It has been almost 13 years since the September 11 attacks ushered in the euphemistically titled, the ‘war on terror.’ Fast forward to 2014; NATO forces are preparing to pull out of Afghanistan after a long and bloody war. Having spent over a decade there as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom Obama’s decision earlier in the year to finally end America’s combat role is a key milestone in the global war on terror. Even though the looming threat of the Islamic State (IS) lurks in the region, many see this development as a welcome change. Undoubtedly, the rise of the IS is testament to the fact that the war on terror is far from over.
A common misconception when discussing terrorism is our habit of giving it a tangible profile. This makes terrorism an ideology, and as such, we assume that it can be associated with a certain group of people. Although most terrorist acts are credited to some form of radical ideology, the very fact that there exists no universal definition of the term makes it quite difficult to label any organization using unconventional means of publicity or enforcement as terrorists. The classical rhetoric of ‘one man’s terrorist in another man’s freedom fighter’ raises this very point.
Terrorism has been described variously as both a tactic and strategy; a crime and a holy duty; a justified reaction to oppression and an inexcusable abomination. Obviously, a lot depends on whose point of view is being represented. Terrorism has often been an effective tactic for the weaker side in a conflict. As an asymmetric form of conflict, it confers coercive power with many of the advantages of military force at a fraction of the cost. Due to the secretive nature and small size of terrorist organizations, they often offer opponents no clear organization to defend against or to deter.
No matter how well coordinated and regulated an effort by a government, an offensive retort to terrorism has a built in safety-mechanism: propagating the root cause. As noted counterinsurgency academic David Galula has said, the ideals of insurgency and counter-insurgency revolve around a very thinly veiled barrier of public support. A government’s rise to power and the authority to exercise force within a sovereign territory comes from the support its public affords it.
As a conflict method that has survived and evolved through several millennia to flourish in the modern information age, terrorism continues to adapt to meet the challenges of emerging forms of conflict. Terrorism has demonstrated increasing abilities to adapt to counter-terrorism measures. Developing new capabilities of attack and improving the efficiency of existing methods, terrorist groups have shown significant progress in becoming prominent as international influences. They are becoming more integrated with other sub-state entities such as criminal organizations and legitimately chartered corporations, and are gradually assuming a measure of control and identity with national governments.
Terrorists are improving their abilities in virtually all aspects of their operations and support. The aggressive use of modern technology, communication and intelligence capabilities have increased the efficiency of these activities. Weapons technology has become increasingly available and the purchasing power of terrorist organizations is on the rise. The ready availability of both technology and trained personnel to operate it for any client with sufficient cash allows a well-funded terrorist to equal or exceed the sophistication of governmental counter-measures.
Likewise, due to the increase in information outlets terrorism now requires a greatly increased amount of violence or novelty to attract the attention it requires. The tendency of major media to push for better ratings produces pressure on terrorists to increase the impact and violence of their actions to take advantage of this sensationalism.
All world leaders today understand this intricate web of terrorism but finding a common solution to this problem can be futile. This is not because of a lack of political will, but more so because presently the world looks at terrorism as a single issue. As such, measures to adequately deal with the issue require certain policy and practice amendments, in tandem with the argument on the intangible identity of terrorism. The most important aspect is to introduce strong institution building measures. And as globalization has shown, these new institutions need to be international to be fully effective. Information sharing, rapid response, humanitarian aid, and most importantly, preemptive action, are the aspects which to focus. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Some argue that the United Nations and various regional organizations should be at the forefront of this trend. Unfortunately, as history has shown, most regional organizations are based on a geographic continuity, which decreases the level of external objectivity these member states can offer in terms of a collective security measure.
The most difficult challenge to this seeming never ending war is the fear of losing our ideals. National security is of paramount priority no doubt. However this should not come at the cost of public liberty. Terrorism is a challenge, maybe the worst humanity will ever face. But this should not change the way our societies and cultures work. Talking away basic rights such as personal privacy, to fight terrorism will undermine the very reason for the fight in the first place. In this case the end does not justify the means.