The attacks of 9/11 gave rise to the “war on terror.” That a struggle against Islamic jihadi terror groups, principally al-Qaeda, was urgently required seemed obvious. Those who conceived the struggle as a “war” then led their countries into expensive, counterproductive missions.
Almost all of the successes against al-Qaeda have come by means other than “war” as conventionally defined: military weaponry; armies, navies and air forces; fixed battles; battlefield engagements; state against state; bloated defence budgets.
Just as al-Qaeda lived largely in the shadows, so it would be checked in the shadows, with perhaps one exception. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had been welcomed by the Taliban regime. From there, the terror organization stepped out of the shadows, organized camps, trained cadres and plotted their use.
That regime had to be toppled, for the safety of the world, since al-Qaeda and its imitators had already struck in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States before 9/11. Undisturbed in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda might have wreaked more havoc.
Once the Taliban were ousted, the struggle returned largely to the shadows – or at least the successful parts of the struggle. Al-Qaeda plans were disrupted, its leaders killed, its organization wounded by sharp-point attacks and secret intelligence.
But the ouster of the Taliban proved temporary. The subsequent Afghan “war,” in which Canada played a role, long since ceased being part of the “war on terror,” since only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives are in the country. Instead, it devolved into a kind of ethnic civil war that swallowed up outsiders in the endemic maw of Afghan rivalries, a maw that will exist long after the last foreign soldier has departed the country.
The unsuccessful parts of the struggle, and the most expensive, involved the invasion of Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction or links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were ever found. The other unsuccessful parts were the huge and largely useless panoply of security measures draped over North America, ostensibly to protect the United States (and Canada) from the terrorist threat.
From a cost-benefit perspective, the money spent (the Rideau Institute says the 9/11 attacks cost Canada $92-billion for security expenditures) has been a poor investment.
Airport security, to take one example, ranges between the surreal and the absurd in terms of measures taken versus real threats. The complete lack of discretion such that grannies in wheelchairs are scanned with the same grim determination as children in strollers bespeaks the mixture of the bureaucratic and security mindsets rooted in routine and fear.
Very few politicians, however, have been willing to challenge this mentality, since it would appear that the publics in both the U.S. and Canada have accepted, or rather been conditioned to accept, that the terrorist threat is real and imminent and can somehow be deterred by these sort of overkill measures.
That threats exist can’t be denied. Some have been realized, others thwarted. The young jihadis convicted in Ontario attest to the power of jihadi ideas; the bombings in Madrid, London and elsewhere offer sad witness to the threats. But, to repeat, these threats can’t be countered by the conventional definition of “war,” so the repetition of that malign word by politicians and the media continues to distort both the nature of the threat and the proper response to it.
The notion that armies should be deployed to kill “scumbags,” as a former chief of the defence staff once urged, represents precisely the kind of misunderstanding of the nature of the struggle that has led to so much heartbreak and cost, and diverted us from the most effective methods of combatting the threat.
The threat was, and is, rooted in the intellectual world of Islam, where jihadi terror interpretations, although much in the minority, still animate those who wish to upset the world order with desperate acts of violence. It’s illusory to believe that non-Muslims can influence the debates within that world, but it’s tentatively encouraging that, in casting off oppressive regimes in the Arab world, the forces of change don’t seem attracted by the preachers of violence.