July 3, 2012: Al Qaeda appears to be defeated but the remnants of the organization, and many eager supporters, are still willing to kill for the cause. How do you end a war when there are still diehards out there willing, and able, to keep fighting for a worldwide Islamic religious dictatorship? These remnants have little chance of success but because of a number of cultural and religious factors, continue to find encouragement and support.
Al Qaeda is the product of some unique historical events. For over two decades an increasing number of Islamic terrorists have been openly, and with occasional success, been attacking the non-Moslem world. That is something that hasn't been seen for centuries. After September 11, 2001, the United States declared a response and called it the "war on terror." The problem with that concept was that this was no conventional war. While the enemy fighters were numerous and lethal, after the Taliban government was overthrown in late 2001, no country would admit to providing sanctuary for these Islamic terrorists. Thus there was no place to invade and fight a battle-to-the-finish with the enemy. The U.S. came up with an alternative solution. In 2003, Iraq was invaded because its ruler, Saddam Hussein was a known provider of sanctuary to Islamic terrorists and a self-declared enemy of the West (and much of the Moslem world as well). Iraq became a major battleground between Western and al Qaeda forces. The Islamic terrorists suffered a major defeat in Iraq, especially in terms of their popularity in the Moslem world. Iraq made it quite clear that al Qaeda was willing and able to kill lots of Moslems who did not agree with them.
Twenty nations account for over 95 percent of terrorism activity in the world. Of these twenty (Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Uganda, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Colombia, Algeria, Thailand, Philippines, Russia, Sudan, Iran, Burundi, India, Nigeria, and Israel) all but four of them (Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Colombia and Burundi) involve Islamic terrorism. In terms of terrorism fatalities, the top four nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia) accounted for over 10,000 dead each year, over 75 percent of the world total. All of these were the result of Islamic radicalism, often directed at other Moslems, and not just non-Moslems (“infidels”).
The American experience in Iraq also made it clear, to anyone paying attention, that al Qaeda existed mainly because so many Moslems believed that the non-Moslem nations, especially the West, were out to get them. If you stood back and looked at the situations in Moslem countries with non-Moslem minorities it became clear that it was the Moslems who were tormenting and attacking non-Moslems, not the other way around. But one thing Moslem radicals had become adept at was playing Western media. First, there was the use of a few attacks to terrorize most Westerners. Second, Moslems made a lot of Western journalists and politicians believe that the Moslem world was under attack, even though the facts on the ground showed just the opposite. What no one on either side wanted to admit was that Islam was unique among major world religions in that it was always aggressive in gaining ground and converts and those periods (centuries ago) of great conquests are still fondly remembered. Moslems believe that it is their right, and duty, to rule the world and that anyone getting in their way is culturally insensitive. Unless or until this attitude changes to something less aggressive and absolute there will always be young (and usually dumb) Moslems willing to kill for the cause. Better educated Moslems tend to avoid terrorism. But there is still that cultural emphasis on entitlement and persecution and the use of terror and mass murder to solve the problem. Even Moslems who migrated to the West admit, in opinion polls, that they approve of Islamic terrorism. Not all of these Moslems approve but even in the West a few percent do. Back home the percentage of terrorism supporters is much higher.
The death of Osama bin Laden last year was hailed as a rare victory over Islamic terrorism. Actually, there have been many such victories recently, often achieved by going after the terrorist leadership and technical infrastructure. Israel pioneered this approach, which was adopted by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has led to numerous clear-cut victories over Islamic terror groups in the last two decades.
The most notable one was the defeat of the 2000-2005, Palestinian terror campaign against Israel. The Palestinian terrorist groups still say they are going to destroy Israel. But as a practical matter, the current round of Palestinian terrorist violence is over. You could see this by the sharp decline in successful terrorist attacks after 2005, and the frequent pronouncements from the terrorists groups that they are going to behave, for a while anyway. What the terrorists really want is to avoid any more of the Israeli tactics that shut down their terrorist operations. This included going after terrorist leaders and technical specialists and either capturing or (failing that) killing them. Initially the Israelis launched over 200 of these targeted attacks and crippled the leadership and technical capabilities of the terrorists seeking to slaughter Israeli civilians. In addition, raids and air attacks were made against buildings used by the terrorists and tight security on Israelis borders were instituted. This last measure crushed the Palestinian economy, which put popular pressure on the terrorists to stop their attacks and promise to keep it that way. The Israelis also set up an increasingly effective intelligence system inside Palestinian territories. What the Israelis did was "take the war to the enemy." This is an application of the old maxim, "the best defense is a good offense." This particular war went on for six years, but the Israelis only adopted their winning tactics after three years of increasing terror attacks inside Israel.
Similar successful campaigns were fought in Egypt and Algeria during the 1990s. The Egyptians defeated the Moslem Brotherhood (and many survivors fled Egypt and helped found al Qaeda). Algeria finally defeated a similar movement by 2004, while the Egyptian campaign took most of the 1990s. Syria crushed the Moslem Brotherhood in the early 1980s, after five years of violence. These three Arab nations were all police states and were able to deploy large numbers of police and soldiers that spoke the same language as the terrorists. Israel also had a large number of counter-terror operatives who spoke Arabic. Many had grown up in Arab countries or had parents who had done so.
The U.S. adopted the Israeli tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi terror offensive was defeated by 2008, while in Afghanistan, Pakistani sanctuaries have been attacked these last three years via missile armed CIA UAVs. Hundreds of Islamic terrorists have been killed, and the losses have crippled the organizations they worked for.
What all these successful campaigns had in common was aggressive tactics that took the battle to the enemy. Treating terrorism as if it were just a police matter, allowed the terrorists to continue building support and the ability to launch more attacks. By going into the terrorist neighborhoods you disrupted their planning and recruiting efforts and eventually wrecked the network of support.
The United States had clung to the police approach throughout the 1990s, and the attacks continued. Only after September 11, 2001, was the war carried to the terrorist heartland and the attacks in the U.S., and against American targets elsewhere, ceased. The terrorists were forced to defend their base and in doing so they killed many Moslems and turned Moslem public opinion against them.
Without a secure base to operate from the terrorist threat was much diminished. This is why al Qaeda has made so few attacks in the lands of their enemies. In the United States nearly two decades of trying has resulted in only two major attacks (1993 and 2001). France got hit with several attacks in the 1990s, as a byproduct of the Islamic terrorism in Algeria, but have shut down the terrorists since. The rest of Europe has been hit twice (Madrid 2004, and London 2005) since September 11, 2001. Not a lot to show for an "international terrorist organization," with "millions of members and supporters."
The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken the battle to the heart of those regions that supply the leaders, and foot soldiers, for Islamic terrorism. In Iraq this revived a civil war that had been flaring up periodically for decades. This time the Sunni Arab minority were not able to crush the Kurds and Shia Arabs who comprise over 80 percent of the population. Aided by Islamic radicals who want to establish a religious dictatorship, the Sunni Arabs soon began to lose rather visibly. The towns and neighborhoods where the Sunni Arabs could operate openly were retaken by American and Iraqi forces. By 2007, the Islamic terrorists were shattered. Some still remain but can't do much beyond carrying out an occasional attack to attract some media attention. It's notable that there are still diehards in Iraq who continue to carry out terror attacks against civilians, in an effort to trigger a major religious (Sunni versus Shia) civil war. If such a war were to begin, it would likely end up with most Sunni Arabs in Iraq being killed or driven from the country. This does not convince the remaining Islamic terrorists in Iraq to stop killing. This is the kind of enemy the world is up against.
On a wider scale, the Islamic terrorism is a response to tyranny and self-delusion in the Arab world. Islamic terrorists fight the former and embrace the latter. But both the acceptance of tyranny, and fondness for self-delusion, are still problems in the Moslem, especially the Arab, areas. Until those two self-defeating habits are overcome, unrest will continue. The Islamic terrorists can be beaten down in the short term. That's been a lot of that lately. But unless the bad habits are changed, the terrorists will keep coming back.