Military Responses to Religious Terrorism

Remarks by Martin Kramer to the Conference on the Study of Religion and Terrorism, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, November 22, 2002. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

I’m a draftee in this session. I was originally asked to speak on Islam and terrorism, and I was to have spoken yesterday. But at some point, I was shifted into this session on military responses to terrorism. As I’m not a military expert or strategist, and as I don’t hold myself up as an authority on terrorism per se, I’m doubly handicapped to say anything original on this subject. And if that weren’t bad enough, it’s very late in the conference, and I’ve seen most of my few original ideas chewed over already.

And it’s worse than that. Having heard lots of other things, I’m naturally tempted to digress into responding to them, instead of addressing my assigned topic. I won’t, but I’d like to position myself a propos the great debate of yesterday evening.

Why They Hate Us

Frankly, it’s a mystery to me why anyone would think it impossible to pursue both an “iron fist,” if you will, and a “hearts and minds” approach to the Middle East, at the same time, one reinforcing the other. All the European powers in the Middle East did just that. Although I’m placed on this panel, I happen to be a firm believer in a more intensive campaign for “hearts and minds.”

Of course, any “hearts and minds” campaign has to come to terms with a basic limitation. Now that the United States is the sole great power, everyone everywhere who has a propensity to fix blame for their problems on an external source is fixing it on the United States. That propensity is endemic in the Arab and Muslim worlds—especially as the Arab world has lost its own bid for power these last twenty years, as documented by the Arab Human Development Report. All the free-floating hostility of this wounded civilization is bound to fix itself on the United States. America stands out all too visibly, like the World Trade Center; all the other powers are just so many Chrysler Buildings. So whatever other powers do, in Chechnya or Kashmir or Xinjian, the United States will remain the most resented of all powers. That is a fact, and nothing the United States can do will change it, short of divesting itself of its power. There are people who don’t like who we are, and there are people who don’t like what we do. What they agree on is they don’t like what America has, which is overwhelming and (to them) inexplicable power. Keep it, and expect to be hated.

I find it odd to learn that a “hearts and minds” approach means altering American policy in ways that would appease its critics. This confuses ends with means. A “hearts and minds” policy, as it is understood inside the Beltway, is something different. It is to persuade foreign peoples to support, accept, or at least acquiesce in policies that, at first blush, they are likely to dislike, resent, or oppose. And since the United States hasn’t even begun to attempt to do that on its own, I think that proposals for a drastic reorientation of policy are premature to say the least.

Yesterday mention was made of double standards in U.S. policy. I always find it striking when the Arab and Muslim worlds grow indignant about this, since in their own polities, the gap between rhetoric and reality, between principle and practice, can be positively breathtaking. But there is one gold standard that everyone in the Middle East understands: you reward your friends, and punish your enemies. They all do it. Now it is proposed that the United States reward its enemies and punish its friends—as I understood it last night—distancing the U.S. from its allies, lifting sanctions against Iraq, and so on—all this, to win the good will of Middle Easterners.

If the United States were to do this, no one would ever again risk aligning himself with this country, and it would truly be Osama’s hour of power. People may not always like U.S. policy, but they have to admit that the United States has stood by its allies, friends, and proxies. You tamper with that credibility at your very great peril.

They Want Us Dead

Now that this is off my chest, I come to the assignment, which is the military response to terrorism.

Why is a military response unavoidable? In many instances, the goals of terrorists are such that there is no reasonable political response. This is particularly true when one confronts terrorists whose motivation is religious, especially Islamist. National movements often develop terrorist appendages, but their goal remains terrestrial: the liberation of this or that piece of territory. Religious movements that develop terrorist appendages often have goals that are civilizational, and that envision an Armegeddon-like catharsis. When Osama bin Laden calls, as he did in his last tape, for the conversion of America to Islam, we know we have entered another dimension. Or perhaps a time warp: the man has offered America the choice between Islam and the sword.

The Islamist terrorists who have struck at Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also have demands that are no less total. They want the Jews to surrender sovereignty as a prelude to their departure from the eternally Muslim land of Palestine. I am sorry to bear bad tidings, but this is what Islamists mean when they say “just peace.”

Of course, we can deceive ourselves. We can reassure ourselves that “they” only want the United States to bring about a reign of human rights, or for Israel to withdraw to the June 1967 borders, or for the U.S. to stop propping up oil sheikhs, or for the U.S. to end economic sanctions against Iraq. There are people in the Middle East who want the U.S. to do one or the other of these things, but they aren’t the terrorists, who want much more even than the sum of all these things combined. Unfortunately this brand of terrorism isn’t reducible to some grievance that we can banish through some ingeniously creative diplomacy, or some quick repositioning of U.S. forces. Many of the political motives attributed to Islamist terrorists are just the visible tips of a massive iceberg of grievance, that has broken off the frozen continent of the Arab and Islamic world.

We are dealing here with something much larger than politics, and the larger nature of the terrorism itself bears witness to this. Those groups and movements motivated by civilizational goals are more likely to cross two operational red-lines. First, they make no distinction between the foreign metropole and its outposts. Most nationalist movements carry out terrorist acts on the ground they seek to liberate. Religious movements are not nearly so discriminating. Religion de-territorializes conflict, and thus universalizes it. It also makes it possible to recruit followers from every possible nationality. Al-Qa‘ida offers this model in its purest form. It is global in the conception of its mission; global in its operations; and global in its composition.

The other thing about religiously-based terrorism is that it doesn’t have inhibitions about killing large numbers of people. We have already mentioned the old cliché, that terrorists don’t want a lot of people dead; they want a lot of people watching. The terrorism of Islamist groups very much belies this notion. They want a lot of people dead. Religious terrorism disinhibits its perpetrators, because it is utterly indifferent to public opinion on the opposing side. Lots of terrorist movements in the past would reassure even as they struck: we have no quarrel with the people, but we do have a quarrel with their government and its policies. You will find nothing comparable to this reassurance in the statements of al-Qa‘ida.

In fact, you’ll find the opposite: go back to bin Laden’s statement in which he first urged the killing of American civilians. The Americans are not a great and good people led by an evil government. They are themselves evil, arrogant, the anti-Islam, so that every last American bears the full brunt of responsibility for his or her government’s crimes. For Hamas and Jihad, the policies of Israel’s government are but a function of the treacherous nature of the Jews as a people, as attested in the Qur’an.

This concept of conflict—and they do call it jihad—prepares minds for terrorism on a mass scale. The suicide bombings serve many functions, but one of them certainly is to leverage small numbers of devotees into large numbers of casualties on the opposing side. In the Arab press, some have calculated just how many suicide bombers it would take to kill off all the Israelis: if there were only that many willing bombers, the job could be finished. And who doubts that the terrorists of 9/11, had they been able to kill 50,000 rather than 3,000, would have done so?

Before They Kill You

The nature of the threat determines the nature of the response. Because the threat of religious-based terrorism is so much more acute—because of its totalizing nature—an effective military response has to be of a kind.

It has already been said here, but I will repeat it. The military response cannot take the form of deterrence. These people will not be deterred from their sacred mission by the threat of counter-strike. They can’t be forced into a kind of cold war stand-off. They themselves boast that they enjoy a decisive advantage because they love death, whereas we love life. And this isn’t just bravado.

Now we can call the appropriate military response by all kinds of euphemistic names. Here are the candidates: the very bloodless word, “preemption”; another favorite of mine is “long-range hot pursuit.” There’s also “selective targetings” and “extrajudicial punishment.” All of these come down to the same thing: going out and killing them before they kill you: hunting them down in narrow alleys and in remote caves, eliminating them, one by one.

The purpose is fairly obvious. While they do perhaps love death, and can’t be deterred, they need a living chain of command to function. They need a network; in this respect, they are exactly like every other terrorist movement that has gone before them. By finding and killing (or capturing) key cogs in the machine, especially leaders, you drive the network even deeper under ground. You create suspicion in their ranks. You disrupt their internal communications. You make it difficult for them to raise funds and recruit new members. They may love death, but paradoxically they soon become preoccupied with self-preservation. Is that noise above a Hellfire missile headed straight for me? Can I use that cellphone and be sure the conversation won’t lead to my capture? Perhaps the cellphone itself might explode in my face? (There was a case in the West Bank of a wanted terrorist who feared using cellphones, so he used public phones—until one of them blew him up.)

These kinds of fears must be present in the minds of your terrorist adversaries—and you can only put them there by a policy of search and destroy. The objective is to turn their existence into something that’s nasty, brutish, and, if you’re lucky and get the right piece of intelligence, also short.

How Do We Know We’ve Won?

Now here we come to the rub. It is not always easy to gauge the success of your military response. Yesterday afternoon there was an argument on just this point. Was the glass half-empty, with many of al-Qa‘ida’s operatives still loose, and the Bali bombing? Or half-full, with the fact that fourteen months later, the Taliban are gone and there has been no major al-Qa‘ida attack against this country? It is a perpetual and endless debate: you will never know how many hundreds or thousands still walk the earth, because you killed or grabbed a terrorist.

Alas, if you fail, everyone will know it. And here we come to the dilemma of the military response. It is possible to defeat terrorists militarily day after day after day. Israel does it constantly, foiling attacks almost daily—including mega-terrorist attacks specifically planned to emulate 9/11. The difficulty is that terrorism is more than a series of engagements, and it can achieve its intended effect even if it loses nine out of ten encounters, or 99 out of 100, or 364 out of 365—the ratio depends on the nature of the conflict, and above all on the stoicism and steadfastness of civilians, who are effectively front-line combatants.

Now we have talked about lots of various “fronts” in this war—everything from Arabic-language radio to homeland security. What we haven’t talked about is the need to prepare the American people, in advance, for the notion that they could be called upon to show at least a fraction of the stoic fortitude that Brits showed during the blitz, or Israelis have shown through the daily mix of shooting attacks and suicide bombings. Having just lived in Washington through the sniper episode, where the fear of one rifle was everywhere palpable, my conclusion is that this road is very long indeed.

Which brings me back to “hearts and minds.” A military response must be pursued simultaneously with a “hearts and mind” campaign—but this time I mean one directed toward the American people. Without that, it may well be that the military response, however resourceful, will be deemed a failure. Then we will hear the chorus that “there is no military solution,” and American decision-makers will be sorely tempted to begin a creeping capitulation to the litany of grievance laid out by Osama bin Laden, with or without him.