Fourteen years have passed since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Currently, we find ourselves in the midst of a similar situation: trying to make sense of a terror attack on one of the world's largest cities, and wondering what, if anything, can be done to prevent another vicious assault against Western culture.
In the Straight’s November 15, 2001 issue, then-news editor Charlie Smith spoke with history professor Dr. Andre Gerolymatos of Simon Fraser University, addressing concerns about how the retreat of Taliban forces from Kabul would affect the likelihood of terrorism in North America, in a story called, “Prof Says Defeat Won’t End Terror Attacks”:
A Simon Fraser University history professor believes that the retreat of Taliban armed forces from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, could actually increase the possibility of terrorism in North America. Andre Gerolymatos told the Straight that he also thinks Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization will benefit form recent events because it will make it easier to raise funds from sympathetic, wealthy Arabs. Even the loss of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan won’t be a major obstacle, he claimed."
Considering the almost immediate bombings of ISIS training camps by French forces after the Paris attacks and the current climate of Islamophobia, I wondered if Gerolymatos’ take on current threats of terrorism would parallel his ideas in 2001.
GS: Do you think the efforts by French and American armies to bomb ISIS training camps has made a dent in their progress? Is ISIS simply relocating, as you predicted the Taliban would in 2001?
AG: They are, they’re spreading. If you look at what happened in Paris, it took eight people. It doesn’t take a large group. That’s something that people should remember: all it takes is a small number of people.
GS: Do the American, French, or Russian armies have what it takes to defeat ISIS on the ground?
AG: American, French, and Russian armies can easily defeat ISIS on the ground, but the real question is if there is a political will to do that, to put an actual army on the ground. To use a combination of the three is a very difficult thing politically. It would deal with a very terrible symptom of terrorism, but not with terrorism itself. These are certain issues that need to be resolved if we want to have long-term stability. The fact that the Taliban withdrew but maintained guerilla warfare for a decade and continued to take towns and cities—you could almost call that a victory.
GS: Would you say that ISIS is more ruthless than the Taliban? On what scale?
AG: Yes, very much so. ISIS is exceedingly more ruthless, and that’s saying a lot because the Taliban is quite harsh. The important difference is that the Taliban are indigenous, they are Afghans. ISIS is a conglomeration that includes Western foreigners who go and fight with ISIS. In the ISIS-controlled Iraq, you have Sunni Muslims who have joined them in response to the Shia regime in Baghdad. It’s become an actual state; it taxes, it regulates. Some people even prefer ISIS to the instability—they find it to be the lesser of two evils.
GS: What can Western governments do about people on our soil that might sympathize with ISIS and their cause, or pose threats of terrorist activity?
AG: There are people who sympathize, and that is all under free speech and free thought. I think people have to understand the difference between a radicalized individual—someone who might adopt an extreme perspective on the world and on Islam—and actual terrorists. Our laws allow freedom of interpretation and freedom of religion. What we need to do is prevent those that leave Canada to pursue terrorism from coming back. Canada has legislation in place to prevent that.
GS: Is the press we are giving ISIS, like the press that the Taliban received, driving more extremists to join their forces?
AG: ISIS is extremely slick with social media, and they’re very much media savvy. We hear about them, we read about them, we see them on TV, and for the tiny, tiny number of people who are attracted to violence, this is an invitation. Do we muzzle the press? Like in the case of Afghanistan, there’s a lot of wishful thinking about containing ISIS. I think we need to get past it, and look at the practical considerations. An important part of that is the Western countries need to put pressure on the Middle Eastern countries to engage. That is not happening at all. We don’t even see any symbolic participation; they’re completely removed.
GS: Is the Islamophobia that seems to be gripping many North Americans benefiting ISIS, as you predicted that similar attitudes would benefit the Taliban?
AG: Absolutely, the more that people denigrate Muslims and the more they associate Islam with ISIS, they will grow. ISIS uses Islam and exploits it in a very superficial way. They cherry-pick what parts of Islam they like. This group of Muslims is represented in a small number, so the best thing we can do is to not be Islamophobic. Do not fear your Muslim neighbours.
GS: With so many Syrians seeking refugee status in other countries, what should Western nations, particularly Canada, do in response to their needs?
AG: We should welcome them. If we think about North America historically, we’ve all been refugees. North America has always been welcoming to people form other places that sought another way of life. They are leaving their countries because they wish to escape, and they are going to die if they stay there.