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Lecture: Counterterrorism from a Russian and a West-African perspective

By Kenneth Pattinama

On the 10th of April, JASON Institute organised a lecture on counterterrorism approached from a Russian and a West-African perspective, given by Tony van der Togt and Fulco van Deventer.

Tony kicked off the lecture by discussing Russian counterterrorism in the past and how it has changed until today. He explained that Russia, in the past, was merely involved with counterterrorism within its own territory focussed on fighting separatist organisations. A good example of such a struggle was Russia’s fight against Caucasian terrorism, especially from the autonomous republic of Chechnya against who it fought two wars during the 1990’s. Today, Russia is still suffering minor attacks in this region, but the deadly hostages like those of the Dubrovka theatre in 2002 and the school in Beslan in 2004 are history. However, the focus on counterterrorism has shifted towards fighters who return from foreign “missions” e.g. from Afghanistan and who join domestic struggles.

Further, where there historically was not much cooperation between Russia and the West against terrorism, this had changed with U.S. president G.W. Bush. After the attacks of 9/11, Putin was the first to call Bush and the relationship between Russia and the West started to change, which is still visible today with a cooperation to fight ISIS. However, Tony explained that it also could be seen as a way Putin tries to gain name with fighting terrorism to, among others, justify their involvement in Syria. Problematic is, however, that fighting terrorism from a Russian perspective means something different than that from a Western perspective. From a Russian perspective, ISIS is been labelled as terrorist because it is threatening the government of Assad. This means that besides ISIS, Russia depicts every group which fights against Assad´s regime as terrorist, thereby also bombing Western/Turkish troops. So, in practice, the cooperation between the West and Russia is rather limited due to the definition of what they label as terrorist.  

Moreover, Russia’s intentions became mistrusted after the Ukraine crisis in 2014 which is seen as a part of Putin’s mission to rise to more power. Together with its involvement in Syria, this is perreceived by the West as a way of Russia to show its muscles to the world and saying “we are back”. This also applies to domestic propaganda where Russia’s actions are romanticised by the Russian government to give its people the feeling that Russia is a nation that has to be taken into account. In other words, Putin's attempts to build a relationship with the West with regard to counterterrorism are not always understood in the West as sincere as it seems.

The second part of the lecture was given by Fulco van Deventer, who approached the topic from a Western African perspective, trying to briefly explain where African terrorism comes from and what are some of its root causes.

Fulco started to explain that one of the problems in Western African states, such as Mali and Niger, is that their capitals are situated in the south and therefore do not represent the rest of these states. For this reason, terrorist groups are able to gain support by the people living in the remote areas where they often provide the people with food and protection.

Further, to understand the root causes of violent terrorism you have to look at it in two different ways: Firstly, the Arab spring, where people took the power and fought with an influx of arms. However, the problem is more profound than this. A bigger problem is the those state’s governance, corruption, and extreme poverty. As long as these problems are not solved, terrorism has a solid ground to expand.

Further, the fact that the West is involved with fighting terrorism in this region (among others by training counterterrorism troops) is often also a trigger for terrorism. The presence of the West and their actions are often perceived as being against there national law (which often includes Sharia law). The fact that terrorists bring justice to, what in the eyes of the people in unjust, is a major problem for Western counterterrorist missions.

Moreover, without the support of the entire government it will be (almost) impossible to tackle the root problems. In other words, the West needs to understand the narrative of the problem and figure out how they can counter this. A solution could be, for example, the creation of jobs, wealth, and the education of people in order to prevent the recruitment for terrorist groups. This means that you  should not exclude others but that you rather try to negotiate with other parties.

Fulco further explained that between 2001 and 2013 there was a fast increase of terrorist attacks (from 21 to 230 attacks a year) in states as Nigeria, Mali, Algeria asnd Lybia and that the terrorist organisation of Aqim served as a “teacher” and facilitator of many attacks. Another major organisation is that of Boko Haram (which gained a lot of ground in Nigeria) who has around 8000 fighters and merged from several sectarian groups (religious, fundamentalist, and communist). They want to create an own khalifat and after their leader was killed the organisation sparked, new people took over and gained more popularity. Besides being a member of the organisation, people try to share the same identity which became an extra challenge to beat such organisations.

In other words, the problem overly complicated and far from being solved and is not expected to be solved as long as the root causes are not fought. Seen the complexity of the situation it was impossible for Fulco to provide an in-depth explanation of the situation in the Western African region. However, the lecture provided an interesting insight of what is going on at the moment and where there are points of improvement.

All in all, both lectures touched upon interesting current issues and provided a concise overview of its current situation. We would like to thank Tony and Fulco for their time and we would like to thank you for attending the lecture and getting involved in an interesting Q&A. We hope to see you at our next event.