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So Who’s A Terrorist?

Posted in Somalia, Terrorism with tags , on March 24, 2013 by michaelkeating


John Michael Denney

Recently, the Bulgarian government concluded its six-month inquiry into the July 2012 bus bombing of a Black Sea resort in Burgas. Bulgaria’s official stance is that the agents who carried out the bombing received financing and other support from Lebanon’s troublesome Hezbollah political party (or terrorist group, depending on who you talk to). The official report comes as no surprise to the state of Israel, representatives of which have long asserted that Hezbollah is to blame. As a result of these actions, Israel is putting pressure on individual European countries and the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist group. However, this is where the situation becomes a quagmire of competing worldviews, objectives, and politics.

How does one define a terrorist? And, getting at the heart of the issue, why does it even matter how we define actions as terrorism or actors are terrorists? There is a simple answer to the first question: a terrorist is someone who uses public acts of violence or mayhem to achieve political, religious, or otherwise society-altering goals. But this definition is too broad and adds very little to the conversation. Under this definition, Al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary War-era guerilla fighters, the Green Mountain Boys, are both terrorist organizations. But we in the United States do not look back in time and label anti-British militias as terrorists.

The question has become nebulous once again. It is not so much what a terrorist is, as who we call a terrorist that matters. This issue is of great importance off of the East coast of Africa, where, for the better part of a decade, Somali pirates have been hijacking foreign ships and holding their hostages for ransom. The response from the international community thus far has been condemnation, labeling the hijackers as pirates, and an on-going (and costly) military campaign against the Somalis. A little digging into the issue, and you might ask yourself why the Somalis started engaging in maritime piracy in the first place.

In an excellent and comprehensive article for the William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Ranee Kooshie Lal Panjabi points out that Somali piracy didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it is the result of illegal fishing and toxic chemical dumping in Somali coastal waters that have been going on since Somalia’s descent into lawlessness after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. Indeed, Somalia’s coastal ecosystem has been compromised by international fishermen, mostly hailing from Asia and Europe, running roughshod over coral reefs and practicing otherwise illegal fishing techniques, taking advantage of the fact that Somalia no longer has a naval to protect its territorial waters. Perhaps more insidiously, chemical companies from the developed world have been illegally dumping toxic waste close to the shores, further harming the coastal fisheries and severely impacting the health of coastal Somalis. The Somali pirates, as it turns out, started out as disenfranchised fishermen, put out of work because no one was there to protect their fisheries from high capacity foreign fishermen. Many of the pirates were, at the outset, part of militia-style navies trying to fend off chemical companies poisoning their waters and their loved ones – though now the Somali pirates are indeed running a lucrative criminal organization, it is important to remember where this issue started. If we are to label the Somalis as pirates, Panjabi argues, then the foreign fishermen and chemical companies who take advantage of Somalia’s political situation must also be labeled as pirates.

But we do not label those chemical companies and those fishermen as pirates. And the Green Mountain Boys certainly are not remembered as terrorists (at least by those in the United States!). We do not label these groups as pirates or terrorists because of what that label brings with it. We see foreign fishermen working the Somali coast as engaging in normal economic activity, albeit activity that would be illegal in any other jurisdiction. What would we gain from labeling them terrorists or pirates? Labeling a group or a person as terrorist or as a pirate brings with it an enormous set of normative and practical implications. Once it is a pirate organization and no longer a fishing fleet, are we obligated to seize that fleet and imprison its crew when they try to dock? Conversely, if we think of the  Somalis as a patriotic naval militia protection their coasts from foreign invasions, can we justify bringing in the Navy to halt their activities? Similarly, if Bulgaria labels Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, what does that mean for the EU’s policy toward the organization? Can it still treat Hezbollah as a political group, as it has historically? Or does it have to cease engaging Hezbollah as legitimate representation of the Lebanese people and start treating it like the EU does al-Qaeda?

If he were alive today, Michel Foucault would remind us of the power of classifying groups and activities under one label or another. For the labels themselves have power, and they lead us to think about groups and individuals in a certain way. This is not to argue for or against Hezbollah’s classification as a terrorist organization. This is to remind us all that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s pirate is another woman’s breadwinner. Labelling a group as terrorists is a big decision with serious ramifications, and it is hardly reversible.

John Michael Denney is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Darren Kew on Democracy and Ethnic Diversity

Posted in Education, OECD, Somalia with tags , , on September 25, 2012 by michaelkeating

Professor Darren Kew, Executive Director of the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy at UMass Boston reflects on the relationship between ethnic diversity and democracy for a forum published by the Zocalo Public Square, a social networking site for critical thinkers. The complete forum is found here.

Darren’s contribution is below:

On the surface, ethnic and religious diversity seem like a lethal mix for democracy. Commentators typically precede descriptions of ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts with words like “intractable,” under the belief that these identity differences follow an inescapable logic of mutual animosity that must at some point come to blows. It is feared that, since one or the other religion must be “right,” or one or the other language or cultural patterns must be dominant, democratic compromise and negotiation will break down in this climate of mutual suspicion and conflicting values.

Many authors have cited democratic successes such as Finland or Japan as proof that less diversity is better for democracy. Others note that diverse democracies like the United States built their institutions during periods of ethnic hegemony first, and only later expanded the franchise. In our case, for instance, some argue that Anglo-Saxon dominance of American life for the first couple centuries ensured a fairly mono-cultural imprint on our political behavior during the critical years we were building our institutions—so that they could withstand the stresses once other ethnic and religious groups were allowed equal footing in the polity.

These views miss the fundamentals of how democracy thrives. First and foremost, democracy does not presume a common system of beliefs or identities. In fact, it assumes the opposite: that people have an array of opposing interests and beliefs that must be worked through in order to find a broader public good. The only principles that we need to have in common for democracy to work are beliefs in negotiation, compromise, and mutual respect. The rest can be negotiated sufficiently to govern well, even though we may not agree on core issues. Effective public policy does not need unanimity—it only needs a sufficient consensus. Brazil, Ghana, India, Turkey, South Africa, and many other democracies are emerging well despite massive ethnic and religious divides.

Second, democratic systems depend upon a balance of power in order to thrive. This not only means checks and balances among the arms of government, but also requires healthy balances between the state and society, unions and management, rich and poor, and so on. Consequently, religious and ethnic diversity plays a very important role in keeping society from being monolithic, and thus in preserving the balance of power against authoritarian government and society. Multiple identities promoted by multiple religious and cultural institutions ensure a diversity of structures in society that serve as countervailing forces to prevent any one group or view from winning every policy debate and squelching opposition. In the absence of a vigilant and diverse political opposition, the public lacks alternatives to replace a government it no longer favors, and democracy loses its most basic check against irresponsible leaders and, ultimately, against oppression.

Darren Kew is executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at UMASS Boston, and Associate Professor in the UMASS Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance.

Somalia Conference Breaks New Ground

Posted in Africa, Peacebuilding, Somalia, Terrorism with tags , , , on February 27, 2012 by michaelkeating

The recently concluded London Conference on Somalia is probably the most high profile that has been held for Somalia. As a Somali citizen I see a glimmer of hope for Somalia in the London Conference. It looks like the entire international community is acting together cohesively and that will hopefully eliminate the competition and division among the international community itself on the issue of Somalia. Fifty heads of state and representatives attended the conference; even the breakaway self-declared Somaliland was pressured to attend the conference by Britain. This is what really makes this conference different from the others before it. At past conferences there were too many doctors in the operating room, many of them were suspected by Somalis of operating with dirty knives,  but this time the world seemed to be united with one message. Today the people of Somalia celebrated the London Conference and in support of the London Conference they decorated the main roads of Mogadishu with Somali and British flags.

Thank you to mayor Tarzan of Mogadishu (a legal resident of the UK) who was also invited in the conference. This is the first time that the flag of a western country was decorated on the streets of Mogadishu in the last two decades and that shows trust. As Professor, Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College said this week, the London Conference is the subject of considerable anxiety, skepticism, and hope among Somalis. It is widely seen as a critical moment in Somalia’s long 20-year crisis, a meeting that could shape the direction of the country in the coming years, for better or for worse.

The goal of the London Conference seems attainable with the focus on piracy, famine and terrorism which is the number one concern for the West. Terrorism is also equally a concern for Somalis. Terrorism, lack of security and rule of law is what led to both the famine and the piracy in Somalia today. The international community and the Somali government should carefully focus on Al Shabaab which seems to be crumbling by the day. As requested by the Somali Prime Minster Dr. Abdiwali Ali, airstrikes should intensify. AMISON troops whose number was increased this week by the Security Council from 12,000 to 17,000 should also now be able to compound pressure on Al Shabaab who recently joined Al Qaeda. The Kenyans and their TFG ally forces in the South are moving very slowly and they should be pushed to move quicker and capture Kismanyo. This war is about winning the hearts and the minds of the people as no one can win the public with prolonged foreign occupation. It is essential that Ethiopia and Kenya help TFG forces fully quickly liberate Kismanyo,  Baydhabo and the other Al Shabaab strongholds  and withdraw rapidly after these cities fall under the TFG control which must get ready to fill the void. Keep in mind, the people of Somalia are tired of war, civilian casualties and the interventions of their neighbors especially Ethiopians.

The London Conference will bolster the security accomplishments and the momentum is likely to continue. The once feared Al Shabaab is now crippled to a point where the only option for them is to hit and run. With that being said, it’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct dialogue with groups like Al Shabaab is sometimes indispensable to reach a sustainable peace. And even if it turns out that dialogue gets us nowhere with Al Shabaab, talking and listening can help us to better understand how we can bring  some of the moderate ones on board. Al Shabaab recently joined Al Qaeda and that may create divisions within its ranks. For instance, there are reports that some members of the Al Shabaab leadership are  a bit more moderate than hardliners like Ahmed Godane,  who is the current Al Shabaab leader. Generally speaking, there are three groups of Al Shabaab.  Some are hardline,  the so-called irreconcilables (Godane and foreign jihadists fall in this category); the reconcilables (often showing a nationalistic agenda and a conciliatory tone) and the third are those who lie somewhere in between the  two. The Somali government will have no choice but to fight people like Godane and migrant foreign jihadists to the end but the TFG must initiate a negotiation effort that empowers Somali traditional elders to reach out to those Al Shabaab members who are willing to talk. The Somalis should recognize that military power alone cannot defeat  an insurgency; even the Americans are now talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan. We should talk to our young fighters and The International Community should also encourage this dialogue with Al Shabaab in order to reach a lasting peace in Somalia.

By: Saeed Aden

The Author is a fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is the Director of Global Peace Aid-Somalia.

2010/ AFP Photo