State terrorism: even worse than the sub-state variety


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This year marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. For much of this time our understanding of terrorism has focused on sub-state actors, such as Al Qaeda and ISIL, who have launched a series of attacks against Western targets and tried to gain a foothold in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and now increasingly, West Africa. For many years this brand of jihadist terrorism stood at the top of the national threat assessments of many NATO countries. In the course of 20 years, thousands of people were killed in terrorist attacks, the vast majority being Muslims and mainly in 10 or so countries already caught up in civil wars or endemic ethnic and inter-communal violence.

We may not have seen many more terrorist ‘spectaculars’ since 9/11 as most current attacks are low level outrages perpetrated by ‘lone wolf’ radicalised individuals. Nonetheless, as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Western diplomats and security analysts have been pondering what the terrorists have in store for us next. Will they try to ally themselves with local groups in Africa and Asia to topple governments there, or will they once more direct their energies against the apostate, capitalist West?

This is an important question but it should not detract us from another resurgent form of terrorism which may be much more dangerous for Western liberalism than the jihadist variety. This is the increasing wave of state terrorism in which authoritarian governments believe they can now repress their populations and violate international law, norms and standards with complete impunity, and with the assurance of the understanding and support from other authoritarian regimes.

Russia too has been a serial violator of norms and standards

The most egregious example has been the war that Bashar al-Assad has waged against his fellow Syrians, using torture, chemical weapons and the barrel bombing of hospitals along the way. Thus far, Assad has killed over half a million of his people and displaced nearly 14mn. This is a massively higher toll than jihadist groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al Shabab or Al Qaeda have been able to ratchet up. Yet, Assad’s hold on power in Damascus today seems more secure than at any time since the popular revolt against his regime broke out in 2011. The Syrian war and the mass displacement of civilians have also destabilised neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, stoking social tensions and straining government finances.

Russia too has been a serial violator of norms and standards. Its incursion into the Donbas in Ukraine has killed 14,000 people and pushed over two million more from their homes. Instead of withdrawing and working for a peaceful settlement, Moscow has been building up its forces on the Ukrainian border to intimidate Kyiv. At home, it is crushing the last vestiges of any political opposition and sending in the riot police to arrest demonstrators at the first sign of an anti-government rally. The last independent NGOs and media companies, such as Open Russia and VNews, are being closed down as of this past week. Political opponents abroad have been assassinated, or at least the SVR and the GRU intelligence agencies have tried to do so. Constitutions have been changed to enable Putin to stay in power. Like Assad in Syria, he seems more entrenched today than ever before.

China also has been more brazen in throwing its weight around. Its repression of its Uighur minority is on such a major scale that it cannot be hidden. Yet, Beijing continues to deny the mounting evidence of the mistreatment of the Uighurs as if international criticism is of minor concern. Meanwhile, it has disregarded its treaty with the United Kingdom on Hong Kong by revoking the enclave’s special status and introducing a new draconian security law. It sends hundreds of fishing boats to challenge the sovereignty of the Philippines over its outlying shoals and reefs. Similar harassment has been directed at Vietnam in the South China Sea and Japan in the Senkaku Islands. China is also bullying Taiwan with continual aggressive exercises close to its shores at sea and in the air to such an extent that Western security strategists now fear a full-scale invasion of the island by Beijing. When Beijing was unhappy at the arrest of a Chinese business executive in Vancouver, it immediately retaliated by detaining two Canadian expatriates on trumped up charges. When it is asked to allow an unimpeded and objective investigation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, it obfuscates and delays.

It is time for the Western democracies to end the culture of impunity

This litany of lawlessness and obstructionism continues elsewhere. Iran detains UK and US nationals and then periodically re-invents charges against them until it can extort concessions from Western countries. Myanmar promises ASEAN that it will halt its brutal military repression of its pro-democracy protestors and then goes back to opening fire on them. Belarus locks up 440 civil society and media representatives and forcibly expels others from the country, literally pushing them over the border. If Belarus’ neighbours object, Minsk then sends illegal migrants across the border just to show that it can make life difficult for them if it wants to. Belarus has now even made participating in a political rally subject to a three-year prison sentence.

Then, to add insult to injury, the Lukashenko regime forced a civilian aircraft on a flight from Athens to Vilnius, two EU capitals, to land in Minsk in order to snatch a media critic and his girlfriend from the plane as it was grounded. The pretext for diverting the flight was an alleged bomb which was blamed on Hamas, a hoax and a classic piece of disinformation rapidly undermined by the MiG-29 jet that had been sent to intimidate the Ryanair pilots and force them to divert to Minsk. This was a clear violation of air safety rules which would have instructed the pilots to proceed to the nearest airport, in this case not Minsk, but Vilnius. The sight of the political opponent in question appearing on Belarusian TV a few days later confessing his ‘guilt’, but clearly beaten up and probably drugged, recalled the ‘confessions’ of old Communists during the Moscow Show Trials of the late 1940s and the early 1950s.

The act of air piracy by Belarus has caused considerable uproar. The EU is moving forward with sanctions against Belarusian airlines to prevent them landing in the EU or flying through EU airspace. EU airlines have also stopped flying to Minsk or other locations in the country. Belarus, already an isolated country after Lukashenko rigged the presidential elections last August, is now more isolated than ever. The regime has responded by stopping its own citizens from leaving the country unless they have foreign residence permits. The EU is now discussing more sanctions against Minsk including the blocking of key Belarusian exports such as potash. NATO has equally issued a strong reaction, but talk of removing Minsk from the alliance’s Partnership for Peace programme was blocked by Turkey. It had to settle for restrictions on the access of Belarusian diplomats to NATO HQ instead.

Yet, the strength of the international reaction to the air piracy incident in Belarus also has a lot to do with a sense among the Western democracies that the cumulative violations of international law by the authoritarians now urgently demand a stronger response. This is also in connection with three major cyber-attacks in the US over the past year. First, the Solar Winds attack into the management software of dozens of US companies and government departments, then the ransomware attack against Colonial Pipelines, and just recently another ransomware attack against the JBS meat processing company. The sophistication of these attacks has made the US suspect the complicity of a state actor, notably the Kremlin, even if organized crime is responsible in the first instance. In Europe, irritation with Russia has also reached boiling point after a number of aggressive Russian interference operations in eastern Europe, including an explosion in the Czech Republic. In short, it is time for the Western democracies to end the culture of impunity. Yet, which responses can they provide?

It is not easy to devise strategies to help democratic actors inside authoritarian states

After the incident in Belarus, air safety is the obvious place to begin. Given the multiple versions of this incident put out by the Lukashenko regime to confuse international opinion, a full investigation by the International Civilian Aviation Organization, based in Canada, is the minimum. The EU’s air safety agency (EASA) has proposed that flights leaving the EU should avoid Belarusian airspace. The organisation representing the airlines (IATA) prefers this to be left to the individual choices of the airlines. Yet, just this week, a court has been sitting in the Netherlands to assess the findings of an international team that has investigated the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by a Bug missile over the Donbas in July 2014. Neither Russia nor the pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas have ever admitted responsibility for this disaster, again putting out multiple alternative versions and conspiracy theories to confuse international opinion. Yet all the evidence points to the involvement of the Russian military and the separatists. 298 people died in this tragedy and their families have the right to know the truth at the very least.

If airspace above authoritarian states, or territories controlled by them, is no longer regarded as an internationally protected commons but as a zone of extension of political disputes and conflicts, then it is time for the democracies to re-organise air travel and re-route flights to those airspace jurisdictions that agree to abide by the international rules.

A second imperative is to protect democratic actors who are still fighting against repressive violent regimes. After the snatch operation against the Belarusian opposition leader, Roman Protasevich, many Belarusian exiles living in Poland, Lithuania and other places will be worried about their safety. Will the Belarusian KGB copy its Russian counterparts in tracking down and killing opponents and ‘traitors’ abroad? The EU now needs to engage Europol and the intelligence agencies of its member states to devise a programme to protect these vulnerable individuals. Offering them courses in personal safety and kidnap avoidance would be a first step, as would maintaining a constant channel of communication with them and sharing threat assessments.

At the same time, the EU, working with the US and other Western democracies, perhaps in the G7, needs to develop a strategy to help democratic actors within repressive states to organise and express their views. There are still many of these around and bravely defiant, as the 30,000 protesters jailed in Belarus after the fraudulent elections demonstrates, even if their media companies, political parties and NGO offices have been closed down. Of course, it is not easy to devise strategies to help democratic actors inside authoritarian states. Too close an association with the West can always be used to discredit them or classify them as foreign agents, a tactic Putin has consistently pursued. Yet, abandoning them to their fate is not a strategy either.

The goal has to be to end mass repression, rather than just punish it

Poland has shown the way by setting up Belsat to enable free media to be broadcast into Belarus. Lithuania has set up a university for Belarusian exiles in Vilnius, where they can continue their political education and gain useful professional skills. Moreover, Lithuania has offered to grant six-month visas to Belarusians seeking refuge in the country. These steps can all be building blocks for an EU strategy to support opposition leaders and structures, so that they are able to take over and form the new political elites when the Lukashenko regime finally falls. The EU’s Magnitsky legislation is useful in enabling the EU to sanction police chiefs and prison guards who are implicated in the repression, or even poisoning, of regime opponents, such as Alexei Navalny in Russia.

Yet the goal has to be to end mass repression, rather than just punish it. So, we need to look at things like helping democratic actors with secure communications, social media impact, political campaign strategies, devising future governance and economic plans, and intense public and diplomatic focus if these regime opponents are mistreated. We may not be able to stop political repression but we should not make it easy for the authoritarians. One absolutely essential step is to agree within the G7, NATO and the EU on an export ban on technologies that can be used for state repression, such as AI enabled facial recognition software or data mining algorithms.

In third place is to clamp down on Russian and other aggressive intelligence operations in EU member states. I have written on this previously in Critical Thinking but it remains a major issue. The snatch of Roman Protasevich was possible precisely because he was followed by Belarusian KGB agents during his stay in Greece. This week, the German intelligence agency, BND, has warned about the increase of Russian agents operating in the Federal Republic. Russian agents have been responsible for a number of hybrid warfare incidents inside the EU, using fake identities and using covert operations. EU member states need to make these activities more difficult by introducing better border identity checks, less falsifiable identity documents, better tracking of foreign agents and limits on the number of intelligence operatives in the EU embassies of repressive states.

Were the criminal gangs acting as proxies for state intelligence or security services?

Organized crime comes into the picture here too. The ransomware attacks against Colonial Pipelines and the JBS meatpacker company in the US were claimed by groups calling themselves Darkside or REvil, seeking a quick profit. Yet the penetration and devastating impact of these attacks obviously raises questions regarding state involvement. Were the criminal gangs acting as proxies for state intelligence or security services? Did they receive information regarding vulnerabilities or cyber-attack methodologies? Were present or former state employees involved with these gangs, perhaps freelancing in their spare time? It is welcome news that the FBI has managed to recover $2.4mn in Bitcoin, equivalent of the ransom that Colonial Pipelines paid to Darkside. We do not want to see criminals keeping their ill-gotten gains. Yet unmasking the true nature and modus operandi of these criminal organisations and their links to repressive states, something that has already been established convincingly in the case of the Lazarus Group and North Korea, is as important as frustrating their operations and extraditing individual hackers to face justice.

The fifth issue would be to review the effectiveness of sanctions on repressive states. Sanctions have become the default option for dealing with violations of international law and repressive behaviour. They certainly send a signal of condemnation and international attention, but do they modify the behaviour of repressive states? And, if yes, in which ways? Which sanctions against which specific targets are the most likely to be successful and in which combinations? In this connection, sanctions that inflict the most harm on a repressive state, and thus make it pay the maximum price for a hostile act, may not be the best ones for bringing about change, for instance in incentivising a particular group, such as the business community, to start lobbying for a change of course in regime behaviour.

So, the EU needs to do some hard thinking on smart versus tough sanctions, about linking sanctions in a potential chain of escalation and about a more systematic methodology to measure the effectiveness of sanctions. Can they have a deterrent effect if they are announced in advance of an aggressive action, or if they can be implemented more quickly? In this respect, the EU needs to give itself more legal authority and latitude to impose strong sanctions quickly. Currently making sure that proposed sanctions comply with EU and national laws takes considerable time and gives repressive states ample opportunity to adjust to the impact of sanctions. Moreover, as sanctions decided collectively by the EU are implemented by the member states, the EU needs to ensure that member states do indeed loyally apply the sanctions, and have means to hold them to account if they fail to do so for whatever reason, intentional or bureaucratic.

State terrorism may seem at first sight to be an exaggerated concept

Finally, this is the moment when the EU has to introduce Qualified Majority Voting for its foreign policy decision-making. We have seen in the last few weeks Hungary veto EU foreign ministers’ statements and agreements on three separate occasions. One was to block an EU condemnation of China for its clampdown in Hong Kong, another to block an EU call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and a third to hold up an EU trade and investment agreement with its African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) partners. These vetoes by one recalcitrant EU state, denying the will of the overwhelming majority, are making a mockery of the EU’s ambition to push back against the authoritarians and make a stand for international law and liberal values on the international scene. Whereas it may still be legitimate to link the EU’s military deployments and defence decisions to unanimity, this argument cannot apply to foreign policy and sanctions issues. Hungary cannot reduce the EU to impotence in the face of the onslaught from the authoritarians.

State terrorism may seem at first sight to be an exaggerated concept, especially when the more familiar sub-state variety is still very much with us, and finding new forms of political extremism and violence such as white supremacy, conspiracy-based nationalism and anti-science phobias. Yet, whether we like it or not, the growing tendency of many of the world’s states to lapse into illegal and reckless behaviour in the belief that ‘Might is Right’ or the time for the authoritarian model has come is a far bigger threat to human freedom and global peace in the 21st century.

The 9/11 commemoration will be a good time to reflect on what we got right and where we went wrong in dealing with terrorism over the past two decades. It will also underscore that the struggle of democratic societies against terrorism in all its forms – old, new and re-emerging – is only just beginning.

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