Terrorism and Patience

14 May 2003

Terrorism and Patience

By Gwynne Dyer

The bomb attacks on foreigners’ residential compounds in Riyadh on 12 May were about as surprising as rain in Ireland. There was no surprise in President George W. Bush’s response, either: “The United States will find the killers and they will learn the meaning of American justice….We will bring them to justice. Just ask the Taliban.” (But don’t ask Osama bin Laden, the actual terrorist leader, because he’s still on the loose.)

It won’t be hard for the United States to ‘find the killers’, because their body parts are scattered around the compounds where they blew themselves up, but it’s a bit late to bring them to any earthly form of justice. As for punishing those who ‘sent’ them, however, that is a concept that grows less meaningful with every month that passes. As the United States government lunges about seeking targets to destroy, its real enemy becomes ever more insubstantial and hard to locate or attack — so Mr Bush attacks countries instead. At least they have fixed addresses.

Last year the Bush administration attacked Afghanistan and easily destroyed the Taliban government — but it didn’t ‘get’ al-Qaeda, which just moved on. This year it attacked Iraq — and did al-Qaeda no harm at all, because it was never there in the first place. Now US troops are occupying two conquered Muslim countries (nobody say Vietnam), and al-Qaeda is as strong as ever. Could there be something wrong with this strategy?

Not according to Vice-President Dick Cheney, who responded to the bombs in Saudi Arabia by telling a Washington audience “to recognise the fact that the only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it. There’s no treaty can solve this problem, there’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment….” Just a potentially endless series of ‘preventive wars’ — against countries, not against terrorists. The United States comes to resemble a blind colossus enraged by pinpricks and stamping furiously around the world, while al-Qaeda resembles a wisp of smoke.

Consider the latest ‘Strategic Survey’ published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The destruction of al-Qaeda’s fixed bases in Afghanistan actually did it a favour, argues the author, Jonathan Stevenson, forcing “an already decentralised and elusive trans-national network to become even harder to identify and neutralise. Thanks to technology and the multinational allure of jihadism, the Afghanistan camps were [now] unnecessary.”

The IISS estimates that while ten senior leaders and some two thousand rank-and-file members of al-Qaeda have been killed or captured since 11 September, 2001, at least twenty senior leaders and 18,000 followers who went through the training camps in Afghanistan are still at large — and the flow of new recruits, many of them driven towards extremism by US policy in the Middle East, almost certainly far exceeds the rate of losses.

Operations like the attacks in Bali and Mombasa last autumn are planned and carried out by local sympathisers who may have little contact with al-Qaeda’s leadership: all they need is approval in principle and perhaps some financial help. “The only physical infrastructure al-Qaeda required [after Afghanistan] were safe houses to assemble bombs and weapons caches,” said the IISS report. “Otherwise, notebook computers, encryption, the internet, multiple passports, and the ease of global transportation enabled al-Qaeda to function as a ‘virtual’ entity that leveraged local assets — hence local knowledge — to full advantage in coordinating attacks in many ‘fields of jihad’.”

In other words: the Islamist terrorists are here to stay, and they cannot be stamped out by military force. The ‘war on terrorism’ should be seen in the same way that we view the often-proclaimed ‘war on crime’: merely a militaristic metaphor for an operation that is really statistical. Nobody imagines that the ‘war on crime’ will one day end like a real war, with an absolute victory where all the criminals come out with their hands up and then there is no more crime. Success is a matter of keeping the crime RATE down, not eliminating all the criminals.

Terrorism is exactly the same. As Stella Rimington, former head of Britain’s MI5, said last year: “Terrorism did not begin on September 11 and it will not end there…The history of terrorism in the 20th century shows that a ‘war on terrorism’ cannot be won, unless the causes of terrorism are eradicated by making the world a place free of grievances, something that will not happen. Terrorism has proved so effective in catching the world’s attention and even, ultimately, in achieving the terrorists’ objectives, that it will continue to appeal to extremists. However good our counter measures, some of it will succeed, but it can be made more difficult.”

The US intelligence services understand all this, too, but it’s a hard sell politically in a country that expects instant solutions and glories in its military power. To people who have only a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It was not the Central Intelligence Agency that pushed to keep American troops in Saudi Arabia after 1991, thus creating the original grievance that brought al-Qaeda into existence, but they couldn’t get the generals to listen. It was not the CIA that concocted stories about Saddam Hussein’s fabulous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and his fictional links with al-Qaeda as a pretext for conquering Iraq, but they couldn’t get the political ideologues to listen. No military victory over terrorism is possible anyway, but it really does not help to go around manufacturing more grievances.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Not according…smoke”; and “The IISS…losses”)