The private war of the jihadi terrorists

Last week’s bombing of the Boston marathon received blanket coverage here in the UK. In a world where there is still plenty of death and destruction, it seemed to be particularly shocking. But the strangest aspect of the episode to me was that nobody claimed responsibility. We were left to speculate as to whether it was Islamic jihadis, right wing extremists or some tortured loner. What’s the point if nobody knows why you did it? It turns out that it was the jihadis: but this still leaves us with the question of what their cause is all about.

Describing the jihadist enterprise as a war, as in “war on terror”, is controversial on the part of the western states that seem to be the main targets. Be that as it may, the jihadists themselves see it as a war. “I am a soldier,” said one of the London terrorists of July 2005 in the video released to publicise his suicide attack. But it is a strange sort of war.

Following the 19th Century philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz very loosely, we can see war in terms of three elements: purpose (the political, rational element), strategy (the way the two sides try to outwit each other, which resolves to a game of chance), and will (the primordial hatred and drive to violence). The will is evident, and there is quite a bit of strategy too, as the jihadis spend quite a bit of time plotting their acts, while the authorities try to catch them. The problem comes with the political purpose. What is all this designed to achieve?

It did seem a bit clearer in September 2001. The scale of the attacks on New York and Washington was breathtaking, and there seemed to be a strategic driving force, based in Afghanistan. The Western media focused on the personality of Osama Bin-Laden, though what his personal role was in all of this I find it difficult to say; he was a convenient focus for the attacked nations. But if not him, there were other strategists and leaders in a global enterprise. We could make out some kind of purpose. There was something about establishing a global caliphate, and pushing the Western countries towards enlightenment and the Islamic path. The terrorist attacks would so disrupt western civilisation, whose foundations they believed to be very weak, that its economy would collapse and they would then be forced to consider their ways. With talk of escalating the violence towards nuclear and biological weapons and “dirty bombs”, you could just about see this as being rational, if deluded.

But those delusions became pretty obvious pretty quickly, and the jihadist campaign resolved to a few nasty pinpricks that could do little to undermine the fabric of western society itself. The Al-Qaeda leadership, so far as it exists, is focusing on maore local issues, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding elsewhere in the Middle east and Africa. It is an armed part of a puritanical, fundamentalist Islamic political movement, operating in countries that are  predominantly Muslim. They have no real interest in pursuing terrorist campaigns in the West, which might even harm their cause by getting Western securities services involved. Western countries don’t want to get themselves bogged down in messy wars in countries they don’t understand. The foreign jihadists might see some use in recruiting sympathetic residents of Western countries to act as foot soldiers in their wars, but that is probably the limit.

But terrorism in the West lives on. Not only are there the occasional successful attacks, like that in Boston, but many more plots that come to light before they are executed – such as a Canadian plot in the news today. But these are local affairs carried out by citizens or residents of the countries concerned, with little outside involvement. The plot of the US TV series Homeland is a fantasy. Does that mean that the US military effort against the terrorists, drone strikes and all, is purely a geopolitical game? Or is it successfully suppressing outside terrorism? It is impossible for us ordinary members of the public to know.

What we have is a very private war, carried out by isolated and frustrated members of minority communities, who feel excluded and alienated. Terrorism is some kind of release, but serves no wider goal. As one character in the BBC TV series The Village set in the First World War says in another context (I paraphrase from memory): “He thinks that by going to war and getting killed he will impress her; he forgets that the problem with being killed is that you are dead.” This was quite striking with the 7/7 bombings in London. It was perpetrated by a well-organised cell (compare their attacks with the ham-fisted ones that took place a week later), but it was a one shot weapon. Any military virtues died with them. The silence that followed the Boston bombings has something of the same disconnection with any wider objectives.

So what to we do to protect ourselves? The police and intelligence effort has to go on, even if we suspect those that lead it are playing the threat up, and hiding behind national security. But we also need to carry on the slow, awkward process of outreach and integration of minority communities: multiculturalism. We need at least to try to drain the hatred that drives these very private wars.

Tony Blair is both right and wrong, but mostly yesterday’s man

Well I was going to turn the radio off this morning when John Humphreys was interviewing Tony Blair to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  But I couldn’t go that far, and I caught about half of it.  I’m glad I did because it has helped clarify my views on confronting terrorism.

Mr Blair’s main argument is a lot more subtle than it is often made out to be.  He dismisses his critics as believing that the Islamic extremists (and I think that term is a fair one) are not a lunatic fringe who can be contained using normal security methods.  They are in fact the extreme end of a much larger spectrum of people who agree with their virulent anti-western narrative.  Since they have such a large hinterland of people who will support them and from whom they can recruit, they will simply grow stronger if they are not vigorously confronted.   He completely rejects the idea that the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made things worse, since he says the terrorists would have gathered strength anyway.  What provoked 9/11? he asks.  The Al-Qaeda threat is of much longer standing than than these Western interventions.

And he is partly right.  There is a big hinterland for the terrorist groups, and an even bigger group of people who think that there are two sides to what is going on, rather than it being a simple battle between good and evil.  But from the same facts I draw a different conclusion.  This is not just a battle between just goodies and baddies; there is a huge neutral middle ground whose support is decisive.  These are mainly Muslims, and they live all over the world.  If these people come to the conclusion that the terrorists are a bad thing, who will make their aspirations more difficult to achieve, then Al-Qaeda and its like will be isolated and disappear.  If, on the other hand, they accept the clash of civilizations narrative, their support, even if mostly tacit, will keep the terrorist threat going forever.

There is a security campaign against the terrorists; but there is also a hearts and minds campaign for the Muslim public.  Unfortunately, if we are too uncompromising on the first campaign we will not win the second.  It is important to occupy the moral high ground.  The tragedy is that Tony Blair, and the American neocons, think they are occupying this higher ground.  In fact they have been systematically provoking the Muslim public.

And the important thing to understand about the hearts and minds campaign is that the ground shifts.  What gave Al-Qaeda real strength in its early days was the US intervention in the first Gulf War in the 1990s, which led to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil; this seemed an insult.  It probably didn’t mean a great deal to the wider Muslim public, but it was enough for a determined group of Middle East activists to get started, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Israel, Iraq and Iran didn’t really come into things.  This was enough to lead to 9/11.

But the American response to 9/11 changed the game.  The outrage initially gave them the precious high ground, but they made cynical use of it.  Two problems stand out: the campaign in Iraq and taking sides with Israel.  These may not have been all that relevant to the Al-Qaeda threat in 2001, but they became so because the the strength of the American intervention.  The Muslim public became angry with America and its allies, and the extremists were able to pump up the clash of civilisations narrative.  They started to draw in many more recruits from right  across the world, including Britain.

But the hearts and minds battle has not been one-sided.  The terrorists’ very success has exposed the weakness of their case.  They now spend more energy killing other Muslims and creating civil disorder in Muslim countries than they do on attacking the west.  They have no real answers to the problems that trouble so many Muslims: dis-empowerment and poverty.  The west is retreating from Iraq and, ever so slowly, Afghanistan.  The British coming together after 7/7 has not played to the extremist narrative.  The western response to the Arab Spring has shown it to be a bit less cynical than people thought – comparing favourably with China and Russia, say.  In Libya Al-Qaeda and the west turned out to be on the same side.  Israel remains a running sore, of course.

Of course we need a robust security response to the terrorist threat.  But it can do more harm that good.  Assassinations and suspending the rule of law should not be part of it.  The terrorists may not be moved by this – but they will increasingly lose the support of their hinterland.

We have to move on.  Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s response to 9/11 was a huge mistake, and we can’t expect them to acknowledge this.  But they are yesterday’s men.  We’ve learnt a lot.  A new generation of leaders is showing more subtlety.  Slowly, we are learning how to manage the terrorist threat.