Political vs. Military Solutions to Terrorism
The war against international terrorism and its sponsors is a war unlike any we have ever known. There is no battlefield, no clash of armies. It is a war fought in the shadows and recesses of the world. Terrorism breeds among the hopeless and the alienated, in societies where democracy and economic opportunity are out of reach for most people. Military power alone will not end this scourge of mankind. Victory will require extensive international cooperation in the intelligence, economic, diplomatic, law enforcement and humanitarian fields. It will require a seamless network of cooperation between America and her allies (Hagel, 2003).
In this section we will discuss how terrorist organizations have successfully employed a number of political strategies to gain popular support, and compare these efforts to the largely non-political strategies employed by the Bush administration in its attempts to counter terrorism. We will also look at the overall threat of terrorism as compared to crime, and weigh the respective resources applied to each.
From September 14 to 17, 2001, Gallup surveyed individuals in 14 foreign countries on whether they thought that the United States should attack the country (or countries) serving as a base for the 9/11 terrorists... of those surveyed “only Israel and India supported a military attack” (Downing, 2006:441). This poll reflected both the unpopularity of the military approach to terrorism, as well as the prevailing conventional wisdom against it. President Bush’s (2001c) argument that al-Qaeda hates “freedom...life...education...health care” is seen for the oversimplification that it is:
It is nonsense to claim that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have no morality and simply want to annihilate Western civilization...Even bin Laden has never preached destruction of Western culture or else, as he has taunted, “Why didn’t we attack Sweden?” At every turn, bin Laden has sought moral justification for Al Qaeda’s actions and demands (Atran, 2006:136).
“There are two interpretations currently on offer in Iraq, that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
(who argued that Islam mandates terror), and that of Grand Aytollah Ali al-Sistani (who says Islam does no such thing and is compatible with democracy)” (Lowry, 2006:25). If we are to believe President Bush (2002 b), then the “terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own” are obviously of the first variety. And this is truly all we need to concern ourselves with. After all, what does one do with parasites? One exterminates them. Parasites have no political cause for their circumstances, no justification for their actions, and no place among decent human beings. One does not need the consent or cooperation of the international community to do away with parasites, for they are worthless and meaningless. It’s not important to understand why they are terrorists, or what oppression or desperation has brought them to these particular crossroads, it’s sufficient that we simply blow them out of existence, along with any number of innocent civilians who happen to be in the vicinity (one is reminded of Elmer Fudd leaving mass destruction in his wake as he unsuccessfully attempts to blast Buggs Bunny). And Vice Admiral John Scott Redd, USN [retired] is very optimistic about the progress we’ve made, and the prospects for continued military success. Redd believes that the US is “better prepared today to fight the war on terror than at any time in out Nation’s history, and we are getting better everyday” (Committee on Foreign Relations, 2006:7).
On the other hand, Martha Crenshaw (2006:64) writes “that even the most extreme and unusual forms of political behavior can follow an internal, strategic logic...Terrorism can be considered a reasonable way of pursuing extreme interests in the political arena.” But the Bush administration refuses to consider this possibility, for this would afford those who employ terrorism as a political tactic a voice, a face, an identity beyond that of “terrorist.” Rather than consider that groups employing terrorism may have a legitimate grievance, the Bush administration has instead chosen to flatly and unconditionally denounce the “terrorists” and vow retaliation:
...we're going to get them, no matter what it takes. This act will not stand; we will find those who did it; we will smoke them out of their holes; we will get them running and we'll bring them to justice. We will not only deal with those who dare attack America, we will deal with those who harbor them and feed them and house them (Bush, 2001e).
What the Bush administration is missing is the bigger picture. Far more than an engaging game of “whack-a- mole,” the United States government is facing a world-wide mutiny against the existing order. “Western governments must recognize that the tiny proportion of the population that ends up in terrorist cells cannot exist without the availability of broader sources of active or passive sympathy, resources and support” (Cronin, 2006:81). But how do terrorist groups obtain this support from the broader population? Given the offenses committed by the Bush administration, angering Muslims by the millions, the greatest challenge that remains is to unite the Muslim population against a common enemy. Scott Atran (2006:136, 143) offers an explanation of how this is accomplished:
The edited snippets and sound bites favored by today’s mass media have been used with consummate skill by jihadi leaders and ideologues, beginning with bin Laden himself. As a result, deeply local and historically nuanced interpretations of religious canon have been flattened and homogenized across the Muslim world and beyond, in ways that have nothing in particular to do with actual Islamic tradition but everything to do with a polar reaction to perceived injustice in the prevailing unipolar world...Historically and today, it is desecration of sacred places and perceived humiliation, even more than death and destruction, that has moved people to embrace violence.
“We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media... [We] are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma.”
- Ayman-al-Zawahiri, July 2005 (reprinted in Lynch, 2006:50).
Al-Qaeda is attempting to restructure the political identity of the entire Islamic population, primarily via the media. Much like any political campaign, al-Qaeda is targeting the “median voters of the Arab Muslim public.” While this target population may not be Islamist, because of their concern over American involvement in the Middle East and their fury over corrupt Arab governments, they are susceptible to Al-Qaeda’s anti-American message. While al-Qaeda has been utilizing the media all along, it invested in this tactic more heavily than ever after the American strikes against Afghanistan. Zawahiri strongly believes in the need to obtain wide support of the public. He uses American intervention in the region to turn popular support against America (Lynch 2006:53).
Jessica Stern (2004:1121-2) quotes from Zawahiri’s autobiography, in which he refers to the “crusader” alliance and the “fundamentalist coalition” which opposes it: “It is anxious to seek retribution for the blood of the martyrs, the grief of the mothers, the deprivation of the orphans, the suffering of the detainees, and the sores of the tortured people throughout the land of Islam.” Stern cautions that the Bush administration is giving Zawahiri every media advantage he could dream of to muster support for al-Qaeda. Not only does Stern claim that the Bush administration’s approach to fighting the war on terror is immoral when she refers to “the heart-wounding images of American soldiers humiliating, torturing, and killing Iraqi prisoners,” she also suggests that it’s just not very smart:
If bin Laden were writing a script for George Bush and Tony Blair to follow, would he not command them to attack and occupy a Muslim country in defiance of the international community and in violation of international law? And would it not be his fondest wish to see the “new crusaders” humiliate those Muslims, and themselves, in the most graphic way possible? Having those soldiers photograph their crimes might have seemed too much to ask for.
While Zawahiri is after the median voter, Zarqawi (al-Qaeda in Iraq) placed “far more emphasis on the mobilization of already-committed jihadists.” To tap this market, Zarqawi depended heavily on the internet to wage “cyber-jihad” against the Shi’a in Iraq. Zarqawi’s approach was very different from Zawahiri’s in that he did not care about the median Arab voter, only mujaheddin who could fight to further the goal of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Lynch, 2006:53).
Matthew Levitt (2006 a) explores a similar phenomenon: Hamas. In Levitt’s opinion, Hamas uses its vast charitable and political reach specifically as a vehicle to further terrorism. Much like al-Qaeda’s efforts to reach the median Arab voter, Hamas has built an extensive organization designed to win the popular vote, which it of course did in January 2006 with its remarkable victory at the polls. According to Levitt, however, Hamas is not a multi-functioning charitable, political organization with many distinct and separate agencies and functions. It is in fact a dangerous terrorist organization that has very strategically established itself in the social and political fabric for the sole purpose of obtaining the much needed public support for continuing its terrorist activities.
Desouza and Hensgen (2007) argue even further that beyond popular support from the general public, terrorist groups also depend on collaboration with other entities for their survival. The authors contend that no terrorist organization is completely self-sustaining; nor can terrorist groups exist in isolation. They “must engage in the fundamentals of established economic practices in order to succeed” (p.593). And once they taste a bit of success, an entire world of support and collaboration opens itself to them. Take the case of bin Laden:
Bin Laden’s success against the Soviets made him appear as an attractive and powerful “friend” in a destabilized area of interest to many. With popularity comes access, and bin Laden availed himself of the support and finances of many suitors. Support came from “charitable donations,” funds solicited from religious fundamentalist sympathizers, and both aid and funding were provided by the West. Among the charitable organizations is the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a private religious organization based in Saudi Arabia, with branches in more than 50 countries that contributes between $30 million to $80 million to various charities annually (Desouza and Hensgen, 2007:594).
If bin Laden can amass such support because of the popularity of his cause, so can a host of other groups across the globe. And let’s not forget, that the West was once one of these supporters. If, as Desouza & Hensgen argue, terrorist groups often collaborate with one another, fueling one another’s determination, anger, popularity, notoriety, and most importantly, enhancing one another’s strengths and abilities; then it stands to reason that America’s backing of one organization today (Fatah for example) against another organization (for example, Hamas), could prove seriously counter-productive to its interests tomorrow. Just as our support of bin Laden allowed him to grow stronger and draw even more support from others, the same can very well happen with Fatah. And who is to say that Fatah and Hamas won’t form another alliance, this time against the U.S.?
Joseph W. Foxell, Jr. (2004:485, 487-8) suggests that poor planning is at the heart of America’s plight. “For far too long, American counterterrorism planners, FBI agents, and CIA and DOD national security defense analysts have taken as their number one priority the task of refining their incident management techniques for combating today’s terrorism,” not tomorrow’s. By ignoring the “unlikely” scenarios, Foxell insists that policymakers are ignoring the very “security holes” that terrorists look for. Foxell contends that the war on terror is not really a war on terror at all, it is a war against al-Qaeda, and it is a war against Iraq. “The ‘war on terror’ label is particularly inappropriate for the conflict in Iraq,” as the US is fighting “armies and paramilitaries, not terrorists, in Iraq.” According to Foxell, the terrorist threat “will evolve continually as opportunity permits.” Foxell insists that better intelligence, not more military spending, is what’s needed. Indeed, approving hundreds of billions of dollars in military appropriations to further secure America’s position at the top of an oppressive order only demonstrates that the Bush Administration does not have a clear perspective on the true problem. The true problem is that America can only maintain its position at the top by maintaining control of the resources. America stands tall and strong, only as long as everyone else is bowing to its demands. America is not a widely-loved nation in today’s world. Nor is America only hated by terrorists and “evil-doers.” The unfortunate reality is that non-state actors are attempting to do through illegitimate means (the only means available to them) what state actors can not do through legitimate means: challenging American military hegemony.
While “illegitimate means” translates as criminal activities, Chris Dishman (2001) has taken an interesting look at the relationship between terrorist organizations and criminal organizations. Dishman concludes that while terrorists engage in illegal activities and may even collaborate with criminal organizations, their motives are different than those of ordinary criminals (terrorists are driven by a particular motive, not just the pursuit of profit). This leads back to the ultimate dilemma: What to do when the motives are right, but the means are wrong? The very first thing we should not do is treat terrorism and crime the same. For one thing, there is a huge difference between terrorism (that victimizes innocent people in pursuit of a moral or political objective), and ordinary crime (that victimizes innocent people in pursuit of a profit).
The main difference is that crime is most often caused by human greed, which is far more difficult to address than human need. The West, led by America, has the ability and the resources to eliminate human need if it chose to do so. But it is greed that prevents the West from doing so. (One could easily argue that this makes us the criminals). It is not surprising then, that fate has an ironic sense of humor. America, the leading nation in the West, suffers from astonishing levels of violence and crime: Violence and crime that we as a nation, have more-or-less come to accept. Practically the only time we hear politicians talking about crime is at election time, after which it is quickly forgotten.
Take for instance, former Mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Guiliani, the “hard-hearted prosecutor” who like all typical politicians, ran for office on an anti-crime platform (Purdum, 1993). Since 9/11, however, Guiliani is much more focused on terrorism than he is on crime. This of course, is because, even though crime is a much more serious problem, 9/11 made Guiliani a star. But we shouldn’t be too hard on old Rudy, this opportunism is fairly typical of your average self-serving politician. The truth is, while it may be good politics, it just doesn’t make sense, because the impact of crime in America is exponentially greater than the impact of terrorism in America.
Something that truly helps to put the 9/11 attacks in perspective with crime overall is that between 1965 and 2001, 64,246 Americans were murdered by other Americans in New York alone (Disaster Center, 2006). That constitutes an annual average of 2,471 Americans murdered every single year, by other Americans, in New York alone for the 26 years prior to and including 2001. When we compare this to the 2,752 people killed in the 9/11 attacks (Hirschkorn, 2003), it neither justifies nor minimizes the attacks; but it does put them in perspective. One conservative web site reports that “on average-there are close to 20,000 murders of innocent people in America each year” (Boycottliberalism.com, 2005). This may well be an accurate estimation. A more reliable source (U.S. Dept. Of Justice, 2006) reports that in 2005, there were 16,692 murders reported in America. This figure is up 3.4% from 2004. When one accounts for the unreported murders, the actual number may be close to 20,000 per year. The point to be made is that crime is an infinitely greater and more persistent challenge in America than terrorism.
Yet, on August 5, 2004, “President Bush signed a $417.5 billion defense appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2005,” with an additional $82 billion to supplement military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (this is relevant because we are supposedly in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight terrorism). Charles Pena (2005) argues that not only is this vast military spending “unnecessary,” it’s money misspent:
The military's role in the war on terrorism will mainly involve special operations forces in discrete missions against specific targets, not conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing entire regimes. The rest of the war aimed at dismantling and degrading the Al Qaeda terrorist network will require unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, not expensive new planes, helicopters, and warships.
When one compares the $499.5 billion that Bush applies toward fighting terrorism with the $3.3 billion annual budget of the struggling New York City Police Department (NYPD), one sees a serious imbalance (Weissenstein, 2003). As we’ve already addressed, fighting crime in this country is an infinitely greater and persistent challenge than fighting terrorism is. Yet President Bush’s strategy is to spend a tremendous amount more on terrorism. But, is President Bush’s $500 billion solution working?
Richard Jackson argues that the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism as actually perpetuating the violence rather than stemming it; and mirroring the terrorists tactics more than countering them. Jackson contends that clearly a more sophisticated approach is needed:
By failing to understand the history and context of terrorism, the actual nature and cause of terrorism, and the real motivations and aims of the terrorists (who are most certainly not sacrificing their lives in suicidal attacks simply for the sake of “evil”), we may seriously damage the search for more effective and long-term policy solutions (Jackson, 2005:166).
Rohan Gunaratna (2006:134) agrees:
Because of perceived injustices attributed to the West in general, particularly in Pakistan and Iraq, there will be significant support for the new generation of mujahideen in Iraq. Groups that were dying are making a comeback, and several new groups have emerged in Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, and even in Europe.
Audrey Kurth Cronin (2006:67) also agrees:
The current wave of international terrorism, characterized by unpredictable and unprecedented threats from non-state actors, not only is a reaction to globalization but is facilitated by it; the U.S. response to this reality has been reactive and anachronistic... There has been little creative thinking, however, about how to confront the growing terrorist backlash that has been unleashed.
The main thrust of Lefebvre and Farley’s (2007:644) recent article is that while terrorism presents a grave challenge to the West, many of our present counter terrorism measures (particularly torture) threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. The authors conclude that an ethical system that allows for torture would “nourish terrorism.” The United States has no viable options but to find a more sophisticated approach to terrorism. “Enthusiasm for martyrdom persists as long as there is a reasonable chance that it will lead to victory. Sacrifice must have a purpose” (Laqueur, 2003:97). Given that enthusiasm for suicide attacks does not appear to be waning, but has in fact “become part of the popular culture” one can surmise that terrorist organizations must still have reason to believe that suicide attacks are a successful means to a victorious end (Stern, 2003:53) . According to FBI Director Robert Mueller, “future suicide attacks on US soil” are “inevitable.” Regardless how much President Bush (2001a) assures us that “we will prevail,” we are far too vulnerable to win in a game of chicken with terrorists. As a statement issued by Qa’idat al-Jihad  remarks: “We are really puzzled to see Americans and their followers in the Western world think that they are able to confront people who wish to die more than they [the Americans] want to live” (Paz, 2003:2).
Alexander Evans (2006:9-10) explores the potential threat of madrasahs, and concludes that the “majority of madrasahs actually present an opportunity, not a threat.” Not only are they often the only defense between children and a hopeless existence of hunger, homelessness, forced labor camps and sex traffickers, madrasahs offer American policymakers a foot in the door to a crucial Muslim institution. Evans demonstrates that while it may be true that a relatively small number of jihadists came out of the madrasah system, most of which were in Pakistan in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the vast majority of madrasahs are centers of learning, moderation and “host to a quiet debate about reform.” Evans insists that the answer, rather than to oppose the madrasahs, attempt to close, burn or bomb the madrasahs, is to join the quiet debate...quietly, and facilitate trust and reform from within the institution, rather than continue the brute, feudal attempt to force change from without.
Douglas McCready (2006) offers a solution to terrorism grounded in the just war tradition. According to McCready, fighting terrorism with more acts of terrorism is not only counterproductive, it’s immoral. In fact, one of the main reasons it is so counterproductive is because by resorting to terrorist tactics, a state loses its moral superiority, and hence its popular support. While McCready admits that war “is never a desirable thing” it is often necessary to confront tyranny. Just war theory offers guidelines in how to conduct war without becoming a tyrant as well. The concept of just war began with Ambrose and Augustine, and was further developed by Aquinas. Grotius made it law. The concept was “to establish a just peace-not simply the absence of war-and to allow non-combatants to live free of strife.” Jessica Stern (2004:1122) reveals that while interviewing with terrorists, they have told her that “they see themselves as exempt from ordinary moral rules because the population they claim to protect is so abused, and because God is on their side.” Stern insists that this is precisely the position that the Bush administration has taken in fighting the war on terror. “In assuming itself to be above the law...the Bush administration has made a serious moral error.”
When we consider that “the continental US has 95,000 miles of coastline, 429 commercial airports with 30,000 daily flights, serviced by a fleet of 6,800 US commercial aircraft...200,000 private aircraft, 361 commercial seaports, and 104 nuclear power plants” (Winkates, 2006:88), it becomes a little bit clearer just exactly what our task really is: How do we defend our country against the threat of terrorism? Alone, that question is difficult enough. When combined with the statement above, one realizes that it is truly the challenge of the 21st Century.
Common sense suggests that the last thing we want to do is provoke attacks on American soil, because we can’t possible secure all of our borders and railroads and sea ports and highway and airports. The majority of the experts tell us that “waging physical war against militant jihadis-by itself- will only enhance their recruitment efforts,” thereby generating more terrorists and most likely directing their anger toward America (Crocker, 2005:54). Yet our government continues to provoke away, as if it were daring terrorists to attack us again. With only perhaps the rarest exception, every security professional, regardless of their political orientation, their stance on the war in Iraq or the war on terror, all agree that we are waging a war of ideas, and the Bush administration “must devise a better way to win the war of ideas involved in the fight against terrorism” (Holmes, 2007:22).
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June 7, 2006, along with his wife and child when the US dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, a laser-guided GBU-12, and GPS-guided GBU-38 on their home.
Obviously one could digress in many directions from this point. There are no doubt noble “Robin Hood” type criminals, criminals who break the law for revenge, and a host of other possible types of criminals. There are also, as Jessica Stern (2003) points out, terrorists that are motivated by profit (although one could argue that they are actually criminals by nature of their motive).
This is not to suggest that terrorism does not have its own costs and challenges. For an excellent overview of the extensive costs and challenges associated with terrorism, see: Paul R. Pillar, (2006). The Dimensions of Terrorism and Counterterrorism. In Russell D. Howard & Reid L. Sawyer (Eds.), Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment, Second Edition (24-45). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.
Has the Global Crusader Alliance learned the lessons of the Mujahidin?” (Paz, 2003).