Update on the War on Terror

Steven Simon
Senior Analyst, RAND

September 17, 2003

"War on Terror" is a misnomer - the US is fighting a particular group of Sunni extremists.
There is confusion about what Al Qaeda (AQ) is today. It is two things: a cadre and a global movement. Large numbers of the cadre are still at large with lines of communications and support. The movement is geographically diverse group of people who share a set of images and rhetoric.

This confusion impacts US policy. Bush calls AQ a snake we can behead; Tenet says its back is broken. These conceptions ignore the movement. A better metaphor is to view AQ as a deadly mold.

Bin Laden's great achievement was to take, in the course of a decade, a bunch of Saudi lunatics and Egyptian killers and make them a global movement subsuming local interests.

1. Economic and demographic impacts on the movement

The movement is based in the Middle East with a smidgen of North Africa. With a youth bulge and struggling economies (50% of Arabs are under 20 as opposed to 25% in OECD nations) the region faces a huge labor overhang. Syria, Algeria and Yemen have workforces growing 4-6% annually as opposed to 0.4% in the US. The likely result is lower wages or higher unemployment (already 12-35% depending on faulty estimates), or even both. Today real wages are stagnant and the infrastructure is inadequate.

The US is the likely scapegoat for the coming economic misery. According to Pew and Zogby Polls, the US is less popular in the region than ever. Moreover, people now tend to hate Americans as opposed to American foreign policy, whereas in the past Americans were largely admired even where American foreign policy was not.

The result of these trends is that the forces producing terrorism seem likely to remain for a while.

2. The cadre and its actions since 9/11

12 big fish are at large, 4 have been killed, and 9 captured. The remnants are quite active. AQ related terrorist events have occurred in Bali, Morocco, Saudi, Kenya, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel. Plots on embassies have failed in Thailand and Pakistan. The British broke up a ricin plot.

Some see a shift to soft targets. But AQ targeted soft targets before 9/11. The difference today is a greater willingness to attack local actors seen as linked to the US, along with attacks on US interests.

The killed and captured are the low-hanging fruit. The Egyptians, hardened by years of pursuit by Egypt's ruthless security services, have been harder to get.

Recruiting continues, including scientists. The FBI claims an AQ network continues to exist in the US. Ashcroft claims there have been 260 arrests on US soil. We don't know what infrastructure AQ has here -- we don't even know what support the 9/11 hijackers had here.

3. WMD

AQ wants WMD. They have experimented with chemical weapons. A fatwa endorses the use of WMD.

One can imagine two strains of AQ thinking on WMD. Some want it for asymmetric war. Others have apocalyptic purposes. Several major religions have apocalyptic teachings. A story is circulating today, in Middle East bookstores and online, of the destruction of New York by nuclear attack and the conversion of America to Islam. Intelligence analysts need to watch this idea.

The West will win the ideological battle, but many of us might get blown up on the way to victory.

4. Iraq

The invasion validated the Islamist critique of the US and compels the movement to validate its own rhetoric to counter. Saif Al-Adel, an AQ operational chief who is believed to be in Iran, put out a pamphlet on conducting guerilla warfare to help the Iraqi resistance.

5. Policy
We face a worldwide Islamic movement that has created itself, aided by Saudi funding, out of a false conception of a shared past.

The US must figure out what our rap is. What's our narrative? Even if we can develop a narrative, it will struggle to bridge the ideological gulf that separates us from nations in the Middle East.

-The US finance markets are more prepared for terrorist attack than other nations.

-Training camps are not necessary to AQ. Even so, according to European counter-terror officials, new camps have emerged in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. And enough men have graduated the camps that the trainees will remain a problem.

-The movement began after the Gulf War. Prior to that, terrorism was primarily a Shi'a phenomenon largely out of Iran. With the rise of Wahabiism and the crackdown on Egyptian fundamentalists, extremists gathered in the mid 90s in Afghanistan and coalesced around Bin Laden.

-US non-military policy against AQ should involve several elements.

-Deal with economic dislocation (a massive endeavor). Foreign aid is up, but it goes mostly to nations who already accept the Washington consensus, which ignores the fact that terrorism emerges from other nations.
-Improve propaganda. The administration is giving $145 million to various pilot programs around the relevant regions. This decentralized method is probably best, but results are a long way off. The US embassies distribute videos of happy Muslims, but these have little effect. The bad odor of American culture undermines Radio Sawa. The problem is that few want to listen to our defenses of our policy. In Iraq we staked our image on our success in turning over power quickly to a stable government - a nearly impossible task.
-Enter the Islamic clerical debate. We cannot enter publicly. We have no credibility to do so. Clandestine methods can be used.
-Control our message (i.e. avoid denigrating Islam).

-The Iraqi resistance is mostly local. The extremists from abroad will try to get involved, but getting into the country and integrating with the armed fighters is challenging. But they will succeed, given time.

-The Arab-Israeli conflict is more part of the solution than the problem. It was not part of the original complaint(s) that created AQ, but it fuels them. A settlement may be beyond the US though.

-The Saudis, either as a state or a rogue element within the state, were probably not involved in assisting the 9/11 hijackers. Saudi Arabia has long financed terror, however, and encouraged it through the extremist teaching it supports.

-Like the link to Indonesian and African home grown terrorists, the AQ link to Chechen terror may be growing. Videos circulated demonstrate this trend, as does the AQ-like nature of the Moscow theater hostage taking.

-Solutions to the problem will come in the long term. The war on terror undermines the utility of democratization (assuming it can be done) by forcing us to rely on despots more than ever. And the utility of democratization is hurt by the fact that the main opposition in many Mid-east states is the Islamists. Although we will triumph ideologically, we may have to withstand large-scale conventional attack and waves of suicide bombing, which we can perhaps do. But we may endure a WMD attack, which could profoundly change our society.

-The west will win because the economic and demographic numbers get better after 25 years. The new book looks at a new approach, a do no harm approach. Rather than taking aggressive action, as in Iraq, that is counter productive, we might manage the problem. This would involve continuing to go after operatives, getting the homeland security agenda on track, studying what are likely targets and the best methods to defend us, and containing WMD. We should also be more careful about what we say, because every word is amplified.


Prior to joining RAND, Steven Simon was the Assistant Director and Carol Deane Senior Fellow for U.S. Security Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He was the Senior Director for Transnational Threats on the U.S. National Security Council, reviewing new terrorist phenomena (such as increasing technical and operational competence, the drive to obtain WMD, etc.). He has also been at the National Security Council, was the Director for Global Issues and Multilateral Affairs. He has worked in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the Department of State as Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and as the Director, Office of Policy Analysis.

With Daniel Benjamin, Simon is the author of
The Age of Sacred Terror, October 2002, Random House and he is also co-editor of Iraq at the Crossroads: State and Society in the Shadow of Regime Change, Oxford University Press/IISS, January 2003.

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