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A Ukrainian slide into “The Troubles” – The terrorism question

December 27, 2014

As has been mentioned on this blog numerous times since April, most recently here, the anticipation that individual, ad hoc acts of terror seeping beyond the parameters of the conflict areas in Luhansk and Donetsk would manifest themselves (for years to come) has been expected by those with a modicum of forethought and sense.

Since the latest entry, further bombings have occurred in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Odessa several times – not to mention an alleged throwing of a hand grenade at some MPs and foiled nail-bombings in Kyiv – over the past few days alone.  Thus far it would seem only one allegedly guilty individual from Transnistria identified in the past 2 or 3 days- who apparently died after being hit by a car in Odessa, perhaps a little too conveniently.

That said, at least once every ten days or so, reported successes of arrests of those with munitions, explosives and all the terrorist toys in Odessa are announced across the local media.  There are far more media reports of arrests than there have been successfully detonated bombs.  Thus far about a dozen explosions in Odessa causing no injuries – yet.

So far, targeting nationally appears to be a mixed bag.  Odessa has thus far been entirely pro-Ukrainian patriotic businesses/organisational premises after working hours, unoccupied pro-Ukrainian activist cars, and State infrastructure.  Mariupol also seems to have concentrated predominantly upon infrastructure.  Kharkiv has been a more worrisome combination, ranging from pro-Ukrainian bars with customers inside, to empty pro-Ukrainian premises after hours.  Perhaps most worrying, relating to intended loss of life, is Kyiv.  Throwing hand grenades at MPs is more than a little reckless.  Further, arriving in Kyiv with nail-bombs and planting them in Independence Square at the behest of GRU handlers, has no other intent than to cause loss of life and serious injury.

Thus, it is perhaps now timely to leap from metaphorical policy and strategy mountain top to mountain top, ignoring the minutiae in the valleys of tactics, and perhaps take a look at what a Ukrainian slide toward “The Troubles” will mean.

There is little to be gained for the purposes of this entry by meandering down rabbit holes, such as those relating to the benefits – or not – of the metaphorical beheading of terrorist organisations with regards to removal of leaders.

Such matters are dependent upon a belief that religiously inspired terrorism suffers far more from the elimination of charismatic leaders than paramilitary groups.  Perhaps any metaphorical beheading of leadership within the religiously inspired terrorist groups lead to nothing more than its splintering, and thus a multi-headed hydra instead as other charismatic leaders emerge.

Whatever the case, at present Ukraine would appear to be facing far more of a paramilitary type terrorist organisation with robust command structures – the issue of metaphorical beheading is therefore somewhat mute anyway, with leader replacement more or less automatic via the chain of command.

(Whilst leaping from one metaphorical mountain top to another, numerous terrorism scholars (and some of their publications) will be mentioned – Google them, it’s interesting stuff.  Better still, buy the books with those Christmas gift vouchers.)

Firstly, terrorism means different things to different people – which is probably fair enough, considering there is no globally recognised definition.  The last attempt at a global definition was made by Kofi Anan whilst heading the UN – and it failed.

What could be problematic with the wording “deliberate killing of civilians and non-combatants for political purposes” or the moral messaging that terrorism is “unacceptable and unjustifiable under any circumstances”?

Well, numerous UN Member States rejected Kofi Anan’s attempt at a globally recognised definition of terrorism on the premise that if their sovereign territory has been invaded and occupied, the violated State reserves the right to sponsor and support what could otherwise become defined as acts of terrorism during justified attempts to regain their sovereign territory from the occupier.  In short one man’s terrorist may be another man’s freedom fighter – or one occupying State’s terrorist may be an occupied State’s partisan.

Crafting/drafting such a law is therefore extremely problematic due to the way words are rigidly, or elastically, interpreted to suit political expediency.  The absence of a globally accepted definition is equally as problematic of course.

Academics too have been wrestling with what should, and should not be, contained in any such terrorism definition – for decades.  Certainly since 1988 Alex Schmid and Albert Jongerman have been wrestling with it.  In 2011, they were still wrestling with it, along with the rest of academia involved in terrorism studies.

Should any definition include a need for definitive doctrine or practice of violent action?  Is terrorism to be limited to an employed tactic?  Should it contain the concepts of physical and/or threats of violence?  Does terrorism begin with a threat based communication process?   Should any definition include the word “fear”.  “Fear” is a perception – should the definition read “perceived fear” – if so whose perception?  Does there need to be direct victims?  Despite the fact direct victims are frequently not the ultimate targets of a terrorist act, does it matter who the victim is defined/identified as?  What of intent?  Is there a need to include the political aspect of terrorism within the definition?  Is motivation enough?  If not, how to define sufficient engagement in terrorism to meet any definition?  Does any singular act need to form part of a wider campaign of violence?

Eurpol recognises the following types of terrorism: Religiously inspired, ethno nationalist/separatist, left wing/anarchist, right wing, and single issue – but who else recognises what else?

Hopefully there is no need to go on and on – the difficulties are becoming clear.

When everything else is fluid and/or ill-defined, can there be a static definition of “terrorism” considering it is a practice that has been carried out in various forms throughout recorded human history – for example the 11th century “Assassins”, or the widely recognised 4 waves of “modern terrorism” as identified by David Raporport.

(In case you are wondering those 4 Raporport waves are as follows:  1st wave – Anarchists, 1880’s.  2nd wave – Anti-colonials, 1920s.  3rd Wave – Left/Red Wave, 1960’s.  4th wave – Religious, 1979 to present.  Each wave lasting several decades.  Yes dear readers, if that pattern is to continue, we are due for the 5th wave, whatever that may be, and however that will eventually be defined, may well come down to the ever changing parameters of what is generally accepted as terrorism.)

Thus not only do terrorist ideologies ebb and flow/come and go, so does the essence of terrorism evolve as well.  Would an 1880’s globally accepted definition of terrorism meet the requirements of 2014?  Probably not – though clearly there would be no consensus on any redefinition, as Kofi Anan will attest to.

In 1975, the renowned terrorism academic, Brain Jenkins, stated “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead” – a true statement at the time.  In 2006 Mr Jenkins stated “The most striking development is that terrorism has become bloodier in terms of what acts are committed and how many victims are involved.”  Unfortunately another true statement.  There is no need to ponder now the reasons put forward for that change in this entry – though he does suggests some thoughts as to why.

If we are to accept terrorism as a process based around – attention => respect => legitimacy => power – there is a paradox to terrorism that persists throughout all previously identified terrorist waves.  That paradox is that whilst terrorism as a tactic continues globally – and it is now beginning to appear across Ukraine far from the conflict in the east – and successfully gains the attention craved (even if only domestically), generally it continues to attract recruits to the relevant cause, and of course it causes alarm and misery, rarely, if ever, has it brought success when measured against its own goals.  Strategically it almost always fails to pass “attention =>” and reach “respect => legitimacy => power”.

Clearly those that embark on the course of terrorism, despite history being very clear as to the tactic’s potential for success, continue to believe that eventually it will work beyond causing alarm/fear and unnecessary misery/death.  In a book by Max Abrahams aptly titled “Why terrorism doesn’t work” the academic water is tested regarding the effectiveness of terrorism achieving its political goals.  He arrives at a success rate of 7% of the time – and of that percentage, most were targeting of military targets to the exclusion of civilian targets.  The bottom line, as such, is that attacking civilians in any shape or form, historically equals unambiguous failure.

Having now very briefly addressed the issue (statistically) of success – depending upon your definition of success – relating to terrorism in achieving its long term strategic political goals, an equally quick glance as to what, (statistically at least), works from the point of view of the authorities, is in order.

In 2008, Messrs Seth Jones and Martin Libicki of RAND crunched the numbers and outcomes of terrorist activity.  It should be noted that they came to the statistical conclusion terrorism achieves its aims 10% of the time – not 7% as Mr Abrahams does.  Whatever!

What is statistically effective for the authorities as far as counter-terrorism is concerned?

40% of terrorist groups were found to end due to the actions of local policing and the intelligence services.  In short, disruption, cell penetration and arrests etc, in combination with amended legislation and the criminalisation of dubious and nefarious activities that previously escaped the reach of existing laws.

Depending upon the narrowness or width of the political goals of terrorist organisations, 43% of terrorist organisations abandoned terrorism for inclusion in the political process.  This, of course, a decision based upon cost/benefit analysis within the terrorist groups, and a precondition of abandoning violence set by authorities facilitating their inclusion in the political process – see the IRA/Sinn Fein for example.  Whether the violence between 1916 and 1998 was worth the current political outcome on the Emerald Isle is a matter for debate no doubt.

What clearly works least well for the authorities statistically, is confrontation of terrorism by military forces – a success rate of 7%.  Thus whilst Ukraine’s ATO may well have contained what are more or less Kremlin backed and/or blatantly Russian conventional forces in eastern Ukraine – army verses army if you will – the seepage of terrorist incidents into Odessa, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kyiv are going to be best dealt with by a combination of policing and political processes.

That President Poroshenko’s peace plan has concentrated on political process shows a recognition – subconsciously or otherwise – that this will be the most likely way to a successful/sustainable outcome, whilst the almost equally effective (if done right) policing/intelligence services deals with the seepage escaping from the military containment.  Statistically, the combination of policing and political processes would produce an 83% chance of acceptable outcomes.

It offers no quick fix for the areas currently outside of the control of the Ukrainian State, nor continued effective containment should a military push come from the anti-Kyiv actors some time in the future.  That remains the domain of the military domestically, and diplomacy internationally.

There is also the perception of proportionality to consider as “the State” when reacting to a terrorist incident.  Sovereign States are naturally obligated to abide by Jus Cogens, ratified international agreements and instruments they signed up to – unlike terrorists.  Jus Cogens and any relevant national legislation, both fully ignored by terrorists, are their only notional restraints.

Thus thinking outside of Ukraine for a moment, that embassies and national symbols/entities are attacked in various nations by terrorists reflects little more than the ease of accessibility in many cases – it is after all far easier to attack a nation’s embassy in your own country, than it is to travel to and then attack a different target in the country that draws the terrorist ire – more often than not anyway.  The terrorist message to the mighty State is that it cannot protect its own everywhere, all of the time.  As there is no such thing as 100% security, the terrorists are right, and it follows that every now and again successful terrorist attacks will hit the headlines.  What hardly ever hits the headlines, often quite necessarily, are terrorist failures.

Of course global condemnation always follows a successful terrorist attack – but that condemnation is nothing compared to the condemnation a State receives from other States, media, civil society and public, if its response to any terrorist attack is deemed to be disproportionate.  The moral high ground is generally perceived as being surrendered when swatting a fly with a 10 ton weight, instead of employing a fly-swatter.  What that says about the world today is perhaps a different question – the fly, either way, remains swatted.

Returning to Ukraine and the issues clearly manifesting.  Externally of the current fairly well contained militarised conflict zone in the east, there is the short term, 3D approach of “detect, deter and disrupt” regarding terrorist incidents elsewhere – no easy task, particularly when facing the GRU and its proxies.  Also, both domestically and regionally, a longer term holistic approach is in order, which considering The Kremlin’s pronounced role in matters, will require considerable political will from both Ukraine and its international allies, in staying the course for years, if not a decade or more, to come.

But what of the public?

Whilst all this is going on, the resilience of the Ukrainian public will continue to be tested – despite the proverbial (numerous) recent baptisms of fire during 2014.  Maintaining that resilience, in part, requires something approaching a “fear management” policy.  A resilient society tends to cope with, and recover from, acts of terrorism swiftly.

How to achieve such a policy without interfering with the democratic normative of a free media?  There is much to be said about the generation – or prevention – of fatalistic attitudes amongst the public.  Read Frank Furedi’s work on the culture of fear for enlightening prose on this subject.

Thus, onto the usually, and perhaps necessarily, fractious partnership between State and media, and the necessity of a quid pro quo relating to terrorist acts – particularly in what is the “golden hour”/the first hour after a terrorist incident.  As has been written here many times relating to different issues, he who frames an incident first, robustly, and convincingly sets the tone, oft wins the debate, even though the first hour is normally very confused and discombobulated.

Thus the State has to be open, honest and frank, providing factual information both directly and via the media.  It needs to avoid, where ever possible, unnecessary secrecy, explaining and clarifying the situation, the measures being taken, and confirming or denying rumours swiftly.  Clear and concise messaging in a single and maintained tone is vital.  Avoiding speculation is important.  No news can become news – update regularly, even if to say little has changed.

Likewise, quid pro quo, whilst sensationalism and speculation make headlines and sell media – it can also very well assist the terrorist in their cause in spreading alarm and distress.  It is worthy of remembering that not all victims are directly involved in a terrorist incident – some sections of society can be traumatised or unnecessarily alarmed via media reporting, though they be far from any direct involvement.

The media also should remember trail by media can also prejudice trial in a court of law – if Ukraine ever manages to install anything like a genuine rule of law.

The media also has to accept that when dealing with terrorism, and in particular specific terrorist incidents and their immediate aftermath, there is an inherent requirement, at times, for secrecy by the authorities in order for the institutions of state to be effective.  What may be interesting to the public, is not necessarily in the public interest to be splashed all over the media with immediate effect.  There are issues of timeliness that can be mutually addressed, preferably through voluntarily entered into agreement – no matter how uneasy that feels to either party.

The media, like the State, has an important role to play in fear management/fear impact within society, thus either bolstering or undermining societal resilience to terrorism and terrorist acts.

The aim of both the authorities and media, ideally, is to avoid playing into the hands of the terrorists, whilst being truthful about events.  Avoid unnecessary rhetoric or fear-mongering.  Report the facts without sensationalism or speculation, thus limiting the impact of any incident.  Stimulate the normalisation of society as swiftly as possible to return to business as usual.

Just as with the volunteer battalions that formed after Kremlin shenanigans in eastern Ukraine, following terrorist incidents there is often sections of the community that feel a “need to do something”.  Channel that need into something productive – at the very least it reduces societal fear and/or tension.

These are but a few metaphorical policy/strategy mountain tops very briefly touched upon within a very complex policy/strategy mountain range.  For example, the strategy issues of unwinding the radicalised has been left for another day – the appropriateness of the Indonesian or Saudi religious orientated models, compared to that of the more military demobilising FARC policy, or Norwegian and Swedish right wing deradicalisation programmes all, perhaps, have something to offer.  Likewise the push and pull factors behind joining a terrorist group require analysis prior to preventative policy creation.  So having written the above, it still says very little, which is just as well considering the voluminous tomes on the subject – and it is an entry that deliberately stays clear of the valleys full of tactical detail.

As an aside, it will be interesting to see how The Kremlin deals with any returning ultra-nationalist and/or ultra-Orthodox swivel-eyed that were mobilised.

However, we are left ponder just what the Ukrainian counter-terrorism policy currently consists of.  Though it is not likely to ever be entirely in the public realm (unless leaked), it is doubtful that it will be wildly different from that of many other nations.  Perhaps of pressing importance is just how well versed the local authorities and regional institutions of state in Odessa, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kyiv are with regard to national counter-terrorism policy and local emergency planning/response.  Hopefully they are now, after the dozens of bombing incidents over the past few months in particular, intimate in their knowledge.  If not, then they had better become very well acquainted with it extremely swiftly indeed.  Tis an issue that will not be disappearing any time soon.

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