Understanding the Enemy

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

May 26, 2004

Who is the enemy? Thirty-two months have passed since September 11, 2001, and the answer is elusive. The simple response is al Qaeda. But like many things in our complex world, that answer brings more questions.

Since 9/11, the U.S. and its allies have vigorously pursued Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. We have killed or captured a majority of al Qaeda's leadership, destroyed training camps in Afghanistan, and seized or frozen funds, essentially decimating the organization that hit us on 9/11. Yet terrorist attacks have proliferated in places as diverse as Mombassa, Moscow and Madrid. Even as we have thwarted attacks on the U.S., nearly everyone expects they will come. How can this be?

The problem is that al Qaeda represents an ideological movement, not a finite group of people. It speaks and acts for those in the Islamic world who are disaffected, who aim to roll back Western influence, overthrow corrupt governments, and implement fundamentalist Islamic law and governance in Muslim lands. In this struggle, al Qaeda initiates and inspires. The 9/11 attacks were a call to action. Terrorists who have taken up arms may not carry al Qaeda membership cards, but they share al Qaeda's ideological agenda.

This is how al Qaeda has successfully transformed into a decentralized force. Individual terrorists have scattered around the globe with seeds of terror. Radical groups that used to combat local foes have adopted the al Qaeda goal of killing Americans and Westerners. A litany of grievances – from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, to Russian actions in Chechnya, to repressive governments in the Arab and Islamic world seemingly supported by Washington – are pulled together into a one size fits all package of hatred of the United States. When images emerge like the pictures of prisoner abuse in Iraq, they are beamed around the world, feeding this hatred.

In this way, al Qaeda's jihad continues, even as al Qaeda's ability to wage jihad is hindered. Al Qaeda leadership has less ability to issue commands, distribute funds or provide training. But it doesn't have to. The post-9/11 generation of terrorists is flexible enough to operate on its own – making alliances with local extremists in the suburbs of Madrid or the archipelago of Indonesia; raising funds; recruiting angry and disaffected young people; carrying out attacks. These scattered terrorist cells are hubs in a loosely connected global network, united in purpose, if not in operation.

Emblematic of this transformation is Osama bin Laden, who is almost certainly unable to organize major attacks from his hideouts. It is, of course, extremely important that the U.S. capture or kill bin Laden – it would send a message of American resolve, and demoralize some of the terrorists. But capturing or killing bin Laden would not end the terror. The new generation of terrorists looks to him for inspiration, not direction. He could provide the same inspiration in death that he does now.

So what is the U.S. to do? Fighting terrorism is now at the center of American foreign policy. But terrorism is a tactic, not an identifiable enemy. Should we fight anti-Israeli groups like Hamas or Hizbollah? Ethnic separatist groups like Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers or the Basque ETA? Combating only the core of al Qaeda would be too narrow, ignoring like-minded groups that al Qaeda has spawned. But fighting terrorism writ-large is too broad. After all, to take on everyone is to focus on no one, and eliminating the tactic of terrorism is impossible.

In World War II, we knew that the enemy could be found in governments in Tokyo and Berlin. In the Cold War, we knew that an ideological foe was headquartered in the Kremlin. In our current conflict, we may be "winning" in the sense that we are eliminating al Qaeda, the group that attacked us. But our very actions may be provoking new groups to take up arms. The attacks of the future will likely come from people whose names we do not yet know, from places we cannot entirely foresee, through methods we have not imagined.

What we do know is the ideology that confronts us. To defeat al Qaeda and its offspring, we must destroy more than terrorists and organizations. We must work with our own like-minded friends and allies, especially in the Islamic world, to destroy the legitimacy of an ideology that perverts one of the world's great religions.

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