Terrorism on the decrease? Not so fast – that's probably unfounded optimism.
By Bernard I. Finel
A mere six months ago, the Bush Administration was arguing that the terror threat was so severe that even a momentary lapse in the domestic surveillance authorization would place American lives at risk. Now, a series of briefings and speeches by high-level officials, reported on and amplified by prominent columnists has created a veritable drumbeat in support of the notion that not only is the threat diminished, but that victory in the “war on terror” is in sight. The timing is tremendously convenient in the run-up to an election that will inevitably become something of a referendum on the Bush years.
Think about it. This was supposed to be a generational conflict, and now it turns out that it that victory was always just an Iraqi awakening, a few predator strikes, and an obscure manifesto away. Islamo-fascism? Forget about it. The threat is now just from a bunch of yahoos. Porous American borders, disaffected Muslim populations in Europe, madrassas pumping out fanatics in Pakistan… all largely irrelevant.
Well, personally, I don’t buy it.
There are three recent reasons to be optimistic about progress in the struggle against violent extremism, but none of them is particularly compelling when examined closely.
First, there has been some decline in casualties from Islamist terror attacks both inside and outside of Iraq. But as I have argued elsewhere, casualty figures have a largely random element to them. In the meantime, the number of incidents of Islamist violence around the world remains at an all-time high.
Second, there is some promising debate and discussion within jihadist circles about the efficacy and legitimacy of terror. This may, over time, promote some moderation. But as a practical matter, terrorists are not motivated by sophisticated theological arguments; they are motivated more commonly by a visceral belief that Islam is under attack from the West and that violence is the only mode of resistance. Jailhouse conversions are significant, but not as significant as the still-popular belief in many Muslim communities that America is a hostile power bent on domination and exploitation.
Third, we have seen a significant decline in state support for terrorism. The problem, of course, is that the current threat has never really been a problem of states, but rather of transnational networks empowered by the tools of globalization – ease of travel and communication, access to financial networks, and the internationalization of local grievances.
Is the terrorist threat diminishing? It may be, but certainly not at the speed that recent coverage would suggest. Consider the big picture. First, al-Qaeda has established a sanctuary in Pakistan, and despite the increased predator activity in the area, the fact is that domestic developments in Pakistan have made this base more secure, not less. Second, the terrorist media apparatus remains active and dynamic. Some would like to paint the increased number of videos and communications as a sign of desperation. It isn’t. It is a sign of a secure base and solid funding. Third, speaking of funding, the massive increase in heroin production in Afghanistan has undoubtedly filled the coffers of terrorist organizations. Fourth, while the jihadists are debating tactics, they largely remain unified on goals. And while some are ready to condemn al-Qaeda, few are willing to embrace the United States. Whether we like it or not, our presence in Iraq, the festering sore of Guantanamo, our support for Israel and preference for authoritarian secular regimes over Islamist movements all create conditions that make sustainable progress in the struggle against violence extremism difficult to achieve. The broader structural challenge of Muslim perceptions of their own political weakness and of a hostile West are even more difficult to alter.
This is a generational struggle. Our enemies are serious, dangerous, and unfortunately resilient. We cannot declare the struggle over for electoral convenience. The media failed to challenge the Bush Administration sufficiently on the Iraq war; perhaps as a group, the media ought to cast a more skeptical eye on recent claims that the “war on terror” is being won.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project and lead author of “Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the Struggle against Violent Jihadism.” He was previously a professor of military strategy and operations at the U.S. National War College.
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