Chris Blattman

40 years ago “the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen”

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Philip Giraldi reflects on a “countering violent extremism” conference in Washington:

One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.

The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn’t. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy.

243 Responses

  1. M is right to raise the issue of a political solution. The British Government reached one with the IRA. But that was because the IRA ultimately had a case that was amenable to a political resolution. Net result: Martin McGuinness and Jerry Adams, both IRA Brigade commanders, have ended up as legitimate politicians. That was not the case with Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades in Italy and, almost certainly, not with IS. But still, dealing with IS cannot be a military exercise alone. They gained strength from two major political mistakes: (i) the invasion of Iraq, compounded by the American disbandment of all things Baathist, including the Iraqi army; (ii) and believing that a proxy Shia-Sunni-Alawite war in Syria and a Shia-Sunni-Kurd war in Iraq could be contained. The ability to defeat IS militarily (as they probably can be) must go alongside balanced political solutions in Iraq and Syria. And yes, that may mean supping with the devil in the form of Bashar al-Assad, at least in the short term. Similar phrases were used when the British Government negotiated with the IRA. But that has led to a (reasonably) stable peace process in Northern Ireland.

  2. Were those terrorist groups in the 80-90s negotiated with? A political solution is often the answer to terrorist violence. Should we also negotiate with daesch then? Hardly seems possible. On the recruitment and profile of perpetrators there would be the same factors at play but the political solution seems unnattainable. ETA in Spain was dealt with “traditional” police and military interventions, until they announced a permanent cease fire recently.

    As for the “just as ruthless”, it seems like a bit of a stretch. The movements in the 70 to 90s might have indiscriminately targeted civilians but they did not go back “home” to stone or enslave people. The body count should also be looked at, on a per attack basis to determine whether they are just as ruthless or perhaps more.

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