Asan Plenum

Panel: Terrorism
Date/Time: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 / 15:30-16:45

Moderator: Nisid Hajari, Bloomberg View

Efraim Inbar, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Joseph Kéchichian, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies
Ellen Laipson, Stimson Center
Park Hyondo, Myongji University

Panel Description

Fourteen years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, terrorism remains one of the most enduring threats to international peace and security. Today, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria have become the epicenter for a new generation of radical jihadists. In particular, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has captured the world’s attention with their horrific acts of religious fanaticism, torture, enslavement, and murder. Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks have taken place around the world, from Australia and Canada to France and Denmark. The Japanese hostage crisis and reports that a Korean teenager has traveled to fight in Syria have further highlighted the group’s global reach. How can terrorist groups such as IS be stopped and defeated? Is the current U.S. strategy likely to succeed?

Session Sketch

Session 2, “Terrorism” in the Regency Room, focused on the challenges that terrorism continues to pose to regional and global security and its impact on U.S. leadership in different regions. Moderator Mr. Nisid Hajari, Asia Editor of the Bloomberg View, began the session by exploring the affect of terrorism on the United States’ ability to pursue its goals abroad. The session sought to illuminate the past decade and a half in which the threat of Al Qaeda largely drove U.S. security policy in places such as the Middle East and the emergence of new terror networks such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Speakers proposed a range of factors that could have exacerbated such violent extremism, ranging from the failure of governance and state institutions to deprivation of liberty, and recommended a spectrum of solutions.

Prof. Efraim Inbar, professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, argued that a different analytic framework was required to explain current terrorist groups. He noted that a more appropriate description would be “sub-state groups that operate in ungoverned areas.” Pointing out that the emergence of failed states preceded the Arab Spring uprisings, Prof. Inbar cited the rise of sub-state actors in Lebanon, Somalia, and Palestinian Authority and attributed the radicalization of segments of Muslim society to “a disgruntled Muslim population that is not able to face modernity.” The rise of groups such as ISIS has been further facilitated by state backing, in this case, Turkey, and the growing number of ungoverned areas within some Middle Eastern countries.

Critiquing U.S. Middle East policy as driven by a desire to remake societies in the image of the United States, Prof. Inbar noted that “sometimes the best intentions lead us to unwanted places.” Declaring the current strategy of regime change in the Middle East as risky, he advised a more modest strategy of military attrition that degraded the threat posed by sub-state groups in accordance with an Israeli doctrine referred to as “mowing the grass,” in which periodic conflict replaces a decisive victory as the security objective. Prof. Inbar posited that terror is a second-order problem with which the West should learn to live. The real danger of terrorist groups is that they acquire nuclear weapons through states.

Ms. Ellen Laipson, President and CEO of the Stimson Center, noted that terrorism is global in the sense that it arises in any region where there is contested politics. Once thought to be receding, in an age of globalization, terrorism has changed and mutated. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has successfully created new global mechanisms to deal with terrorism, including on terrorist financing, new legal frameworks, as well as paramilitary, law enforcement, and border security cooperation. However, the rise of ISIS raises questions about the efficacy of such counter-terrorist measures. Ms. Laipson noted that ISIS is a larger and more difficult threat than Al Qaeda. Its excessive violence and use of cruel force aside, it has been able to attract a following of people who defect to ISIS-held territories.

Asserted by Prof. Park Hyondo of Myongji University, this motivation to join ISIS has no bounds, as exemplified by the high-profile case of a South Korean teenager named Kim who was rumored to have run away to join ISIS during a trip to Turkey. While Koreans have always battled the threat of terrorism from the failed state of North Korea, they have been somewhat lulled into a false sense of security as a result of geographical distance from the Middle East. However, the defection of Kim to ISIS territory served as a wake-up call of terrorism’s spreading influence.

Given this expanding threat of terrorism, latter parts of the debate focused on how to deal with these acts of violence. The recommendations of Joseph Kechichian, Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, focused on strengthening governance and overcoming government failure. Given that violent groups are able to arise in place of weak state institutions, he placed importance in protecting the rule of law to safeguard one’s liberties. As liberty can sometimes give way to violence, there was a need to implement and normalize the proper policies to restrain it. However, upon considering the state’s role in decreasing terrorism, the question of U.S. responsibility to take care of people of the world was inevitably brought to light. Dr. Kechichian was of the opinion that Western powers should not involve themselves with this issue so as to limit the amount of damage they can inadvertently impose. He suggested allowing individual countries facing these issues to find their own solutions as terrorism is not a problem that is ever going to disappear.