The Age – September 20, 2006
After five years, we have avoided some of our worst post-9/11 fears. We have seen Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai, and many smaller attacks by terrorists driven by the same Islamist totalitarian ideology that inspired the September 11 atrocities. But despite some attempts, there has been no successful attack on a similar scale since then. Moreover, the nightmare scenario – a terrorist attack on a major Western city with non-conventional weapons – has not come to pass.
This is largely because the West has succeeded on a number of fronts. Our law enforcement has improved to the point where we are thwarting most terror plots. Our international military and diplomatic efforts have reduced al-Qaeda to a shadow of its former self, not only losing it base camps in Afghanistan, but its financial and political support from both the Taliban and elements of the establishment in the Persian Gulf, and especially Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the conflict in Iraq continues to absorb most of the energy of those who would probably otherwise be planning attacks on New York, London or Melbourne.
But we must remember that the “war on terror” is not only a war on an illegal and immoral tactic and the organizations that utilise it, but a war of ideas as well. It is a real war against a specifically murderous and ugly version of totalitarianism which has sprung from a fringe interpretation of the Islamic tradition and has been adopted by the various terror groups threatening us today. If we do not continue to fight it, intelligently, using diplomatic, legal, intelligence and military tools, and with reasonable unity of purpose, we will indeed suffer the worst case scenarios widely feared after 9/11 – regular terror attacks on a similar scale or worse, disrupting transport, commerce, and normal democratic politics around the world, and making our current way of life all but impossible.
Law enforcement is necessary but not sufficient. As long as the Islamist terrorist movement continues to spread from the Middle East, it will continue to attempt attacks, study Western police and intelligence methods, and probe weak points and seek mass destruction. Eventually, it will succeed in something truly large-scale, and the repercussions will be horrendous, especially if it involves WMD. The distinguished Harvard expert Professor Graham Allison believes that an attack with a “dirty bomb” is today “overdue.” By itself, law enforcement simply postpones the inevitable.
The current conflict with Islamist extremism is unavoidable, despite understandable hopes that there must be another way. As Bin Laden has repeatedly made clear, there is no compromise, because we are dealing with an ideological death-cult, which sees fighting and killing as primarily a religious obligation, martyrdom as its ultimate ideal, and coexistence with infidels as simply a sin.
The only way to neutralise the threat in the longer term is to deal with the “root causes” of the current Islamist surge in the Middle East. This is not a series of grievances, as some assert, but a system of ideas and beliefs which makes terrorism the outcome of those grievances. Virtually every ethnic group has grievances, some much more justified than any cited by Islamists or their apologists, but when was the last time you heard of a Tibetan or a sub-Saharan African suicide bomber? Those who point to Muslim grievances about Iraq or Palestine as the root causes of Muslim extremist terror should remember that the September 11 attacks were planned and prepared in the late 1990s, when the United States under Clinton had just orchestrated a coalition force to protect the Muslims of Kosovo from Serbian ethnic cleansing, and was doing its utmost to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The true root cause of Islamist terror is to be found in the preponderance of autocratic, illegitimate, corrupt and generally failed regimes that dominate the Middle East and maintain their power largely by blaming the West, the Jews and other foreigners for their peoples’ plight. Moreover, because of its role in society, religion has typically retained the one reasonably independent voice able to oppose decadent and corrupt governments. The ideology embraced not only by Bin Laden, but a variety of Islamist totalitarian terror groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, and various North African terror groups, is to a large extent the offspring of these two realities. Those opposed to the corrupt, repressive and ineffective governments of the Middle East are influenced by the only opposition voices, mainly religious voices, to demand an historically non-existent pure Islamic theocracy as the utopian alternative, and at the same time to blame the West and Israel for all the region’s problems, including its repressive regimes.
The only viable strategy remains the same as it was five years ago. Eliminate state support for terror groups, above all make sure they cannot acquire WMD, and attempt to deal with the deep-seated dearth of legitimate government, human rights and economic opportunity which plagues the Middle East region. Despite mistakes made and intelligence failures, the liberation of Iraq was justified in these terms. Saddam led a terror-supporting regime that was indeed determined to develop WMD as soon as containment ended, which was imminent. Moreover, despite its very serious problems, there is no doubt that Iraq is now part of a new and positive debate about democracy in Middle East discourse. If Iraq can be stabilised, this positive influence will grow exponentially. On the other hand, the costs of abandoning Iraq now, aside from the horrors likely to be inflicted on Iraqis themselves, would be that the Islamist movement will claim credit for “defeating” the West, and be seen as the wave of the future throughout the Middle East.
Similarly, it is also imperative that the world’s number one terror supporting state, Iran, be prevented from getting nuclear weapons.
All those Western political leaders who have understood the need for a genuine, thorough-going strategy to address the problem of Islamist terrorism have correctly emphasised that it would be a very difficult exercise that would take a generation or more. The policies they developed in 2001 remains valid today.
Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). He previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University for many years.