The implosion of ‘mission impossible’

The 'war on terror' is in crisis even as the war against terrorists proves successful. What's going on?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Remember when President George W Bush used to say things like ‘You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror’? When he declared, in 2003, that events of the previous two years had set before us ‘the clearest of divides – between those who seek order and those who spread chaos’? Remember when chasing the bad guys behind 9/11, Bali, Madrid was one of the few things that politicians and commentators in a divided West could agree was a good thing, or at least a necessary evil?

Those days seem long gone. Today the war on terror has fallen into disrepute, and the West seems incapable of presenting a united front even against nihilistic terrorists. The praising of UK prime minister Tony Blair for his ‘courageous stand’ following the 7/7 bombings in London was shortlived indeed. Initially he was congratulated for ‘speaking so eloquently on behalf of the nation’; now those deadly rucksacks are described as ‘Blair’s bombs’, everywhere from left-wing weeklies to right-wing tabloids, and he’s blamed for inflaming terrorism by sucking up to Bush. His plans to chuck out firebrand Islamic clerics have stoked controversy in his own party, and even, reportedly, in his marital home: Cherie Blair recently gave a speech warning against government interference in the judicial process (1).

Meanwhile, the idea that Western nations must stand together against terror has taken more than a few knocks. America and Britain bickered over the fate of Rashid Haroon Aswat, the goofy-looking radical Muslim from Dewsbury who is suspected of being involved in the London bombings and who was arrested in Zambia last month. The Americans wanted him, and so did the Brits. The Brits won. The Italian courts still haven’t deported Osman Hussain, one of the alleged wannabe bombers of 21/7 who fled London for Rome, despite insistent requests from British officials. Various European politicians now blame Bush for provoking the terrorists, and ask why they should ‘bear the brunt’ of the blowback for America’s follies in Iraq and elsewhere.

Such is the parlous state of the war on terror that the Bush administration is seeking to rebrand it. In a recent speech, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated that it would no longer be known as the ‘global war on terror’ – or ‘GWOT’ for short, that ‘unpronounceable monstrosity with all the charm of the verbiage in a Pentagon planning document’, as one commentator put it – but rather as ‘The Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism’ (or SAVE, as it’s being called) (2). One military official said the name change is supposed to reflect the fact that ‘the fight against al-Qaeda and other groups is an ideological struggle as much as a military mission’ (3). It also points to great doubt at the very top of the war on terror. Whether they’re charities, corporations or public bodies, those who tinker with brands usually do so because they’ve lost faith in what they have to offer – just as those who constantly write and rewrite mission statements are usually lacking in a mission.

What’s gone wrong with the war on terror? (I’m still calling it that, as I seriously doubt whether ‘the global struggle against violent extremism’ will catch on.) The war isn’t collapsing under pressure from the terrorists – al-Qaeda is more isolated than ever. Nor is the war being crushed by a serious political challenge at home – Bush and Blair’s anti-terror initiatives are greeted more by weary cynicism than a thorough interrogation of their right to launch wars abroad. Rather, the war on terror is imploding: a war that was intended to provide American and British societies with a shared sense of mission has collapsed under its own unfulfillable expectations, and has ended up exposing a lack of consensus on anything – even terrorism – on the homefront.

When you think about it – and I say this as one who was 100 per cent opposed to the war on terror – it is peculiar that the war should get bogged down in controversy now, when, in terms of combating al-Qaeda, it’s been pretty successful. The war in Afghanistan was an unmitigated disaster, but since then, various al-Qaeda figureheads have been banged up or blown away. The final installment of Peter Taylor’s BBC documentary The New Al-Qaeda, shown earlier this week, was a reminder of how successful the campaign against al-Qaeda bosses has been, especially by the Pakistani authorities. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the ‘architect’ of 9/11, has been in custody since March 2003. Ramzi Binalshibh, a key 9/11 mastermind, was captured in September 2002. In May this year Pakistan collared Abu Faraj al-Libbi, al-Qaeda’s alleged no.3, in what was described as a ‘critical victory in the war on terror’ (4).

Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri may still be on the prowl, but so what? As one commentator pointed out, ‘If the al-Qaeda hierarchy remains in business today, then it is organising its affairs while skulking in caves – a lifestyle that the rest of mankind abandoned around 10,000 years ago’ (5). The last ‘big thing’ bin Laden did was release a videotape just before the US presidential elections in November 2004. Can anyone remember what he said on it? Al-Zawahri’s videotaped message released last week – in which he wagged his finger at the warmonger Blair and ripped off what many in the West had already said about 7/7 – was widely ridiculed. ‘Get back in your cave’, said the headlines (6).

Part of Peter Taylor’s theory, of course, is that the smashing of the al-Qaeda hierarchy has given rise to a ‘new al-Qaeda’, one that flourishes in cyberspace rather than in caves and which is more like an ideological virus than a command structure. Perhaps. But that illustrates the further drubbing of al-Qaeda, and shows that this small gang of deluded nihilists that was never very threatening in the first place (certainly not to Western civilisation) has been reduced to a small gang of deluded geeks who ‘meet’ in chatrooms where they fantasise, like overgrown disgruntled teenagers, about bringing the West to its knees. The 7/7 bombings show that these delusions can sometimes become reality, but such acts remain rare. As one report pointed out recently, there are fewer terror attacks today than at any point in the past 20 years: ‘During the 1980s, the number of international terrorist incidents worldwide averaged about 360 a year. By the year 2000, it was down to just 100.’ (7) The fact that we become more scared of al-Qaeda the less we can see it reveals as much about our own culture of fear as it does about a new terror threat.

If there is less terrorism today than there was 20 years ago, and less al-Qaeda now than in 2001, why this crisis in the war on terror? There was always something more to the war on terror than simply smashing al-Qaeda. If that had been its only aim, then it would never have been a ‘war’ in the first place. As critics have pointed out, the idea that you can declare war on a concept or a tactic is bizarre. Governments traditionally dealt with terrorists through secret police-style operations, not wars – through small-scale, focused and usually secretive campaigns, involving infiltration, intelligence-gathering, kidnapping and assassination. War, by contrast, is something that happens between states, or at least between armies. Al-Qaeda has neither a state nor an army.

The launching of a war on terror, an all-encompassing campaign against evil wherever it lurked, suggested there was something else going on than a straightforward mission to capture those who brought down the Twin Towers. Rather, al-Qaeda provided a useful pretext for the West’s search for some sense of purpose in a fast-changing world. Bush declared a ‘war that would not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been defeated’, describing this as ‘our calling’. Blair has talked about doing ‘whatever is necessary to defend our way of life’. This was not simply about bringing to justice those who did 9/11 – it became the defining issue of our age, distinguishing, in Bush’s words, between ‘those who honour the rights of man and those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children’. In short, between good and evil.

The war on terror is an attempt to project an idea of what America and Britain are for and against, at a time of profound political and moral uncertainty. But this is mission impossible, seeking to resolve domestic crises through the displacement activity of chasing handfuls of terrorists in the wastelands of the third world. Post-9/11, Bush and Blair have been able to outline their political and moral vision in negative terms only, by contrasting our societies and what we stand for against the nihilistic bogeymen of al-Qaeda. America and Britain may not know what they are for or where they are heading, but the war on terror is an attempt to unite behind at least one certainty: that we are against evil terrorists who kill hundreds of civilians. This is a moralism of the lowest common denominator, where we define ourselves against mass murderers, hardly providing an inspiring vision for society.

The war on terror is very different from a traditional war. Wars are normally launched in order to achieve some political goal, whether to win territory, defeat an opponent or, these days, to demonstrate one’s ‘humanitarian’ credentials. The war on terror, by contrast, is a war in search of a political goal: it is primarily the use of military force to create the appearance of having a mission. And because it is motivated by internal crises on the part of the American and British elites, it can never be satisfied by external successes, not even by the capture of some of al-Qaeda’s head honchos. It’s doubtful whether even the discovery of bin Laden hooked up to a dialysis machine in a hut in the hills of Waziristan would bring an end to the war on terror, or make it a success at home and abroad, since even that would leave unresolved the political problems that encouraged Bush and Blair to declare an all-out ‘war on terror’ in the first place.

That is why the war is unravelling even as it picks off terrorists – because its starting point is a lack of moral consensus in the West. There is little to prevent such internal uncertainty from rising to the surface and transforming this apparently black-and-white clash between good and evil into a point of controversy. Indeed, even the terrorists’ grievances today are ripped off from spats within the West. In the BBC’s The New Al-Qaeda, aspiring jihadists were shown propagandising over the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Both of these were made into international sore points by Western commentators and politicians: the torture photos from Abu Ghraib were leaked from within the Pentagon and splashed on the front pages of every newspaper in the West under headlines such as ‘The destruction of morality’, while various lawyers and journalists have flagged up every complaint of mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay – even when, as in the stories about prostitutes menstruating on prisoners’ faces and guards chucking Korans in a toilet, there was not much substantiating evidence. These became big issues as a result of the West’s own fallout over the war on terror, and now are held up by the terrorists themselves as a justification for their actions against the evil West (8).

A ‘war’ (now redefined as a ‘struggle’) aimed at defining Western values for the new millennium has ended up making an exhibition of deep divisions. It has exacerbated the very tensions that it was designed to paper over.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) Blair’s bombs, John Pilger, New Statesman, 25 July 2005

(2) New name for ‘war on terror’, BBC News, 27 July 2005

(3) New name for ‘war on terror’, BBC News, 27 July 2005

(4) Pakistan arrest ‘critical victory’, ABC News, 4 May 2005

(5) Take cover, now they’ve declared a War on Sanity, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 9 August 2004

(6) See Al-Zawahri: what a rip-off merchant, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Paul Robinson, Spectator, 5 April 2005

(8) See Guantanamo: truth goes down the toilet, and Leaking self-doubt, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today