When you have been at war with something for almost two decades it is important to declare ‘victory’ at some point. Those whose support you – i.e. the public/taxpayer – need and want to see some results for the actions they are backstopping. Fighting for years with no sense that you are winning is a bad way of waging war after all.
One such victory in the ‘war on terrorism’ occurred on May 2, 2011 when the US announced it had finally found – and killed – Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden. Special forces had entered a compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan and shot the terrorist head honcho dead, taking his corpse and dumping it at sea.
It is hard to forget the scenes of jubilation outside the White House when all this was made public. And rightly so. Getting and neutralising the man behind the deaths of thousands was ‘justice’ even if it was justice at the end of a gun barrel. Bin Laden had paid the price for his dastardly deeds. This was a very much needed ‘victory’ in the war on terrorism.
What happened next was unforgivable however. We collectively assumed that the elimination of the AQ leader meant that AQ itself was done. After all, if you cut off the head of the snake you kill the snake, right? Hmm, what if the snake is the mythical Greek Hydra? If you cut the head off that creature it merely grows two in its place, making it really hard to kill. After all the snake Nagini was only one of seven horcruxes created by Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.
I hate to say it but AQ is a Hydra-like organisation.
A recent paper published in The Conversation by a George Mason University doctoral student, Christian Taylor, makes the case that in fact AQ is stronger today than it was on 9/11. I am normally careful in embracing the views of the many who write on terrorism and I know nothing of Mr. Taylor but he does make a convincing argument, one that I happen to agree with. To wit:
- AQ has recruited an estimated 40,000 fighters since 9/11 (that figure comes from Bruce Hoffman and he IS a terrorism expert);
- Since 9/11 AQ has grown and spread from its original home in Afghanistan to North, East and Sahelian Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf States and Central Asia (I would add East Asia to that mix) where it has developed new political influence – in some areas even supplanting the local government ;
- the ‘war on terrorism’ has been largely responsible for AQ’s survival and thriving.
We really need to learn some lessons from all this so we don’t make an already bad situation worse. First and foremost, ditch the phrase ‘war on terrorism’ as I have been advocating for decades (and I explained my opposition to this trope in An End to the War on Terrorism). Secondly, stop making stupid errors by focusing on the wrong goal. The shortsighted US paranoia regarding Iran is a case in point. By painting Iran as the mother of all threats it is repeating the same mistake it did in 2003 when Iraq filled that role. The decision to invade Iraq took the pressure off AQ, allowed the affiliates to flourish and gave us Islamic State (IS, originally Al Qaeda in Iraq, remember?). We need to refocus on AQ while also keeping an eye on IS and not repeat the fantasy that IS is dead a la AQ in 2011. Iran is not our biggest menace folks.
Thirdly, and closely tied to #2, we must concentrate our attention where it belongs: Saudi Arabia and its hateful and intolerant version of Wahhabi Islam which it is still spreading around the world. No, not all Wahhabis are terrorists but an awful lot of terrorists are either inspired by or share the same views as Wahhabi Islamists. I am puzzled by how we are failing in this regard and why some see Iran and Shia Islam as a greater menace than Saudi and Sunni extremist Islam. Does no one read history or do analysis anymore? Instead we embrace Saudi king in waiting Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, which stands for ‘Mister Bone Saw’ for his role in the brutal slaying of Jamal Kashoggi). Does any of this make sense?
If AQ continues to grow and eventually poses an even larger threat down the road we have only ourselves to blame. We have the requisite knowledge and tools to undermine terrorism. We just need to use them.