Declaring Victory

The United States is succeeding in its struggle against terrorism. The time has come to declare the war on terror over, so that an even more effective military and diplomatic campaign can begin.
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The point is not that all is comfortable between American Muslims and their fellow citizens. Many measures show that anti-Muslim sentiment is up, as are complaints by Muslims about discrimination and official mistreatment. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, points out that while very few American Muslims sympathize with Wahhabi-style extremism, mosques and institutions representing extreme views have begun to appear. Yet what many Western nations fear—widespread terrorist recruitment or activity from among their own population—for now seems less likely in the United States.

An even deeper problem for al-Qaeda and the self-starter groups is an apparent erosion of support where it would be most likely and necessary: in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The difficulty involves what they have done, and what they cannot do.

What they have done is to follow the terrorist’s logic of steadily escalating the degree of carnage and violence—which has meant violating the guerrilla warrior’s logic of bringing the civilian population to your side. This trade-off has not been so visible to Americans, because most of the carnage is in Iraq. There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.

The situation is different elsewhere. “Like Tourette’s syndrome, they keep killing Muslim civilians,” says Peter Bergen. “That is their Achilles’ heel. Every time the bombs go off and kill civilians, it works in our favor. It’s a double whammy when the civilians they kill are Muslims.” Last November, groups directed by al-Zarqawi set off bombs in three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Some sixty civilians were killed, including thirty-eight at a wedding. The result was to turn Jordanian public opinion against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi, and to make the Jordanian government more openly cooperative with the United States. In October 2002, a suicide bomber from Jemaah Islamiyah (the Indonesian counterpart to al-Qaeda) blew up a nightclub in Bali and killed more than 200 people. Most of them were Australians and other foreigners, and the attack created little backlash among Muslims. A year ago, a second wave of suicide bombings in Bali killed twenty people, fifteen of them Indonesians. “The reaction in Indonesia was extremely negative,” Bergen says. Other people described similar reactions to incidents in Egypt, Pakistan, even Saudi Arabia.

If you have a taste for doctrinal dispute, the internal al-Qaeda documents that Bergen included in his book on bin Laden and those available elsewhere make fascinating reading. Fawaz Gerges, of Sarah Lawrence College, who was raised in Lebanon, describes some of these documents in his new book, Journey of the Jihadist. He quotes one Egyptian extremist, who is still in prison for his role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, as saying that al-Qaeda had left the world’s Muslims worse off than before 9/11. This man, Mohammed Essam Derbala, told Gerges that jihad for the sake of jihad—which is how he viewed al-Qaeda’s efforts—had backfired, and that, as Gerges writes, “It produces the opposite of the desired results: the downfall of the Taliban regime and the slaughter of thousands of young Muslims.” In 2005, al-Zawahiri rebuked al-Zarqawi for the extreme brutality of his terrorist campaign within Iraq, in what Bergen has called the “enough with the beheadings!” memo.

Marc Sageman says that those recruited into terrorist groups, from the nineteenth-century anarchists to the present jihadists, are typically “romantic young people in a hurry, with a dream of changing the world.” The romance is easiest to maintain during strikes on distant, depersonalized enemies, like the Americans overseas or the Israelis behind their new barriers. But as attacks move into the terrorists’ own neighborhoods, and as the victims include recognizable kinsmen or fellow citizens, the romance fades. That is why, Sageman says, “my long-term view is that the militants will keep pushing the envelope and committing more atrocities to the point that the dream will no longer be attractive to young people.”

The other part of a battle of ideas is the ability to offer a positive vision, and there al-Qaeda’s failure has been complete.

Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, has conducted polls in six Muslim countries since 9/11, gauging popular attitudes toward the United States and toward al-Qaeda. “If their aim was to be the source of inspiration for the Muslim world,” Telhami says of al-Qaeda, “they are not that.” Telhami’s polls, like those from the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, show a steady increase in hostility toward the United States—but no surge of enthusiasm for Taliban-style fundamentalist life. “What we see in the polls,” Telhami told me shortly before al-Zarqawi was killed, “is that many people would like bin Laden and Zarqawi to hurt America. But they do not want bin Laden to rule their children.” In his polls, people were asked to identify which aspect of al-Qaeda they most sympathized with. Only 6 percent of respondents chose al-Qaeda’s advocacy of a puritanical Islamic state.

“The things we have done right have hurt al-Qaeda,” says Caleb Carr, who strongly supported the reasoning behind the war in Iraq. By this he means the rout of the Taliban and the continued surveillance of Pakistan. “The things they have done wrong"—meaning the attacks on mosques and markets—“have hurt them worse.”

“There is only one thing keeping them going now,” he added. “That is our incredible mistakes.” The biggest series of mistakes all of these experts have in mind is Iraq.

What Has Gone Right for al-Qaeda

Over the past five years Americans have heard about “asymmetric war,” the “long war,” and “fourth-generation war.” Here is an important but under­discussed difference between all of these and “regular war.”

In its past military encounters, the United States was mainly concerned about the damage an enemy could do directly—the Soviet Union with nuclear missiles, Axis-era Germany or Japan with shock troops. In the modern brand of terrorist warfare, what an enemy can do directly is limited. The most dangerous thing it can do is to provoke you into hurting yourself.

This is what David Kilcullen meant in saying that the response to terrorism was potentially far more destructive than the deed itself. And it is why most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction—the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America’s moral authority—were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.

“You only have to look at the Iraq War to see how much damage you can do to yourself by your response,” Kilcullen told me. He is another of those who supported the war and consider it important to fight toward some kind of victory, but who recognize the ways in which this conflict has helped al-Qaeda. So far the war in Iraq has advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden’s contention that America lusts to occupy Islam’s sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower, as they believe they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan twenty years ago. The United States also played a large role in thwarting the Soviets, but that doesn’t matter. For mythic purposes, mujahideen brought down one anti-Islamic army and can bring down another.

If the United States stays in Iraq, it keeps making enemies. If it leaves, it goes dragging its tail. Six months after the start of the Iraq War, bin Laden issued a bitter criticism of the Bush administration (“Bush and his gang, with their heavy sticks and hard hearts, are an evil to all humankind”). After the president was reelected, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri said that the jihad against all Americans should continue until the United States changes its policy toward Muslim countries. “Many believe that the United States, bloodied and exhausted by the insurgency, stripped of its allies, will eventually withdraw,” Brian Jenkins writes of the jihadist view. From that perspective, “this defeat alone could bring about the collapse of the United States, just as collapse followed the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.”

Jim Guirard, a writer and former Senate staffer, says that America’s response has helped confirm bin Laden’s worldview in an unintended way. The Arabic terms often brought into English to describe Islamic extremists—jihadists or mujahideen for “warriors,” plus the less-frequently used shahiddin for “martyrs”—are, according to Guirard, exactly the terms al-Qaeda would like to see used. Mujahideen essentially means “holy warriors”; the other terms imply righteous struggle in the cause of Islam. The Iraqi clergyman-warlord Muqtada al-Sadr named his paramilitary force the Mahdi Army. To Sunnis and Shiites alike, the Mahdi is the ultimate savior of mankind, equivalent to the Messiah. Branches of Islam disagree about the Mahdi’s exact identity and the timing of his arrival on earth, but each time U.S. officials refer to insurgents of the Mahdi Army, they confer legitimacy on their opponent in all Muslims’ eyes.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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