Last week, I drove through New York city and across the Hudson river on my way to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Only days earlier, a man claiming allegiance to the terrorist and jihadist ISIS group drove down a bicycle lane along the Hudson river, mowing cyclists and pedestrians in a grisly act of terrorism.
It was yet another act of terrorism in what has become a new terror method: driving into other vehicles or, more devastatingly, into crowds of people.
As I crossed the Hudson river, I couldn’t help but exercise my mind on the subject of contemporary terrorism. It has delivered shifting manifestations and permutations that shake our human sensibilities.
New York is not just the world’s most important financial centre, it is also an expanse city with dense traffic along its litany of roads and interchanges.
Both democratic governments, accountable to citizens, and autocratic regimes that terrorise the same people they are supposed to protect are in unison in vowing to defeat terrorism.
They dismiss terrorism as cowardly and those who commit terror as deranged. Yet it appears that with every passing year, the situation gets trickier as terrorism adapts to new forms and the authors of jihadist ideology innovate new repertoires for their agenda.
If the suicide bomber, willing to die so as to kill, made fighting terrorism a nightmare, the new method of driving trucks into crowds now makes defeating terrorism close to futile.
Even with its highly-sophisticated intelligence apparatus and enormous coercive power, the government of the United States of America can do little if not nothing to stop someone from driving a vehicle into human bodies to kill and maim. We live in terrifying times!
One deadly act is enough victory for the agenda of terrorism. Governments and state agencies around the world remain set up, often overreacting and inevitably playing into the hands of terror organizations.
Actions of governments like that of the USA have done exceedingly well in recruiting fighters for Al-Qaeda and now ISIS.
These two, along with their regional affiliates in Africa and Asia, are happy to cash in when the USA and its so-called allies, including our own government of Uganda, make defeating terrorism the frontal focus of foreign policy.
The singular determination to defeat terrorism, which primarily means investing in intelligence infrastructure and coercive arsenal, drives governments into measures that are seen by targeted groups and individuals as cultural assaults and religious infringements.
Worse still, for the USA, the focus on counterterrorism through primarily military measures has fuelled militarization around the world perhaps to a scale that parallels the Cold War era.
Yet militarism as the core strategy against terrorism has been perilous. From the military interventions in Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, the trail of missteps and tragic outcomes has entailed unspeakable chaos and runaway terrorism where it didn’t exist.
We need to step back and introspect. One thing is instructively apparent: it is meaningless to think terrorism can be denounced and defeated through the resources at the disposal of state agencies.
If we can figure out how we got to this frightening state of affairs, we may well find a way around. Today’s runaway terrorism can, in part, be seen as a posterchild of state activities during the final decades of the last century.
Faced with opposition, whether in terms of an ideological nemesis or a regional competitor, states around the world resorted to terror tactics and building up networks that underwrote today’s terrorism.
Closer home in Uganda today, the expedience of fighting opponents and dealing with threats to his power has led General Museveni to preside over the steady creation of criminal networks and the fragmentation among the police, security and intelligence agencies.
What is likely to emerge out of the current cocktail once the ruler exits is simply disheartening to imagine. But the same acts akin to ‘terrorism’ on full display will be clothed anew under fully private actors.
Aside from the shift from state-sponsored terrorism that became privatized, the other foremost root of today’s extreme ideology can be found in material deprivation.
Far from being a cultural or civilizational war/clash – as the eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington appears to have so presciently predicted if one keeps it at the face value – today’s terrorism feeds off dashed hopes and failed expectations.
The promise of modernity, of a good life and prosperity which instead has delivered misery and desperation to many has left innumerable young men and women around the world vulnerable to recruitment in jihadism.
From north Africa to the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the kleptocracy of the political elite and the greed of the business sector leave behind disenchanted populations that have nothing to lose if they joined an otherwise misleading jihadist agenda.
Those living at the margins in northern Nigeria and the Sahel region are more than happy to become fulltime foot soldiers enticed with a jaundiced ideology and a luring promise of eternal heavenly enjoyment of everything missed on earth.
Without constructing fair and just societies, purporting to fight terrorism is a decidedly dead end.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.