Is Terrorism Infinite?
by Stephen Schwartz
I recently heard it said here in Washington where I live and work that the phenomenon of terrorism is infinite, and cannot be eradicated.
This argument is simply a variant on the frequent error of Western observers who claim that Islamist extremists are impossible to defeat because they desire death and will not stray from their violent path.
These misconceptions have led to a serious weakness in Western strategy – the failure to observe contradictions and to exploit differences in the ranks of the enemy. For this reason, U.S. and coalition leaders of the War on Terror have neglected to encourage splits and defections in the opposing forces.
But the issue of the impermanence of terrorism is more significant. Certain terror movements have endured for years, and inflicted extensive atrocities on innocent people. These include al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the Taliban, extremist infiltrators among the Chechens, and radicals in Pakistan and Kashmir. Outside the world of Islam, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have pursued a long campaign of suicide terror.
But for each example of a long-lasting terrorist group, there are cases in which terrorism was defeated. The Irish Republican Army was convinced to give up terrorist activity. Before it, violent radicals including the Italian Red Brigades, the German Red Army Faction, the American Weatherman, and the Japanese Red Army disrupted society, but finally vanished from the political landscape. Today's readers have seldom heard of the revolutionary terrorism that convulsed Europe and the Americas at the end of the 19th century.
Terrorism can be defeated. Islamist terrorism is no less vulnerable than its predecessors in history.
First, Westerners need to comprehend that Islamist terrorists are often driven not by conviction of their rightness, but by weakness in their faith. They join terrorist movements to prove they are good Muslims, because they feel in their hearts that they are insufficient Muslims.
Such individuals, when faced with actual death on the battlefields of jihadism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, may realize that they are unprepared to sacrifice their whole lives to the incitement of fanatics. It is in the interest of the U.S. and its coalition partners to encourage such feelings by killing the enemy, but also by psychological warfare aimed at undermining the morale of the terrorists and offering opportunities to defect.
I have written elsewhere that the common trope about Islamist terrorists seeking the pleasures of virgins in paradise often reflects personal confusion rather than conviction. For terrorist recruits, it may seem easier to seek the virgins in heaven than to marry and found a normal family in the real world.
Above all, terrorism is always dependent on extensive, external financial support. It is a principle of war enunciated by the great German strategist Clausewitz that "irregular," "insurgent" combat – of which terrorism is an evil subset – cannot survive without foreign help. The IRA could not operate without support from Irish American sympathizers, and when, after September 11, 2001, Irish Americans dropped their financial backing for the movement, it was forced to abandon terror.
The German RAF and Italian Red Brigades were supported by the Soviet KGB. When the Russians decided to stop backing them, they collapsed. Japanese radicals and the American Weatherman got help from North Korea, until their subversion proved ineffective.
Terrorism without financing is individual and isolated. Without Saudi money Osama bin Laden might be no more than a Ted Kaczynski – the notorious Unabomber – of the Muslim world. Both lived reclusively, but Kaczynski could hardly even fantasize the establishment of a global network of agents. Islamist radicalism is based on powerful interests, rather than the oft-cited but bogus "root causes" involving U.S. and Israeli policy.
Islamic extremism is maintained by two ideological forces hiding behind religion: Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the adventuristic supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Syria, with a radical Arab nationalist regime that does not embrace a religious doctrine, is a halfway house for both, mainly for profit.
As President George W. Bush has pointed out, Iraq has become a battleground for Sunni terrorists who see the Shias as their main enemy on the ground, and Shia militias anxious for revenge. American and coalition troops are mainly under attack from Sunnis.
Sunni terrorists may be undermined and vanquished by a combination of stern military action by the U.S.-led coalition and their Iraqi partners, and pressure on Saudi King Abdullah, whose government has announced that it will not favor Sunnis over Shias in Iraq. This action may weaken all Sunni radicals everywhere.
The Shia militias may be curbed by consistent pressure on the new Iraqi government, which has a Shia majority, and by continuing diplomatic efforts against Iran, in response to the nuclear and Holocaust-denial hallucinations of Ahmadinejad.
Terrorism is not infinite or unbeatable. And it will be beaten, as the Red Brigades and other brutal murderers were beaten: by arms, by psychology, and by cutting off their foreign support.