades’ terrorism. Previous terrorist movements, he said, “had been aimed at something specific, clearly identifiable – an independent Italy, Poland, Ireland, the establishment of a Calvinist state, or the re-establishment of a Catholic one. But this time it is quite different … these young men, they are pursuing a chimera, something that will never be achieved, the Just Society.”

My narrator wasn’t quite right about the novelty. There had been earlier comparable terrorist groups – the Nihilists and the Anarchists, for example. Yet he was essentially right. What the Islamists want is a dream that cannot be realised, their vision of the Just (Islamic) Society.

The corollary is disturbing. In the past, in some places, terrorism and associated military activity have been successful, or contributed to success like the resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe. Eventually the power against which they direct their efforts gives way. So, for example, the Algerian nationalist FLN won independence from France. Sometimes, on the other hand, they realise that they can’t win, and settle for negotiation, as the Provisional IRA did. But, for this to be possible, there has to be some basis for negotiation. In Northern Ireland that was formulated in the Good Friday Agreement.

No comparable response to Islamist terror is possible. Not only is there no basis for negotiation; they is nobody to negotiate with. Furthermore there is no terrorist organisation like the Red Brigades in Italy or the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof gang) in Germany. Once these groups were rounded up, tried in court and imprisoned, the terrorist danger was over. But here numerous terrorist plots have been foiled. Thanks to the intelligence acquired and the preventive operations of the security services, numerous terrorists or potential terrorists have been brought to justice, found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms; and the danger has not abated. There is no tightly-knit terrorist organisation, and there is no evidence that the prospect of arrest and imprisonment is a deterrent.

No doubt our military interventions have stoked the flames of terrorism as Mehdi Hasan argued in the New Statesman last week. He quoted some terrorists’ explanation, or justification, of their actions, and said, “the inconvenient truth is that Muslim extremists usually cite political, not theological, justifications for their horrendous crimes”. So indeed they do, though they often go further and speak of “sacrificing lives for Allah”.

However if the terrorists’ motive was simply political – if it was simply that they perceive the West’s “War on Terror” as a “War on Islam” – we might hope that the withdrawal from Iraq, and the imminent withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan, would serve as acts of appeasement which might lead to reconciliation. But does anyone think this likely?

Sadly we are going to have to live with the terrorist threat for a long time. Certainly we can try to take measures that will reduce the risk of young Muslims being radicalised, but even such measures are very limited. You may be able to silence radical preachers, but can you police the internet? MI5 and the other branches of our security services will monitor internet traffic, and in this way, will doubtless continue successfully to identify potential terrorists and nip their plots in the bud.

But they can’t guarantee success, and, as Kevin Toolis pointed out, the simpler the plot, the more dangerous it may be. The Woolwich one succeeded, as he said, “because it was so crude”.

Back in the 1930s the fear was that “the bomber will always get through”. Many bombers didn’t, but enough did to cause havoc. The position is no different today. Not every terrorist plot can be prevented.