Crackpot theory #5: Flypaper theory

Ten years ago today I was in London, England, travelling by Underground to reach King’s Cross Station. At Euston, I and all the other passengers on my train were informed that the line was closed and that we would have to leave the station and proceed on foot. As Euston Road (which links Euston and King’s Cross) was blocked by police, I headed south on Upper Woburn Place. After a couple of minutes’ walking, just before reaching Tavistock Square, I spotted a little street heading east and turned into that. A few seconds later there was a big bang coming from pretty much where I would have been had I not turned. The cause was a bomb on a bus in Tavistock Square, which killed 13 people. Thirty-nine more Londoners died the same day from three other suicide bombings on London Underground trains.

I remember my reaction well – while standing around the nearby Cartwright Gardens, wondering what to do next, I cursed Britain’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Two and a half years previously, when Britain was debating whether to invade Iraq, I had spoken on Channel 4 TV News and stated my opinion that a likely consequence of such an invasion would be increased terrorism. My prediction had come true.

The wars which the United Kingdom and its allies have waged in the Middle East and Central Asia in the past 15 years in the name of countering terrorism have had the opposite effect – they have led to more, not less terrorism. Fortunately for us, most of it has been in the countries we have attacked – Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – and there has been very little in Western Europe or North America. But there has been some, and more than there would have been had we just left others alone.

The ‘flypaper theory’ is the idea that by waging war against terrorism overseas we can prevent terrorism at home. General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded American troops in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, aptly summarized it thus: ‘This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity … But this is exactly where we want to fight them. …This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.’

Variations of the flypaper theory continue to dominate official thinking about counter-terrorism, as seen by the prolonged NATO campaign in Afghanistan and the current American-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. The reasoning seems to be that the best way of defending ourselves here is to aggressively seek terrorists over there and destroy them. Yet after 15 years of this strategy being put into action, at a cost of several trillion dollars and many tens of thousands of lives, there appear to be more terrorists in the Middle East than ever before.

The flypaper theory is fatally flawed. It relies on the assumption that there are a limited number of terrorists worldwide, so if you kill them in one place, you won’t be threatened by them somewhere else. That assumption is just plain wrong. The very act of killing one often creates another, or many others, sometimes more deadly than the first. It’s ‘Whack-A-Mole’ with a twist – the harder you whack, the more moles you get.

The ‘flies’ who are being drawn from Europe and North America to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria would for the most part probably be sitting at home minding their own business and not posing a threat to anybody if only Western governments were sitting at home and minding their own business too. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is said to have once asked, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?’ A decade or so after he posed that question, the answer is clear.

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