Monday, June 14, 2004

The War on Terror, Part 1: Who is the Enemy?

This is the first of a series of posts analyzing the overall framework of the War on Terror. Through these posts, I will try to explain why I consider the WOT the most important issue of our times.

One of the unique things about the War on Terror is the lack of a clearly defined official adversary. Sure, there's Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but the war is about more than just them. Is it the case then, as is often argued, that we are simply "at war with a noun"? Is the "war on terror" just a metaphor, like the "war on drugs", "war on AIDS", etc? Is it even the right metaphor? After all, 50,000 Americans die every year in traffic accidents, as opposed to "only" 3,000 on 9/11. Shouldn't we simply do what we can to mitigate the threat and move on with our lives?

Sadly, the answer to such questions is that yes, we are very much at war, with an all too real enemy. Why is terrorism different from AIDS or poverty or drugs? The difference is that terrorism is a malevolent, as opposed to malignant, phenomenon. In other words, the 3,000 people who perished on 9/11 died not as a result of an accident, or act of God, or disease or social inequalities. They died because a group of terrorists decided to kill them, and desire to kill as many more of us as possible. That is why terrorism is not "just another noun".

Who then, are the terrorists with whom we are at war? The obvious answer, of course, is Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. That raises the issue of just what is al-Qaeda? If al-Qaeda is defined as a hierarchical organization led by Osama bin Laden, then it is simply the tip of the iceberg. Specialists such as Jason Burke have estimated that the number of those who have actually sworn bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden is in the hundreds. The number of those who attended bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is estimated at 20,000.

The key to understanding al-Qaeda lies in realizing that it is not a centralized global organization but rather the small vanguard of a broader, ideologically driven worldwide terror movement. While conducting some operations of their own, with 9/11 by far the most notable example, the primary role of bin Laden and his organization was to enable others to engage in terror and jihad. They did this by providing funding, coordination, and an infrastructure for training and support in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's main achievement, however, lies in the ideological sphere.

All the movements linked to al-Qaeda have several things in common. All share a commitment to the radical Islamist vision: that secular or insufficiently religious Muslim states should be overthrown and replaced by regimes that will fully implement Islamic law (sharia), by violent jihad if necessary. The irony of radical Islamism is that it is a 20th century movement offering 7th century solutions. The movement is a result of the profound political, social, economic and cultural crisis in which the Islamic world now finds itself. The solution to this crisis, say the Islamists, lies not in western style modernization, but in returning to Islam's roots and living as the Prophet Mohammed and his followers (the Salafiyya) did. By the 1980's, violent Islamist movements had arisen in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, while the Shia version of Islamism enjoyed much greater success in Iran and Lebanon. At the same time, Islamists from throughout the Muslim world converged on Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invaders. It is from among these "Afghan Arabs" that al-Qaeda emerged.

Prior to bin Laden's rise to prominence in the late 1990's, each of the various radical Islamist movements focused their efforts on overthrowing their own governments. For example, Egyptian Islamic Jihad waged a domestic terrorist campaign aimed at the regime of Hosni Mubarak, while Algeria's GIA fought a barbarous civil war against that country's military rulers. Bin Laden's accomplishment, as Michael Scott Doran shows in his superb essay "Somebody Else's Civil War", was to convince most of these organizations that they should stop worrying about the "near enemy", their own governments, and join forces to wage jihad on the "far enemy", the United States. It is the infidel Americans who are the real danger, bin Laden argued, for they are the ones who support the "apostate" Muslim regimes. Drive the United States in defeat and humiliation from the Middle East, and the apostate regimes will soon collapse of their own accord. Once this is achieved, there will be nothing to prevent the radical Islamist movement from achieving its final objective; the unification of all Muslim nations into the newly restored Islamic caliphate.

In essence, the War on Terror is more accurately described as the War on Radical Islamist Terror, though the US government cannot call it that for obvious political reasons. The enemy is a global movement pursuing the radical Islamist agenda by means of anti-American, anti-western, and anti-Israeli jihad, who perceive America as the source of all their problems, who wish to drive us from the Islamic world, and who wish to unify that part of the world and implement their vision of what 7th century Islam looked like. As they have shown in the last three years, the radical Islamists are willing to slaughter as many "infidels", military and civilian, as necessary to attain victory. Should they succeed, the consequences for the United States, our allies, and the Muslim world would be disastrous. While the campaign in Afghanistan has gutted the bin Laden organization, the broader jihadist movement remains very much alive and committed to the bin Laden agenda. Even if bin Laden himself and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership are brought to account, the worldwide threat posed by radical Islamist terror groups will continue.


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