Terrorism, counterterrorism and internal opposition: a conceptual note

The complex history of Ethiopia’s role in the formation of the present state structures in the Horn of Africa, with all their volatile allegiances and propensity for conflict along with ethnic and religious identity', has rendered it highly susceptible to violent acts of opposition, both from internal opponents and by those from neighbouring countries. Where the Ethiopian state has responded to such threats in recent years by what is regarded by many external observers as extreme measures against suspected groups within its population, involving mass detentions, arbitrary arrest, and widespread security monitoring (Brechenmacher 2017), the concept of terrorism by the state itself arises.

As with much of the debate on terrorism and counterterrorism, it is essential to acknowledge the ambiguities of meaning that are often present. A convenient starting point, in this case, is Ruth Blakely’s classification of forms of “state terrorism”’ First, there are deliberate acts of violence by a state against its citizens or creation of fear of such violence. Second, the acts may be perpetrated by a range ot agents on behalf of the state. Third, the intention goes beyond the suppression of the victim of the state-sponsored violence alone, to instil fear into those in the community who are or may be sympathetic to their beliefs. Fourth, that this target group is thereby made to change its behaviour (Blakely, 2010: 12—27). In the case of Ethiopia, as we shall see later, the charge as it has affected groups in the country is rendered more feasible given the ethnic federalist structure of governance. Thus, by clamping down heavily, even brutally, legitimised by anti-terrorist legislation, on those suspected of belonging to, or sympathising with an ethnically based organisation that has in the past used armed opposition, others on the broader group will be deterred through fear, from expressing their opposition to the government by supporting or sympathising with this or any similar party.

On the other hand, it may be argued that if a government intends to target specific members and supporters of a banned organisation which has particular ethnic objectives, and that it is an unintentional side effect of this that fear is instilled among all members of that ethnic group then the jus in belie aspect of “just war” theory could be argued to apply, with the primary objective on the target group being seen as morally acceptable in the context (Blakely, 2010: 23). The acts may not then be classed as “state terrorism.” This is a slipper)' slope, however, open to abuse and complacency. Related to this type of argument is the primacy that governments may give to developmental objectives, the achievement of which is argued to be threatened by political instability, which is then defined as a state security threat, a phenomenon sometimes described as the ‘securitisation’ of development (Gebresenbet 2014). By also classifying certain opposition groups as ‘terrorist’ organisations, and all that such tenns entail, the state is effectively de-politicising their identity, hence undermining their legitimacy as political opposition and justifying extreme fonns of repression. (Pointing & Whyte, 2012) The relevance of these debates to the record of the Ethiopian approach to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency will become evident as we proceed. In the meantime, we begin with an account of how contemporary inter-state and intra-state tensions in the region have their origins in the past in a way that has reverberated across succeeding generations up to the present, and which add fuel to current grievances and state responses.

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