To succeed, the war on terror must be fought on three levels – military, political and cultural. But what’s clear, says Fred Halliday, is that it has only just begun

It is now more than three years since the attack by al-Qaeda forces on the US – the first time in 500 years that a third-world force had hit massively at a city in the metropolitan north – and more than 10 years since the first wave of attacks on western targets began – with the attempt on the World Trade Center (1993), and subsequent attacks in Saudi Arabia (1995) and east Africa (1998).

The question of when and why these attacks began is important for an understanding of the challenge posed. But it is also time to start asking questions about how the struggle with terrorism is going, and about the prospects for the future.

Although it is never possible to judge with confidence, let alone certainty, any military conflict, conventional or not, during the course of hostilities, it is necessary for states and independent observers alike to form some provisional judgment of the kind of warfare that is being waged, and to develop an initial, if necessarily conditional, view of what the future holds in store. This article takes a look at the situations thrown up by global terrorism today.

The first essential step in defining the conflict is to assess the nature of the challenge. Much is made in western rhetoric about the irrational, fanatical, barbarian character of al-Qaeda and its associates. All this is true as a moral judgment and as an expression, shared by many in the Muslim world, of abhorrence at what al-Qaeda has done. But this leaves out an equally important element – that of explanation. Here moral outrage, and generic denunciations of “Arab” or “Muslim” extremism, do not help.

The core issue is one of politics and the political calculations this gives rise to in the minds of those organizing, or at least inspiring, the attack: first, in the sense that the causes of this movement lie in politics, in rejection of western policies in west Asia and of the states that are allied with the west, rather than in economic deprivation or the effects of globalization; and second, in that the goals of the movement are political – above all to seize power in a range of states, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan.

The political logic of terror
To adapt the famous saying of the early 19th century strategist von Clausewitz about war: terrorism is the continuation of politics by other means. The foot soldiers and suicide bombers who carry out operations might well be fanatics, but the people who direct them, as with other terrorist groups, are calculating and political. Theirs is a vision that stretches over years if not decades. They are seeking, above all, to seize control of a number of countries that are presently aligned with the US and Europe.

It is this political logic that explains the object and timing of attacks. September 11, 2001 was designed not to destroy or seriously weaken America, but to mobilize support for al-Qaeda and its allies in the Muslim world. The attacks of March 11, 2004, on the other hand, were intended to influence the politics of Spain, to punish a government involved in the western occupation of Iraq and to affect an electoral outcome, which it did.

Attacks within the third world are designed to highlight the vulnerability of American and western power, be they bombings of US embassies in east Africa, the killing of tourists in Bali, or attacks on shipping in Yemeni territorial waters. The wave of attacks in Saudi Arabia over the past year have had a similar political, and related economic, logic – to undermine the confidence of western companies and contractors in Saudi Arabia, whose economic performance depends on their continued presence in the kingdom, and to show up the reliance of the ruling Saudi family on western assistance.

The question then arises of how this conflict has developed to date, whether one judges the beginning to have been 2001, or 1993. Here the short-term picture propagated by western states might be misleading. President George W Bush and others point to the successes of the anti-terrorist campaign so far: the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, the ousting of the Ba’thist regime in Iraq. A number of the leaders of al-Qaeda and its allies have been killed or arrested, while some are believed to be held by Iran.

Whatever the full scale of the operations of terrorist groups in western Europe since 2001, we can be reasonably sure that at least some major operations, such as some planned in Spain and in Britain, have been thwarted. At the governmental level and in relations between allies, whether in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union, new forms of counter-terrorist cooperation have been established, to go by the public record alone.

Against this “optimistic” assessment must, however, be set other factors. First, as far as the events of 9/11 are concerned, very little has been done to locate and punish those involved. To date there has not been a successful conviction in any country of anyone accused of involvement in that event. The US has detained nearly 600 suspects in Guantanamo and at least hundreds more in undisclosed locations around the world but, from what has been made public, none of them has yielded significant information.

No quick victory
The causes of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 – the anthrax attacks in the US – have not been discovered, and no-one has been arrested in this connection. Some of the measures publicized at the time and after amount to little. No real progress has been made in controlling transfers of money to suspected terrorists, and the much-trumpeted institutional changes in US intelligence collection with the appointment of an overall chief of intelligence and assessment are little more than theatre.

More serious is that three other factors point to a more long-term, protracted, conflict than many observers, including leading western politicians, are willing to admit. In the first place, al-Qaeda is not a traditional, hierarchical organization, like a conventional business or a communist party, that can be destroyed by cutting off its leaders or attacking its bases: it is a more diffuse, almost post-modern, movement which acts through inspiration and informal links as much as through formal control.

It certainly benefits from state support where it can get it, as it did from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but this is not vital to it. Its militants and sympathizers often act independently and build informal links, as they do in Pakistan or western Europe, through kinship networks and meeting recruits in prisons, mosques and lodging places.

The jihadis’ call to arms
Second, all the evidence suggests that the 9/11 attacks have been successful in meeting their main purpose, as have responses to subsequent western policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, to name but three – namely, a mobilization of spontaneous support among young, mobile, often educated Muslim males, the prime source for jihadi recruits. Just as in the 1980s Afghanistan served to recruit young fighters and in the 1990s others came from Chechenya and Bosnia, so now the war in Iraq, and the general outrage felt throughout the Muslim world – including the Middle East and western Europe, as well as south-east Asia – have led to thousands of young people volunteering for training and for military operations, some overt, as in Iraq, and others so far covert.

These two underlying factors have been reinforced by a third dimension of the war on terror – the policies pursued by the US since September 2001. The war in Afghanistan, legitimate as it might have been, was seen by many in the Muslim world as an attack on them. The war in Iraq, and the revelations of widespread torture by, and corruption within, the occupying forces, have made this a major recruiting ground for opponents of the west in the Muslim world. Similarly the continued fighting in Palestine, which is unlikely to cease in the near future despite optimism following the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is acting as a recruiting campaign across the Muslim world, including in south-east Asia.

This is why some American analysts quite accurately talk not of a “War Against Terror”, which suggests analogies with conventional warfare, and with a proximate and clear conclusion within a matter of years, but rather of a “Transnational Insurgency” that stretches far into the future. Such an insurgency can spread to regions so far largely exempt from attack, such as central Asia and south-east Asia, but it will receive a massive boost if either of the two countries that have been invaded by America and its allies – Afghanistan or Iraq – falls into civil war with an attendant failure of western policy. Such failure is possible in both countries, and the very prospect is inspiring Islamists across the region.

Against this background, two broad kinds of judgment are possible. On the negative side, this analysis suggests the conflict, at its present level of violence against western and regional targets, can go on for many years. We are probably in the early stages of the conflict with Islamist terrorism.

Islamist challenge runs deep
The lessons of other, much more contained, guerrilla and terrorist campaigns, such as those in Northern Ireland and the Basque country, suggest that it can take decades for such conflicts to be contained and stopped. The Islamist challenge is more widespread and in some ways more deep-rooted than either the Irish Republican or ETA campaigns. Given its organizational flexibility, and the reserve of potential recruits, there is little reason to expect the campaign will cease – this means not just more attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Indonesia, but more intermittent attempts like those that hit New York and Madrid. Whether they succeed depends on the luck of terrorists versus that of the counterterrorists: what is not chance or uncertain is the willingness of al-Qaeda and its associates to replicate such incidents.

On the potentially positive side, based on present showing, and despite the drama of 9/11 and other attacks, such a campaign cannot destroy or even seriously weaken the west. The 9/11 attacks had an enormous effect on the feelings of the US people. There has been a widespread diffusion of fear that affects everyday life in the west, as it does, but only to a degree, business confidence. European political relations with the US have significantly worsened. But in no major way have these attacks disrupted the political or economic life of western countries, nor are they likely to do so. The west will, in broad terms, survive, provided it keeps its nerve, does not overreact and improves in a realistic not a utopian manner, its security and intelligence gathering capabilities.

Understand the enemy
But something further is needed. It has been woefully absent from the American response to 9/11, but it is something that, so far, the leaders of al-Qaeda and other groups understand much better than western leaders – namely, politics. Terrorism, in itself an armed tactic, a means of waging a political and military campaign, cannot define the response: it is a trap into which the US president has too easily fallen.

The response has to be more comprehensive, more imaginative, as well as more protracted. It has to embrace political vision, with regard to change and justice in the Middle East, and with regard to a greater knowledge of that region by western policy-makers, and the public in general. Each component of the composite west Asian crisis – Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Kashmir – needs to be taken in its own right and dealt with decisively, but together. The failure to resolve these provides support to the fundamentalist cause. Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero was right when he told the UN in September that the fight against terrorism had to have three levels – military, political, cultural. In that way, and with a calm determination to resist the impact of these attacks over a long period of time, this campaign will be concluded successfully.

Fred Halliday
Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and currently visiting professor at CIDOB, Barcelona, for 2004-05. He has written several books on the Muslim world, most recently 100 Myths About the Middle East (London: Saqi, 2005).