February 5, 2009: The war on terror is not over, and will not be over for another 5-10 years, or even a generation. The non-Islamic world is winning, but as long as terrorists are out there, the danger remains. The cause of the problem is a crises in the Islamic world, where a religion that lends itself to poverty, hostility to technological progress, despotic rule and aggressive behavior against infidels (non-Moslems) has created yet another wave of fanatics determined to set things right. The conflict between Islam, and the rest of the world, has been going on for over a thousand years, and was thought to be moribund as the Islamic world fell so far behind the rest of the world in economics, military power and technology. But in the last few decades, it has become popular for Islamic radicals to blame infidels for all their problems, and to attack the infidels as a way to achieve victory within the Moslem world. This sounds absurd to non-Moslems, but this twisted logic plays so well in the Islamic world for the same reason that so many other self-destructive beliefs do. Things like accepting corrupt, despotic rulers, illiteracy and the subjugation of women. The West adopted an opposite attitude and prospered, but this is seen as un-Islamic by Moslem radicals. Many Moslems do not agree with this, and there is a growing reform movement in the Islamic world. But undoing centuries of habits and customs is not easy. It's like turning a large ship around. It takes time, and meanwhile the terrorism, or the threat of it, will continue.
Al Qaeda has been destroyed as an organization since September 11, 2001, and has evolved into a philosophy, one that has taken root in small pockets throughout the Moslem world. One important al Qaeda (which means "the base" in Arabic) concept that still remains a tangible target, is the desire to set up terrorist training camps. Here, true believers can improve their technical skills. Although terrorist training manuals exist on the Internet, most Islamic terrorists are not well educated (many are illiterate) and benefit most from hands-on instruction. In these camps, terrorist leaders can also firm up the ideological strength of their trainees. The majority of the most successful Islamic terrorists have some of this training in their background. Thus a major counter-terror effort is directed at finding and destroying these camps. Currently, the largest concentration of such training facilities is in Pakistan, along the Afghan border. This is a lawless area, and has been for centuries. Last year, for the first time, the Pakistani army entered the tribal territories to impose law and order. The Pushtun tribes, as they have for thousands of years, are resisting. The tribesmen are not just protecting terrorist training camps, but their traditional freedom from outside law.
A similar situation exists in Somalia, but this is an isolated area, without access to transportation and technology. The Somali tribes are also more violent and unpredictable than those in Afghanistan. Thus Islamic terrorists hiding out in Somalia are much less of a problem than in Pakistan's tribal territories.
The territories adjacent to Israel (the West Bank, Gaza and southern Lebanon) are also a source of refuge for Islamic terrorists. But, again, there are severe limitations. Highly effective Israeli counter-terror operations sharply limit what terrorists can do in Gaza and the West Bank. In southern Lebanon, the Shia Hezbollah organization is restrained from backing international terrorism by Lebanese politics, fear of Western retaliation and the prudence of their Iranian sponsors.
The war in Iraq led to the collapse of al Qaeda support in the Persian Gulf. Al Qaeda declared the "battle for Iraq" to be a really big deal, and a struggle that they could not afford to lose. Al Qaeda did lose, and did so by killing over 50,000 Moslems and triggering an uprising by Islamic radicals in neighboring countries. Al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia, who had long kept quiet inside the kingdom, in return for an informal truce and sanctuary, attacked. But once the bombs began going off in Saudi Arabia, popular opinion turned against the Islamic terrorists, and within three years, al Qaeda was crushed in what was, for all practical purposes, its homeland. Many wealthy Saudis, who had long contributed large amounts of cash to Islamic extremists, cut their support. While al Qaeda lost most spectacularly in Iraq, they suffered even more damage because of their defeat in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimate victory against Islamic terrorism requires destroying the source of the anger and despair that creates the recruits. This is a cultural problem, and the cultural war moves slowly. The despots, and their millions of kin and associates, that rule the Moslem world, are not willing to surrender their power. Think of the Islamic world, especially the Arab countries, as the last empire. As earlier empires grew weak and helpless, they grew more dangerous. The oil money and urge to obtain nuclear weapons makes this empire even more dangerous than previous ones. Empires rarely end peacefully, and this one may expire in a particularly nasty fashion.