I think it’s worth jumping ahead a bit to the question, What is terrorism? The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere (such as smaller engagements in the Philippines, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Colombia) are all supposed to contribute to victory in a larger war against someone (terrorists) or something (terror or terrorism). Therefore, it’s critical that we paint a very clear picture of who or what is in our crosshairs in this larger struggle.
The three words—terror, terrorism, and terrorist—have very different meanings. People use them interchangeably, but a war on terrorists isn’t the same as a war on terror or terrorism.
Terror is a state of mind. In World War II, both the Blitz and the Allied strategic bombing campaign attempted to inspire terror in the enemy population. Early air power theorists like Duohet argued before the war that, under the strain, horror, unpredictability, and privation of continued bombing, enemy populations would crack. With national will lost in the ruins of major cities, enemy leaders would have to sue for peace. Of course, in World War II, the theory did not work, with the possible exception of the two A-bomb attacks on Japan. However, strategic bombing is not the only way to manufacture terror. Suicide bombings by groups like the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade are as much an attempt at terror as the firebombing of Dresden. And these other efforts at creating terror have had their successes.
Terrorism is a particular tactical approach, not an outcome. Terrorism tries to create terror through assassinations, kidnappings, sabotage, and bombings. Just like Hitler aimed V-1 and V-2 rockets at the English population, terrorism deliberately attacks citizens, not soldiers. As a distinct tactic, terrorism is a form of “asymmetric warfare” that lets a group fight on the cheap. Both governments and independent groups have used terrorism, such as the Chilean junta, the Iraqi Baathists, the Red Brigades (Italy), and the Tupemaro “urban guerrilla” movement (Uruguay). Bombings that deliberately target innocent bystanders are the most infamous incidents of terrorism, and according to Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation, they are on the rise worldwide. However much they use indiscriminate bombings and other techniques, terrorism isn’t something to which groups are necessarily wed. The same group may depend more or less on terrorism throughout the course of a conflict: the National Liberation Front, for example, used terrorism in its early phases of the insurgency in South Vietnam. As the movement gained recruits, the NLF shifted to a heavier emphasis on guerrilla operations. Because a group has used terrorism, they are and forever deserve to be identified as terrorists—particularly since terrorists seem to be a distinct type of organization.
Terrorists are a highly recognizable type of radical organization that depends on terrorism as the primary tool in its arsenal. These groups are generally secretive, disciplined, ideological, and, of course, ruthless. Their goal is usually a total transformation of society to a totalist regime, ranging from communist (the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany) to a Islamist (al-Qaeada). Terrorists are fiercely independent, willing to take assistance from governments when offered, but always suspicious of being co-opted by them. They will even come to blows with their former patrons or protectors, if they think the situation warrants, such as in the the attempted PLO coup against the Jordanian monarchy. Paramilitary groups like the Salvadoran death squads are also arguably terrorists by this definition, even though they may have closer-than-usual ties to the military or security services of a government.
So, whom or what are we really fighting: terror, terrorism, or terrorists? I don’t think anyone really knows. Whichever one you choose, however, victory will look very different.
Victory against terrorists requires defeating some or all of the terrorists hostile to the United States. Perhaps we could stop at al-Qaeda, or we might want to also prevent further bloodshed by eliminating the threat we face from other foreign terrorists who may turn against us (for example, Hezbollah), or domestic terrorists plotting attacks (such as the Army of God, or the recently-arrested duo of William Krar and Judith Bruey). We also want to make sure that these groups don't regenerate, or merely change their names, so a sustained, thorough effort is critical.
Victory against terrorism means eliminating the use of assassinations, kidnappings, sabotage, and bombings as an acceptable tactic by any combatant. Just as world opinion turned against the use of chemical weapons, and has increasingly turned against land mines, so too could terrorism become taboo. (In fact, the Geneva Convention and other international agreements already define them as unacceptable tactics. Clearly, though, they’re not having the desired moral effect yet.)
Victory against terror has much the same nature. However, this effort requires a broader effort to eliminate the sorts of things that human rights groups like Amnesty International and the International Red Cross have targeted, such as the myriad ways (not just terrorism) that some governments use to intimidate their own or enemy populations.
These distinctions should make it clear that we’re fighting a war against terrorists, not terrorism or terror. If the new definition of national security means, “No more 9/11-like attacks,” then we need to focus on terrorists like al-Qaeda. If we shift our sights to terrorism or terror, people can rightly complain, “This isn’t the war we signed up for.” The 9/11 attack wasn’t merely one breed of a larger species of threats; it defined the threat, attacks by terrorists. The war in Afghanistan made sense, since it went after al-Qaeda in its safe haven (and had the added benefit of getting rid of the Taliban in the process). The war in Iraq was not justified under this definition, except if (1) Iraq had supported al-Qaeda or equally threatening groups that were planning attacks on US targets, or (2) Iraq was supplying (or might supply) al-Qaeda with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Since neither condition turned out to exist, the fact that the Baathist regime ruled through terror wasn’t relevant to our stated war aim, “No more 9/11-like attacks.”
I hope this discussion makes it easier to talk about other points. I find nearly everyone tripping over terminology, which is a good reason why so many “discussions” since 9/11 don’t seem to be addressing the same topic.
And I promise that the next post will be shorter.