The Obama administration, and its allies, must sometimes feel that in the “war on terror,” they are playing a grim, high-stakes version of Whack-A-Mole against a bewildering variety of organizations determined to slaughter infidels anywhere they can. But as long as Western governments focus on specific organizations — or on the methods used by terrorists, rather than their motives — this game will continue to be frustrating, menacing and apparently futile.
The latest unpleasant news is a resurgence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, following on the heels of a Taliban resurgence there just as air strikes and things looking suspiciously like boots on the ground, including Australian special forces on the front lines, seemed to be turning the tide in Ramadi, Iraq. But even if the Taliban siege of Sangin is rebuffed, and al-Qaida’s tents are set on fire, dozens of other such groups are waiting in the wings to prove that they are the deadliest, most unscrupulous, most fanatical terrorists going. And any such demonstration brings a flood of recruits, money, publicity and, inevitably, Western military attention.
To some extent the fluid, amorphous nature of the threat is simply the nature of the beast: terrorist organizations are loose, flexible, decentralized and non-hierarchical as a matter of sheer survival, because any time they gather together into something tight, structured, centralized and hierarchical, Western armies and air forces destroy them. But it is also true that many in the West fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the beast.
The enemy is not an organization at all
The enemy is not ISIL, or the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or the PLO, or the al-Aqsa Brigades, or Black September, or the al-Nusra Front, or Islamic Jihad, or Hezbollah, or the Black Flags of Khorasan, or the Houthis, or any of dozens of such organizations big or small, menacing or feeble. The enemy is not an organization at all — it is an idea.
Consider the slogan: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Without Google, you could not know which of the groups just listed, or which other group, had officially adopted it. Unofficially, they all have, and that makes them fungible for existing and potential terrorists and guerrillas.
The problem is that we have failed to perceive the threat as ideological in nature. The unwillingness of the Obama administration to use terms like “Islamism,” or classifying the Fort Hood shooting as “workplace violence” (a decision reversed by Congress in 2015), disarms us intellectually and morally at a time when we need clarity and resolve. We fear that our own current leadership is prone to the same politically correct vacuity.
It does not matter what particular jersey is currently in fashion or convenient among jihadis, or who the big league players are. What matters is their underlying hatred of the West, based upon a particularly harsh reading of the Qur’an, and their determination to act violently on that hatred. And because they cannot be smashed with a few decisive blows, we need a long-term strategy that attacks the famous “root causes,” even as we rely tactically on things the West does well, from sustained combat operations to forensic accounting, to target its specific manifestations.
As always, to focus on root causes does not excuse neglecting current problems. In this case, it does not mean specific jihadi organizations and leaders are unimportant. The only way to root out an idea is to convince, or destroy, those who hold it and put it into practice. And so, if much terrorism and guerrilla warfare is currently being waged by ISIL, they must be the target. Western planners must continue to target those organizations currently posing the greatest threat, to the extent that it is possible to do so.
It is not easy under the best of circumstances. One can never be sure who is cooking up the next spectacular terrorist act, or whether their formal declaration of affiliation with a known group has any genuine institutional content. Nor can one know which formerly obscure blowhards like ISIL will suddenly rocket to the top of the jihadi charts, however briefly. But in this singularly dense fog of war, one must target the leaders, financiers and groups of fighters one manages to identify and locate.
We’re not fighting a “war on terror.” We’re fighting Islamism
One must also be frank about what the real threat is. It’s, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” It’s an idea, which any violent idiot can write on a flag and carry in their heart while they carry explosives in their hands. We’re not fighting a “war on terror.” We’re fighting Islamism.
There is no easy way to defeat ideas. They must be confronted intellectually, rhetorically and morally, and their adherents must be fought militarily. But unless we are frank about the nature of the threat, we will have no hope of sustaining public support, or making sound strategic judgements, in the frustrating and apparently endless business of whacking one jihadi group after another.