“Terrorism, Vigilance and the Limits of the War on Terror”

Summary:  Some say that America suffers from a disability, the inability to learn even simple things from history or the example of other nations.  Such as our inability to construct a rational health care system (a task solved one or more generations ago by our peers), and the rodeo clown show we call a “foreign policy”.  This new article from Stratfor suggests that times are changing, and nine years after 9-11 we’ve begun to learn a little about the nature of modern terrorism. 

Today’s recommended reading is an excerpt from “Terrorism, Vigilance and the Limits of the War on Terror“, George Friedman, STRATFOR, 5 October 2010 (republished with permission).  While an excellent and valuable article, Chet Richards gave a deeper analysis in If We Can Keep It – A national security manifesto for the 21st century (2008).  While brilliant, like most American geopolitical analysis the writer adopts the clean-minded idealism of freshman.  Freidman never hints that our anti-terrorism mania might benefit elements of our ruling elites.  Businesses profiting from high-margin contracts.  Bureaucrats seeking larger empires.  And in general, those benefiting from a larger and more powerful government.


What the government is saying to its citizenry is that, in the end, it cannot guarantee that there won’t be an attack and therefore its citizens are on their own. The problem with that statement is not that the government isn’t doing its job but that the job cannot be done. The government can reduce the threat of terrorism. It cannot eliminate it.  This brings us to the strategic point.

The defeat of jihadist terror cells cannot be accomplished defensively. Homeland security can mitigate the threat, but it can never eliminate it. The only way to eliminate it is to destroy all jihadist cells and prevent the formation of new cells by other movements or by individuals forming new movements, and this requires not just destroying existing organizations but also the radical ideology that underlies them. To achieve this, the United States and its allies would have to completely penetrate a population of about 1.3 billion people and detect every meeting of four or five people planning to create a terrorist cell. And this impossible task would not even address the problem of lone-wolf terrorists. It is simply impossible to completely dominate and police the entire world, and any effort to do so would undoubtedly induce even more people to turn to terrorism in opposition to the global police state.

Will Rogers was asked what he might do to deal with the German U-boat threat in World War I. He said he would boil away the Atlantic, revealing the location of the U-boats that could then be destroyed. Asked how he would do this, he answered that that was a technical question and he was a policymaker.

The idea of suppressing jihadist terrorism through direct military action in the Islamic world would be an idea Will Rogers would have appreciated. It is a superb plan from a policymaking perspective. It suffers only from the problem of technical implementation. Even native Muslim governments motivated to suppress Islamic terrorism, like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria or Yemen, can’t achieve this goal absolutely. The idea that American troops, outnumbered and not speaking the language or understanding the culture, can do this is simply not grounded in reality.

The United States and Europe are going to be attacked by jihadist terrorists from time to time, and innocent people are going to be killed, perhaps in the thousands again. The United States and its allies can minimize the threat through covert actions and strong defenses, but they cannot eliminate it. The hapless warning to be vigilant that was issued this past weekend is the implicit admission of this fact.

This is not a failure of will or governance. The United States can’t conceivably mount the force needed to occupy the Islamic world, let alone pacify it to the point where it can’t be a base for terrorists. Given that the United States can’t do this in Afghanistan, the idea that it might spread this war throughout the Islamic world is unsupportable.

The United States and Europe are therefore dealing with a threat that cannot be stopped by their actions. The only conceivably effective actions would be those taken by Muslim governments, and even those are unlikely to be effective. There is a deeply embedded element within a small segment of the Islamic world that is prepared to conduct terror attacks, and this element will occasionally be successful.

All people hate to feel helpless, and this trait is particularly strong among Americans. There is a belief that America can do anything and that something can and should be done to eliminate terrorism and not just mitigate it. Some Americans believe sufficiently ruthless military action can do it. Others believe that reaching out in friendship might do it. In the end, the terrorist element will not be moved by either approach, and no amount of vigilance (or new bureaucracies) will stop them.

It would follow then that the West will have to live with the terrorist threat for the foreseeable future. This does not mean that military, intelligence, diplomatic, law-enforcement or financial action should be stopped. Causing most terrorist attempts to end in failure is an obviously desirable end. It not only blocks the particular action but also discourages others. But the West will have to accept that there are no measures that will eliminate the threat entirely. The danger will persist.

Effort must be made to suppress it, but the level of effort has to be proportional not to the moral insult of the terrorist act but to considerations of other interests beyond counterterrorism. The United States has an interest in suppressing terrorism. Beyond a certain level of effort, it will reach a point of diminishing returns. Worse, by becoming narrowly focused on counterterrorism and over-committing resources to it, the United States will leave other situations unattended as it focuses excessively on a situation it cannot improve.

The request that Americans be vigilant in Europe represents the limits of power on the question of terrorism. There is nothing else that can be done and what can be done is being done. It also drives home the fact that the United States and the West in general cannot focus all of its power on solving a problem that is beyond its power to solve. The long war against terrorism will not be the only war fought in the coming years. The threat of jihadism must be put in perspective and the effort aligned with what is effective. The world is a dangerous place, as they say, and jihadism is only one of the dangers.

For more information about terrorism

  1. Terrorism in India, a roster of incidents, 16 May 2008
  2. To good a story to die: eliminate legitimate grievances to eliminate terrorism, 9 December 2008
  3. “Some people just want to see the world burn”, 17 January 2009
  4. 4GW in India – more people who want to watch the world burn, 19 January 2009
  5. India looks at the monster in the mirror, 21 January 2009
  6. Are Americans easily panicked cowards? I think not, but many experts disagree., 24 April 2009
  7. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  8. We have endemic terrorism – but few wars and epidemics. That’s good news!, 15 December 2009
  9. RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
  10. Stratfor discusses the Jihadist WMD Threat, 14 Febuary 2010
  11. Today’s fear-mongering (they think we’re cowards, but I’m sure they’re wrong), 4 May 2010
  12. Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 15 May 2010
  13. A Stratfor forecast for America: “From Failed Bombings to Armed Jihadist Assaults”,  June 2010

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