On September 2001, during the first year of the new millennium, the cities of New York and Washington D.C were attacked by what most political and military leaders in the West described as “terrorist groups”. The loss of lives in a single day due to theses attacks (about three thousand civilians) was exceeded in American history only by battles during the Civil War.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C, many Americans evidently agreed with pronouncements by many senior political figures that the United States was at war with “terrorism”. Yet, for many disempowered people in other regions, “Americans are the worst terrorists in the world” (According to Osama bin Laden, the late leader of Al Qaeda in a 1998 television interview with the American Broadcasting Company). Following the Attacks, President George W Bush announced that the US “would make no distinction between terrorists and the countries that habour them”. For many frustrated, impoverished, infuriated people – who view the U.S as a terrorist country – attacks on American Civilians were justified in precisely the way: making no distinction between a “terrorist state” and the citizens who aid and abet that state.
Since the 9/11 debacle, a massive paradigm shift in security thinking seems to have occurred, as attested to by the increasing collaboration among countries with similar security threat indicators in attempts to check the burgeoning dimensions of the violent activities of extremist groups across the globe. The globalization of security has resulted in massive alliances between the security establishment of the US and those of other countries – a colossal move from national to international/global/collective security. The response of states to 9/11 shows that in the post-sovereign global world, states remain crucial agents of security.
The American-led “war on terrorism” has been confrontational; a winner takes all approach that is aimed at defeating all terrorist threats around the globe. The subsequent reprisal bombing of Afghanistan, which was targeted at Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban for aiding and abetting them, the invasion of Iraq under the flimsy guise of rooting out the threat posed to global security by that country’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and other concerted global security initiatives, are practical demonstrations of the zero-sum anti-terrorism strategy adopted by the U.S and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11.
However, despite its seeming effectiveness in checking the activities of extremist groups, the war on terror seems to have created new terrorists. While Al-Qaeda may have been weakened, the radical Islamic movement worldwide seems to be strengthening with the formation of new groups and cells who are obviously inspired by Osama Bin Laden, whose legendary image while alive, and heroic death in a purported shootout with US security forces in Pakistan, has turned into a martyr of sorts; a role model for extremists the world over. Thus, several years after the commencement of the global war on terror, there seems to be no practical indicators to measure the progress of the war on terror – no standard metrics to know whether the war is being won or lost. The question is: are more terrorists being captured, killed or deterred every day than the Madrassas and radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying more foot soldiers across the globe?
For the U.S, the world’s policeman and arrowhead of the global anti-terror campaign, the backlash from its much-trumpeted war has been loud and clear. According to Jim Lobe (Inter Press Service, September 8, 2011) “Al-Qaeda appears to have largely succeeded in its hopes of accelerating the decline of U.S global power, if not bringing it to the brink of collapse. That appears to be the strong consensus of foreign-policy elite which, with only a few exceptions, believes that the administration of President George W. Bush badly over-reacted to the attacks and that over-reaction continues today”.
Continuing in the same vein, Jim Lobe (Ibid) estimates that “the costs of – war on terror – have been staggering in almost every respect. The estimated three to 4.4 trillion dollars Washington has incurred either directly or indirectly in conducting the global war on terror accounts for a substantial portion of the fiscal crisis that transformed the country’s politics and brought it to the edge of bankruptcy last month – of August 2011. And while the U.S military remains by far the strongest in the world, its veil of invincibility has been irreparably pierced by the success with which rag-tag groups of guerrillas have defied and frustrated it” (emphasis added).
The ongoing American-led global war on terror, while having been quite commendable, has failed to extinguish or even check the spread of this phenomenon. Rather than decline, it keeps accelerating at an alarming pace, rearing its head even in once peaceful sections of the world. The rise of new extremist groups across the globe such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – the world’s most committed and fanatical radical organization; Boko Haram (Western education is sin) – a group whose apocalyptic activities have turned the Northern part of Nigeria into a theatre of war – has exposed the banality and ineffectiveness of the ongoing war on terror. The truth remains that the world has never been as unsafe as it is currently, despite all noise being made about fighting terrorism. Force cannot be defeated with force.
This column argues for a paradigm shift in the current context in global security thinking: a move from confrontation to constructive engagement. Deliberate attempts must be made by all concerned stakeholders – both at the national and global levels – to engage one another in constructive processes of dialogue where practical solutions can be proffered to the crucial issues at stake. No matter how painfully true it might seem, most of the extremist groups operating in the world today have reasons – even if some of them sound “irrational” – for their violent conduct. Addressing some of these issues (such as the several cases of structural violence and other forms of globalization-induced injustices) will go a long way in allaying the fears being expressed by the members of these groups, setting the tone for the return of positive peace to these troubled parts of the globe.
Talking of globalization, the American-led West (the current chief driver of the vehicle of globalization) must be more transparent and humane in its relations with the rest of the world. It must forthwith desist from its tendency to deride the economies, cultures, and political systems of other less powerful nations. Justice must be seen to be done by all concerned for positive peace to return to the world. Recognition and respect for the rights of other people to self determination is one of the surest guarantees for order to reign in a word naturally inclined towards disorder. God save the world!