For more than four decades after World War II, the world was largely divided into two opposing camps, one led by the US, and the other led by the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and China embracing capitalism, the Cold War has given way to a new security problem: terrorism.
Terrorists strike close to home with no warning. The worst scenario could be a small nuclear device detonated in a big city. Besides possible occurrence, the paranoia about terrorism consumes a great deal of human energy for prevention that could otherwise be devoted to other purposes.
To understand terrorism, we must first distinguish between domestic and international terrors, for they have very different origins. Domestic terror arises within a country with its own unique history, culture, ethnicity, and government. The following examples show where it used to occur:
*Israel has long been plagued by domestic terrors due to its own historical conflicts with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.
*After Saddam Hussein was deposed, the sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite suddenly exploded into the open.
*When Soviet communism collapsed, Yugoslavia broke up after a string of ethnic violence and mass murders.
*The genocides in Rwanda and some other African countries can be traced to ethnic and tribal conflicts.
*The independence movement in Chechnya has brought terror to Russia.
*Great Britain used to suffer terrors inflicted by the Irish Republican Army for decades.
*In the US, domestic terrors include: the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, and various gun violence.
*Dictators, communist and authoritarian regimes routinely practice state terrorism as they threaten, jail and murder their own citizens who refuse to shut up.
*Organized crimes around the world terrorize people everyday through drug dealing, usury, extortion, kidnapping and murder.
So, most terrors worldwide are domestic terrors that have historical and cultural roots. They tend to remain within the confines of the country or territory. Domestic terrors require the host country to fight. It’s its sole responsibility.
We have to be careful not to internationalize domestic terrors. What do I mean? Examples: The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened a can of worms that allowed Al Qaeda to move in where it was forbidden. It also opened the door for Iran to supply weapons to the insurgents in Iraq. The worst blunder we can commit is to fan the flames of religious or ethnic hatred, because that would stir up the emotions of millions of believers worldwide. An American pastor burning the Koran is an example of fanning the flames of religious hatred for a foolish reason. That is why General Petraeus had to plead with the pastor not to do it in order to prevent further war casualties.
As for international terrorism, Al Qaeda represents the single biggest threat to the US and its European allies for one simple reason: It’s a worldwide network with a moving and hidden base. This makes it very difficult to retaliate. The other terror threats perceived coming from North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere pale in comparison. Why? Those secondary terror sources have a permanent physical base that cannot hide from retaliation. Should they attack, they would sure incur total destruction from the air. They don’t dare, unless the US and its allies provoke them and push them into a corner. Should the US overestimate the North Korean or Iranian threat for some foolish reason, it would be doing a great disservice to itself. A case in point is going into Iraq to get Saddam Hussein at a total cost of one trillion dollars and heavy casualties, instead of pursuing bin Laden on the run. This has diverted resources from fighting real international terror.
While the US and its European allies are not well liked in the Middle East, Al Qaeda has a similar problem even in the Moslem world due to its declared mission to turn all Arab countries into pure Islamic republics to be ruled by the clergy. Religious rule is rejected by the secular regimes in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. It is also rejected by the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States. Do the people really want a pure Islamic republic ruled by the clergy? All you need is to look at Iran and see how that country has been ruled since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. If the Iranian people like the regime, the government will not have bothered to lock up so many dissidents who are mostly young and educated.
Al Qaeda’s first and primary objective is to overthrow the monarchy of Saudi Arabia where the holy city of Mecca is located. Note that bin Laden was a Saudi citizen. Having failed to achieve an Islamic revolution in his homeland, he was kicked out and stripped off his citizenship by the Saudi government. He then turned attention to attacking the US, which was less difficult to achieve, and also to draw worldwide attention to boost recruitment and morale. Thus bin Laden had turned domestic terror into international terror for selfish sustenance, not for Islamic principles. Before being killed by US special forces, he had hijacked the Islamic religion by claiming that his terror acts were done for Allah. Herein lies the practical answer for the US to deal with Al Qaeda’s international terrorism:
*Freeze Al Qaeda’s worldwide assets wherever possible.
*Go after their top leaders and training camps with small military operations.
*Make them constantly on the run for shelter.
*Show zero tolerance to those countries providing them with safe harbor.
The above are only offensive moves. The defensive moves are much more important. In fact, Al Qaeda’s success depends on how we think and how we behave regarding the terror threat. If we do things foolishly, we give them a chance to win. Here is the defensive strategy:
Do not mix up domestic terrorism with international terrorism. Also, do not internationalize domestic terrorism. If Al Qaeda wants to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, it’s up to the Saudi government and its people to deal with it. It’s unwise for the US to choose sides publicly.
Do not inflame ethnic and religious hatred that is always simmering below the surface. It will turn millions of people into angry crowds. Politicians and religious leaders around the world should learn how to shut their mouths. Inflammatory words or acts won’t do their country any good.
International terrorism has its roots in angry young men and women who can find no productive work in their own country, which is a direct result of their own corrupt oppressive government. When the US tries to cozy up to this kind of government overseas for political convenience, it runs the risk of making enemies with the people some of whom may end up as new terrorist recruits.
Do not make Al Qaeda attack a big deal even though it really is. Deny them of any big publicity. More publicity will facilitate their recruitment and boosting their morale.
Conduct life and business as usual. When we fear, the terrorists will win because they thrive on disrupting everyday activities. Why should we fear anyway? Terror comes without warning, like an earthquake. We may as well enjoy life for today.
While the military and the intelligence community do their job, ordinary citizens should remain vigilant. Millions of public eyes out there can see or smell suspicious people and objects. The failed shoe bombing on an jetliner in 2002, and the failed car bombing in New York’s Time Square in 2010 have testified to the effectiveness of public vigilance. You also remember the bravery of the passengers on flight 93 fouling the hijackers’ plot on that fateful day of 9/11.