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January 20, 2005

Get wise and get real

Versión en español: Espabila y pon los pies en la tierra

I well remember my days as a student at St Andrews, Scotland – one of the true pioneer institutions studying terrorism in a systematic way. One of my senior tutors, a man who has regularly advised both the United States and United Kingdom governments about terrorism for the past couple of decades, gave me an inkling as to how ethereal and unsubstantial the topic is. "After twenty years of assessing this from every possible angle", he said, "the smartest people in the field cannot agree upon... a definition of what they are studying." I felt a bit as though we were looking for the Loch Ness Monster. Sadly, on 11 September 2001, the monster proved all too real.

So, after so often disavowing soundbites about terrorism, here is mine: the first and only rule is that we must stop talking in conceptual generalities if we are going to get anywhere. Such vagueness saves third-rate pundits from divulging the true extent of their ignorance, but in terms of policy-making it doesn’t advance our (that is, the west’s) cause one jot. Both sides of the Atlantic ocean have all too often fallen into the conceptual trap about terrorism, epitomised by America’s vagueness about who we are actually fighting, and Europe’s vagueness as to what to do about it (in practice, appeasing the unappeasable).

From vagueness to awareness

In some ways, the sound and the fury accompanying the war on terror has never moved beyond the slogan stage. To fight and win the war (and yes, Europeans, it is a war, distasteful as that language is to so many of you), the United States has to define in much greater detail what we are talking about. We are not fighting a war against evil in the hearts of men everywhere, as utopians in both American parties often lead one to believe. Realists know such a strategy is unwinnable. Worse, such an imprecise characterisation does not differentiate between primary and tertiary interests – overstretch and ultimately the decline of the US as a great power is bound to ensue as such a strategy leads to perpetual war. So to be more precise, we are fighting al-Qaida and other related manifestations of radical Islam.

The next precise question, then, must be: "how are we doing?" This gets beyond the cartoons to a real-world assessment. There is good news and bad news here. The first George W Bush term saw significant American successes in this war. If al-Qaida is best thought of as an evil multinational, we have destroyed the home office (Afghanistan); obliterated the corporation’s most faithful sponsor (the Taliban); cut its funding (though this is speculative, around 15%); killed, captured, and set to flight around three-quarters of its senior leadership.

However, this is only part of the story. Just as our efforts to combat al-Qaida have evolved, so its efforts to survive have led to its own continued evolution as an entity. Call this the organisational equivalent of Darwin’s theory. Al-Qaida’s home office may have been hit, but the branch offices around the world have shown themselves - through the bombings in Bali, Istanbul, Riyadh, and Madrid - quite capable of continuing to function. This lack of central control makes it much harder to fathom the local motivations behind al-Qaida’s branch offices, making analysis and detection far harder.

Al-Qaida now functions as something more akin to a grant organisation. Local groups with only the most tenuous ties to Osama bin Laden contact al-Qaida representatives with a plan that will advance interests the two groups hold in common.

The Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 are a classic example. There, radical Islamists from neighbouring Morocco provided many of the footsoldiers, with others from the Maghreb also involved. They went to al-Qaida - announcing in the process that they were part of the organisation - for help with financing, logistics, planning, and permission to use the feared al-Qaida brand name, much as any grantee would go to a donor for resources.

The reward for al-Qaida was to remind the world of its continued relevance and sophistication – by attacking a successful first-world country, and helping to determine the outcome of the Spanish election held three days after the Atocha station bombings.

So al-Qaida’s abilitiy to survive and evolve have accompanied America’s to combat the network. For all the genuine American successes of the past year, al-Qaida is now more diffuse, elusive, and in many ways harder to deal with. Like Hercules cutting off the head of the hydra, two seem to have sprouted in its place.

The real danger is increased recruitment to Islamist radical organisations. Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, put it well in an infamous memo (like much edgy thinking in the Capitol, he was later forced to deny this represented administration policy): while al-Qaida in practical terms is not the specific threat that it once was, the broader situation is worse – if five young men emerge from a madrasa (Islamic school) as sworn enemies of America for every al-Qaida operative we destroy, are we really winning the war on terror? Radical Islam, as best it can be measured, is growing, even as al-Qaida is waning. Its future as an evil grant organisation fits perfectly with this new reality. American counter-terrorist thinking must now quickly evolve as well.

In the early days after 11 September 2001, there is no doubt President Bush did a masterful job of mobilising public opinion for the coming battle with al-Qaida. He told the country it would be a very different sort of war from any experienced before, that we were at war with radical Islamic groups (but not Islam as a whole), and that the whole confusing thing would take decades to resolve. He also cautioned that there would be very bad days ahead, implicitly acknowledging that the terrorists could well strike the American mainland again.

For such candour with the American people, the president was rewarded with genuine American unity for his course of action in Afghanistan. Even today, after the searing divisions over Iraq, there is far more bipartisan unity in the United States over the war on terror than on any other American foreign-policy issue. The lesson is clear: in a democracy, treating citizens like grown-ups is rewarded far more often than cynical political spinmasters would have you believe. Now, around the time of the second inaugural , is exactly the time for President Bush to update the country on the real-world progress in fighting the war on terror, fleshing out in far more analytical detail who we are fighting, how the war is generally going, and the policy steps that need to be advanced to facilitate victory.

Europe’s holiday from history

The president’s approach, for all its limitations, is far superior to Europe’s ostrich-like approach. Europe has seen precious little adult, democratic discussion about the new reality that makes this terrorist threat very different from the days of the Basque ETA, the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, or the Baader-Meinhof gang, where casualties were in the dozens per year.

On 9/11, the North American continent suffered its biggest single loss of life due to hostile actions since the civil war battle of Five Forks in April 1865; the Atocha atrocity was the largest terrorist attack on European soil since 1925. Yet the average European policy-maker’s persistent, universal panacea – giving more economic aid – does not explain the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were far from poor, any more than the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, or Khmer Rouges came from underprivileged backgrounds. Poverty matters, but in hardly so direct a way – otherwise Africa would be a hotbed of terrorism, and the above-mentioned European radicals ought not to have existed.

While, as a Jeffersonian, I cringe at what has gone on in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, Europeans do not (and cannot) explain than the prisoners they have under custody have divulged almost no information, compared with those threatened with incarceration in less hospitable places like Egypt and Pakistan. It is far easier to be morally superior then to deal with the real complexities of a baffling new world.

There is a political price to pay for this continued European holiday from history. I genuinely pray that it does not take another sickening outrage to wake up a European populace that would rather not think about these things, and whose leaders so spinelessly accommodate them. Osama bin Laden’s missives reveal that he hates Europe just as much as the United States – and it is easier to infiltrate a sleeping Europe. Europe must recognise far more than it does that by definition one cannot negotiate with, cajole, or win over committed, utopian terrorists – they simply have to be killed or incarcerated.

In return for accepting this very unpleasant reality, the western allies would do well to accept that the military aspects of the war on terror (as Donald Rumsfeld implied) are only a part of the answer. To paraphrase Tony Blair: "We must be tough on terrorists, and tough on the causes of terror." Perhaps this analytical insight is the beginning of a true conceptual rapprochement on what is the burning challenge of our times.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
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