International Islamist terrorism is again in the news. The attempted attack on a Detroit-bound aircraft by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born al-Qaeda-linked terrorist carrying a bomb in his underwear, was the most spectacular of a series of incidents. A Jordanian triple agent blew himself up, killing several intelligence agents, at a base in Afghanistan; a Somali extremist allegedly attempted to murder a Danish cartoonist responsible for one of the controversial 2005 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad; terrorist attacks continue apace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many opinion leaders in Australia and elsewhere seem to have convinced themselves that terrorism is no longer an issue. It is argued that law enforcement can handle terrorism like any other crime, and that terrorism has been over-emphasised either because of irrational panic or for political purposes.
But recent events serve as a reminder that this is not a problem which countries like Australia can ignore in the hope that it will just go away. Terrorism is probably the most serious tactical security challenge we face at the moment.
Fortunately, most government officials and serious analysts acknowledge its seriousness. However, what is being increasingly lost sight of is recognition that terrorism is just the tactical face of a much larger strategic challenge – probably the most formidable strategic challenge Australia and its allies face.
That challenge – the motivation for the terrorism – is an ideological movement which might be termed “revolutionary Islamism” – following a doctrine that all Muslim countries must be ruled by a virtual totalitarian dictatorship guided by a very stringent definition of proper Islam, preferably in a universal “caliphate” uniting all Muslims, and ultimately, the whole world.
We cannot adequately address the tactical problem of terrorism without acknowledging and understanding this strategic threat – an ideological movement in some ways akin to Fascism and Marxism-Leninism in its desire to violently and completely transform society, and worship of such a revolutionary transformation as the ultimate value, legitimising almost any means to attain it.
This reality is why the phrase “War on Terror”, coined after 9/11, was always problematic. Terrorism, particularly suicide terrorism, is the preferred tactic of adherents of radical Islamism and one that is abhorrent, hard to defend against and very difficult to deter (though even non-violent Revolutionary Islamism is certainly of concern.) But one does not wage war against a tactic.
This problematic phrase was coined, understandably, to avoid even the implication that the West was at war with either Islam as a religion or its adherents – something which is not and must never be the case.
Nonetheless, it also obscures the nature of the enemy. And to confront and ultimately defeat that enemy, the West must acknowledge that it is fighting a movement which appeals only to adherents of a particularly violent, extreme variant of the Islamic religion.
Unfortunately, the recent alternative to the “War on Terror” pronounced by US President Barack Obama, a “War on al-Qaeda”, is no improvement. Al-Qaeda is certainly one of the most visible and violent manifestations of Revolutionary Islamism, and is not going away. But it swims in a larger ideological movement including both the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, various anti-India terror groups, elements of the international Muslim Brotherhood, adherents to the Salafi version of Islamic beliefs being exported from Saudi Arabia, and other regional and international supporters of their overall ideological framework. Further, this Sunni ideological movement has a complex but somewhat complementary relationship with the various Shi’ite radical terrorist and revolutionary groups originally inspired by the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution.
Police and intelligence work aimed at detecting terrorist plots before they happen or punishing the perpetrators after they occur is essential, but it is not enough. It is not enough because the perpetrators will, if given time and space to plot, always eventually find ways to elude such scrutiny and security measures. Moreover, any successful attack has a potential snowball effect, inspiring others to join the cause.
If not kept off-balance and under pressure, sooner or later, terrorists will succeed in doing something truly horrific, possibly involving WMD, which will not only destroy probably many thousands of lives, but severely affect our complex, interdependent world – reliant on free movement of goods and peoples and a relaxed confidence that our interactions can be carried out in relative security.
This means continuing to make it a priority to deny the terrorist groups safe havens in places like Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. It means strong diplomatic and economic measures to punish states providing support and funding for terrorist or allied groups, such as Iran, Syria, and elements of the Saudi elite.
We must also recognise that probably the most important allies we can have in confronting this strategic threat are other Muslims. As noted US foreign policy eminence grise Leslie Gelb recently noted, “Only Muslims can argue with other Muslims about what the Koran says and doesn’t say. If Westerners enter that arena, the sole issues become infidel versus believer.”
Thus, the relationship with Muslim minorities in Western countries must be constantly appraised and improved. Many terrorists, including Abdulmutallab, were actually radicalised in Western countries. Britain, in particular, has in the past turned a blind eye to most manifestations of Revolutionary Islamism. On the other hand, if Western Muslims are integrated in a way that blends preserving traditional culture with sharing democratic core values with the larger society, Western Muslims can be the leaders in the intellectual fight against the Islamist interpretation of Islam.
Above all, our leaders need a commitment to employ a whole range of tactics and tools to pursue the strategic goal of winning a long, ideological struggle akin to the Cold War, and ultimately marginalising Revolutionary Islamism as Marxism-Leninism has been marginalised. But this pursuit cannot be successful if we fail to recognise the character and identity of the strategic enemy.