Is the 'War on Terror' really a war at all?

The recent closure of over 25 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa by the US government in the face of a ‘significant’ Al-Qaeda threats appear to have reminded many pundits that the ‘war on terror’, a fictional and all around unwinnable battle, is still on going. Much needs to be said about this perpetual struggle that is portrayed in the media and in the political arena as some sort of concrete idea. It is worrying, and indeed misleading that politicians and news organisations still ascribe to this theory of a ‘battle’ against ‘terrorists’. It seems that no one believes it is pertinent to understand and analyse the deeper complexities of the Al-Qaeda cells that prompted this closure. Nor do they seem to understand that there is not just one group in this ‘us’ and ‘them’ conflict. It is a great disappointment that individuals who are in a position to explain the intricacies of extremist groups are not the ones appearing on television, but instead are tuned out in favour of pundits that talk in broad, inconsequential themes about the threat of militant radicals. It is important that the distinctions within this complicated situation are explained, and not distorted by the type of unclear dialogue popular on news reports around the world.

To begin, whilst I am not at all an expert, even I can understand that ‘terror’ is undefeatable, because it is a tactic. Tactics are not actors in a ‘war’ they are the methods used by extremists in pursuit of whatever goals they choose. Saying that Britain or America is winning ‘the war on terror’ is redundant, and, most importantly, wrong. A government cannot ‘defeat’ a suicide bomber, drawing a parallel between success and only the absence of a terror attack is a dangerous precedent to set, as it doesn’t mean that the push to defeat extremists has been any more effective. Extremist ideology is conceivably a more acceptable focus for a campaign against fundamentalism, even though attempting to convince radicalised individuals otherwise is an arduous policy in the face of the uncontained rage of a fanatical preacher or militant. Soft power is the channel most able to dampen down ideological hostilities towards the ‘west’, combined with military action that is more focused and tactical than the aggressive overreaching of American foreign policy.

The question of whom we are fighting is now more impenetrable than ever. With the death of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda was thrown into disarray certainly, but it was not ‘defeated’. The structure of the terrorist group is such that if one leader is killed, another can take his place, a Medusa like arrangement that is hard to overcome. This most recent security threat to the West supposedly originated from the faction of Al-Qaeda in the Yemen, called AQAP. This cell has become increasingly strong with the fracturing of the central Al-Qaeda leadership, and it was an intercepted phone call between its leader Nasser al-Wahishi and Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri that prompted the unprecedented closure of American and British embassies.

Along with this group, there are militant factions materialising at an incredibly fast rate, due to the power vacuums left by the Arab Spring. Our enemies are varied and scattered throughout the Middle East and central Asia, and increasingly the north of Africa. Boko Haram, a Nigerian extremist group, was reportedly involved in the call between the two Al-Qaeda leaders, an example of the increasingly strong ties the cells has to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Al-Shabaab is yet another splinter of Al-Qaeda now prominent in Somalia, targeting western individuals and extending Al-Qaeda’s reach into the political abyss of Africa. The phrase ‘the war on terror’ is too non-specific to be used in a realistic discussion about our security and who we need to protect ourselves against. Grouping all of the various extremists and fundamentalists together as one ‘enemy’ is a risky process, as it denies us the chance to understand each individual threat and how they could be dealt with differently.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of a comprehensive ‘war on terror’ is the use of the concept by politicians to aggressively expand both military ventures all over the world and domestic security systems. It is a lesson learnt from history over and over again, that politicians and spymasters would use the threat of terror to increase influence over a population, justifying any violation of civil liberties as essential in the protection of ‘national security’. One only has to look at the recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency in the USA to understand how long the tentacles of surveillance reach into the civilian population. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that access to the internet and phone habits of suspected terrorists is vital, but these needs should be balanced against protection of individual freedom and privacy.

Whom we are fighting is more important than how they are fighting us. The character of our enemy, their motivation and support systems are what should be targeted in any struggle against fundamentalism. The phrase ‘the war on terror’ is fundamentally flawed, as it suggests that at some point there will be a victory. Make no mistake, military action is essential in our offensive strategy, but this should be combined with soft power tactics in what is essentially a religious and political struggle. ‘War’ does not stamp out terror; it is the root of such terror that demands our attention.