It’s not cool to talk about a “global war on terrorism” (GWOT) largely because former US president George Bush gave the expression a bad name. His successor, Barack Obama, explicitly dropped the expression, stating that: “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘Global War on Terror’, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
Yet terrorist attacks appear to be proliferating across the globe, drawing more nations into the “war” against them. And that, in turn, provokes the terrorists into retaliating.
And so the vicious circle continues to spin and to grow.
The rise of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) has had a lot to do with this. Its particularly horrendous murders and other barbarities, and its strategy of seizing and holding territory have prompted a more vigorous response than to other terrorist organisations, including air strikes on its positions in Iraq and Syria. And IS is retaliating more aggressively than al-Qaeda did to the international invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. IS is viciously targeting countries like Russia and France because of their prominence in the air attacks.
It’s hard to deny that much of the civilised world is now engaged in a global war on IS.
Whether that definition ought to be expanded to GWOT may depend to a degree on how co-ordinated IS is with other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its many franchises and affiliates.
We know that IS has also been spawning franchises as al-Qaeda did, one being Boko Haram, the northern Nigerian jihadist group which is arguably even more barbaric than IS. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maqhreb has claimed responsibility, along with a breakaway group, al-Mourabitoun, for the terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on Friday in which about 27 civilians were killed. These two groups, formerly at odds, seem to have reconciled.
IS does not seem to have been involved directly. Yet most analysts believe that those who carried out the Mali atrocity seem to have been inspired by the Paris attacks. And of course France has been heavily involved in Mali, intervening militarily in January 2013 to prevent a jihadist/Tuareg separatist coalition from overrunning the country. France, it seems, is perceived as a common enemy, like the US.
Perhaps the main reason Obama distanced himself from the GWOT rhetoric is that he felt it was creating a war psychosis and suggesting to many, even if irrationally, that the US was at war with Islam itself.
Bush no doubt abused the dragnet concept of GWOT to justify his invasion of Iraq in 2003, in part on the spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein was somehow complicit with al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks.
Yet such abuse does not mean that global terrorist groups are not coalescing and therefore should be dealt with as such. Certainly France believes that global terrorism has to be fought globally.
That had been demonstrated by the proliferation of terrorist attacks around the world recently, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said after meeting President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on Saturday. He said the UN Security Council resolution which France had just sponsored aimed to make the war against terrorism a global effort.
And South Africa? Zuma remarked, significantly, after meeting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week, that “no one is safe from terror”. Terrorism is not completely indiscriminate.
Clearly the likes of IS target their perceived enemies. But they are also particularly indifferent to “collateral damage”. As terrorist groups expand their operations, this country needs to be as vigilant as everyone else.