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h.a. hellyer

H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. @hahellyer

In our lifetimes, we are used to considering "war" as a short-term phenomenon. The war can be waged through a series of confrontations, and then, we assume, victory. But the "war on terror" is not such a war at all. Settling on the principles that frame it is crucial – and the sooner we get with that, the better.

Terrorism is crime with a particular politico-ideological motivation. We've become accustomed to describing only one type of such crimes as "terror" – and that is when the politico-ideological motivation is rooted in a radical neo-religious impulse of extremist Islamism by a non-state, vigilante force – but that's simply a political decision. When states or other forces carry out illegitimate violence with a politico-ideological motivation (regardless of its root), it has the same effect, after all.

But if we are going to limit ourselves to dealing with vigilante terrorism by non-state, radical Islamist actors then we have to admit some realities. If tomorrow, the forces of Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere were to be dealt a crushing military blow, demolishing their capacity, and removing their ability to retreat to a large geographic space of operations, their capacity for inflicting terrorist acts would not disappear.

The international community has to reconcile itself to the reality that whether it is IS in its present form, or something else that is derived from IS, we will see acts similar to Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, and others for not months, but years to come.

That resilience has to have an offensive as well as a defensive posturing – on this, few disagree. The question is how. In terms of offensive posturing – for the West, repeating the catastrophic mistakes of Iraq is not an option – but it would take a cynicism of the highest order to consider that the current Syria policy does not have monumental errors of its own. The deaths of more than 200,000 Syrians are testimony to that.

When we consider defensive posturing, correct and appropriate framing is crucial. As we identify (and not to the exclusion of other types of motivations) the politico-ideological motivations for attacks carried out by radical Islamist elements, ascribing those motivations to Islamism in general becomes problematic.

Ennahda, for example, the main Islamist political force in Tunisia, is neither interested in or supports terrorism. Disaggregating and being specific about the nature of the threat the likes of IS poses is not apologia for terrorism – it's simply good counterterrorism. It's not to say Islamism might not be problematic for other reasons – but that should be another discussion.

Nor should we then create equations that insist we link such ideas inevitably to Islam, the religion of more than 1.6 billion people. As we see the rise of chauvinistic intolerance towards Muslims more generally, this has hugely detrimental effects within our own societies in the West. Donald Trump and his railing against Muslims en masse are only symbolic of a far larger issue – the mainstreaming of bigotry.

Muslims may have certain conservative positions on a variety of social issues – but so do many other parts of our societies, and they ought not to have their belonging to our societies questioned as a result of their participating as citizens within the rule of law. Nor is that to be done because they are "security assets" who are our "first line of defense" against terrorists – it is because they are citizens, who are being attacked just like we all are.

Finally – just as this scourge of vigilante terror ignores borders, so must our co-operation within state structures increase beyond them. Intra-agency co-operation is not a luxury but a necessity – and between states as well. But we also must ensure that we maintain the rule of law and upholding of fundamental rights and not sacrifice them on the altars of "stability" or "security."

If we imagine that the destruction wrought on Brussels, or Karachi or Tunisia are going to end in the next year, we're in for a horrible wake-up call. This menace will be with our generation for far longer – we need to reconcile ourselves to that. The question is how – and ensuring that when we are beyond it, as eventually we will be, how we look on the other side.

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