War on Terror Over
The Bush administration is giving up the phrase “global war on terror.”
I take it this is because they have finally realized that if they are fighting a war on terror, the enemy is four guys in a gymn in Leeds. It isn’t going to take very long for people to realize that a) you don’t actually need to pay the Pentagon $400 billion a year if that is the problem and b) whoever is in charge of such a war isn’t actually doing a very good job at stopping the bombs from going off.
The Scotsman reports on the spectacular arrest of the Somalian suspect in the July 21 failed bombing attempts, saying, “The ethnicity of the eight London bombers, ranging from Somalis, to British-born sons of Pakistani parents and an Anglo-Jamaican Muslim convert, have surprised detectives investigating the attacks.”
They should not be surprised. You have to think about terrorists as units of hardware, on which software has been installed. The software is a world-view, a set of premises about the world, which then make sense of the terrorist’s actions. How does the software get installed? The potential terrorist meets the installer socially and falls under his spell.
The terrorists don’t have a social background in common. They aren’t lumpen proletariat or working class or middle class or bourgeois. Or rather, they have in their ranks persons from all these backgrounds.
The terrorists don’t have an ethnicity in common. Richard Reid and Lindsey Germaine were Caribbean. Others are Arabs. Some have been Somali or Eritrean or Tanzanian. Others have been South Asia (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh). Still others have been African-American or white Americans. They don’t even have to start out Muslim. Ayman al-Zawahiri was particularly proud of an al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan who had been an American Jew in a previous life. Ziad Jarrah, one of the September 11 hijackers, appears to have been a relatively secular young man right to the end. It isn’t about religion, except insofar as religion is a basis on which the recruiter can approach his victim. Islam as a religion forbids terrorism. But then so does Christianity, and that doesn’t stop there being Christian terrorists. They are a fringe in both religions.
If you try to “profile” the terrorist using such social markers as class or ethnicity, maybe even religious background, you will go badly astray.
What then do they have in common? They got the software installed in their minds. Why? Because they met the installer, and were susceptible to his worldview. That’s all they have in common.
So the young man goes to the Finsbury Mosque in the old days and hangs out with Imam. And he points out that the Israelis had fired a huge missile into a residential apartment building to get at a Hamas leader, and had killed 16 civilians, including a little baby. And nobody said “boo” to the Israelis. The US actually gave them more money after that. Tony Blair deplored it, but did nothing practical. Then, the Imam will tell him, the Americans destroyed Fallujah and killed hundreds of innocents. He might even have the photograph that circulated last December, of the dead baby at Fallujah. And nobody can say “boo” to the Americans, and they go on killing Muslims. In fact, the Imam intimates, pulling the young man close, almost whispering, tears in his eyes, the West is destroying Islam. Almost nothing is left of Islam, he will say. It will be completely devastated in our lifetimes. Nobody is lifting a finger to stop it.
So the young man says, what could anyone do? And the Imam says, there is something. But it isn’t for ordinary people. It isn’t for mere show-offs. And the young man says, sticking out his chest, I’m not showing off! I really want to help, to do something that would make a difference. The Imam says, a person who was really committed could change everything. He could save the Muslim Ummma from destruction. But, no, you are not ready. You don’t have the training, the commitment. You are useless. And the young man protests, until he is put in touch with the trainer and given the mission. His new friends all agree on this view of the world. He hangs out with them, at the mosque, at the gym, even socially. They reinforce each other. They tell each other the stories of the harm done to Muslims. They get angry. They swear. They are determined not to be like the rest, who just let it happen. The young man gains in determination. The mission inflates his ego. Maybe he had low self-esteem, maybe not. But he is about to save the world, he is told.
The software is of course a hugely distorted view of the universe. It lets the young man see Israeli atrocities, but not those of Hamas or the Aqsa Brigades. It lets him see American atrocities but not those of Saddam Hussein, Izzedin al-Duri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The software is fatally one-sided. It also exaggerates. The Muslim world is not in danger of being destroyed, least of all by the United States, a warm friend of most Muslim countries. But the software configures a dire crisis, almost apocalyptic, which can only be averted by an ethical hero who is willing to sacrifice himself. The software hides from the convert that he is to become a monster and kill innocents. It tells him he is a noble soldier, and his victims are wicked enemy soldiers, that there are no innocent civilians.
So how do you fight this form of terror? You disrupt the installation of the software in more and more minds. You adopt policies that make the story the software tells implausible. And you reach out to make sure people hear the implausibility.
It is not a war. It is counter-insurgency. Gen. Anthony Zinni tells the story about how he had been away from the Pentagon for a while and then was (as I remember) brought back to give a backgrounder. And a young soldier saluted and said he was there to fight the G-WOT. And Zinni said, “Come again?” The soldier looked puzzled and said, “Why, the Global War on Terror, sir.”
It was always a poor metaphor. I can’t figure out who they think they are fighting a war against. It sure isn’t the Muslim world. Morocco as a country couldn’t be more friendly and cooperative, and we have good trade relations with it. Algeria likewise. Tunisia? A topflight relationship. Even Libya is coming around. Egypt? A non-NATO ally. Palestine? We give them hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Jordan? A closer friend you couldn’t find. Lebanon? Very friendly except for Hizbullah and even they haven’t hit American targets any time in the past decade. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan.
It is incredible how good the relations are between the United States and almost all the countries of the Muslim world. They provide us with a NATO ally (Turkey) and 4 of our five non-NATO allies! The only sour notes are Bashar al-Asad in Syria (who hasn’t done anything to us as far as I know) and Iran, with which our relationship needn’t be different from that with Venezuela under Chavez (leaders of both countries badmouth the US, but don’t seem actively to harm us in ways that are visible to me). It will be argued that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon. But a) we don’t know that for sure; and b) even if it were to succeed in doing so, how would it be different from the Soviet Union, which hated us much more than Iran does and which had thousands of warheads pointed at us? So far no two countries, both of which have nuclear weapons, have fought a major war with one another, and the reason is clear. This is not to say it could not happen, but it is unlikely. As for the Mad Cheney scenario whereby a state gives nuclear weapons to terrorists to use on the US, puh- lease. Even my five year old niece wouldn’t believe that whopper. States don’t share nuclear bombs with terrorists; and it is not as if a bomb’s provenance could not easily be traced.
As for the jihadis, who do wish us harm, former CIA analyst Marc Sageman estimates the number of radical Muslims who can and would do significant harm to the US in the hundreds.
That’s right. The old “war on terror” was a war of the world’s sole superpower on a few hundred people. (I exclude Iraq because it is not and never was part of any ‘war on terror,’ though the incredible incompetence of the Bush administration has contributed to the ability of terrorists to operate there.)
On the issue of the sources of terrorism see recent articles by Howard LaFranchi at CSM and Jim Lobe, and James M. Wall of the Christian Century