Why we are losing the war

In the wake of Mombasa, Foreign Affairs Editor Peter Beaumont argues that the atrocities will continue until the West finally grasps the fact that we are fighting a lethal idea rather than a tangible enemy

Sunday December 1, 2002
The Observer

When the dust has settled and the blood and tears have dried, we will be able to say one thing with certainty about last week's terrorist attack in Kenya. Anyone who tells you the war against terrorism is being won is lying.

It is the great heresy of free societies, so speak it softly, but the accumulating evidence of the past four years is that terrorism can - and does - work. And it is working on a global scale.

It is a simple fact that is more terrifying than any of attacks themselves - 11 September included. That a tiny group of extremists, for the most part using the most basic of technologies, could effect such a startling paradigm shift that has transformed the world we live in. But to what end? The answer is more surprising than our political classes appear yet to have grasped.

Strip away the millenarian agenda and its language of apocalyptic struggle - the Great Satans, the enemies of God, references to the Crusaders. Strip away, just for a moment, its extreme religious aspects and what you are left with is a non-negotiable political agenda. That aim is to remove - or neutralise - American and Western influence from large areas of the globe, including states that are not exclusively Islamist.

It is a tension that was in part foreseen by Benjamin Barber in 1992 in his essay 'Jihad versus McWorld', which predicted that the greatest threat to democracy would be the clash between the spread of a homogenising American culture - paradoxically indifferent to what was happening in the world it touched on - and a new kind of anti-political tribal politics which, he predicted, would see 'the breakdown of civility in the name of identity; of comity in the name of community'.

Barber thought that breakdown in civility would likely come from the kind of gang warfare then beginning to grip the Balkans. Instead, the real challenge to McWorld has been the unforeseen emergence of an extremist version of radical Islam literally at war with the West and all it stands for. For the time being at least, it seems it is the terrorists who are winning.

It is a pessimistic outlook, but an easy case to make. Let's start with the most obvious economic impact. The fear engendered by a spate of attacks by Jihad International - al-Qaeda and groups that share its agenda - is crippling the long-haul tourist industry, threatening the West's airline industry and has almost shut down tourism outside of the US. That cost is likely to amount to billions of pounds in the long run, its impact being felt as keenly in countries such as Indonesia and Kenya which are heavily dependant on tourist dollars.

What is less quantifiable is what John Stevenson, senior fellow in counter terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies describes as al-Qaeda's aim of 'neutralising' America and the West's influence in large areas of the world. Already the US and other countries have reduced embassies in vulnerable areas of the world, like other nations - Britain included - closing down missions at times of threat. But it is not just diplomats who carry our message into the world. Business too is supposed to fly the flag for our values. And as businesses become more wary of operating in threatened areas, they too will withdraw to safer areas of operation.

And in our withdrawal from exactly those places where the kind of Islamist extremism we fear most is at its most threatening, we give up the intellectual and psychological space to those who most threaten our values. Because the real war with al-Qaeda, as James Thomson, president of the Rand Corporation think-tank, pointed out in the organisation's summer review, is not simply one of missiles, snatch squads and bullets. It is quintessentially one of ideas.

And it is in the war of ideas that we are most notably failing in the war on terrorism. As Thomson's overview points out, even a year after 9/11 America and its allies still have little idea of the roots of the discontent that has made Jihad International so attractive to so many young Islamist men, or the etiology of the hatred of America.

Not only is the message not getting across, but there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of where the real sophistication of Jihad International comes from. It is not in its ingenious and despicable skill in butchering innocent civilians, or even in its apparently formidable organisational skills, which in reality may be far less formidable than assumed, but in syndicating and marketing its brand of terror. This is not the old terrorism of the IRA or ETA, with structures, doctrines and pseudo-military organisation. What Bush and Blair and all their allies do not understand is that it is the idea of al- Qaeda, not its physical reality, that is the key, an idea which has taken deep root in countries from Afghanistan to South East Asia and Africa.

At the centre of that idea is an oppositional discourse that seeks to drive the west - particularly America - out of what Osama bin Laden has claimed as the wider Islamic nation. That misunderstanding is represented at its worst by George Bush who - it is said - keeps a list of 12 names of the top al-Qaeda terrorists in his desk and ticks them off as they are captured or killed.

But al-Qaeda is less a hierarchical organisation out of James Bond led by a sinister mastermind, than a dynamic dialogue between like-minded radicals conducted via mosques, radical publications and the internet. A specific order is almost redundant as individual groups know exactly what must be done and when, adapting themselves to new security constraints and to new targets.

And what appears to have been 'understood' before the attack on Mombasa was that it was the right time to polarise the war on terrorism. Just at the moment Bush and his allies had constructed a grudging consent from the Arab world for its tough line on Iraq, Jihad International brought in Israel. In his belligerent threat to hunt down the perpetrators of the Mombasa attacks, Israel's right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon has threatened to upset the delicate consensus between America and its allies on the issue of the war on terrorism, and on the Security Council over Iraq.

Few of Sharon's friends among the hawks that surround George Bush are unaware of his motto - 'Always escalate' - and his long history of ill-conceived military responses from the Gaza raid, the invasion of south Lebanon to his handling of the al-Aqsa intifada, that have delivered a quick political or military fix at the cost of long-term disaster.

By bringing Israel explosively into the mix a week before the deadline for Iraq's weapons declaration, Jihad International has shown a political and operational astuteness that is quite terrifying.

What is more terrifying still is the notion among the West's political classes that it is an organisation, not an idea, that they are fighting. With each new arrest, each new targeted killing, we congratulate ourselves that we are winning - until the next atrocity takes place. All the while, we fail to tackle the ideas that replace each arrested or dead terrorist with a new recruit.

As the tens of millions dead in the last century demonstrated, ideas - no matter that they are venal ones like Nazism or Stalinism - can be as hard to kill as they are lethally and stupidly persistent.

But in a war of ideas, to do nothing is the worst of all options.

Extracted 12/04/02 from The Guardian Unlimited


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