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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

In the wake of 9/11, international terrorism has predictably become a thing to bandy about. Still, we have to admit that so far the war on terror has not ended in a decisive victory. Terrorist attacks no longer claim lives of thousands—however, hundreds have died in the massive attacks in Paris and in Madrid, in Beslan and over Sinai, in Gamboru (Nigeria) and in Mumbai (India), with new names added to this tragic list every so often. Large-scale terrorist attacks are now few and far between in the United States, but there have been more of them in Europe, let alone in the Middle East. The recent suicide bombing near the Russian Embassy in Kabul is yet another reminder that the terrorist threat is still here. Why, then, is the goal to wipe out terrorism—now dating two decades—not achieved so far?

In the first place, the international community has failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism’s origins, driving forces and character. What some actors explicitly dub as “terrorist” may look like a national liberation struggle for others.

Second, any success in the fight against terrorism entails a high level of trust between the interacting parties—simply because they would have to exchange sensitive and confidential information. In today’s world, trust is thin on the ground.

Third, international terrorism is far from an issue that is set in stone. It is gradually changing and evolving to become more resilient, sophisticated, and cunning. Similar to a dangerous virus, the terrorist threat is mutating, generating ever new strains. Ironically, what is especially dangerous today is the kind of terrorism bred by anonymous mavericks and amateurs rather than the sort represented by well-known transnational extremist movements.

The current progress in military technology, coupled with other trends in the contemporary international arena, portend a new spike in terrorist activities in the coming months. Modern and increasingly complex social and economic infrastructure, especially in large metropolitan areas, is an enabling environment for hard-hitting terrorist attacks. Besides, international and civil conflicts—like the one raging in Ukraine—drastically heighten the accessibility of modern arms for would-be terrorists.

In this “nutrient broth”, the virus of terrorism, which has not been wholly eradicated, stands all the chances for an “explosive” growth. Taking terrorism off the agenda is only possible if humanity effects a transition to a new level of global governance.

Much as everything in this world, human memory knows its limits. Increasingly receding into a background of the past, episodes of our life—be they thrilling at the thought or intensely dramatic—grow faint and fade, as they are gradually eclipsed by latest events and fresh experiences.

On September 11, 2001, I happened to be a first-hand witness to the most heinous terrorist attack in humanity’s contemporary history—the hijacked passenger jets heading to crash into the towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Twenty-one years later, I’m somewhat in doubt that all of this happened to me for a fact: blinding flares of orange against the backdrop of a blue September sky, swirls of smoke and dust slowly blanketing the city’s downtown narrow streets, a high-pitched cacophony of fire-truck and police sirens, crowds of disoriented people having no idea where to run and what the next moment might bring.

In the wake of 9/11, international terrorism has predictably become a thing to bandy about. Like many of my colleagues, I was attending numerous conferences and seminars as well as partaking in various research projects on the subject. Besides, a stroke of fate gave me a rare opportunity to have personal conversations with such heavyweights of world politics as Vyacheslav Trubnikov, Richard Armitage, Thomas R. Pickering, Kofi Annan and others, who made their meaningful contribution to fostering cooperation in countering the terrorist threat. In a way, their efforts have borne fruit as the world has seen nothing similar to 9/11 since 2001.

Still, we have to admit that the war on terror has not ended in a decisive victory. Terrorist attacks no longer claim lives of thousands—however, hundreds have died in the massive attacks in Paris and in Madrid, in Bagdad and in Berlin, in Beslan and over Sinai, in Gamboru (Nigeria) and in Mumbai (India), with new names added to this tragic list every so often. Large-scale terrorist attacks are now few and far between in the United States, but there have been more of them in Europe, let alone in the Middle East. The recent suicide bombing near the Russian Embassy in Kabul is yet another reminder that the terrorist threat is still here. Why, then, is the goal to wipe out terrorism—now dating two decades—not achieved so far?

In the first place, the international community has failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism’s origins, driving forces and character. What some actors explicitly dub as “terrorist” may look like a national liberation struggle for others. Bring up the issue of terrorism in Kashmir in a conversation with Indians and Pakistani, only to see there can hardly be a common denominator in this matter.

Second, any success in the fight against terrorism entails a high level of trust between the interacting parties—simply because they would have to exchange sensitive and confidential information. In today’s world, trust is thin on the ground. An apparent and mounting deficit of this resource is not only present in the relations between Moscow and Washington; it also takes its toll on the relations between Beijing and Brussels, between Riyadh and Teheran, between Cairo and Addis Ababa, between Bogota and Caracas, and the list goes on.

Third, international terrorism is far from an issue that is set in stone. It is gradually changing and evolving to become more resilient, sophisticated, and cunning. Similar to a dangerous virus, the terrorist threat is mutating, generating ever new strains. Ironically, what is especially dangerous today is the kind of terrorism bred by anonymous mavericks and amateurs rather than the sort represented by well-known transnational extremist movements—individualists are the hardest to track and neutralize, while plans of amateurs are harder to reveal.

The current progress in military technology, coupled with other trends in the contemporary international arena, portend a new spike in terrorist activities in the coming years. Modern and increasingly complex social and economic infrastructure, especially in large metropolitan areas, is an enabling environment for hard-hitting terrorist attacks. Besides, international and civil conflicts—like the one raging in Ukraine—drastically heighten the accessibility of modern arms for would-be terrorists.

Add to this a comprehensive setback in the resilience of global economy, which may be fraught with more social tensions and an inevitable rise of pollical radicalism and extremism in a broad range of countries. An obvious foretelling: In this “nutrient broth”, the virus of terrorism, which has not been wholly eradicated, stands all the chances for an “explosive” growth.

It may well be possible that all of us will in the years ahead be lucky enough to avoid a second edition of the events that shattered the world on September 11, 2001. Still, taking terrorism off the agenda is only possible if humanity effects a transition to a new level of global governance. It is either that the leading powers are wise and energetic enough for this, or the tax that international terrorism imposes on our common civilization will be progressively higher.

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