BEYOND ARMED RESPONSE
The first anniversary of the Madrid train bombing has passed with ceremonies to commemorate the killing of over 190 people. The fourth anniversary of the attack by Al Qaeda on the United States is approaching. The question of when, and why, these attacks began is important to understand the challenge, but it is also time to ask questions about how the struggle with terrorism is going and what the prospects are.
IT WAS THE FIRST TIME IN FIVE HUNDRED YEARS A THIRD World force hit massively at a city in the metropolitan north, and more than ten years since the wave of strikes on western targets, with the 1993 attempt on the World Trade Centre, and subsequent attacks in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and east Africa three years later.
While it is never possible to judge with confidence, let alone certainty, any military conflict, conventional or not, during hostilities, states and independent observers need to form some provisional judgement on the kind of warfare being waged and the consequences.
Many questions about terrorism need careful, open-minded and critical discussion. All the talk of Al Qaeda as a product of the Muslim or Arab mind misses the point. It is a product of something more immediate, and in which the west played a significant part: the Cold War. It was the reckless commitment by western states, particularly the US and Britain, to support the mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s that brought this group into existence.
The first essential step in defining the conflict is to assess the nature of the challenge. Much is made in western rhetoric about the irrational, fanatical, barbaric character of Al Qaeda and its associates. All this is true, as a moral judgement and an expression, shared many Muslims, of abhorrence at what the organisation has done. But it omits the equally important question, that of explanation.
Here moral outrage, and generic denunciations of 'Arab' or 'Muslim' extremism, do not help. The core issue is one of politics and political calculations. The causes of this movement lie in politics, in rejection of western policies in west Asia and of the states allied with the west, rather than in economic deprivation or the effects of globalisation. And the goals of the movement are political, above all to seize power in a range of states, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. To adapt the early nineteenth century strategist von Clausewitz on war, terrorism is the continuation of politics by other means.
The foot soldiers and suicide bombers who carry out operations may well be fanatics, but the people who direct them, as with other terrorist groups, are calculating and political. Theirs is a vision that stretches over years, if not decades. They are seeking above all to seize control of a number of countries now aligned with the US and Europe.
This political logic explains the object, and timing, of the attacks. September 11 2001 was aimed not to destroy or seriously weaken the US, but to mobilise support for Al Qaeda and its allies in the Muslim world. The Madrid bombing on March 11 last year, on the other hand, was intended to affect the politics of Spain by altering the outcome of the election and punishing a government involved in the western occupation of Iraq.
Attacks in developing countries are designed to highlight the vulnerability of American and western power, be this in bombings of US embassies in East Africa, killing of tourists in Bali, or attacks on shipping in Yemeni territorial waters. The wave of incidents in Saudi Arabia over the past eighteen months have had a similar political, and related economic, logic, to undermine the confidence of western companies and contractors in Saudi Arabia, whose economic performance depends on their continued presence, and to expose the reliance of the ruling family on western assistance.
The question then arises of how this conflict has developed, whether the beginning is judged to have been 2001, or 1993. The short term picture propagated by western states may be misleading. US President George Bush and others point to the successes of the campaign so far: the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and the ousting of the Ba'athist regime in Iraq. A number of top Al Qaeda leaders and allies have been killed, and others arrested. Some are believed to be held by Iran.
Whatever the scale of the operations of terrorist groups in western Europe since 2001, we can be reasonably sure major operations, such as ones planned in Spain and in Britain, have been thwarted. At the governmental level, and in relations between allies, in NATO or the European Union (EU), new forms of counter-terrorist cooperation have been established.
Against this 'optimistic' assessment must, however, be set other factors. Very little has been done to locate and punish those involved in September 11. While the Spanish government has arrested dozens of suspects related to March 11 with some sent to jail by the courts, there has not been a successful conviction in any country of anyone accused of involvement in the attacks in New York and Washington, with the possible exception of Zacarias Moussaoui. The US has detained nearly six hundred suspects in Guantanamo Bay, and at least hundreds more in undisclosed locations around the world, but, from what has been made public, none has yielded significant information. The origin of the ensuing anthrax attacks in the US has never been discovered, and no one has been arrested.
Some of the measures announced amount to little: no real progress has been made in controlling unauthorised transfers of money to suspect terrorists. The much trumpeted institutional changes in US intelligence collection with the appointment of an overall chief of intelligence and assessment are little more than theatre. The EU has set up a counter-terrorism office, but everyone knows that, when it comes to issues of security, collaboration amongst major European intelligence organisations is weak. As The Economist recently reported, there is no enthusiasm in the British intelligence community for sharing information with Brussels.
The Bush administration makes much of its success in Iraq, but this confuses the issue even more, since Iraq, and indeed the Saddam Hussein regime, had nothing to do with jihadi fundamentalism, any more than the very distinct, Shiite, radical regime in Tehran.
More seriously, three other factors point to a longer term conflict than many, including leading western politicians, are willing to admit. Al Qaeda is not a traditional, hierarchical, organisation, like a conventional business or a communist party, that can be destroyed by cutting off its leaders or attacking its bases: it is a more diffused, almost postmodern, movement, which acts through inspiration and informal links as much as through formal control.
It certainly benefits from state support where it can, as from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but this is not vital. Militants and sympathisers, often act independently, and build informal links, as in Pakistan or western Europe, through kinship networks and meeting recruits in prisons, mosques and lodging places.
All the evidence suggests the main purpose of the September 11 attacks, and the consequences of western policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, to mobilise spontaneous support among young, mobile and often educated Muslim males, the prime source for jihadi recruits, has been successful.
The man believed to be head of the Moroccan Combattant Islamic Group, Abdelkarim Mejjati, was killed in Saudi Arabia in early April. He was the organiser of the Casablanca bombings of May 16 2003, educated at the French Lycée in Casablanca, studied medicine in France and lived in the US. Bin Laden and some of the more prominent Pakistani jihadis have similar backgrounds.
Just as Afghanistan served to recruit young fighters in the 1980s, and in the 1990s it was Chechnya and Bosnia, so now the war in Iraq, and the general outrage felt throughout the Muslim world, have led many thousands of young people to volunteer for training and military operations, overt, as in Iraq, and covert.
These two factors have been reinforced by a third dimension, the policies pursued by the US since September 2001. The war in Afghanistan, legitimate as it may have been, was seen by many in the Muslim world as an attack on them. The war in Iraq, and the revelations about widespread torture by and corruption in the occupying forces, have made this a major recruiting ground for opponents of the west.
Similarly the four years of fighting in Palestine, which is most unlikely to have ceased for long despite optimism and a truce following the death of President Yasser Arafat, has helped recruiting across the Muslim world, including south east Asia.
This is why, quite accurately, some American analysts talk not of a 'war' against terror, which suggests analogies with conventional warfare, and with a proximate and clear conclusion, within a matter of years, but rather of a 'transnational insurgency' stretching far into the future.
Such an insurgency could spread to regions so far largely exempt from attack, such as central Asia and south east Asia, but it would receive a massive boost if either of the two invaded countries, Afghanistan or Iraq, fell into civil war with an attendant failure of western policy. While such failure is possible in both, it is far more probable in Afghanistan. Iraq may have turned the corner with the January 30 elections, but Afghanistan remains weak and fragmented, and the Taliban a continued force.
Against this background, two broad kinds of judgement are possible. Negatively, this suggests the conflict with Islamist terrorism, at its present level of violence against western and regional targets, could go on for many years. We are probably only in its early stages. The lessons of other, much more contained, guerrilla and terrorist campaigns, such as those in Ireland and Spain, suggest such conflicts can take decades, not years, to conclude. The Islamist challenge is more widespread and in some ways deep rooted than those of either Irish republicans or Basque separatists.
Given its organisational flexibility and the reserve of potential recruits, there is little reason to expect the campaign to cease: this means not just more attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Indonesia, but, intermittently more like those which hit New York and Madrid. Whether or not they succeed depends on the fortunes of terrorists on one side and counter-terrorists on the other. What is not uncertain is the willingness of Al Qaeda and its associates to replicate such incidents, at least every year or two.
WEST WILL SURVIVE
There is also a potentially positive side to all this. Despite the drama of the attacks, such a campaign cannot destroy or even seriously weaken western states. The negative effects of September 11 on the feeling of the American people have been enormous. A widespread fear affects everyday life in the west, as it does, to a degree, business confidence. European political relations with Washington have significantly worsened. But in no major way have these attacks disrupted the political or economic life of the western countries, nor are they likely to. In broad terms, the west will survive, provided it keeps its nerve, does not overreact, and improves, in a realistic not utopian manner, its security and intelligence gathering.
Here, however, one further thing is needed: politics. Politics were evident in Madrid, woefully absent from the American response to September 11, and understood much better by Al Qaeda and other groups. Terrorism, in itself an armed tactic, a means of waging a political and military campaign, cannot define the response: that is a trap into which Bush has too easily fallen. The response has to be more comprehensive, more imaginative, as well as more sustained than America's theatrical Greater Middle East Initiative. It must embrace political vision on change and justice in the Middle East, and a greater knowledge of that region by western policymakers and the public.
Each component of the west Asian crisis - Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Kashmir - needs to be taken in its own right and dealt with decisively. Together the failure to resolve these provides support to the fundamentalist cause. The Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was right when he told the UN last September the fight against terrorism had to have three levels - military, political, cultural. In that way, and with a calm determination to resist the impact of these attacks over a long period, will democracy and the survival of targeted states be sustained.
PROFESSOR FRED HALLIDAY of the London School of Economics is at present a visiting fellow at CIDOB, Barcelona and recent speaker at Chatham House. He is the author of The Middle East and International Relations, CUP 2005, and 100 Myths about the Middle East, Saqi 2005.…