Thinking Aloud: “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism,” Part I

Oct. 2,  2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week, I attended a very interesting panel discussion about “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism.”  Over the next couple of days, I’ll share some of the panelists’ comments.

The primary speaker was Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who is currently the head of the NGO International Crisis Group and was in the French Foreign Ministry and a UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008.  Guéhenno began his discussion by talking about how “fragile states” isn’t a terribly good term: very often, the problem transcends national borders or doesn’t necessarily apply to an entire state.  Guéhenno preferred the term “ungoverned spaces,” which can incorporate parts of states, spaces spread across multiple states, or even parts of cities and suburbs in developed countries in which the rule of law is thin.

According to Guéhenno, grievances that take root in ungoverned spaces typically result from very local issues but interact synergistically with terrorism, crime (including smuggling of goods and people), and other very global issues.  Ungoverned spaces pose a particular problem because the existing international order relies on the state being the first line of defense in protecting and policing its people.

Guéhenno devoted time to explaining some causes for the current high number of ungoverned spaces.  First, many political leaders are facing a loss of legitimacy.  In Africa, for example, which has a band of ungoverned spaces that stretches from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic and from Sudan to the DRC, the legitimacy conferred by independence movements is wearing off and leaders have not established a new basis for their legitimacy.  Second, according to Guéhenno, nationalism and national liberation movements as a whole are on the decline, often being displaced by movements with transnational agendas.  In Palestine, for instance, the national liberation movement of the PLO has been largely supplanted by the more Islamist Hamas, while in Western Sahara, the nationalist Polisario Front is losing ground to other groups with regional ambitions.  Third, elections are being shown to be often divisive and harmful to the legitimacy of leaders.  Afghanistan’s recent and ongoing electoral saga demonstrates that “winning” an election is not the be all and end all of legitimacy that it once seemed.  Finally, Guéhenno cited a fundamental breakdown in the social contract between governments and societies.  Simply put, governments aren’t upholding their end of the bargain.  In parts of West Africa, for instance, governments provided more services to their people 20 years ago than they do today.  Guéhenno said that with all these factors present, it’s really remarkable that there aren’t more ungoverned spaces than there are.

Guéhenno also spoke at length about the rise of terrorism.  He pointed out that terrorism is not a new phenomenon by any stretch: it was present in Tsarist Russia, turn-of-the-century France, and elsewhere.  Guéhenno described terrorism as “an asymmetric response to an asymmetric world.”  He identified several main factors that are fueling terrorism around the world:

The first is what he termed a “crisis of politics.”  Previously, terrorism was almost entirely linked with a national, political agenda.  Today, though, terrorism is a part of transnational and even global issues, greatly enhancing its spread.

The second is that religion is now the major issue fueling terrorism by default, since politics are stagnant or stalemated.  Many conflicts involving terrorism aren’t completely religious in nature, religion is more of a marker than a cause.  In the Central African Republic, for instance, terrorism is fueled not so much by religion as by competing livelihoods and economic interests.  Religion does, however, give any conflict greater staying power and impact.  Any nonreligious conflict becomes more complicated and harder to solve when religion is injected into the mix.

Guéhenno’s third factor fueling terrorism today is the intersection of criminal and politico-religious agendas.  For example, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the former leaders of al Qaeda in the Maghreb who is now part of a group that recently pledged its allegiance to ISIS, was also known as Mr. Marlboro because of his cigarette-smuggling operations.  Alliances between terrorist groups and organized criminal organizations create much more fluid and opportunistic alliances than in the past, leading to great instability.

Finally, according to Guéhenno, global interconnectedness fuels terrorism because local events no longer stay local.  In Nigeria, for instance, largely local grievances fueled the rise of Boko Haram, but global interconnectedness has meant that Boko Haram has been able to plug into a global Islamist terror movement.

That’s enough for today.  Tomorrow I’ll continue with Guéhenno’s recommendations for how to combat instability and ungoverned spaces, and Saturday I’ll cover the rest of the panel discussion.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism,” Part I

  1. DebraB says:

    Thank you for this summary. I find it quite helpful. Looking forward to more!

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