The War on Terror Requires Subtler Weapons

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

May 27, 2003

The terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco highlight a sad truth: the war on terrorism is far from over. Al-Qaeda and the ideology it promulgates remain strong and the Middle East in particular will remain fertile ground for anti-western radicalism for the foreseeable future. As a result, for years and perhaps decades to come, western states must be ready to live with the risk of large-scale terrorist violence.

Several important tasks remain to be completed in the war on terrorism. First, much of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership apparently remains alive, including of course Osama bin Laden himself and Ayman Zawahiri, his deputy. Not only can these leaders continue to organise and plan but, as long as they remain alive in the face of a worldwide manhunt, they gain stature for their movement through nothing more than successful defiance.

Al-Qaeda also has a remarkable ability to regenerate its leadership and cells. In the years before September 11 2001, police and security forces disrupted its cells worldwide and arrested many members. These efforts probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives but they did not stop it. It is more than a movement: it is also an organisation that seeks to inspire and co-ordinate other groups and individuals. Even if it takes losses beyond its ability to recuperate, there is still a much broader Islamist movement that is hostile to the US and other western countries, seeks to overthrow US allies and is committed to violence.

A proper listing of the al-Qaeda roster should also include at the very least senior officials of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; the Jamaat Islamiyya in south-east Asia; the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria; and al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya in Somalia.

The conceptual key is to see al-Qaeda not as a terrorist group but, rather, as a global insurgency. Unlike, say, the November 17 organisation in Greece, al-Qaeda cannot be crushed with a few arrests. Instead, it requires a painstaking struggle to take out not only the current leadership but also the broader organisational structure.

That struggle is going well in the short term but the long-term outlook is more troubling. Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups continue to draw numerous recruits throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world more broadly. Although it is difficult to get more than an anecdotal sense of al-Qaeda’s recruitment, Mr bin Laden himself gloated about its successes in a videotape recorded before the overthrow of the Taliban.

While al-Qaeda remains attractive, the US appears to be failing to win support in the Muslim world. Polls taken before the war with Iraq became imminent suggest that in Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt—whose governments strongly support the war on terror—popular antipathy towards the US is intense. US efforts at public diplomacy have made little progress so far.

Indeed, efforts to fight terrorism have fostered anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Washington has embraced sordid governments such as the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, remained silent about Russian brutality in Chechnya and made other distasteful concessions to ensure co-operation against al-Qaeda. Such moves bolster al-Qaeda’s claims that the US supports the oppression of Muslims and props up brutal governments.

Another sign of problems on the horizon is the emergence of new areas in Afghanistan where would-be radicals are able to congregate and form lasting ties. Chechnya remains a bloody stand-off, attracting militant Islamists as well as homegrown radicals. Kashmir has died down but the trouble may soon reignite. Xinjiang remains turbulent and Indonesia may flare up. If the US mishandles the reconstruction of Iraq, that country too could become a training ground for potential al-Qaeda recruits.

No easy long-term strategy promises success. Instead, the US and its allies must accept the inevitability of a large, global movement bent on murder as a form of political expression. Success will mean winning the hearts and minds of the people of the Islamic world. This is a much bigger campaign than the war on terrorism has so far embraced. It will require tools—economic, cultural, and political—that the US has defined but has yet to wield effectively.