What Terrorists Want

18 January 2004

What The Terrorists Want

By Gwynne Dyer

I have always admired Edward Luttwak, one of the clearest American thinkers in the strategy/security game, and I have nothing but contempt for the US Homeland Security Department (Heimatsicherheitsabteilung, in the original German) and its ridiculous colour-coded threat levels. So I started reading a recent article by the former on the latter with genuine pleasure, anticipating that Luttwak was going to condemn Homeland Security for its habit of running up the levels from puce to magenta and back down to mauve, shredding Americans’ nerves with warnings nobody can respond to in a useful way, for no better reason than to cover its own bureaucratic behind.

That’s just what he did, and the article was rollicking along with me cheering Luttwak on every line of the way — when his whole argument suddenly veered off into the ditch, rolled three times, and lay there bleeding. What he said was: “The successive warnings of ill-defined threats that frighten many Americans are achieving the very aim of the terrorists. Terrorism cannot materially weaken the United States, so their entire purpose is precisely to terrorize, to make Americans unhappy, IN THE HOPE THAT THIS WILL INDUCE THEM TO ACCEPT TERRORIST DEMANDS.” (My italics)

If one of the cleverest security analysts in the country has got no further than this in his thinking about what the terrorists want, then it’s no surprise that sixty or seventy percent of Luttwak’s fellow-countrymen believe that Saddam Hussein sent the terrorists. He thinks that the terrorists are trying to make Americans unhappy in order to “induce them to accept terrorist demands”? What demands could the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda possibly make that the United States could conceivably grant?

Fly them all to Havana? Convert to Islam? Put the money in unmarked notes in a brown paper bag and leave it behind the radiator? The whole notion that this is some sort of giant extortion operation is as naive (or as wilfully ignorant) as the Bush administration’s pet explanation that the terrorists attack the US because “they hate our freedoms.” Unfortunately, the post-9/11 intellectual climate in the United States has prevented any serious discussion of the terrorists’ goals and their strategies for achieving them.

In the post-9/11 chill, even conceding that the terrorist leaders are intelligent people with rational goals seemed somehow disloyal to America’s dead. Instead, it was assumed that their fanaticism made them too blind or stupid for purposeful action at the strategic level. Even terrorist groups as marginal and self-deluded as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Weathermen had a more or less coherent analysis, political goals, and some notion of how their attacks moved them towards those goals, but the public debate in the US grants none of that to al-Qaeda.

Yet the Islamist radicals have always been completely open about their goals. They want to take power in the Muslim countries (phase one of the project), and then unite the entire Muslim world in a final struggle to overthrow the power of the West (phase two). They are still stuck in phase one, with little to show for it despite thirty years of trying, so in the early 1990s Osama bin Laden and his colleagues switched from head-on assaults on the regimes in Muslim countries to direct attacks on Western targets. Yet their first-phase goal remains seizing power in the Muslim world, not some fantasy about ‘bringing the West to its knees.’

Terrorists generally rant about their goals but stay silent about their strategies, so now we have to do a little work for ourselves. If the real goal is still revolutions that bring Islamist radicals to power, then how does attacking the West help? Well, the US in particular may be goaded into retaliating by bombing or even invading various Muslim countries — and in doing so, may drive enough aggrieved Muslims into the arms of the Islamist radicals that their long-stalled revolutions against local regimes finally get off the ground.

Most analysts outside the United States long ago concluded that that was the principal motive for the 9/11 attack. They would add that by giving the Bush administration a reason to attack Afghanistan, and at least a flimsy pretext for invading Iraq, al-Qaeda’s attacks have paid off handsomely. US troops are now the unwelcome military rulers of over 50 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, and people there and elsewhere are turning to the Islamist radicals as the only force in the Muslim world that is willing and able to defy American power.

It is astonishing how little this is understood in the United States. I know of no American analyst who has even made the obvious point that al-Qaeda wants George W. Bush to win next November’s presidential election and continue his interventionist policies in the Middle East for another four years, and will act to save Mr Bush from defeat if necessary.

It probably would not do so unless Mr Bush’s number were slipping badly, for any terrorist attack on US soil carries the risk of stimulating resentment against the current administration for failing to prevent it. Certainly another attack on the scale of 9/11 would risk producing that result, even if al-Qaeda had the resources for it. But a simple truck bomb in some US city centre a few months before the election, killing just a couple of dozen Americans, could drive voters back into Mr. Bush’s arms and turn a tight election around. Al-Qaeda is clever enough for that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“In the post-…al-Qaeda”; and “Most…power”)