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After the Moscow Attack

Apr 22, 2024
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

On March 22, a terrorist attack on the Crocus City Concert Hall near Moscow, the Russian capital, killed 144 people and injured more than 550. It was the most serious terrorist attack in Russia in 20 years and another mega transnational terrorist case since the 2019 terror attack in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It means is that even though more than 20 years have passed since 9/11, the terrorist threat to the world is far from gone.

Arguments between Russia and Europe and the United States over who was responsible for the Moscow attack will most likely become another Rashomon event, with neither side ever accepting the other’s conclusions. Considering that the international consensus on counterterrorism is weakening day by day, how should we look at the current global counterterrorism situation? What is the future of the struggle against terrorism?

The current effort is confronted with three new challenges. First and foremost, pressure on transnational terrorists in the international community has weakened, mainly because of strategic adjustments by the United States and its allies. A new generation of global jihadist terrorists is gaining strength again and making a comeback.

The focus of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has shifted to the domestic arena, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021. The U.S. basically relinquished its leadership responsibility. Under President Joe Biden, America’s National Security Strategy, released in October 2022, makes it clear that cooperation will be strengthened with trusted partners in the future, shifting from a strategy of “U.S.-led, partner-supported” to “partner-led, U.S.-supported.”

At the same time, a new generation of terrorists, hardened on the battlefields of Syria and Afghanistan, has taken advantage of the opportunity to resurrect. The Khorasan Wilayat of the Islamic State (IS-K), established in 2015, is a typical example. According to a UN report released in July, its membership in Afghanistan was estimated at 4,000-6,000, including fighters and their families. IS-K is more bloodthirsty and brutal than any other transnational jihadist terrorist organization we have seen before. Its targets are also more widespread, which makes it the most serious terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Second, deteriorating geopolitical relationships have reduced the global counterterror coalition formed after 9/11 to exist in name only, thus weakening the effects of the global counterterrorism struggle. The United States and its allies have also redefined the global war on terror. In Afghanistan, the United States refuses to recognize the Taliban regime, let alone give substantial support to countering terrorism. For the Taliban, it is the lack of capability that is its greatest shortcoming in the fight against IS-K. In Syria, both the U.S. and Russia have redefined the war on terrorism according to their own interests, which render counterterrorism in Syria more of a proxy war.

In addition, the double-standard of the U.S. has led to growing dissatisfaction among other big powers, weakening their strategic mutual trust and willingness to cooperate. Although the U.S. officially said it shared information with Russia in advance of the terrorist attack in Moscow, in the absence of strategic mutual trust, especially in the absence of intelligence sources and a regular mechanism for intelligence exchanges, such shared information of course would draw little attention and be largely ignored.

Moreover, some terrorist organizations have also taken advantage of geopolitical competition to muddy the waters and create chaos on a wider scale. The cases of terrorism taking place in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Russia and other places in recent years seem to prove that terrorist forces, represented by IS, consciously ride the wave of geopolitical rivalry to maximize their influence and interest.

Third, many developing countries in Africa and Eurasia are the main victims of the costs of the global war on terrorism, because of the “depression effect” and “crowding-out effect” over the past 20 years. According to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Australian Institute for Economics and Peace, most of the regions with the highest level of global terrorist activities in the past decade are developing countries located in Africa and Eurasia, with Nigeria, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India at the top of the list.

As the Western countries have strengthened prevention after the 9/11, the developing countries, with relatively backward economies, weak social governance and prominent internal conflicts, have instead been excluded from global counterterrorism efforts. Likewise, because of the U.S. war on terrorism, they fall victim to the “crowding-out effect.”

At the same time, because of repeated news coverage of the international media, the ideology and tactics of attacks propagated by terrorists have created a huge “demonstration effect” on a global scale, facilitating the rapid escalation and alienation of armed conflicts in regions that are already shattered and disturbed.

The terrorist attack in Moscow has once again sounded the alarm that terrorism is not far away, and the global fight still has a long way to go. Without the full cooperation of all countries, we cannot prevent the rise of a new generation of terrorists to ravage the world, nor can we build a secure, shared future for the human community.

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