Lessons from the 'war on terror'

Posted in Terrorism | 14-Aug-04 | Author: Khoo How San| Source: Asia Times

A US Capitol Police officer stands watch near the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
Recent successes in capturing al-Qaeda operatives in a number of "front-line" states reaffirm that behind-the-scenes intelligence work is ever so vital. Meanwhile, as the third anniversary of September 11, 2001, approaches, the conduct of the "more visible" global "war on terror" requires a re-evaluation.

After September 11, a war with a clear objective was waged by states - a United States-led coalition against al-Qaeda (a non-state threat) and its state sponsor, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Today, it is the shadowy contest that seems likely to decide the outcome.

Arguably, the military failure to rout al-Qaeda - when its center of gravity was still located within a state haven (Afghanistan) and when it had structure and form - and the opaque consequences of the Iraqi campaign created what will now have to be a long-drawn military and non-military contest.

This contest needs to be waged more by a matrix of states, and less a US-led "war on terror", against what has now morphed into a truly transnational jihadi threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

For sure, Iraq must not become a "failed state", which means the coalition to help it rebuild itself must stay the course.

But the enemy has learned a key lesson: that states are vulnerable to transnational threats. The enemy has also learned that it, too, is vulnerable if it depends on static headquarters and bases, ergo, state havens.

Indeed, al-Qaeda and its affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiyah have learned to "franchise" their deadly business, while dispersing lower-echelon leaders. Their mission statement is to reach out to disaffected Muslims everywhere with the message that the current state system, a Western imposition (and one that allegedly favors Zionist Israel), has to be overthrown by violent means. A global jihad is the only way to achieve this. And there is no immediate time frame. Connected by the Internet, sleeper cells, false passports and couriers, for example, adherents may hide and bide their time, striking as opportunity permits, so to speak.

What should "our" side - states that wish to survive and get on with life in the current states system, with its warts and all - have learned by now?

The momentum for global cooperation against the enemy cannot slacken, of course. But the enemy is a global jihadi terrorist network, not a state. Rules of engagement don't count. The labels "war on terrorism" and "war on terror" have not proved to be rallying calls. More precisely, these labels have come to be associated with a US-driven campaign.

On the plus side, the recognition by states of a globally networked "non-traditional security" threat has driven intelligence cooperation and sharing that would not have been otherwise so forthcoming, especially between nations still suspicious of each other in the "traditional security" sense.

Importantly, too, there is recognition of the need to cooperate in efforts to cut off one lifeline of the global jihadi network - funds, whether raised illegally through criminal activities or legally through such conduits as charity organizations. The record to cut off another key lifeline - the supply of suicide jihadis - has been less impressive.

On the minus side, it is becoming evident that the invasion of Iraq has diverted effort and resources from the US-led hunt for the remaining al-Qaeda leaders and, worse, created an even more elusive, rejuvenated enemy network.

What should be the template ahead, three years after September 11?

First, a way must be found to offer hope for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The majority of moderate and modernist Muslims despise al-Qaeda for the terrorist network it is but are sympathetic to the Palestinians for their nationalistic cause even if their violent methods of seeking redress are unacceptable. But the jihadis' propaganda has widespread appeal, and unless the Palestinian issue has hope for an equitable solution, moderate Muslims can only fight the jihadis with their hands tied.

Second, everyone from senior officials to the man in the street must realize that the global jihadi threat driven by the al-Qaeda-led network is a real and present danger to all who do not want to see a world dominated by the ideological demagogues who are the network's shadowy leaders. True, such a notion seems laughable now, but the jihadis are in it for the long haul.

Finally, global cooperation and allied unity are ever vital, but it is time to acknowledge that states are guided by their own experiences and circumstances. The common denominator is their own fight against the jihadi networks. In Southeast Asia's case, it starts with convincing its Muslim populations that the threat to their way of life from the Jemaah Islamiyah network, reliably accepted to have links to al-Qaeda, is real, and in formulating counter-terrorism strategies appropriate to each country.

Khoo How San has a PhD in strategic studies and is an associate fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) and a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore. This article is a personal comment.