Thursday, December 30, 2004

War on Terror: A Battle for Hearts and Minds at Home

Arab News
The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily

Thursday, 30, December, 2004 (19, Dhul Qa`dah, 1425)

War on Terror: A Battle for Hearts and Minds at Home
Adrian Hamilton, The Independent —

LONDON, 30 December 2004 — If the West is fighting a “war on terror”, as President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair would have us believe, it is a war that we still don’t seem to know whether we’re winning or losing. Three years after Sept. 11, we don’t even seem to know the nature or strength of the enemy and what threat he poses. This year has taught us at least that there is a threat, and that it is aimed as much at Europe as at the United States. The Madrid bombings in March, which killed more than 190 civilians in a coordinated attack on commuter trains in the Spanish capital, was brutal, well-planned and effective. The investigations since have shown that the perpetrators were connected with extremist groups in North Africa, Germany and Britain.

The evidence from numerous bombings shows that terrorist cells, willing and able to launch assaults on civilians as well as Western targets (such as the December assault on the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), exist across the Muslim world. But, beyond that, all remains uncertain. Does the re-emergence of Bin Laden suggest that Al-Qaeda is back in the saddle of international terrorism, if indeed it ever was quite the driving force of Western myth? Does the failure of terrorists to launch a major assault on either the US or its closest ally, Britain, indicate that it is a broken organization or, as the British authorities suggest, merely that it is biding its time? Is Islamic fundamentalism at the center of the threat or merely an excuse for local organizations, with quite separate agendas and histories, to take action under the banner of religious righteousness? Much of the problem lies with the extreme politicization of the subject.

To justify the invasion to their deeply divided countries, Bush and Blair have resorted to a Manichaean language of a final struggle between good and evil, in which good is represented by peace-loving democracies and evil by repressive regimes, particularly in the Middle East. In this vision, terror has become a weapon of the forces of evil who wish to “destroy” democracies, and the fear is that the terrorists may be able to get hold of horrendous weapons from unstable or dictatorial regimes. Not only is the scale of threat new, but so is the shape of the terrorist: better organized, religiously driven, middle class and educated in its leadership, sophisticated in its methods and international in its reach.

Against this, there is a school of thought, especially among Arabists and domestic intelligence officers, that there is nothing fundamentally new in the threat, other than some of the methods used. A number of experts argue that the threat from Al-Qaeda is greatly exaggerated. The group, goes this argument, was never more than a relatively small, although well-financed, organization that burgeoned in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, tried desperately to find a raison d’etre when that ended by ramping up its rhetoric and actions against the US and the West, and has been pretty well broken by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. What we are seeing now, goes this line of reasoning, is not a single threat but a host of local organizations able to use the Internet and the relations between radical mosques around the world, but which are largely self-organized and self-financed. Publicity apart, the actual threat they pose is not hugely different in kind or extent than the threat that has always been posed by separatist organizations such as the IRA, ETA and the Muslims of Southeast Asia.

These two views lead governments and security forces to very different conclusions as to how to respond. On the “new era, new terror” theory, governments have to take actions quite different in scale and approach than the anti-terrorism of the past. At home, civil rights have to be tempered against the new threat, as has liberal immigration policy. Abroad, the West has to be prepared to take “pre-emptive” action — as it has in Iraq and may yet have to do in Iran, North Korea or the Sudan. On the “more of the same, only more deadly” theory, these are the worst responses. What is needed is a better-coordinated and multinational police operation, concentrating on intelligence and expertise to prevent attacks. The responses proposed by Bush and Blair could divert attention from the hard police work, dividing the West in its response and encouraging the myth of the terrorist as a religious superman. Depriving citizens of their civil rights, clamping down on immigration, singling out Islam as a root cause of extremism and taking unilateral action against Islamic nations could all help to bring about the conditions that the terrorist craves.

On the whole, the evidence of the last year would seem to support the latter argument. There have been bombings, hostage taking and killings through much of the Islamic world. But most of these can be explained largely in regional terms and, interestingly, almost all the terrorists killed or caught have been locals, not imported zealots. True, there has been consistent evidence that such groups have been in communication with each other. But there is little sign that even the Madrid bombings were coordinated at an international rather than local level. Even in Iraq, which has undoubtedly proved a magnet to young Muslims ready to give their lives for the cause, the number of foreigners seems to have been grossly exaggerated in London and Washington.

No one can rule out another major attack on the West. It would be irresponsible to deny the possibility. Even a weakened Al-Qaeda seems to have the money and the capacity for it. But the more important point may be less its continued threat than its failure in its prime aim of rousing Muslims to take up arms against the stranger. It hasn’t happened and, outside Iraq, does not seem likely to. For the US it is possible, although in some ways shortsighted, to see the “war” in terms of self-defense and a fortress America. For Europe and most of the rest of the world, with large Muslim populations within their boundaries and alongside them, the challenge has to be to isolate potential terrorist cells from the mainstream population.

It is no easy task but it’s one that, looking at the words and behavior of politicians, they are happy to ignore. It’s not the war against terror abroad that we need to worry about, but the battle for hearts and minds at home.