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Terrorism And Superficial Responses Part Three

File image courtesy AFP.
by Paolo Liebl Von Schirach
Washington (UPI) Mar 11, 2009
The Bush administration, trying to craft a strategic policy after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, defined the problem of radical militancy both too widely and too superficially.

The U.S. government acted too widely, inasmuch as it declared that we are in a worldwide war with terror without making distinctions as to the motives and objectives of various groups that use terrorism as a modality to pursue their goals. For it is important to remember that terror is a means to accomplish political ends. While we should be concerned with the means and the damage that they can cause, the real issue is the political end of those who use terror.

However, President George W. Bush also acted too superficially, inasmuch as the affirmation of the need to fight terror focused primarily on the actual acts of terror and thus on the individual perpetrators, the deployed manpower.

This approach revealed a lack of a strategy aimed at stopping the real problem -- the continuous inflow of new would-be fundamentalists/terrorists joining the ranks of various radical outfits because of the continuing appeal of radical ideologies.

A few things were indeed said at the beginning of the so-called war on terror about the goal of "draining the swamp" -- that is, about depriving the terror cells of their preferred habitat. The swamp has not been drained. But little attention was paid in the following years to implementing that side of the strategy.

At the beginning of the war on terror, the focus was on old-fashioned attrition. The American people were told that effective countermeasures had led to the killing or capture of a large chunk of al-Qaida's high command. But instead, the public soon discovered that, while significant, these were only tactical successes.

Indeed, we know now that new recruits replaced those killed or captured. Therefore, operationally, the United States is not confronting a finite number of terrorists to be neutralized. Instead, the American people face the challenge of organizations shaped by ideologies that have the power to generate an ongoing stream of recruits to be utilized as manpower and trained to use terrorism as a modality to inflict maximum damage.

This means that the "terror problem" will continue as long as there will be people willing to join the cause. Again, as the November terror attacks in Mumbai demonstrated, relatively few determined terrorists can cause an enormous amount of disruption. And the public relations success resulting from this "asymmetric" advantage whereby few can hurt many can and will continue to be a powerful tool to get more recruits.

part four
Why "soft" targets can't always be protected from terrorist attack
The Islamist terror attacks in Mumbai, the economic and cultural capital of India, in November 2008 demonstrated once again that relatively few determined terrorists can cause an enormous amount of disruption.

The public relations success that the terrorists reaped from their attacks resulted from this "asymmetric" advantage whereby few can hurt many. This principle will continue to be a powerful tool to get more recruits.

To the extent that it is possible to use the publicity generated by the attacks to sustain the myth that a few determined believers can knock out powerful giants like India's economic powerhouse through strategic blows, the cause will continue to appear viable and thus appealing, at least to some.

It is appropriate to devise practical countermeasures to prevent or fight the enemy. However, the Mumbai case proves it is almost impossible to adequately protect large metropolitan areas, with thousands of soft targets like hotels and restaurants, from even a handful of determined, well-trained attackers. Sure, a more effective police and/or special forces reaction could have limited the death toll in Mumbai, but it could not have prevented well-trained attackers from beginning the shooting rampage.

Closer to home, many examples tell us that even in the United States, police forces and Homeland Security apparatus notwithstanding, the U.S. government cannot provide real protection even in cases of violent actions perpetrated by deranged, isolated individuals going on improvised shooting expeditions. If isolated individuals, certainly lacking the rigorous training of the Mumbai attackers, can inflict huge damage, let us imagine the potential death toll caused by planned attacks against mostly unprotected civilian soft targets.

It is, therefore, next to impossible to finally capture and defeat all the terrorists or to erect adequate security against all of them. How, then, can we devise a workable long-term strategy aimed at deflating the recruiting power of radicalism, something akin to inflicting on it a death by asphyxiation?

The only way to take oxygen away from extreme fundamentalism of every kind is to create credible political alternatives to extremism within those societies thus far incapable of charting a constructive path toward modernization that would appear believable by the population. When backward societies acquire confidence in their own ability to shape a decent future, a future in which most, if not all, people will have a dignified, meaningful, productive role, then the siren song of millenarian dreams, based on ideas of necessary destruction as a prelude to final redemption, increasingly will fall on deaf ears.

(Part 5: The reasons why a narrow, tactics-driven defensive strategy can never win the war on terror and Islamist extremism)

(Paolo Liebl von Schirach is the editor of, a regular contributor to Swiss radio and an international economic development expert.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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