News about terrorist attacks in Syria and the Iraq, Pakistan or in the Philippines, but also in France and Turkey, reach us on an almost daily basis. Even though the motives of the attackers vary, what terrorists have in common is their objective to use violence in order to spread their radical message as widely as possible. Their actions are often not limited to individual countries, but cross borders. What does that mean for the "fight against terrorism" that many states have announced?
Interview with Fellow Yuan Ma from China
Lieutenant Colonel Ma, you are an Instructor in the Department of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Why did you apply for GGF 2027?
I liked the idea of the GGF program, especially the fact that GGF looks into the future. There is a saying that if you limit yourself to only studying the current state of affairs, you are cheating on the future, and you will pay a high price for that. Secondly, considering the fact that, currently, China is a rising power, how many people really understand or know my country? We have to raise the Chinese voice and tell the Chinese story.
Through the GGF program, I can do this and let more people know my country better. China is seen by many foreigners as a powerful and, sometimes, rude country, but this is because they don’t know anything about us. I want to change that impression, because we are also very open and like to share our views with all those friends from foreign countries.
These days, hardly a day passes without the news reporting about a terrorist attack somewhere in the world – be it Syria, Iraq, but also Europe. Are these attacks national phenomena or rather indicators of a transnational phenomenon?
Though these attacks have been carried out in individual countries or regions, sometimes apparently by so-called "lone wolfs", they usually reflect features of international or transnational terrorism.
Firstly, planning and organization of these attacks usually happened outside these individual countries. For example, the Paris attacks of November 2015 were planned in Belgium and the terrorists acquired the weapons in Belgium.
Secondly, terrorists nowadays raise funds from all over the world. Al-Qaeda’s resources mostly come from the Muslim Brotherhood communities in the Middle East, whereas the IS raises funds by smuggling oil.
Thirdly, another crucial factor that contributes to the internationalization of terrorism is the internet and social media. Because of them, terrorism and extremism spreads very fast and all over the world. In addition, the internet creates opportunities for cyberterrorism, which has to be considered as another form of transnational terrorism.
In fact, most terrorist attacks after 9/11 have been incidents of transnational terrorism and with further economic globalization and integration, ever more international modes of transportation as well as the advancement of communications technology, terrorism will become more and more globalized.
When does one refer to transnational terrorism?
Unfortunately, there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism or international terrorism, but on many basic factors, we can reach some consensus. Let us begin with terrorism. It is the unlawful use of violent actions against civilians, non-combatants, and other soft-targets and it involves a certain political and social purpose: Terrorists, as non-state actors, want to gain an audience to spread their ideas. I think the audience is the most important difference between terrorists and criminals. We can find consensus on what terrorism is, but at the same time, there are huge gaps in perception and disagreements, for instance on the role of state-sponsored terrorism or freedom fighters.
Next to terrorism in general, there is also some consensus on what makes up international terrorism: Terrorist activities that cross borders and involve two or more international actors. International terrorist groups may have a regional or global vision; however, individuals or groups may also be willing to be a part of a global terrorism network even if their acts are local. Also, I think there is more besides the terrorist attack itself. All aspects of terrorist activities, such as the planning, financing, and propaganda should be taken into consideration when we think about transnational terrorism.
Are there more terrorist attacks today than 10 to 15 years ago - due to globalization and growing digitalization/flow of data? Or are we simply better informed about them?
Compared to 10, 15 years ago, today, we witness more and more high intensity terrorist attacks that are more widely reported. On the one hand, as you said, this is due to globalization, the growing digitalization, and the flow of data. People nowadays simply have more channels to acquire information. We are better informed than 10 to 15 years ago. On the other hand, however, in recent years, conditions have become more conducive to the growth of transnational terrorism. After the Cold War, bipolar confrontation was replaced by an international framework of one superpower and multi-polar coexistence. Now, we have one superpower, the US, and many other major powers - we have the EU, China, and Japan. The collapse of bipolar confrontation consistently intensified originally secondary contradictions, such as ethnic, religious, and domestic contradictions and they became major contradictions.
So, actually, the Cold War kept terrorism in check?
Yes, that is why we say that the first phase of transnational terrorism begins after 1991. The intensified contradictions resulted in local conflicts, which in turn caused enmity among people from different ethnic groups and religions. These enmities became the hot beds of international terrorism. Secondly, in recent years, the US and other Western countries kept on exporting Western-style democracy in order to maximize their interests. And one can see what happened in the Middle East. Rather than democracy, the Arab Spring Movement brought intense turbulence to the Middle East and Northern Africa. The Arab Spring movement turned into an Arab winter, I would say.
So, well meant interventions of the US and Western countries did not produce the results the West had hoped for?
Yes, the West did not want to cause these turbulences. But as we say in China, democratization is not an "all-use-medicine". You cannot cure every disease with it.
It is no one-size-fits all solution, right?
Currently, Yemen and Syria are engulfed in civil war. Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown and the new Libyan government is very weak. It is not able to implement an effective administration, which causes constant domestic chaos and growth of extremist forces. Now, because of the situation in Iraq and Syria, the IS began to transfer its core sector to Libya.
Let us look at Egypt and Tunisia. National disorder, an unstable political situation, escalated sectarian conflict, economic recession paralyze the new governments. These issues cannot be solved in a short time and people meanwhile become desperate. This gives terrorist groups the opportunity to strengthen their forces. Social turbulence and economic recession cause increasingly desperate Muslim people to become followers of extremist forces, which accounts for the fast development of extremism.
This phenomenon is not limited to the Middle East, especially when we look at the refugee crisis in Europe. Thus, social and economic marginalization also plays an important role in turning people to extremism. On top of that, the constant development of globalization, which creates a bigger economic gap between the West and the East, as well as poverty, all these are important reasons that cause terrorism. However, this not only refers to Muslims. I am totally against the idea that being a Muslim equals being a terrorist.
During the first GGF 2027 session in Washington this May you have started developing scenarios for the year 2027. What do you think are the most relevant challenges when it comes to transnational terrorism in the years to come?
For me, the most relevant challenge is the terrorism threat that may come from Islamic extremism. Due to the international counter-terrorism effort, the IS has been badly hit. Therefore, it is highly possible that the IS will become fragmented and will go underground and its terrorist attacks will go global. We can already see its spread in Europe. In the future, it may spread to South America, Asia, and the South Pacific and integrate local terrorist groups there.
Are there any specific challenges that you see for China?
The most severe and relevant threat for China comes from three forces, religious extremism, ethnic separatism, and violent terrorism. In my country, some terrorist groups show the features of these three forces. The East Turkistan Forces are a bit like Al Qaeda, it is not a specific organization but a terrorist network with a loose framework.
The most violent terrorist group, we think, is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), whose core sector is located in Central Asia. From the 1990s until now, this group has planned and conducted many attacks inside China and caused large causalities and serious losses. And, I would like to highlight here that the causalities not only included Han Chinese, our majority ethnic group, but also minor ethnic groups. The terrorists do not make a difference between different ethnic groups.
In addition, the IS has entered into Central Asia and there are signs that the IS may collaborate with local terrorists. Some Chinese terrorists, originally belonging to ETIM, fight for the IS now. Due to the current situation in Iraq and Syria, they may be sent back to China in order to establish an IS branch organization or to conduct "lone wolf"-attacks like the one in Sydney.
And what needs to be done, so that we will hear less and less about transnational terrorism in the news?
To effectively contain transnational terrorism it requires more pragmatic international cooperation. In terms of anti-terrorism cooperation, we do not only need to focus on using armed forces, but also on using political and social approaches. I think an anti-terrorism political approach should include defining terrorism and terrorist as such to expose their real intention. In addition, the international community, especially the UN, should condemn terrorists. UN members should sign and ratify a global convention on counter-terrorism as soon as possible.
Through all these approaches, a political atmosphere conducive to counter-terrorism will be created. The international effort should be to find political solutions to stabilize the situation in Syria. Additionally, we have to pay attention to the role of media in portraying terrorism. Governments should enhance their efforts in guiding the media. I am not saying controlling media, but rather providing a code of conduct. By doing so, terrorist groups will have no opportunity to use the media for their purposes.
Political approaches should also include anti-terrorism legislation, domestic as well as international legislation. We also need social measures geared towards wiping out poverty, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, promoting social development, and, finally, we have to look at financial approaches, effectively undermining the financing of terrorism, as well as more effective means of cyber anti-terrorism.