Terrorism and World Politics

By Halliday, Fred | The World Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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Terrorism and World Politics

Halliday, Fred, The World Today


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.

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