Gwynne Dyer explains why terrorism is overblown and why Islamists want western countries to attack the Islamic State
Don't panic. Terrorism is a very small problem. And any western president or prime minister who thinks they'll severely damage ISIS by dropping bombs on its fighters is terribly mistaken.
That was the message author and historian Gwynne Dyer brought to SFU Woodward's in a March 25 sold-out lecture at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.
"Well, we lost two people in the last year to terrorism and we lost about 250 a month on the roads," Dyer said. "You know, the Americans lost 3,000 people on 9/11, but they also lost 3,000 people on the roads and another 3,000 to gunshot wounds, mostly delivered by their nearest and dearest.
In fact, according to Dyer, if western countries expand their bombing campaigns against ISIS into Syria, it will only make the Islamic State stronger.
That's because it will reinforce ISIS's message that western infidels are attacking and killing Muslims. Dyer said that this provides a perfect recruiting tool to attract more desperate people to join their cause.
The former instructor at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (where British officers are trained to lead soldiers) described this as "political jujitsu". And he said this is why ISIS releases grisly, well-edited videos showing westerners being beheaded.
"You poke the bear," Dyer said, "and the bear comes down and attacks not just you, but everybody around you and people you've never met—and drives some of those people into the revolutionaries' arms."
Dyer says terrorism is a technique
Dyer, who has a PhD in military and Middle Eastern history, emphasized in his lecture that terrorism is "the weapon of the weak". And he pointed out that it has been used for centuries in many parts of the world against governments to achieve very specific objectives.
He also repeatedly characterized terrorism as a "technique" for revolutionaries "who don't have an army, don't have heavy weapons, and don't have a great deal of money".
"It doesn't have a very high entry cost," Dyer explained. "All you need are some explosives and a few small arms, and you can start blowing people up. You can start kidnapping and killing people."
He said that this offers benefits for those hoping to build a mass movement to bring down a dictator.
Dyer wryly noted that a few thousand rebels can't do this on their own against a government that has 100,000 soldiers and 50,000 police on its side. So they need to convince the public to risk their lives by going out into the streets by the hundreds of thousands.
"You have to build support," he said.
So why would revolutionaries perpetrate acts of terrorism in countries ruled by dictators?
"First of all, it will get you noticed," Dyer stated. "You blow stuff up, you kill people—it's very hard to hide that. The government will undoubtedly tell horrible lies about your motives and who you are, but it will not be possible to pretend you're not there. Bear in mind, you're operating in a situation where censorship is horrible. You can't go on Oprah and have a chat about your policies. But you can do the propaganda of the deed."
In the 1980s and 1990s, he said, terrorist campaigns targeted at dictators in the Arab world killed "several tens of thousands of people". And governments, in their overreaction to the threat, responded by killing tens of thousands more.
Not a single regime was overthrown in this period. Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and others remained in power for decades.
By 2000, one of those revolutionaries, Osama bin Laden, came up with the idea of attacking the United States. The logic behind this was that by provoking a U.S. attack, it would mobilize popular support against Arab regimes.
"Kill 3,000 Americans...and what are the Americans going to do?" Dyer asked. "You know what they're going to do. To a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have the biggest armed force in the world, every problem has a military solution."
Arabs were defeated in 20th century
In the early part of his lecture, Dyer delved into modern Middle Eastern history. He pointed out that much of the Arab world was only conquered by western powers after the First World War.
"European empires conquered the Americas in the 17th century," he stated. "They conquered most of Asia by the 18th century. They gobbled up all of Africa by the 19th century. It was only in 1918 and 1919 that the Arab world fell under infidel European rule."
Borders were created, carving up the area between the British, French, and Italians, causing "profound cultural shock to the Arabs".
Dyer reminded the audience that Arabs had a long and often hostile relationship with Christendom dating back 1,500 years.
"But they had never been conquered like that," he added. "Suddenly, they were under the British heel or the French heel or the Italian heel."
For the next 40 years, he said, Arab countries were "being ripped off in the usual imperial way".
By the time, they achieved independence, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a shared consensus that they had to modernize, educate their populations, and build industrial capacity. According to Dyer, this was not only because it would make them prosperous, but it would also enhance their safety to ensure that they would never again be conquered.
This view was shared, he said, by Arab intellectuals, military personnel, and most people in the streets in the 1950s and 1960s. The goal was to replicate the economic success of the West while retaining Arab culture.
But this shared project went off the rails, Dyer said, because the leaders were almost always young military officers: Nasser in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, the FLN in Algeria, and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq, ending up with Saddam Hussein.
Dyer said that these young military officers "didn't have a clue" how to deliver on the shared objective of modernization.
"Military academies will teach you many things: how to build a trench, how to look really snappy in uniform," Dyer explained. "But they will not teach you how to build an economy or a country. And so these young military officers right across the board all failed to deliver on their promises."
As a result, he said, the Arab world is the second poorest region in the world. Given current economic growth rates in Africa, he predicted that the Arab countries will become the poorest within 15 years.
"There's virtually no science done in the Arab countries," Dyer said, characterizing the region as being gripped with "poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, and despair".
It's to be expected that under these circumstances, revolutionary movements would emerge.
Dyer explains appeal of Islamism
"The revolutionaries were very unlikely to adopt a position which said, 'Well, the plan was good but these guys didn't do it right. We promise to do it better'," Dyer said. "This does not set the heart beating faster."
Instead, he said that rebels need an "alternative approach, radically alternative preferably, which will fire people's imagination".
"You can see this many times when a revolutionary generation emerges trying to overthrow the old regime," Dyer explained. "They will not adopt the regime's old ideology and promise to do it better. They will find a different one. And the one that emerged in the Arab world in the '80s is what we now call Islamism."
According to Dyer, Islamists believe that the secular Arab states failed because modernizing in the European tradition was "inappropriate for Muslims".
"Instead, they needed a strategy which would go with their religious values and would produce, in the end, the same results," he said.
In other words, prosperity, strength, and respect could be achieved by forcing everyone in the country to live exactly as God wishes his Muslim people to live.
"Once we have got everybody in the country praying five times a day and having washed the right limbs and facing in the right direction—and they aren't smoking and they aren't drinking and they aren't listening to music and they aren't watching videos and so on—then God will deliver the rest," Dyer commented. "It's magical thinking, but magical thinking is very attractive to desperate people. And the Arab world is full of desperate people."
He said that bin Laden was also captured by this magical thinking that says: "the revolution must happen because we need state power in order to force everybody into this straitjacket."
That's where terrorism enters the picture.
"It doesn't mean it's guaranteed to work," Dyer stated. "Statistics suggest that only about a quarter of terrorist campaigns culminate in a successful revolution."
What is the Islamic State?
Dyer acknowledged that it's helpful for Islamists that they have a territorial base in northwestern Iraq and parts of Syria, which is known as the Islamic State. But he also emphasized that it's a profoundly weak base, mostly open desert, with few resources.
"There is one big river, the Euphrates, running through it," he said. "There's been a 10-year drought, so the farms are all dying there."
He also pointed out that there's a city, Mosul, but it's not a city of great note.
"There is one university, very poor," Dyer added. "There is not a functioning airfield that you can fly in around the Islamic State."
According to him, the population is five million, comprising the "poorest of the poor with a high illiteracy rate, even among the men".
"This is not a powerhouse," he emphasized.
There is oil in the region, but Dyer said that there isn't that much and what's there must be sold on the black market at a huge discount.
"I don't think they're going to expand much further than where they got to in the first flush of expansion in July and August of 2014," he predicted.
That's because the Islamic State's initial success was based on the "surprise factor", taking Mosul with one-twentieth the number of soldiers that Iraq had defending the city.
"That kind of surprise only happens once or twice and then the surprise value goes," Dyer said.
Then he downplayed the impact of parts of Libya or Yemen declaring their allegiance to the caliphate in the Islamic State.
"Is this a great power arising that we need to worry about?" he asked. "No, it's not. It's astounding how little the Middle East matters. I mean, it monopolizes our news media, but the Middle East contains 10 percent of the world's people. Only five percent of the world's people are Arabs. And it accounts for about three percent of the world's economy, including all the oil."
He added that there are no great powers in the area, and there is "virtually no scientific or technological base".
"This is not going to emerge as a global threat," Dyer insisted. "Whatever happens in the Middle East, rather as in the case of Las Vegas, will remain in the Middle East."
During a subsequent question-and-answer period, Dyer was asked if terrorism isn't such a concern, what truly frightens him?
"Climate change, climate change, climate change," he replied.
Govts have two good reasons for fighting terrorism
Mar 29, 2015 at 12:52pm
Population control and keeping their people in fear(population control)
Politicians want to Censor and Control Us That's Why
Mar 29, 2015 at 2:01pm
Well put by a rational commentator / Journalist.
Yet we allow our Constitutional Rights to be watered down to nothing.
This is simply an excuse used by Politicians to gain more control over Citizens on behalf of their Corporate masters.
There is little real threat to you or I. I am more concerned about Drunk and / or Texting drivers.
Or big Oil corporations that continue to rip us all off and help destroy the Environment.
About the best summation of the Tragic events over a decade ago is in this less than 5m video.
Remember if you ask questions or disagree with Politicians you hate Apple Pie, our way of life & Babies.
Mar 29, 2015 at 3:53pm
As always, Dyer has a calm rational approach, liberally dotted with historical facts. I'd be interested in hearing what he thinks about the two major, opposing powers in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia and Iran - now moving closer to conflict in Yemen. As well it seems the major driving factor is the division between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. No doubt he'll be dealing more with these questions in future columns.
Mar 29, 2015 at 6:09pm
The 3,000 killed 2001, September 11th were not all Americans. They like to exaggerate the figure as they so often do.
Mar 29, 2015 at 6:34pm
I'm a huge fan of Dyer, and thank you for writing this column. But did you really need to spell out what happens at the Royal Military Academy? I'd say its activities were pretty self-explanatory.
Mar 29, 2015 at 6:54pm
NO! The terrorists are just outside the closet door!
And on the reserves!
And under your bed!!
And Vlad needs a good bitch slapping too! Just watch me straighten that guy out.
"You won't recognize this place when I'm finished with it."
Mar 29, 2015 at 7:28pm
Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! That guy says the Muslims are full of ignorance, more like Dyer is.
Mar 29, 2015 at 9:16pm
I think the Yazidi and Kurd girls kidnapped into sexual slavery would disagree, as would the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but for people like Dyer, it's always about the West. I'm sure that when Hitler was preaching in the bars, people scoffed at him too. As an Israeli who actually knows and sees terrorism up close, you ignore this at your peril.
Mar 29, 2015 at 11:42pm
Dyer has presented a rational, realistic point of view. This article needs to be seen by more people, read, and understood.
Mar 30, 2015 at 12:40am
"I am ashamed for Canadians that we are not following George W. into Iraq."