Unclear look at uncertain danger

Countering Terrorism

March 2, 2007

Kofi Annan often wryly observed that the UN was the only fire brigade that had to go out and buy a fire engine before it could respond to an emergency call. He was, of course, lamenting the familiar difficulty of securing prompt and effective action by the "international community" in the form of peacekeeping missions. Michael Chandler and Rohan Gunaratna's concern is with the less familiar problem of international co-operation against terrorism. Chandler chaired the Monitoring Group established by the UN to monitor compliance with sanctions against the Taleban and al-Qaeda, so he has plenty of direct experience of the ways in which the self-interest of states can undermine international action. The sections describing the frustrations of the group's work form the most instructive part of this book.

Few will dissent from the conclusion that the member states of the UN should be prepared "to fully face up to their responsibilities" and give the organisation's subsidiary organs (including the Monitoring Group) "stronger and more comprehensive mandates", ensuring that they are "adequately resourced and empowered to be operationally independent". But the perennial question remains - how can they be persuaded to do this? The authors believe that states would co-operate if only they grasped the seriousness of the problem. They suggest that "to better respond to terrorism, the international community must develop a deeper understanding of the global terrorism map and develop better the capacities to respond to terrorism". Unfortunately, the circularity of this sentence is typical.

Repetitions, unsupported assertions and slipshod use of English undermine the authors' capacity to rise to the daunting challenge they identify. They say that the fight against terrorism will be "the most defining challenge of the early 21st century" - but defining what?

They need to convince the "international community" that it is in imminent danger from "a formidable and enduring threat to international security".

To do this, though, they need to do more than simply reiterate this assertion. They need to specify how "international security" - and indeed, presumably, national security - is threatened. Unlike the concept of "clear and present danger", which traditionally signals a military response, the threat of terrorism is obscure and indefinite. What we do know is that, however murderous terrorism may be, it has never posed the kind of threat to the survival of states that conventional military action does: no state has yet been overthrown by terrorists. Those who aim at concerted international action need above all to find convincing arguments that in the future this could happen. Chandler and Gunaratna do not do this.

Nor, it must be said, do they bother to clarify their most fundamental working assumptions. It is self-evident to them that international terrorism can be countered only by international co-operation. But what, precisely, is international terrorism, and is what they label " terrorisme sans frontières " really different from what happened before 9/11? Precision is vital with such labels. In fact, the first attempt to draw up an international convention against terrorism was made by the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, all of 70 years ago. It foundered on the very issue that Chandler and Gunaratna identify as the key problem today - the impossibility of finding an internationally agreed definition. Their reductive assertion that "terrorism is terrorism and under all circumstances must be seen for what it is" hardly begins to grapple with the complexities of the task. Blaming the failure to reach agreement on "those Islamic states that want the door kept open for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to continue with (terrorist) attacks against Israel" has a worryingly partisan ring.

Their suggestion that the answer is for "the Arab world and Iran, respectively, to stand up and be counted" is, regrettably, typical of the pious hopes, laced with politically dubious attitudes, repeatedly presented as solutions. The naive Orientalism of their assertion that "Islam is medieval" and "needs to be adjusted to take account of the world in which we live" is dismaying in a work that purports to set a policy agenda. At one point, they hint darkly that "there is a limit to even the West's tolerance" of Muslim "backwardness". On top of their demand for a revolution in the behaviour of states, this suggests that the answer to the question posed in their title will be in the negative.

Charles Townshend is professor of international history, Keele University.

Countering Terrorism: Can We Meet the Threat of Global Violence?

Author - Michael Chandler and Rohan Gunaratna
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 240
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 86189 308 6

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