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The Terror Epidemic
Until the international community unites, stopping terrorism is impossible
By Li Wei | NO. 2 JANUARY 14, 2016


Soldiers of Mali and French task forces take actions after radical Islamist gunmen attacked the Radisson Blu Hotel, taking 170 people hostage in Bamako, Mali, on November 20, 2015 (XINHUA)


The year 2015 could be remembered as the year in which terrorism was coordinated on a global scale, with targets ranging from Africa to Asia, Europe and across the Middle East. Many events, such as the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt, the horrifying series of attacks in Paris on two occasions, and the hostage abduction in Mali's Bamako, have resulted in heavy casualties of innocent people.

No matter the target, the location, or the attackers--be it from the so-called "Islamic State" group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or others--the events are all linked in their efforts to seek expansion.

After the tragic events in Paris in November, French President François Hollande told parliamentarians, "France is at war, but we're not engaged in a war of civilizations, because these assassins do not represent any country."

In the face of the large scale and number of attacks, the international community is starting to reach a consensus in their commitment to fighting terrorism. The U.S.-led coalition has taken military actions against ISIS with increasing frequency since the Paris and California attacks. Russia started an air campaign against ISIS in Syria in late September 2015.

But the details of major country commitments to attacking terrorists in Syria--the how, where and why--are often contradictory. The cross-purposes are delineated by national interests, which create difficult barriers for international cooperation in combatting terrorism.

ISIS on the rise

Undoubtedly, ISIS has been the most notorious militant group over the past year, in part because of their rapid rise and barbarian tactics. Although ISIS has to engage in battles on several fronts, its influence is expanding. To some extent, ISIS has overtaken Al-Qaeda to become the biggest threat to society, though it was first a branch group of the latter.

Combining terrorist ideology with modern technology, ISIS is known for performing brutal beheadings and putting the videos online as part of their propaganda strategy. So far, more than 30 terrorist groups in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia have pledged allegiance to ISIS including Boko Haram, according to a video released last March.

Foreign jihadist members, whether formally linked to ISIS or inspired by propaganda, are helping the spread of terrorism well beyond their bases of power in Syria and Iraq. The downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and the serial attacks in Paris reveal that ISIS is eager to shake Europe to its core.

A report released by the U.S. Congress in late September last year indicated that ISIS militants with nationalities foreign to the Middle East present a growing threat to the international community, as evidenced by the December attack in southern California. The number of international jihadists affiliated with ISIS is growing, increasing to 25,000 people in 2015, calling over 100 countries home.

In Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda is still a close ally of the Taliban. In Africa, Al-Qaeda is a major donor of Somalia's Al-Shabaab. While ISIS is taking away some areas in the Taliban's control, other Taliban members have announced their allegiance to ISIS.

Al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, even voiced willingness to cooperate with ISIS on confronting the West.

Borderless threat

Terrorism, reportedly in the name of religion, is also expanding within some Muslim-majority countries, creating internal chaos as factions are created and exploited, and governments struggle to provide security for their citizens.

In South Asia, the Taliban remains a major hazard to regional security, and their influence is both powerful and widespread. When the Pakistani Government launched a military operation against terrorists in the North Waziristan region in June 2014, it forced Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda to move their bases to territories in Afghanistan. The death of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has since led to the splitting of the group.

Omar's deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was appointed the new leader of the Afghan Taliban in July last year, while the opposition insisted that Omar's son Mullah Yaqub should succeed his father as the leader of the Taliban. Mansour then launched a number of attacks against the Afghan Government in Kabul and Kondoz in order to consolidate his position in the militant group. Consequently, the peace negotiations with the Afghan Government were suspended.

Mansour later dismantled the opposition and the two sides have been in conflict ever since. The Taliban is expected to further split into factions, each of which will likely engage in a hostile war for power and territory, making Afghanistan increasingly unstable.

Central Asian countries now face the threat of ISIS-trained jihadists sent back home to open new fronts. Meanwhile, other radical Islamic groups such as the Islamic Jihad Union in Uzbekistan have established strongholds in Tajikistan.

In recent years, the security in many African countries has been badly affected by terrorist activities. There are three major terror groups currently operating in Africa, namely Nigeria's Boko Haram, Somalia's Islamist Al-Shabaab, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The casualties caused by Boko Haram attacks in 2015 exceeded those by ISIS. Furthermore, Boko Haram seeks to expand its sphere of influence beyond Nigeria as it seeks to establish a caliphate in West Africa.

In addition, Al-Shabaab has suffered heavy losses since the African Union (AU) started combatting the group, though it still seeks to launch attacks in Kenya as retaliation for the country joining the AU's operations in Somalia. In an attack at northeastern Kenya's Garissa University College on April 2, nearly 150 people were killed by five Al-Shabaab militants.

AQIM is based in the vast Sahara hinterland. Its activities range from Mali, Niger to Mauritania. The group attacked a hotel in Mali's capital Bamako on November 22, leaving 27 dead, including three Chinese citizens.

Int'l cooperation needed

World leaders have repeatedly made calls for global cooperation in fighting terrorism, in particular since the rise of ISIS. But due to mistrust and competing interests, military operations are often carried out separately, increasing the risk of confusion. For example, a Russian military plane was brought down by Turkish fighter jets along Turkey's Syrian borders on November 24.

In Iraq, there are several different forces fighting ISIS. There is the governmental force, the Kurdish force, Shiite militias, and Sunni militias; all of which compete domestically for political power.

In Syria, the situation is even more complicated. The opposition rebels are too disparate to unite, therefore Syria's Kurdish militias are now the major force combating ISIS. However, the Kurds are handicapped by Turkey due to the decades-long political fight surrounding the existence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Removing Bashar Al-Assad from power is the main objective for many Arab countries, so a majority have offered large amounts of support for the opposition in Syria. But their participation in air wars against ISIS is currently limited.

Meanwhile, Moscow says that it is targeting ISIS militants, but residents in cities held by rebels sometimes tell a different story, as quoted by Western media outlets.

Russia is involved in the Syria conflict in order to save the pro-Russia Syrian Government and secure its military presence in Syria and strategic interests in the region. Therefore, Russia's military actions not only target ISIS but also aim at any threat to Assad's power.

With such a wide divergence of interests, the parties involved in the Syrian conflict are unlikely to cede what power they have. That is why, despite cries for the international community to intervene, little has been done to effectively rein in terrorist groups in Syria and around the world.

Fortunately, on December 19, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, which aims to bring peace to Syria. The international roadmap for a Syrian-led political transition calls for peace talks beginning in January this year, though any resolution to the ongoing five-year conflict is likely to be extremely difficult.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that a political solution, instead of a military one, is the only viable option to the crisis. The Syrian future must be independently decided by the Syrian people and the process must also be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.

The author is an assistant researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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