Complexity in the war on terror

Published in Magill, March 2005. Note: This article was a rebuttal of Dr Millar’s piece, ‘No surrender to holy terrorists’, which appeared in the same pages.

In the previous article, Rory Miller of King’s College London writes that we in the West must not compromise with what he calls ‘Holy Terror’. He suggests that all Islamic militants across a very broad spectrum fully identify with al-Qaeda and are engaged in a civilizational struggle against the West. Those in the West who do not respond to this challenge are soft and dithering. In this conflict Dr Miller tells us that to compromise is to surrender. Yet his discussion of so-called ‘holy terror’ offers an oversimplified catch-all view of political Islam and Islamic militancy.


This is not the simple ‘we versus them’ conflict that Dr Miller describes. Surveying the world, one does not find two clearly delineated sides. Perhaps more importantly, al-Qaeda does not appear to be intent upon the wholesale destruction of Western civilization.

The destruction of the West?

Contrary to Dr Miller’s argument, the overriding objective of Bin Laden and his inner circle appears to be challenging the governments of the Middle East rather than attacking Western civilization. Miller points to Bin Laden’s ‘call to Islam’ in his “letter to the American people” of 2002 as proof that al-Qaeda’s most important goal is the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. The English translation of this particular statement runs to over 3,800 words. The ‘call to Islam’ accounts for fewer than nine hundred, only six hundred of which are devoted to listing the immoral characteristics of American culture. As with Bin Laden’s other statements, this is a political statement couched in religious language. The overwhelming portion of the letter criticizes American foreign policy where it affects Muslims, mainly in the Middle East. A further statement in 2003 indicated that terrorism was not the inevitable result of clashing ideologies: “I tell the American people we will continue fighting you and we will continue martyrdom operations inside and outside the United States until you stop your injustice and you end your foolishness”.

Peter Bergen’s 1996 CNN interview with Bin Laden is an earlier example of his view of violence as a means of influencing US policy in the Muslim world – rather than having an impact within the West itself. “[Clinton] has a heart that knows no words. A heart that kills hundreds of children [referring to UN sanctions against Iraq] definitely knows no words. Our people in the Arabian peninsula will send him messages with no words because he does not know any words”. In the same interview, Bin Laden also rebuked the inconsistency of President Clinton’s receiving Gerry Adams at the White House as a political leader while the US continued to condemn Arab terrorism. A later Bin Laden statement released in the run up to the 2004 election indicates that the global caliphate is low on his priorities: “It occurred to me … that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children. …Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked”. These threats reflect opposition to Western policy rather than culture.

Despite these comments, one can not be certain that Bin Laden and his inner circle do not dream of a world wide caliphate. Certainly, much of the rhetoric one finds on Islamist web discussion groups does refer to some form of wider caliphate as a distant goal. Yet whatever the far fetched ambitions militant elites may hold, this is not necessarily representative of their rank and file supporters’ motives. The broad appeal of Islamist militant leaders comes from practical dissatisfaction. Immediate issues of social justice and economic and intellectual stupor are better motivators than a global revolution for abstract ideals. Abstract ideological aims, where they exist, are likely to be rallying rhetoric employed in the service of more pressing local concerns such as political oppression at home by domestic or occupying forces. Average supporters or participants will be unlikely to engage in violent and dangerous campaigns – whatever the sincerity of the ideological statements emerging from their elite – unless there is something substantial in it for them. While playboy terrorists like Ramsi Youssef may buck the trend in this and other respects, the higher the quality of life one enjoys, the less likely one is to risk it in the name of purely abstract goals. Therefore, despite the prevalence of ideological rhetoric, this conflict is better understood as a political one with varying local circumstances, though often religiously defined. As Condi Rice rightly observed in 2000, “taking life is almost always a political act”.

The monolithic peril and the benefits of complexity

It seems fitting to reflect on the lesson of the cold war: One cannot afford to succumb to the temptation of taking a monolithic view of a complicated enemy. Western leaders were often blind to the fissures and conflicts within the communist bloc. To the free world, the apparently cohesive bloc of communist countries constituted a single unified menace. In the US, Democrats and Republicans outdid each other to make more generalized and populist anti-communist pronouncements. As McCarthyist and China lobby political opportunism swept through America, the suggestion of negotiation with, or recognition of, any government within the communist bloc became political suicide. Major opportunities to stymie Soviet strategy were lost and American strategy entered a period of crisis. The ‘domino theory’, a logical corollary to the West’s myopic view, lead policymakers to believe that parochial conflicts were essential prongs of the Kremlin’s expansion strategy. If the free world gave an inch of ground to any form of leftist revolution, communist expansionism would build momentum and successive countries would turn Red. As a result, hundreds of thousands of American lives were lost in Korea (previously declared beyond US strategic interests) and in the civil war in Vietnam. Some contemporary analysts such as George Kennan quite reasonably argued that had the US avoided involvement in Vietnam, the nationalist communist government would probably have rejected Moscow’s direct control and could have been a useful independent actor in South East Asia. With the benefit of hindsight, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara lamented that the domino theory and the monolithic view of communism had disastrously dragged the nation into a parochial, civil war.

The oversimplified perspective of the communist threat tempted America into unwinnable, counterproductive wars, and it also made it impossible to capitalize upon the divisions within the communist bloc. The benefits of a more sophisticated perception became apparent when President Nixon came to office. He and Henry Kissinger were both arch realists, untroubled by ideological or moral constraints that might have precluded ideologues from talking to communists. They were sensitive to the complex array of interests and priorities within the communist bloc, which were mounting in the early 1970s. Realising that Mao and Khrushchev had positioned huge stocks of weapons and millions of men on their common border, and that small military clashes had occurred between Chinese and Soviet forces along the Ussuri River, Nixon and Kissinger seized a chance that their myopic predecessors could never have grasped. By making bold public overtures and visits to Beijing, they aggravated Moscow’s fear of its Chinese neighbor. At the same time, they diplomatically engaged with Moscow, allowing Soviet fears to linger on China rather than on distant America. Thus, subtle policymakers created a triangular dynamic in which the USSR feared both the US and China and was rendered unable to exploit America’s withdrawal from South East Asia in the wake of the Vietnamese disaster. As Kissinger wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1999, “The Soviet Union was being constrained from geopolitical adventures by the stick of our opening to China and the carrot of prospects of increased trade”.

In the present day, the disparate groups and individuals campaigning for diverse sets of local priorities cannot uniformly be dubbed ‘al-Qaeda’ or ‘Holy Terrorists’, even if they do share different levels of commitment to Bin Laden’s rhetoric. Al-Qaeda seems more akin to a loose ‘community of belief’ with various degrees of commitment than a formal network of like minded terrorists who share the absolute objective of an Islamist caliphate. When considering the various nuanced shades of Islamist militancy, one must be conscious of local considerations relevant to each parochial group. Journalist Jason Burke interviewed one would-be suicide bomber from Kurdish Northern Iraq who had decided not to travel to Afghanistan for training because he was solely interested in Kurdish affairs. Not all suicide bombers are dedicated to Western apocalypse. Nor are all groups categorised as terrorist opposed to democratic reform. It has escaped public attention that some groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, JI, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are key agents of reform in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Their agendas are political, and they want involvement in constitutional, elective government. The catch-all phrase ‘holy terrorist’ precludes recognition of these developments.

Compromise is not surrender

Speaking at Cambridge recently, a former British intelligence officer in the Middle East lamented a reoccurring failure to understand and engage with subversives. Rather than paying attention to the tent dwelling revolutionaries of Tikrit in 1958, or engaging with the Jewish population in the Mandate of Palestine before 1948, British officers relied on their ties with the official establishment and failed to penetrate the mindset of those outside the established order. As the officer put it, there were ‘no fish in the water’. Once again, the West has too few fish in the water. Over simplification threatens to erode its capabilities against real enemies and needlessly define potentially accommodating groups as threats. Western strategists must not rule out negotiating with all militant groups. In some cases, peripheral groups may be immediately amenable to a political solution, which could reduce and contain the al-Qaeda franchise.

The supposed global and pervasive character of the al-Qaeda network is often cited as a strength. By talking to peripheral elements of this loose network, and seizing every chance to coax elements away from the al-Qaeda franchise, this strength can be made into vulnerability. As with the communist Empire, the larger the community becomes, the more vulnerable to challenge its central ideology is at the periphery. Those who feel that dialogue with any form of Islamist militancy should be ruled out on principle might consider the peace process at home in Ireland. When Bertie Ahern sent Martin Mansergh as a secret envoy to the Real IRA after they bombed Omagh (the worst atrocity of the conflict), he was attacked in the Dáil not because he had sent an envoy to treat with killers, but because he had kept the meeting a secret. The success and logic of the peace process had long ago dispelled the taboo on talking to terrorists. As Dr Mansergh told the Seanad in October 2003: “There are, of course, moral questions which can legitimately be raised about such contacts, but as the Taoiseach said last year, if it were wrong for governments even to countenance such communications, there would be very little prospect of securing peace”. The conflict in Ireland matured through long, traumatic years before all parties were willing to meet at the negotiating table. One does not suggest summarily opening dialogue with all Islamist groups. But talk with Islamist militant groups must not be ruled out. If subtly employed and timed, it can serve a useful purpose in the war on terror.

Nation state and terrorists at an historic crossroads

While a monolithic interpretation is wholly inappropriate to an accurate understanding of the campaigns associated with al-Qaeda, there is some sense to President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ catch-all definition of ‘terror’ and ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric. It is important to distinguish between the complexities of reality and the political necessity of simplifying the issue. The nation-state and usurper non-state actors are at an historic cross-road. As the leading nation-state, America must assert the nation-states’ monopoly on mass-casualty and nuclear capabilities against the challenge of increasingly potent non-state actors. Not only is America a primary target for such actors, but its power depends on the status quo of state supremacy. Strategists were alarmed by the scale of the 9-11 attacks. The property toll alone amounted to 40 $Billion in insured loss. The further toll in loss of life and income, pause in economic activity and the loss of the nation’s aura of invulnerability was far higher. If non-state militant groups can launch strikes on the scale of 9-11, and threaten to gain nuclear or radiological capabilities, the nation-state’s established monopoly on strategic violence is challenged. President Bush made it clear to all non-state actors that the United States will not tolerate a challenge to the status quo in international affairs. The White House line on ‘evil-doers’ is a public oversimplification geared to maintaining public support for a strategy of clamping down on this dangerous new phenomenon in international affairs and for a generally hawkish global strategy. One can understand why the administration employs this rhetoric, but one must also realize that it bears little resemblance to complex reality. Political Islam and Islamist militancy form a complex array of groups, individuals, and interests which defy Miller’s ‘holy terrorist’ denotation. This assumption of cohesion among Islamist militant groups torpedoes any sensible public consideration of the role of dialogue in attacking the al-Qaeda franchise. We must avoid lumping all Islamist militants together in a holy terror monolith and adopt a more sophisticated analysis that recognizes compromise as an important tool rather than as surrender. Dr Miller’s suggestion to the contrary recalls the unfortunate logic that propelled the Northern Irish conflict towards a spiral of violence.

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