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January 19, 2005

The enemy within

Versión en español: El enemigo interior

Because we use the shorthand phrase “war on terrorism” to describe the United States’s response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, it is easy to believe that this war – like all previous wars – can be won simply by killing enemy forces, wearing them down until they are broken and ready to capitulate.

What then remains to be achieved after almost three and a half years of war? Some 5,000 Afghan and foreign fighters were killed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Mohammed Atef. Around 550 suspected al-Qaida operatives are currently detained at the US naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba. President Bush claims that two-thirds of al-Qaida's senior leadership have been captured or eliminated, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind of 9/11. Yet there are still as many as 60,000 estimated al-Qaida members worldwide (based on the number of people thought to have trained in Afghanistan). Given that suicide terrorists are – by definition – undeterrable, it seems that we have no choice except to kill them before they kill us.

But such a “victory” is a mirage – for this is a different kind of war that requires a different strategic approach. The core issue is the question raised by Donald Rumsfeld, US secretary of defence, in his now famous leaked memo of October 2003: “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?” With over a billion Muslims in the world, a strategy that focuses only on the former without addressing the latter is a losing strategy.

Rumsfeld was asking the question specifically as it applied to the United States, but America is not alone in the war on terrorism. Indeed, the participation and cooperation of US friends and allies is critical to the overall effort. So how should democratic nations as a whole think about waging the war on terrorism?

European Muslims, global lessons

In this new kind of war, there are three priorities: the condition of Muslims living in democratic societies, the defence of democratic principles, and trade with the Muslim world.

First, societies that have relatively large Muslim immigrant populations – such as France (over 5 million), Germany (over 3 million), and the United Kingdom (1.5 million) – must realise that these groups may be vulnerable to radicalisation, the first step towards becoming a terrorist. As such, how Muslims are assimilated into society may be the single most important issue for those countries.

These European Muslims tend to inhabit urban enclaves – more apart than a part of their adopted countries - in contrast to their more integrated American counterparts. It is notable that none of the 11 September hijackers were recruited from the Muslim-American community, that since 9/11 the United States has – thankfully – been free of another al-Qaida terrorist attack, and that virtually none of the international terrorist plots unearthed have American Muslim origins. In contrast, we know that the “Hamburg cell” became the field-marshals of the 9/11 attacks and that many of those thought to be involved in the 11-M attacks in Madrid were Muslim immigrants to Europe.

In this light, the French state’s decision to ban religious apparel (including the Muslim headscarf) in schools is not trivial. French leaders argue that the ban is needed to protect the principle of secularism that underpins French society and as a way to counteract rising Islamic fundamentalism. The fierce desire to keep France a secular society that separates church and state is certainly understandable. But Islamic fundamentalism per se is not the problem and if the ban on headscarves serves to radicalise even a militant minority of French Muslims, then it will do more to create a potential terrorist threat rather than dissipate it.

Second, it is important for democratic societies to remember that protecting their citizens against terrorism is more than ensuring the security and safety of life and property. To be sure, the public rightly expects the government to protect it against terrorist attacks, but the problem here is best illustrated in a statement by the Irish Republican Army after a failed attempt to kill Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in October 1984: “Remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

So a perfect defence is a quixotic quest. But the more important point is that in attempting to protect against terrorism, democratic governments must remember that their ultimate responsibility is to defend the fundamental principles upon which government and society themselves rest. The lesson to be learned from some of the Bush administration's more controversial homeland security proposals – such as the president declaring the right to classify a US citizen as an enemy combatant and subsequently deprive that person of all access to a lawyer and keep him imprisoned for as long as the president insists – is that the constitution is not an impediment to fighting the war on terrorism. Rather, it is what fighting the war on terrorism is all about.

Third, democratic societies must not underestimate the power of liberalising trade with Muslim countries as an important component of the war on terrorism. The more that the Muslim world becomes part of the global economy – hopefully resulting in economic and political reforms, such as we are witnessing in China – the less likely it is that their populations will be susceptible to radicalism. This does not mean bringing free trade to the Muslim world via force of arms. Rather, it means opening up the doors of trade and allowing Muslims to compete in a fair marketplace.

A larger self-interest is involved here that may require the ending of tariffs and other trade barriers that prevent Muslim countries from entering foreign markets. For example, one of Afghanistan's only real export commodities is textiles. Yet both the United States and European Union levy tariffs on textiles to protect domestic industries and workers. Like the French decision to ban Muslim headscarves, such action could ultimately prove to be shortsighted and counterproductive if the end result is an economically impoverished Afghanistan vulnerable to Islamic radicalism.

Conclusion: looking inward

The natural human tendency is to view the enemy as “the other” and look outward. But democratic societies cannot be afraid of also looking inward. Not just for the potential enemy who may be lurking inside their borders, but also to understand how their actions may affect the dynamics and evolution of the Muslim terrorist threat. The task, then, for democratic societies is to avoid the fate of the comic-strip character Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
Members of the Club de Madrid

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