The New Terrorism: Securing the Nation Against a Messianic Foe

In the minds of the men who carried them out, the attacks of September 11 were acts of religious devotion—a form of worship, conducted in God’s name and in accordance with his wishes. The enemy was the infidel; the opposing ideology, “Western culture.”That religious motivation, colored by a messianism and in some cases an apocalyptic vision of the future, distinguishes al-Qaida and its affiliates from conventional terrorists groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, or even the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although secular political interests help drive al-Qaida’s struggle for power, these interests are understood and expressed in religious terms. Al-Qaida wants to purge the Middle East of American political, military, and economic influence, but only as part of a far more sweeping religious agenda: a “defensive jihad” to defeat a rival system portrayed as an existential threat to Islam.

The explicitly religious character of the “New Terrorism” poses a profound security challenge for the United States. The social, economic, and political conditions in the Arab and broader Islamic world that have helped give rise to al-Qaida will not be easily changed. The maximalist demands of the new terrorists obviate dialogue or negotiation. Traditional strategies of deterrence by retaliation are unlikely to work because the jihadists have no territory to hold at risk, seek sacrifice, and court Western attacks that will validate their claims about Western hostility to Islam. The United States will instead need to pursue a strategy of containment, while seeking ways to redress, over the long run, underlying causes.

The Fabric of New Terrorism

Religiously motivated terrorism, as Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation first noted in 1997, is inextricably linked to pursuit of mass casualties. The connection is rooted in the sociology of biblical religion. Monotheistic faiths are characterized by exclusive claims to valid identity and access to salvation. The violent imagery embedded in their sacred texts and the centrality of sacrifice in their liturgical traditions establish the legitimacy of killing as an act of worship with redemptive qualities. In these narratives, the enemy must be eradicated, not merely suppressed.

In periods of deep cultural despair, eschatology—speculation in the form of apocalyptic stories about the end of history and dawn of the kingdom of God—can capture the thinking of a religious group. History is replete with instances in which religious communities—Jewish, Christian, Islamic—immolated themselves and perpetrated acts of intense violence to try to spur the onset of a messianic era. Each community believed it had reached the nadir of degradation and was on the brink of a resurgence that would lead to its final triumph over its enemies—a prospect that warranted and required violence on a massive scale.

Such episodes of messianic zeal are not restricted to the distant past. In the mid-1980s, a group of Israeli settlers plotted to destroy the Dome of the Rock, the 8th-century mosque atop the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem. The settlers appeared to believe that destroying the mosque would spark an Arab invasion, which would trigger an Israeli nuclear response—the Armageddon said by the Bible to precede the kingdom of God. The plot was never carried out because the conspirators could not get a rabbinical blessing. Analogous attempts have characterized Christian apocalypticists and even a Buddhist community whose doctrine was strongly influenced by Christian eschatology—Aum Shinrikyo.

The Doctrinal Potency of al-Qaida

Similar thinking can be detected in narrative trends that inform al-Qaida’s ideology and actions. Apocalyptic tales circulating on the web and within the Middle East in hard copy tell of cataclysmic battles between Islam and the United States, Israel, and sometimes Europe. Global battles see-saw between infidel and Muslim victory until some devastating act, often the destruction of New York by nuclear weapons, brings Armageddon to an end and leads the world’s survivors to convert to Islam.

The theological roots of al-Qaida’s leaders hark back to a medieval Muslim jurisconsult, Taqi al Din Ibn Taymiyya, two of whose teachings have greatly influenced Islamic revolutionary movements. The first was his elevation of jihad—not the spiritual struggle that many modern Muslims take it to be, but physical combat against unbelievers—to the rank of the canonical five pillars of Islam (declaration of faith, prayer, almsgiving, self-purification, and pilgrimage to Mecca). The second was his legitimization of rebellion against Muslim rulers who do not enforce sharia, or Islamic law, in their domains.

Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas were revived in the 1960s in Egypt, where they underpinned 25 years of violence, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. When the Egyptian government vanquished the militants, survivors fled abroad, taking advantage of European laws regarding asylum or of the lawlessness of Yemen, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.

Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings have even deeper roots in Saudi Arabia. They became part of the founding ideology of the Saudi state when Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab formed an alliance with Ibn Saud in 1744

Al-Qaida embodies both the Egyptian and Saudi sides of the jihad movement, which came together in the 1960s when some Egyptian militants sought shelter in Saudi Arabia, which was locked in conflict with Nasserist Egypt. Osama bin Laden himself is a Saudi, and his second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian who served three years in prison for his role in Sadat’s assassination.

The jihadist themes in Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings are striking an increasingly popular chord in parts of the Muslim world.

Al-Qaida’s Geopolitical Reach

Religiously motivated militants have now dispersed widely to multiple “fields of jihad.” The social problems that have fueled their discontent are well known—low economic growth, falling wages and increasing joblessness, poor schooling, relentless but unsustainable urban growth, and diminishing environmental resources, especially water. Political alienation and resentment over the intrusion into traditional societies of offensive images, ideas, and commercial products compound these problems and help account for the religious voice given to these primarily secular grievances. The mobilization of religious imagery and terminology further transforms secular issues into substantively religious ones, putting otherwise negotiable political issues beyond the realm of bargaining and making violent outcomes more likely.

The political power of religious symbols has led some pivotal states, in particular Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to use them to buttress their own legitimacy. In so doing they perversely confer authority on the very clerical opposition that threatens state power and impedes the modernization programs that might, over the long haul, materially improve quality of life. Although the jihadists are unable to challenge these states, Islamists nevertheless dominate public discourse and shape the debate on foreign and domestic policy. For the jihadists, following Ibn Taymiyya’s principles, the “near enemy” at home took precedence over the “far enemy,” which was once Israel and now includes the United States and the West. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Islamists have inextricably intertwined the near and far enemies. The governments’ need to cater to the sentiments aroused within mosques and on the Islamist airwaves to keep their regimes secure dictates their tolerance or even endorsement of extreme anti-American views. At the same time, strategic circumstances compel both states to provide diplomatic or other practical support for U.S. policies that offend public sensitivities. It is small wonder that Egyptians and Saudis are the backbone of al-Qaida and that Saudi Arabia spawned most of the September 11 attackers.

The fields of jihad stretch far and wide. In the Middle East, al-Qaida developed ties in Lebanon and Jordan. In Southeast Asia, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans trained in Afghanistan, or conspired with those who had, to engage in terror, most horrifically the bombing in Bali. In Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan became a full-fledged jihadist group. In Pakistan, jihadists with apocalyptic instincts nearly provoked a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Videotapes of atrocities of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group circulate in Europe as recruitment propaganda for the global jihad.

Given its role as a springboard for the September 11 attacks, Europe may be the most crucial field of jihad. Lack of political representation and unequal access to education, jobs, housing, and social services have turned European Muslim youth against the states in which they live. In the United Kingdom, the Muslim prison population, a source of recruits for the radical cause, has doubled in the past decade. Close to a majority of young Muslims in Britain have told pollsters that they feel no obligation to bear arms for England but would fight for bin Laden.

The United States remains al-Qaida’s prime target. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the al-Qaida spokesman, has said that there can be no truce until the group has killed four million Americans, whereupon the rest can convert to Islam.

The Recalcitrance of the Jihadists

How should the United States respond to the jihadist threat? To the extent one can speak of the root causes of the new terrorism, they defy direct and immediate remedial action. Population in the Middle East is growing rapidly, and the median age is dropping. The correlation between youth and political instability highlights the potential for unrest and radicalization. In cities, social welfare programs, sanitation, transportation, housing, power, and the water supply are deteriorating. In much of the Muslim world, the only refuge from filth, noise, heat, and, occasionally, surveillance is the mosque. Economists agree that the way out of the morass is to develop institutions that facilitate the distribution of capital and create opportunity; how to do that, they are unsure. The West can offer aid but cannot correct structural problems.

Improving public opinion toward the United States is also deeply problematic. Decades of official lies and controlled press have engendered an understandable skepticism toward the assertions of any government, especially one presumed hostile to Muslim interests. Trust is based on confidence in a chain of transmission whose individual links are known to be reliable. Official news outlets or government spokespersons do not qualify as such links. Nor, certainly, do Western news media.

Moreover, highly respected critics of the United States in Saudi Arabia demonstrate an ostensibly profound understanding of U.S. policies and society, while offering a powerful and internally consistent explanation for their country’s descent from the all-powerful, rich supplier of oil to the West to a debt-ridden, faltering economy protected by Christian troops and kowtowing to Israel. These are difficult narratives to counter, especially in a society where few know much about the West.

The prominent role of clerics in shaping public opinion offers yet more obstacles. The people who represent the greatest threat of terrorist action against the United States follow the preaching and guidance of Salafi clerics—the Muslim equivalent of Christian “fundamentalists.” Although some Salafi preachers have forbidden waging jihad as harmful to Muslim interests, their underlying assumptions are that jihad qua holy war against non-Muslims is fundamentally valid and that Islamic governments that do not enforce sharia must be opposed. No authoritative clerical voice offers a sympathetic view of the United States.

The prognosis regarding root causes, then, is poor. The world is becoming more religious; Islam is the fastest-growing faith; religious expression is generally becoming more assertive and apocalyptic thinking more prominent. Weapons of mass destruction, spectacularly suited to cosmic war, are becoming more widely available. Democratization is at a standstill. Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia are unwilling or unable to oppose anti-Western religiously based popular feeling. Immigration, conversion, and inept social policies will intensify parallel trends in Europe.

At least for now, dialogue does not appear to be an option. Meanwhile, global market forces beyond the control of Western governments hasten Western cultural penetration and generate ever-greater resentment. Jihadists could conceivably argue that they have a negotiable program: cessation of U.S. support for Israel, withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, broader American disengagement from the Islamic world. But U.S. and allied conceptions of international security and strategic imperatives will make such demands difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate.

Reducing Vulnerability to New Terrorism

Facing a global adversary with maximal goals and lacking a bargaining option or means to redress severe conditions that may or may not motivate attackers, the United States is confined primarily to a strategy of defense, deterrence by denial, and, where possible and prudent, preemption. Deterrence through the promise of retaliation is impossible with an adversary that controls little or no territory and invites attack.

Adjusting to the new threat entails disturbing conceptual twists for U.S. policymakers. After generations of effort to reduce the risk of surprise attack through technical means and negotiated transparency measures, surprise will be the natural order of things. The problem of warning will be further intensified by the creativity of this adversary, its recruitment of Europeans and Americans, and its ability to stage attacks from within the United States. Thinking carefully about the unlikely—”institutionalizing imaginativeness,” as Dennis Gormley has put it—is by definition a paradox, but nonetheless essential for American planners.

With warning scarce and inevitably ambiguous, it will be necessary to probe the enemy both to put him off balance and to learn of his intentions. The United States has done so clandestinely against hostile intelligence agencies, occasionally with remarkable results. Against al-Qaida, a more difficult target, the approach will take time to cohere. Probes could also take the form of military action against al-Qaida-affiliated cantonments, where they still exist. The greater the movement’s virtuality, however, the fewer such targets will be available for U.S. action. Preemptive strikes could target sites that develop, produce, or deploy weapons of mass destruction.

A decade of al-Qaida activity within the United States has erased the customary distinction between the domestic and the foreign in intelligence and law enforcement. The relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation must change. Only a more integrated organization can adapt to the seamlessness of the transnational arenas in which the terrorists operate.

Civil liberties and security must be rebalanced. How sweeping the process turns out to be will depend largely on whether the nation suffers another attack or at least a convincing attempt. Americans will have to be convinced that curtailing civil liberties is unavoidable and limited to the need to deal with proximate threats. They will need to see bipartisan consensus in Congress and between Congress and the White House and be sure that politicians are committed to keeping the rebalancing to a minimum.

The distinction between public and private sector has also been vitiated. Al-Qaida has targeted the American population and used our infrastructure against us. A perpetual state of heightened readiness would impose unacceptable opportunity costs on the civilian world, so vulnerabilities must be reduced. Civilian ownership of the infrastructure is a complication. What the U.S. government does not own, it cannot completely defend. Private owners do not necessarily share the government’s perception of the terrorist threat and are often able to resist regulation. Where they accept the threat, they view it as a national security issue for which the federal government should bear the cost. The idea of public-private partnership is only now finding acceptance in the cybersecurity realm as concerns over litigation have brought about a focus on due diligence. The pursuit of public-private partnership will have to be extended to all potentially vulnerable critical infrastructures by a government that does not yet understand perfectly which infrastructures are truly critical and which apparently dispensable infrastructures interact to become critical.

Defending these infrastructures will also present hair-raising challenges. The U.S. government is not on the lookout for military formations, but for a lone, unknown person in a visa line. Technology—biometrics, data-mining, super-fast data processing, and ubiquitous video-surveillance—will move this needle-in-the-haystack problem into the just-possible category by providing the means to collect and store detailed and unique characteristics of huge numbers of people and match them to the person in the visa line. The cost will be the need to archive personal information on a great mass of individuals.

The United States must also devise ways to block or intercept vehicles that deliver weapons of mass destruction. It cannot do that alone. The cruise missile threat, for instance, requires the cooperation of suppliers, which means an active American role in expanding the remit of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Weapons components themselves must be kept out of terrorists’ hands. The recent adoption of MTCR controls on cheap technologies for transforming small aircraft into cruise missiles shows what can be accomplished. Washington has been buying surplus fissile materials from Russia’s large stock and helping Russians render them useless for weapons; it will be vital to continue generous funding for that effort.

Remote detection of weapons, especially nuclear ones, that have reached the United States is crucial. Emergency response teams will need to be able to pinpoint the location of a device, identify its type, and know in advance how to render it safe once it has been seized. Local authorities will have to detect and identify biological and chemical agents that have been released. Genetically engineered vaccines must be rapidly developed and produced to stop local attacks from becoming national, and ultimately global, epidemics. Special medical units must be on standby to relieve local health-care personnel who become exhausted or die.

Offensive opportunities will be limited but not impossible. They do, however, require impeccable intelligence, which has been hard to come by. The Afghan nexus in which jihadis initially came together and the cohesion of the groups that constitute the al-Qaida movement have made penetration forbiddingly complicated. But as al-Qaida picks up converts to Islam and Muslims who have long resided in Western countries, penetration may become easier. The more they look like us, the more we look like them.

Another source of potentially vital information is the jihadis picked up by local authorities abroad on the basis of U.S. intelligence and then shipped to their countries of origin for interrogation. Transfers of this sort were carried out frequently during the 1990s and sometimes produced life-saving intelligence on imminent terrorist attacks In some cases, the authorities where a suspect resides will not wish to make an arrest, fearing terrorist retaliation, political problems at home, or diplomatic frictions abroad. The United States has asserted the authority to conduct these operations without the consent of the host government but has generally refrained from acting. In the wake of September 11, Washington may want to reassess the risks and benefits of these unauthorized transfers, or, put more crudely, kidnappings.

Without revoking the longstanding executive order prohibiting assassination, the United States should also consider targeted killing, to use the Israeli phrase, of jihadists known to be central to an evolving conspiracy to attack the United States or to obtain weapons of mass destruction. As a practical matter, the intelligence value of such a person alive would generally outweigh the disruptive benefits of his death, assuming that U.S. or friendly intelligence services could be relied on to keep him under surveillance. But this will not always be so. When it is not, from a legal standpoint, targeted killing falls reasonably under the right to self-defense. Such a policy departure is unsavory. But in a new strategic context, with jihadis intent on mass casualties, unsavory may not be a sensible threshold.

Allied Cooperation

As the al-Qaida movement dissolves into virtuality in 60 countries worldwide, international cooperation becomes ever more indispensable to countering the threat.

Many countries that host al-Qaida will cooperate with the United States out of self-interest; they do not want jihadis on their soil any more than Americans do on theirs. A durable and effective counterterrorism campaign, however, requires not just bare-bones cooperation, but political collaboration at a level that tells the bureaucracies that cooperation with their American counterparts is expected. Such a robust, wholesale working relationship is what produces vital large-scale initiatives—a common diplomatic approach toward problem states; a sustainable program of economic development for the Middle East; domestic policy reforms that lessen the appeal of jihadism to Muslim diaspora communities; improved border controls; and tightened bonds among the justice ministries, law enforcement, customs, and intelligence agencies, and special operations forces on the front lines.

Whether this level of burden sharing emerges, let alone endures, depends on the give and take among the players. Since September 11, the United States has fostered allied perceptions that Washington is indifferent to their priorities. Apart from slow progress toward a UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, the United States has not yet paid a serious penalty in terms of allied cooperation. The scale of the attacks and the administration’s blend of resolve and restraint in the war on terrorism have offset allies’ disappointment in its go-it-alone posture. But as the war grinds on, good will is certain to wear thin. The United States would be wise to forgo some of its own trade- and treaty-related preferences, at least in short term, to ensure allied support in the crises that will inevitably come.

Washington’s interests would also be well served by modifying what appears at times to be a monolithic view of terrorist networks that equates the Arafats and Saddams of the world with bin Laden (or his successors). Several European partners regard Arafat and his ilk as considerably more controllable through diplomacy than bin Laden and view countries such as Iran, which has used terrorism against the United States, as amenable to “constructive dialogue.” Greater American flexibility may prove essential for ensuring European capitals’ military, law-enforcement, and intelligence cooperation. And the fact remains that al-Qaida has killed more Americans than have Iraq, Iran, or Palestinian groups and would use weapons of mass destruction against the United States as soon as it acquired them.

Israel and the Palestinians

Since the heyday of the Middle East peace process under Ehud Barak’s Labor government, jihadists have exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to boost their popularity. The strategem has worked: jihadists are seen as sticking up for Palestinian rights, while Arab governments do nothing. Direct, energetic U.S. diplomatic intervention in the conflict would lessen the appeal of jihadi claims and make it marginally easier for regional governments to cooperate in the war on terrorism by demonstrating American concern for the plight of Palestinians.

The Bush administration fears becoming entangled in a drawn out, venomous negotiation between irreconcilable parties. They see it distracting them from higher priorities and embroiling them in domestic political disputes over whether Washington should pressure Israel. Still, the administration has been drawn in by degrees and has announced its support for creating a Palestinian state. If the war on terrorism is now the highest U.S. priority, then more vigorous—and admittedly risky—involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is required. The jihadi argument that the United States supports the murder of Palestinian Muslims must be defanged.

Democratization in the Middle East

As it continues to engage with the authoritarian regimes in Cairo and Riyadh, Washington should try to renegotiate the implicit bargain that underpins its relations with both. The current bargain is structured something like this: Egypt sustains its commitment to peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia stabilizes oil prices, and both proffer varying degrees of diplomatic support for American objectives in the region, especially toward Iraq. In return, Washington defers to their domestic policies, even if these fuel the growth and export of Islamic militancy and deflect public discontent onto the United States and Israel. With jihadis now pursuing nuclear weapons, that bargain no longer looks sensible.

Under a new bargain, Cairo and Riyadh would begin to take measured risks to lead their publics gradually toward greater political responsibility and away from Islamist thinking (and action) by encouraging opposition parties of a more secular cast and allowing greater freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia would throttle back on its wahhabiization of the Islamic world by cutting its production and export of unemployable graduates in religious studies and reducing subsidies for foreign mosques and madrassas that propagate a confrontational and intolerant form of Islam while crowding out alternative practices. Both countries would be pushed to reform their school curricula—and enforce standards—to ensure a better understanding of the non-Islamic world and encourage respect for other cultures. With increased financial and technical assistance from the West, regimes governing societies beset by economic problems that spur radicalism would focus more consistently on the welfare of their people. In this somewhat utopian conception, leaders in both countries would use their newly won credibility to challenge Islamist myths about America and the supposed hostility of the West toward Islam. In sum, Cairo and Riyadh would challenge the culture of demonization across the board, with an eye toward laying the groundwork for liberal democracy.

In the framework of this new bargain, the United States would establish contacts with moderate opposition figures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other countries. The benefit would be twofold. Washington would get a better sense of events on the ground and would also gain credibility and perhaps even understanding on the part of critics. For this effort to bear fruit, however, the United States would have to use regional media efficiently—something for which it has as yet no well-developed strategy. Washington would also have to engage in a measure of self scrutiny and explore ways in which its policies contribute—in avoidable ways—to Muslim anti-Americanism. “Re-branding” is not enough.

Change will be slow. The regimes in Cairo and Riyadh face largely self-inflicted problems they cannot readily surmount without serious risks to stability. Nor is the United States entirely free to insist on the new bargain: it will need Saudi cooperation on Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein is in power, if not longer, given the uncertainties surrounding Iraq’s future after Saddam leaves the stage. Egyptian support for a broader Arab-Israeli peace will also remain essential. But change has to start sometime, somewhere. It will take steady U.S. pressure and persistent attempts to persuade both regimes that a new bargain will serve their countries’ long-term interests. The sooner the new deals are struck, the better.

Hazardous but Not Hopeless

Western democracies face a serious, possibly transgenerational terrorist threat whose causes are multidimensional and difficult to address. The situation is hazardous, but not hopeless. The United States possesses enormous wealth, has capable allies, and stands on the leading edge of technological development that will be key to survival. A strategy that takes into account the military, intelligence, law-enforcement, diplomatic, and economic pieces of the puzzle will see America through. For the next few years, the objective will be to contain the threat, in much the same way that the United States contained Soviet power throughout the Cold War. The adversary must be prevented from doing his worst, while Washington and its allies wear down its capabilities and undermine its appeal to fellow Muslims. Success will require broad domestic support and a strong coalition abroad.

Prospects are, in many respects, bleak. But the dangers are not disproportionate to those the nation faced in the 20th-century. America’s initial reaction to September 11 was and indeed had to be its own self-defense: bolstering homeland security, denying al-Qaida access to failing or hostile states, dismantling networks, and developing a law-enforcement and intelligence network able to better cope with the new adversary. Not all vulnerabilities can be identified and even fewer remedied, and al-Qaida need launch only one attack with a weapon of mass destruction to throw the United States into a profound crisis. Washington and its partners must convince Muslim populations that they can prosper without either destroying the West or abandoning their own traditions to the West’s alien culture. That is a long-term project. American and allied determination in a war against apocalyptic—and genocidal—religious fanatics must be coupled with a generous vision about postwar possibilities. Militant Islam cannot be expected to embrace the West in the foreseeable future. But the United States can lay the foundation for a lasting accommodation by deploying its considerable economic and political advantages. It is not too late to begin.