Is the War on Terror winnable? Kind of...

We must alter our preconceptions about 'winning' the War on Terror. Jihadism won't give way easily, writes James Gourlay.

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Camp X-Ray
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James Gourlay
On 8 July 2011 09:16

The 2nd of May 2011 will be remembered as the day that Osama Bin Laden was finally brought to justice. Many criticised the American public’s overt expression of relief, stating that the celebrations held by many were both callous and morally equivalent to the ‘Muslim street’ celebrating the 9/11 attacks. This is wrong.

The sentiment behind the celebration must not be condemned; on the other hand, the triumphalism involved should, as it worryingly shows that some believe the end of the ‘War on Terror’ is impending.

The 'War on Terror' is hardly comparable to conventional warfare.  It is in fact better defined as a global conflict not necessarily bound by the concept of winner and loser. This misinterpretation ultimately means that we are endlessly searching for a victory that should not be expected.

Another result of perceiving the ‘War on Terror’ as a conventional war is that we view the enemy in linear terms. Jason Burke's analysis displays Al-Qaeda in a truthful light. In fact it is not a heavily structured organisation, but, is actually loosely organised with many different wings.

Jihadism isn’t just Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. We should move past the idea of Al-Qaeda as a main or sole operational force. It is more correct to view it now as a franchise or template for other jihadist groups. This is a point which Osama Bin Laden clearly understood, as he opined, “regardless if Osama is killed or survives, the awakening has started".

Consider the 7/7 bombings in London, which we marked the sixth anniversary of yesterday.  We can see that individuals such as Mohamed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer had low levels of contact with Al-Qaeda operatives.  Their radicalisation was a result of Jihadist ideology in itself, rather than through affiliation with any overseeing body.  This is often the case.

This ideology is now the pre-eminent foe, and is something much stronger than Al-Qaeda itself. A dismissive attitude towards this is treacherous. All the individuals involved in jihadism have clearly shared the same basic standpoints whereas they have not always been the members of interlinking structures.

Thus, to combat the enemy in its entirety we must, as Mary Habeck states, “be willing to listen to their own explanations”.  We have in the past tended to impose “a Western interpretation on the extremists”, supposing that socio-economic issues which widely differentiate between individual jihadis, are the key causal factors, as opposed to the ideological justifications jihadis reference.

Ignoring the reasons jihadis give for their actions clearly shows our desire to deny the significance of their ideology. This ideology has been around for centuries; throughout history it has regenerated with new ideologues, enemies and methods to stay ‘relevant’, making the task of defeating it appear insurmountable. This is the root cause of our desire to deny ideology as the main reason for their actions.

Jihadism is now undergoing another period of metamorphosis. Lone wolf terrorism has become the biggest threat, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being just one example, and Ayman al-Zawahiri has now stepped in to the shoes of Osama Bin Laden. Despite these alterations the ideology holds fast.

If we look away from jihadist terrorism momentarily we can see that conflicts against terror rarely have a clear cut conclusion. The pre-eminent example of a conflict with terrorism which appears endless is the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Ominously, there have been around 64 years of conflict and still no solution. It is important to to compare and contrast the global conflict with jihadism and regional terror conflicts as the enemy being fought in a broad sense is very similar, they are all genocidal non-state actors albeit often supported by states themselves.

The key point we take from any comparison is that negotiation is possible in regional cases but not in the global war against jihadism. Regional conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine Conflict, are a struggle for territory and as is the case with the PLO, terrorist groups will enter into negotiations. Jihadists are fighting to implement the ‘will of God’. They see this as something that cannot be done in half measures as it is a divine command and therefore, non-negotiable.

When you combine all the aforementioned factors of jihadism it becomes clear that it would be illogical to expect a total victory against them. My cynicism does not mean we can give respite. In fact, it is a call for pragmatism with regards to our tackling of the issue. It is clear that it is nearly impossible to defeat something that manifests in an individual's mind. We do not live in an Orwellian world where thought alone is illicit, therefore it cannot be eradicated. Even if the West tries to dispel the ideology, the nature of jihadism will ensure it persists.

As a result, the only viable response is to make it as difficult as possible for Islamist groups to gain strength. If groups such as Al-Qaeda are allowed to build a firm base, as they did in Afghanistan, they will again develop a support network and a strong organisational structure to go with it. The boot must be kept to the head of these groups if the world wishes to suppress the threat of jihadism. And suppression is ultimately the best that can be hoped for.

James Gourlay is a Research Assistant for Student Rights - a counter-extremism pressure group in the United Kingdom. He tweets at @JamesG8891

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