Terrorism is the wrong term. War is the wrong metaphor. Iraq is the wrong war. That pretty much sums up how the fight against the Islamist jihadists who targeted America has gone awry in the five years since September 11, 2001—a similar period of time in which the United States had mobilized from virtual scratch and defeated Germany and Japan in World War II.
Francis Fukuyama was absolutely right when he wrote on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 that terrorism is the wrong term for the enemy because terrorism is a tactic; the enemy is a group of violent Islamists and insurgents. “It makes no sense to lump together someone willing to fly a plane into a skyscraper in New York and ex-Baathists attacking American soldiers on Iraqi territory,” he noted insightfully.
To have thrown Palestinians of the Arafat stripe seeking their own state together with those like Osama bin Laden who seek to establish a cosmic Caliphate by directly striking the West confused the solutions by obfuscating the causes. One cannot fruitfully engage those whose violent acts are justified in a transcendent realm. With them there can be no compromise. But conflicts with those seeking territory or a political aim—for example the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army or the African National Congress—can be resolved through a political process.
As Olivier Roy writes in this issue, using the wrong metaphor of “war” when fighting the disparate causes of terror has led to something worse: the real strategy of sending troops to occupy territory. The result of lumping everyone together in a “global war” on terror, says Roy, is that Western armies “have become stuck in protracted conflicts where local issues—nationalism, territory, civil wars—are more important than global terror aims.”
As Fukuyama has also pointed out, war is the wrong metaphor because it implies the overwhelming use of force against another nation-state when, in fact, our most dangerous enemies are citizens of friendly countries like Britain, France, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
That is why Iraq is the wrong war: It’s not where the enemy was. Insurgents are not killing Americans here, but US troops because they are there. Unfortunately, never missing an opportunity to seize an opportunity, the cosmic jihadists have piled on, fomenting sectarian strife in order to suck the United States into the proverbial quagmire that will ultimately end in superpower humiliation because there is no ultimate solution other than withdrawal.
To the extent the war on terror is being won, Roy observes, it is not through military occupation but through “a protracted mobilization of police, intelligence agencies and the courts looking for concrete networks and cells, most based in the West.”
This is clearly the right approach for dealing with the terrorists who threaten us. The rest of the task is to separate out the differing motivations for acts of local resistance or terror by groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and deal with them on their own terms. This approach would also distinguish the Shiite radicals in Iran and their allies, who tend to stick to the terrain of the Middle East, from Salafist-style Sunnis who want to wage war directly on America.
To de-globalize the war on terror is to de-globalize the jihad Osama bin Laden is trying to ignite and dreams of leading. To break the varying conflicts into their constituent grievances and deal with them on that basis is to break the link with the cosmic jihadists. Any resolution of local issues subtracts from the global cause and marginalizes its self-proclaimed leaders.
As has often been said, all politics is local. As Reza Aslan argues in his article on Hezbollah, that remains true as well in this new era of terrorism. Only the mistake of globalizing the threat has elevated the reputation of the cosmic jihadists in the hearts and minds of the broader Muslim ummah. We should instead be dismantling the building blocks of jihadist sympathy by striving to resolve the local and regional issues, one manageable piece at a time.
Nathan Gardels, editor