Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.