NATO and the fight against international Terrorism

Posted in NATO | 22-Dec-05 | Author: Carsten Michels

Carsten Michels isWSN Editor Germany.

“If you want to succeed in warfare, you have to know the enemy”, the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued some 200 years ago. Analysing the means of the so-called “War on Terrorism”, you might come to the conclusion that policy-makers world-wide simply ignore this rule. There is no doubt that there have been some achievements in the past: Al-Qaeda has lost its safe-haven Afghanistan, some of its high ranking members have been arrested, and possible attacks have been prevented by the co-ordinated use of intelligence and police-forces. But this is rather a fight against the symptoms of the centuries old movement we call Islamic fundamentalism. We are reacting to a threat we have not been quite willing or able to understand. So who and what do we fight?

Firstly, this brief essay argues that if we want to win the fight against international terrorism in the long term, we have to combat the sources of the newest totalitarian version of Islamic fundamentalism: Jihadism. Jihadism is an ideology, an extreme and militant interpretation of the Quran, the holy book of Islam. It aims to pave the way for the rule of god. Therefore, infidels must be either converted or killed. Anyone who does not fit into or opposes this concept has to be eradicated. The percentage of people who would subscribe to this ideology is very small and only a few are willing to sacrifice their lives in this “cosmic war”, as Santa Barbara-based sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer calls it. Given the fact that hardly anything can stop these self-declared “holy-warriors”, the rather frightening conclusion is that the Jihadists and their interpretation of world affairs have gained more and more support among even moderate Muslims during recent years. The feeling that the West in general and particularly the United States treat Muslims with ignorance and disrespect has been fueled by military interventions during the last decade and the support of autocratic regimes in the Arab world. But we must also consider the social, political and economic circumstances under which radical thoughts easily find their followers. The failure of Arab leaders to modernise their countries, to show the willingness to reform and allow a more democratic society also heavily contributes to the resurrection of Islamic fundamentalism. In short: The ideology of Jihadism is gaining influence world-wide. It is about what people perceive and think, how they tend to interpret the world and which consequences the draw from it. NATO, a primarily military organisation of collective self-defence, can do hardly anything about it.

But there is also the need to contain the current symptoms of this dilemma. The most prominent face of Islamic fundamentalism is Al-Qaeda. What it actually is, nobody really knows, which makes the design of an effective counterstrategy even more difficult. Considering the latest writings and studies, Al-Qaeda is more like a very loose network of rather autonomous cells. But how strong are the ties between the different cells, and how are they connected with each other, and if at all? Is there a centre, a nucleus in this web, and is it possible to be detected? Did not the Madrid and London bombings make clear that Al-Qaeda inspired terrorists do not need any links to any “command-control”? I think it is obvious that we are trying to fight an enemy that has not even defined its own structure. How can you fight a permanently changing threat? NATO cannot, I am afraid to say, because it needs fixed targets and a visible enemy.

What it can do can be observed in Afghanistan. By all difficulties, bringing a basic level of security to a country, a failed-nation, is quite the right task for a well equipped military organisation. Given the political will of its members, it has the capacity to launch out-of-area missions turning countries in turmoil into a relatively stable and secure place. State-building requires a strong military component that can contain those who have no interest in a functioning centralised state – let it be warlords, criminals or terrorists. One of the most striking problems is that it is not up to the NATO executive-committee to decide whether or not it should deploy troops in a foreign country. This must be done by the UN-security-council. At the moment, it is the only institution which can bring at least some legitimacy into the world-wide use of military force.

So are we winning the fight against transnational1 terrorism? We are making at least some progress in combating the symptoms, but we are still far from developing a strategy that can effectively eradicate the roots of Jihadism. What role can NATO play? Only a minor one. Let us make state-building its primary task in the so-called “War on terrorism”. If that works out well, a lot is won to bring more security into the unstable regions of this world.


1 I prefer the term “transnational” rather than “international”, because this new dimension of terrorism does not respect any borders.

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