Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is the world five years wiser?

Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the US-led military response to Islamic extremism has shown how unfit it is to create a safer world

By Michel Rocard

As the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US by al-Qaeda approaches, we should take the opportunity to assess the results of the response by the US and the international community.

The attacks and the response to them have obviously brought about a sea change in international relations, but it would be difficult to argue that further atrocities have become less likely as a result.

Why are we no more secure than we were five years ago?

Within a week of the attacks, US President George W. Bush declared a "war on terrorism." The metaphor of war had the singular advantage that it clearly and strongly evoked the intensity of the counterattack that was called for. Moreover, the metaphor of war constituted an implicit appeal to intense mobilization, not only by the country that had been attacked, but also by its friends and allies.

Naturally, no one questions the US' right to defend itself. The legitimacy of a violent counterattack has never been in doubt. But the war metaphor also carries inevitable connotations that, when applied to terrorism, are misleading and counterproductive.

Whenever war is invoked, it implies a fight against nations, peoples or states. It implies that whole territories and the populations living there are to be considered hostile. War implies armies and command structures that can be recognized, if not clearly known. In any case, war entails a military confrontation with an identifiable adversary

On all these points, the concept of war, to paraphrase US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is not helpful. Even if the scale of the Sept. 11 attack was of such a dimension that only the US Army seemed able to face the challenge, in technical terms dealing with a threat that is extra-national rather than international is a matter of police techniques, not military tactics.

The negative consequences of this mistaken vision very quickly became apparent. It is now widely known that the US government, perhaps partly unconsciously, embraced a deeply distorted image of al-Qaeda that portrayed it as a hierarchical organization with a seamless command structure -- the prototype of a foe that the US army could attack and destroy.

But al-Qaeda -- the word means "the base" or "the camp," where people gather and train -- is more like a blurred sphere of influence, comprising individuals and small local cells that act on their own initiative and cooperate very rarely, except for large-scale operations.

It has not been proved that the attacks in London, Madrid, or Bali in the years since the Sept. 11 plot, or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, reflected the existence of a "center" that coordinated the operations or gave orders to carry them out.

It is also wrong to conflate Islamic terrorism with that of the Basque ETA, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, or the Irish Republican Army. Whereas these groups have a territorial base and are preoccupied with national aims, Islamic terrorism appears to be the work of a very small number of individuals who seek to avenge the centuries-long "humiliation" of the Muslim world, brought about by colonization, absence of economic development and political weakness.

Despite most Muslim nations' desire to live in peace within the international community and to cooperate in crafting effective development strategies, the goal of Islamic terrorists is nothing less than the destruction of the "hegemonic" Western world.

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