The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.
As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.
The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.
In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.
Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and suffered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.
The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counter-terrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has most frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the underlying anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.
Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France — a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support — of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.
According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.
The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.
The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.
Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.