Govt policies and the rise of terrorism: is there a link?

Assuming immediate causality between government action and the rise of terrorism is problematic

H.A. Hellyer

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Earlier this week, the Times of London interviewed a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader living in exile in London, asking, among other things, about the implication of the British government’s recently announced investigation of the Brotherhood. The piece, published on Sunday, created controversy, as the interviewee seemed to imply that banning the group could, potentially, lead to a violent backlash. The Brotherhood has since clarified those comments, claiming that such an inference was a warning of uncontrollable consequences, as opposed to a threat to actually direct such violence. Such a clarification is certainly welcome, but it still raises a number of questions regarding radicalisation & terrorism, and the tackling of those two issues.

In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, I was deputy convener of a large taskforce set up by the UK government to investigate this very issue. That taskforce considered foreign policy as “a key contributory factor” in the “motivations of criminal radical extremists.” At the same time, the taskforce recognized that a “form of criminal radical extremism” existed and that it must be “challenged and defeated.” One might infer there is a tension between the two – but actually, there isn’t if we escape from the narrow confines of this kind of debate.

It is not simply the Brotherhood that has drawn causational links between Western policy actions and terrorism. In the aftermath of the London bombings, there were many in the UK who insisted that the attacks were a direct result of Britain’s going to war in Iraq. Others contended that rather than foreign policy being the motivating factor, radical ideology was the cause. That, incidentally, was the strongly held view of the former (now infamous) British Prime Minister Tony Blair who refused, rather peculiarly, to deny any sort of link at all between Britain’s foreign policy and the targeting of the UK.

The logic of the former camp runs something like this – if the legitimate and lawful activities of Muslim communities are curtailed, then we ought not be surprised that illegitimate and unlawful activities arise as a result. As such, we should not ban the Muslim Brotherhood, or other organizations, because the result may be the eruption of terrorism – probably not from those groups per se, but others who might support them. We ought not to invade other countries (going back to the Iraq war argument) because the result is likely to be terrorism at home.

A deeply flawed argument

It is an attractive argument – but it is a deeply flawed one, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the act of banning the Brotherhood, or other groups for that matter, let alone going to war, should be based on whether or not there is sufficient cause to do so. In Russia, where the Brotherhood has been banned for years, no consequences seem to have come about, even though there is a large Muslim community there. Does the absence of such consequences suddenly mean it is justifiable? Or should the real question be: is it right that an organization be banned? In this case, the answer would appear to be: no, the Brotherhood should not be banned, as sufficient evidence to support such a ban has not been presented.

All governments, whether in the West or elsewhere, should be very cautious about pursuing courses of actions that are unethical or unjust

H.A. Hellyer

By the same token, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (an Egyptian terrorist group that has already been proscribed) should be on the terrorist list, regardless of the threat it may or may not pose to the UK – because it is, actually a terrorist group.

The second problem with this argument is that it, ironically, lends credence to a deeply bigoted and flawed claim. A common Islamophobic accusation is that Muslims are essentially prone to radical extremism – you just need to push their inherently violent buttons, and they’ll respond accordingly. That’s obviously not true – if anything, there is far more evidence to suggest that Muslims have at least as much resilience to becoming terrorists as any other religious or non-religious group on the planet – but that is the logic corollary of this argument.

Thirdly, violent extremism happens in the absence of Western foreign policy as well. Neo-religious radical violence has taken place in Muslim communities such as Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, without any Western policy directly impacting or concretely motivating such actors.

Finally, if the argument is that banning the Brotherhood in the UK will inevitably lead to more violence, radicalization or terrorism in the country, what does that then say about Egypt? The Brotherhood has not only been banned there, but has been severely and violently repressed – does that then mean the Egyptian government are correct about their “war on terror”? Or is it more complicated than that?

The root of terrorism

That begs the question, then: is it the Brotherhood and others who are correct on this point? Do flawed or iniquitous government policies, such as banning organizations, necessarily lead to terrorism? Or is this, as others might suggest, primarily about ideology, without any link to government policies at all?

I would venture that the counter-terrorism analytical community has more or less debunked both notions – and rightly so – as insufficient and misleading. The reality is that radical extremists are not a monolithic group, and have differing motivations, depending on their circumstances. For some, indeed, they may be deeply moved by the actions of their governments at home or abroad. For others, that might be inconsequential as compared to their intensely held ideological beliefs that might exist without the need for any other element at all.

It can very easily, and legitimately, be argued that bad government policies can contribute to a feeling of exclusion and marginalization in certain communities. That, in turn, may make members of such communities more vulnerable to a narrative of persecution. That kind of narrative is often pounced upon as a tool to increase recruitment to radical groups. But it is rarely, if ever, sufficient on its own – and that narrative can often be formed using a whole variety of elements.

All governments, whether in the West or elsewhere, should be very cautious about pursuing courses of actions that are unethical or unjust – but they should be so because such actions are unethical or unjust. There are too many variables to consider before one can assume immediate causality between government policies and terrorism – and doing so remains profoundly, and ethically, problematic.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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