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World: Analyst Assesses The Global War On Terror

Bruce Hoffman (RFE/RL) WASHINGTON, December 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The global war on terror is now being fought by governments in many countries and on multiple continents, from North America to Asia, Europe to Africa. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke with Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Washington's Georgetown University and the author of "Inside Terrorism," about the successes and failures of the war on terror.

RFE/RL: Since U.S. President George W. Bush first uttered the phrase "war on terror" in 2001, the terrorism situation around the world has changed dramatically. The war now represents a global effort, fought by many different governments against both homegrown and foreign groups. Is the label still appropriate?

Bruce Hoffman: The war on terrorism, as [Bush] defined it, was really a war on all terrorist groups with global reach, not just Al-Qaeda. Today, the war on terrorism has become something of an anachronistic term. It's very difficult for this administration to move away from it because the president portrays himself as a war president.

My concern, though, is that the concept of the war on terror has outlived its usefulness, in two respects. Firstly, it was never the war on terrorism, which I always thought was a mistake from the start because we know what terrorism is. The "ism" defines terrorism ineluctably as violence that is designed to achieve political change, whereas a war on terror is basically a war on an emotion, on anything that scares us, or anything that threatens us. I think that's a very different thing.

"As much as we may have Al-Qaeda on the run, it seems that their media arm doesn't seem terribly harried or harassed. So in that sense I think the core leadership remains the same."

That led, I think, to a conflation of [weapons of mass destruction] with terrorism, which was not terribly helpful. But I also think [the war on terrorism label is] an anachronism because what we've come to understand is that even though we needed to rely on military force during the initial years in the war on terrorism, now triumphing against this menace will depend as much on political initiatives, economic reform, and information programs -- in other words, soft power as opposed to hard power. But when you say "war," war ineluctably means using military force, and I think the struggle is really about much more than the application of military force.

RFE/RL: This question is often asked: Is the West winning or losing the war on terror? U.S. officials and their allies say, "yes," while other governments clearly say, "no." What do you say?

Hoffman: I think in a tactical sense we're winning. Al-Qaeda is certainly weaker than it was in 2001. It's certainly less capable of these massive, spectacular attacks, such as convulsed not just Washington and New York City on 9/11, but the world.

I think strategically -- as successful as we've been tactically -- strategically we've suffered a number of setbacks. That National Intelligence Estimate that the United States intelligence community released in September described an increase in radicalization worldwide and an enmity toward the United States around the globe, which suggests what we're doing may be very effective tactically -- in killing and capturing terrorists. But it's not having a positive effect in changing the environment that promotes or that gives rise to terrorism. And I think that's an important part of the equation that has to assume even greater salience and importance today.

RFE/RL: Did the U.S. invasion of Iraq help or hurt the fight against terrorism?

Hoffman: When one looks at polling data and global attitudes, it seems evident that it's hurt more than it's helped. It's inflamed an important segment of the world -- the Muslim population -- whom we need to really counter what is a threat to themselves, a threat to the values that I think transcend religious or national boundaries. I mean values of freedom, democracy, and mutual tolerance, of pluralism, of environments where we can all live our lives in a manner we wish and not feel that we have to conform to someone's stereotype or someone's dictate.

So certainly there's enormous commonality, but I think that Iraq has emerged as an enormous irritant if not a fulminate. Rather than contributing to the importance of this cooperation, it's served as a force that has alienated and polarized some of our most important allies, in Europe as well as in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

RFE/RL: If, and when, the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, is there a danger that the war will be remembered for years to come as a reason for Islamic terrorists to continue fighting the United States and its allies?

Hoffman: Provided the United States can counteract the ill effects of Iraq and can still achieve some of the fundamental goals that animated the United States when it became much more involved in the Middle East in 2003, in a way, after several years of neglecting it. If we can bring, first and foremost, peace and stability to that part of the world, then in turn security, then in turn justice, and then achieve some of our other goals, I think Iraq will be remembered as an unfortunate blip on the radar.

Israeli forces moving into the Gaza Strip in July (epa)

But if we're unsuccessful in the general scheme, if we withdraw from the Middle East, if we turn our back on what we began to do, I think Iraq will be remembered even potentially as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence and power and stature.

RFE/RL: Five years after it sparked the war on terror with its attacks on the United States, what does Al-Qaeda look like now?

Hoffman: I think it's changed fundamentally. On 9/11, Al-Qaeda was a state within a state in Afghanistan and had a network of operational bases, training camps, command-and-control headquarters. It had worldwide operations, according to the U.S. Department of State, in some 64 countries, one-third of the countries throughout the world, and seemed to function without too much interference and operated with impunity.

Obviously, that's all different now. Al-Qaeda has no one single geographical base that it can call a sanctuary or a safe haven or a home. It has been harried and harassed throughout the world. Bush frequently says three-quarters of Al-Qaeda's top leadership has been either killed or captured. Throughout the world, other countries have arrested up to 4,000 Al-Qaeda operatives. So there's no mistake that it's a weaker organization than it was on 9/11. But that's still different from saying that Al-Qaeda has disappeared or gone away completely.

I believe that Al-Qaeda continues to exist, that the problems that we see are not only those of radicalization. The problem is one of continued subversion by Al-Qaeda. The radicalization occurs because Al-Qaeda is actively working to radicalize people. And I would argue, too, that Al-Qaeda still retains some command-and-control capacity where it can plan, plot, direct, and guide terrorist operations throughout the world.

RFE/RL: Who are its main leaders?

Hoffman: Certainly [Osama] bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There's a conventional wisdom that says they're cut off, that they're not in command. How do we know this? I mean, I think that could be as much wishful thinking -- there's no empirical evidence. We see this particular year, Al-Sahab [the Al-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media Publication, the media production house of Al-Qaeda, which issues the group's propaganda] -- Al-Qaeda's perennially active media arm -- has produced and distributed a record number of statements from bin Laden. But more from Ayman al-Zawahiri. So clearly they're able to record these types of messages.

As much as we may have Al-Qaeda on the run, it seems that their media arm doesn't seem terribly harried or harassed. So in that sense I think the core leadership remains the same. I think that they have a deeper bench and that they've had a process of corporate succession where people have come up through the ranks to assume positions of command.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is an example. He's an Egyptian, not an Iraqi. There's a generation of Al-Qaeda activists we don't know about but who have risen through the ranks to replace those in key tactical or command or operational positions who we have killed or captured.

RFE/RL: In the last couple of years, it seems that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have increasingly used the Internet to get their messages out and to broadcast images and video – especially of hostages -- aimed at intimidating people and governments in the West. Is the Internet helping sustain and grow the terrorism movement?

Hoffman: Absolutely. I mean, this is why there are more than 5,000 terrorist and insurgent Internet sites. They've increased exponentially in the past five or six years alone. I think we do very little to counter that. Most of our information operations are still oriented towards traditional means of communication -- television, radio, or the newspapers.

A young man in Pakistan shows a cell phone with a likeness of Osama bin Laden (epa file photo)

Now that is important, because of course it reaches the elites, it reaches a certain demographic. But throughout exactly the most contested areas of the world, from North Africa across the Middle East to South Asia, there's an enormous demographic shift happening with this huge youth bulge. And we know that youth tend not to get their information or news from the same sources that their elders have gotten them from.

And if they're getting their information more from the Internet, it means we have to communicate just as effectively over the Internet. We have to contest this virtual battle space in much the same manner as we are very successfully doing in other traditional forms.

RFE/RL: What is the situation in Central Asia, where many Islamic groups have been banned by governments for suspected terrorist activities?

Hoffman: In Central Asia, these groups have gotten traction because they can claim persuasively that they are fighting against what they see as authoritarian, anti-Islamic, corrupt regimes and that they offer an alternative. I think, though, that the geographic isolation of Central Asia means that the violence that has often been endemic to that part of the world since the breakup of the Soviet Union generally remains confined to that area, with few exceptions.

But, of course, unrest in Central Asia radiates to Russia, radiates southwards to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to other parts of the world, and affects Iran, as well. So one can't quite so blithely say that the unrest and instability there can be contained.

Groups there seem to have bought less into bin Laden's global jihadist ideology [than have groups in some other parts of the world]. To some extent, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example, has [adopted the global jihadist ideology]. But at the same time, other groups have pretty much remained regionally or very parochially focused.

"That I see as one of the biggest threats, and why our adversaries think they will eventually triumph, because they feel that they can eventually wear us down, or that we can't protect every target all the time, or they believe they have the impunity to strike anywhere, at any time."

RFE/RL: What does the terrorist threat look like in Russia?

Hoffman: The main terrorist threat to Russia is really because of the Chechen problem, more than even Al-Qaeda. And it's a problem that may have become more sporadic, but it's certainly become much more lethal and much more desperate.

Just the seizure in Beslan in September of [2004] was, I think, the watershed in terrorism, at least in that region. I think for every country, the most important strategy cannot only be to kill and capture, but it has to be to break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration, to counter the terrorists' message that sustains these movements over generations.

And I think that's one problem that the Russians face. As effective as they might have been tactically, in the application of military force or state security force against terrorists, they have not yet come to a point where they've broken the cycle where this will not continue to be a repetitive, regenerative problem.

RFE/RL: The Taliban has made a strong comeback in Afghanistan. Are we losing the war on terrorism in that country, which is the first place the United States intervened after 9/11?

Hoffman: Well, certainly, there's been an enormous backsliding in Afghanistan. Not only a spike in insurgent activity, but suicide terrorist attacks, which were unheard of in Afghanistan, are now multiplying with a singularly disturbing frequency.

I think Afghanistan is demonstrating, just as Iraq has, that it's not enough to have forces there that do the clearing. They also have to do the holding, which means you have to have sufficient forces that can provide security and stability for the population so they're not preyed upon by the insurgents, so that they feel confidant in the government's ability to discharge the fundamental expectations that citizens throughout the world have of their governments -- that's to protect them and defend them, to provide security so they can get on with their lives, so that they can engage in daily commerce, so that they can socialize.

That I see as one of the biggest threats, and why our adversaries think they will eventually triumph, because they feel that they can eventually wear us down, or that we can't protect every target all the time, or they believe they have the impunity to strike anywhere, at any time.

RFE/RL: Syria and Iran are considered state sponsors of terrorism by Washington. What is the situation in those two countries?

Hoffman: The policies and the activities of Syria and Iran have really amounted to some of the biggest setbacks in the war on terrorism we've seen in the past year, because there was a time immediately after 9/11 when tens of thousands of people turned out in the streets of Tehran to express their solidarity with the American people.

There was a time when Syria was an enormously helpful and cooperative ally in the war on terrorism in the Middle East. And we've seen in the past year our relations with both those countries deteriorate dramatically and significantly. And we've seen them revert to behavior that really is not entirely dissimilar to the complaints we were making about both countries 20 years ago, over [their influence in] Lebanon, as well. I mean, over the same issue. In that sense, we've regressed, which is very worrisome.

In part, this may be a reflection of the U.S. inability to engage both countries in recent years, and that estrangement has led to a greater polarization and hardening of attitudes towards the United States, which is why I think it's important that we do have discussions with all the major powers in the region and not unilaterally exclude them.

By the same token, we should not have unrealistic hopes or expectations that overnight, months, if not years, of neglected enmity and hostility can easily be reversed.

RFE/RL: Are U.S. diplomatic efforts in the war on terror equal to its military efforts?

Hoffman: No, no. Look, during the Cold War, we used to have the United States Information Agency, whose mission was public diplomacy and information operations. Now that's just an office within the State Department, and that's a reflection of under-resourcing, and also a neglect of what I think is an important component in the war on terrorism.

I think, though, in recent years the State Department recognizes this and has tried to do more and has overhauled its communications, has overhauled its public diplomacy. But the difficulty now is that it's playing catch-up.

RFE/RL: One of the consequences of the war on terror has been a rollback of certain freedoms and civil liberties – for example, the right to privacy. That is because many governments feel there is now a need to give police and security organizations greater powers, for example, to collect information. How concerned do you feel citizens should be over this?

Hoffman: This is the main challenge that we face -- that the terrorists seem to be very innovative in discerning new ways to attack targets, even hardened targets, and we seem to be much less creative and adept at devising defenses.

New airport security measures were introduced in the United States following a terrorist threat in August (epa)

I worry because it's very easy to impose security measures. It's far more difficult to ever remove them or modify them. What terrorists feel so threatened by, and what they try to threaten, is our freedom and our movement, and our ability to be uncontrolled. And we always have to be careful about imposing measures that play into the terrorists' hands in some respects, and result in the kind of rigid, heavily policed societies that are inconsonant with freedom and democracy and the liberal values that we cherish.

RFE/RL: What are the terrorists trying to achieve -- if indeed one can say that the major groups are unified in their goals? When will they stop thinking of the West as an enemy that must be defeated?

Hoffman: They believe in the historical inevitability of their cause. They believe time is on their side and that they gradually, through a strategy of attrition, will exhaust us, undermine our morale, and debilitate us to the extent that [for example] the United States will withdraw from world affairs and become isolationist and stop interfering in what they see as their own affairs, or stop propping up what they see as corrupt governments.

They believe that the entire international order is a Western states' creation and therefore, [they] want to break down how we've organized international relations for at least 400 or 500 years -- the nation-state system -- and return to a golden era of Islam, for example, where there was transnational or supernational Islamic rule under a caliph, under a religious figure that knew no geographical boundaries and was just one big geographic community.

So it's, on the one hand, more practical things like paring down United States power [and] providing a credible alternative to the Western state system, but also more grandiose schemes, to do away with government and geographical boundaries completely.

War On Terror

War On Terror


An archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the global war on terror.