New World Order & the Millinerain Terrorist
The impact of the catastrophic terrorist attacks in USA on September 11, 2001, in USA, is still reverberating across the world, and subsequent events have left a trail of unanswered questions in the public mind, and even among the strategic community. The most important of these relate to what it was, precisely, that the terrorists sought to achieve in terms of definable strategic gains. True, nearly 5,000 people were killed in a simultaneous multi-strike operation, and two among the great symbolic edifices of the United States – the World Trade Centre representing its economic might, and the Pentagon its military prowess – were successfully targeted. But what precisely had this act of apparently wanton destruction achieved? How did it undermine or detract from the overwhelming military and economic power of the US? How did it further the Islamist extremist cause?
To many Western strategists, the suicide attacks, and the subsequent and apparently related cases of bio-terrorism in the US, are acts of unadulterated evil, of a rage that finds its justification and end in the suffering it inflicts; acts, equally, that inescapably condemn not just their perpetrators, but their entire network of support, their ideological bases, and the causes they represent, to an inevitable and possibly hideous end at the hands of a wounded and righteous ‘global community’. Considering the firepower, the technologies and the resources available to America, on the one hand, and the poverty, the isolation and the primitive conditions in which Osama bin Laden’s cohorts and the Taliban subsist, the attacks on the US appeared suicidal (though this is less the case after one month of bombing in Afghanistan), not only for the 19 hijackers who went down with the planes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but for the Pan-Islamist extremist movement itself.
In some measure, this point of view is reinforced by the apparent and increasing isolation of the Islamist extremists within the Muslim world, as even collaborators and state sponsors, such as Pakistan, turn their back against the intemperate excesses of what is evidently the most rabidly fanatical element among them. The over-arching malignancy of the Black Tuesday attacks and the accumulating evidence of bio-terrorism in USA and in other countries as well, have driven a wedge between those who have, for decades, used limited doses of terrorism to further their political or strategic objectives, and the fundamentalist or millenarian terrorists who seek goals that go far beyond the tangible world and all existing structures of contemporary human social and political organisation, to a vision that seeks to establish the ‘Empire of Allah’ through acts of extreme violence. Within this millenarian vision, a final, apocalyptic confrontation between the "armies of the faithful" and of the "unbelievers" is not only a conceivable eventuality, it may even be a desired end envisaged by their interpretation of the Holy Book, an objective to be actively pursued. This malignant worldview has created deep apprehensions in much of the Muslim world, as it has among non-Muslims, though it may have inspired a small minority of fanatics to an imitative frenzy.
This has crucial repercussions on the character and scale of violence that would be acceptable to the fundamentalist terrorist. No strategic terrorist would resort to violence beyond a certain scale, because in doing so he would destabilise the situation to a point where he cannot make any rational calculations of the outcome, and hence of strategic gains and losses. Pakistan and General Musharraf fit well into this paradigm – they have, for decades, used measured doses of terror to further their objectives in J&K and in other parts of India. In the wake of the September attacks, however, they have found it entirely convenient to join (albeit under pressure) the US coalition against terrorism, turning directly against their own proteges and long-time partners and friends – bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Taliban – because no useful strategic purpose could be served by a continuing association with these groupings, and such an association could, in fact, place Pakistan’s own survival at risk.
The fundamentalist or millenarian terrorist, on the other hand, conceives of no limit to his potential violence. In his perverse vision, the existing world order is corrupt beyond redemption, and must be destroyed – calculations of relative strategic advantages and losses are in the hands of a ‘higher power’ to whose ‘will’ he ‘submits’. The lives of men and women – both of those who are loyal to the fundamentalist cause, and those of the ‘enemy’ – have no intrinsic worth, but are mere instrumentalities to the will of God (of which the fundamentalist alone is apparently aware) In other words, he operates within a context in which physical, material and political consequences do not have the same significance or weight that they would have in the planning and projections of conventional parties in conflict.
This is, of course, a reductionist portrait, and strategic and fundamentalist motives combine in various proportions in different actors in the theatre of terror. To the extent, however, that the one or the other set of motives dominates, it is necessary to understand the dramatic shift in patterns of behaviour and strategies this would provoke, and the radically different tactics and policies that are necessary to deal with these patterns.
It is within this context that the American gameplan is progressively unfolding. Briefly, from what has emerged till now, it appears that the US has formulated a staged policy which envisages a long-term struggle, and which seeks to bring into being the broadest conceivable coalition of nations into the campaign against global terrorism. The first stage appears to focus on Afghanistan, on the one hand, and on a painstaking investigative process to document and dismantle the international support structures of terrorism, on the other. Within Afghanistan, the intention is to destroy the military infrastructure of the Taliban. The second stage envisages the installation of an alternative government at Kabul, and a control of the towns and cities of the country, consigning the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces to a fugitive existence in harsh mountain hideouts, from where they can be "smoked out" and "brought to justice", or where "justice can be brought to them". Thereafter, the world community can dedicate itself to systematically, if gradually, destroying the global network of terror that is presently in existence.
There is both clarity and simplicity in this scheme, and given America’s overwhelming technological, military and economic might, and the apparent and emerging counter-terrorist consensus across the world, these would appear from the sanitised distance of the Pentagon war room, to be realistic and entirely achievable projections. War, as the thousands of tonnes of ineffectual bombs in Afghanistan have once again demonstrated, is a notoriously unpredictable business, and a war against terrorism even more so.
And to return to our original theme, moreover, if there was such an easy inevitability to events, what, precisely was it that led the fundamentalist terrorists to escalate the scale of violence to a level that would provoke such overwhelming retaliation – and their own ‘certain’ defeat? Was this a disastrous miscalculation? Or the design of a small group of hate-impelled fanatics who were beyond caring about consequences?
It is more than evident that months, if not years of planning went into the Black Tuesday attacks, and that this planning reflects a high – if perverted – level of intellectual and strategic capabilities that could not have failed to foresee the outcome of a direct and dramatic attack on the heart of America. Indeed, subsequent events and statements emanating from the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are sufficient proof that these repercussions were not only foreseen, but were to be welcomed as links in the chain of events that were intentionally initiated through the September 11 terrorist strikes.
It is, therefore, necessary to try to understand what the fundamentalist terrorists’ own projections and motives are, and how they hope to benefit from the current violence directed against them, and where their own violence would be directed in future. Indeed, whether or not they succeed in their plans will depend substantially in the world’s ability to out-guess them, and to create appropriate and effective defences that can contain the impact of such future violence.
To the Islamist fundamentalist terrorist, the present World Order is not only irrevocably unjust, it is utterly debased, a challenge and insult to God’s will on earth. It cannot be reformed through any progressive accretions of good, through conciliation and compromise. The power of what he regards as evil is too great in the present arrangement for any limited measure to succeed. The system cannot, in other words, be ‘improved’; it must be swept aside, destroyed, whatever the costs.
Crucially, moreover, he does not share the popular assessment of the strength and stability of this system, or of the power of those who dominate it. He is, consequently, not awed into impotent acceptance by the spectacle of America’s might, its smart missiles and planes, its nuclear arsenal, its unending destructive power. It is a power that is undermined, in his eyes, by its corruption, by its deviation from ‘God’s Way’, its ‘infidelity’.
The apparent stability of the world order, in this view, is a stagnant pool; the act of terror, a rock, or even a pebble, thrown into it. What matters is not the immediate or direct impact, but the ripples it will create. And, with a thousand little pebbles, the wasted, crumbling, degenerate walls and structures of this system will collapse, and a deluge will wash away the ‘evil of the world’.
Today’s fundamentalist terrorist, consequently, does not seek to mobilise masses before a great rebellion. He is a catalyst. He destabilises the situation, provides a model for action, and consequences follow – and are clearly envisaged by him – even if and after he dies. His personal survival is not essential or integral to the success of his cause. You cannot, in fact, ‘decapitate’ the new and global insurrection of terror. Where one head falls, others will spring to fill the breach.
The great empires of history did not collapse at the height of their powers through cataclysmic upheavals from within or without. They declined gradually through a process of erosion at the peripheries and of corruption and corrosion at the Centre. The leadership of Islamist millinerian groupings has a fairly sophisticated, though possibly intuitive, understanding of this dynamic. Accurately or otherwise, they point to Russia; one of the two "Great Powers" of the world that, in a matter of years – its armies, its missiles, its tanks and planes, its great nuclear bombs, all intact – collapsed to the status of a Third World country, barely capable of managing its own internal contradictions, its economy surviving on the fitful injection of capital and aid from the affluent West. If this can be the fate of one "Evil Empire" so can it be engineered for another.
Both the September 11 strikes and the US attacks on Afghanistan should, consequently, be seen as part of a meticulously planned chain of events. The September 11 strikes in USA were intended to attract retaliatory violence; they were expected to result in a consolidation of the extremist Islamist forces, to undermine US prestige and that country’s sense of invulnerability, and to catalyse a chain of events that would destabilise the emerging unipolar world order in unpredictable ways, in order to create a space of political uncertainty in which the Islamists could make a focused bid for power.
What we are seeing now is thus only the first phase of an elaborate endgame of the Islamists’ imaginings, and its fundamentals were articulated by its ideologues decades ago – as far back as in the 1920s – in what was then undivided India, and in Egypt. Its principles have only gradually translated themselves into political violence, militancy, terrorism, and an incipient pan-Islamic movement in widening areas across the world. The timeframes of this gameplan are in the decades, if not the centuries, and the Western orientation that has, in the past, sought closure in a confrontation of a few weeks, months or even the projected two years that the Americans believe their Afghan campaign will last, would lead to grave miscalculations, and will have to be abandoned for a slower, unwavering and consistent war against terrorism on all fronts. In the absence of such a coherent and sustained response, the economies and the political and social structures of Western nations will suffer gradual erosion; and each phase of such progressive erosion will lead to a consolidation of the extremist position.
This is the process of induced collapse that terrorist actions will seek to create in the near future. For this, they will not require spectacular exhibitions of the kind that brought down the Twin Towers in New York. A continuous succession of incidents of low-grade violence – an anthrax scare that affects a few score of people, a little suitcase or car bomb in a shopping mall, an innocuous IED that blows up a restaurant, a bus or a train – with each incident claiming no more than a few lives, can undermine popular confidence, create a paralysis of terror in public and institutional responses, and, more importantly, destroy the competitive advantages of the US economy. This is crucial. Such attacks are imminent, and are one of the essential objectives of the terrorist strategy. The Americans have focused overwhelmingly on the war in Afghanistan, but it is the terrorist intent is to take the war onto American soil, and to hurt American interests overseas, wherever this is possible. Osama bin Landen clearly articulated these objectives in his recent statement on the Al Jazeera network, saying that ‘The US will never know security or safety unless we know security and safety in our land and in Palestine.’
If these campaigns can be sustained, however fitfully, over an extended period of time, there will eventually be a flight of capital from US soil and US corporations, as transaction costs increase unbearably, undermining the economy. The September 11 events have also demonstrated that the US is substantially vulnerable to communal and ethnic polarisation. Continued terrorist violence will also be calculated to aggravate such trends, to induce the ‘ghettoisation’ of American society, and an eventual reverse migration of specialised human resources – particularly those of Asian origin – creating new problems for the viability of American enterprise.
Islamist extremist terrorists had been active in many countries – particularly in Asia – long before September 11, and their activities continue. In addition, there are sleeper and sympathetic cells in at least 60 countries worldwide. Strong Islamist extremist networks exist in Canada, Australia, France, UK, and Germany, and there is also a very significant, though largely passive presence in several other European nations. Europe has been at risk for a long time. Islamist extremist networks have been consolidating themselves throughout the continent for decades now, and have been encouraged substantially by regimes that have maintained an ambivalent official attitude towards terrorists whose activities target countries other than their host countries in Europe. These European nations have, for all these years, acted on an assumption that they would never be targeted by the Islamist extremists, and have tolerated or even sought to manipulate these forces in terms of their perceived "strategic" interests. In the process, they have permitted the build up of these forces on their own soil. It is known that a number of terrorist cells have survived Black Tuesday on US soil as well. All these can be expected to progressively be activated.
At the same time, as the memory and the horror of the September 11 incidents recedes, the moral consensus in favour of US actions will be diluted – indeed, is already being questioned. In the first days after the terrorist strikes in USA, hardly a voice could be heard offering even a qualified justification of the outrage. After a month of US bombings in Afghanistan, and daily and haunting images of suffering women and children on Television, these voices are beginning to strengthen, challenging the utility and the morality of the US responses. There have been widespread street protests against the US action in a number of countries, though most prominently in Pakistan and Indonesia. Over time, these voices will gain force, not only among moderate Muslims, but within the Western democracies and the US itself, questioning the morality of the US campaign, sowing confusion in the minds of policy makers in the US and among its allies. As the American position on a number of issues has already demonstrated, moreover, old patterns and calculations of geo-political advantage fitfully re-emerge, as conventional considerations of strategic "interests of state" reassert their priority over a principled and concerted war against all manifestations of terrorism.
As these trends consolidate, terrorist actions will seek to secure a greater convergence, first among extremist Islamist groups, and then among larger Muslim communities, projecting the ideal of a new Khilafat or caliphate. There have already been significant moves in the direction of such convergence, with the more virulent fundamentalist Islamist elements virtually across the world throwing in their lot under Osama bin Laden’s banner. Bin Laden is, moreover, increasingly reiterating his Pan-Islamist agenda, linking himself to a variety of emotive "Muslim causes" – including, for instance, Kashmir – in different countries, and is also reported to be attempting to project himself as "Shiekh-ul-Islam", a title last held by the Caliphs.
The Islamist endgame would, consequently, envisage an eventual, great and decisive confrontation between a corroded and declining Western power, and an increasingly united Islamist force.
There are, of course, a number of possibly grave miscalculations in this grand design. In the first instance, a number of conflicting forces that undermine the extremist cause have also been brought into increasing operation by recent events. Secondly, even with a substantial degradation of western powers, the gap between the technological and destructive capabilities of these and any eventually consolidated "Islamic World" is virtually unbridgeable in the foreseeable future. A direct confrontation would be unimaginably bloody, but the defeat of the comparatively primitive forces of fundamentalist Islamist extremism would, consequently, be inevitable. This gap may, however, be wiped out at a stroke if the Islamist terrorists are able to weaponise certain bio-technological strains – a capability that may not be entirely outside their competence in coming years.
Most significantly, however, the projected Islamist endgame underestimates the resilience of countries such as the US, in particular, and of democratic societies in general. While Islamist fundamentalism has created a banner under which many "Muslim" grievances and frustrations are articulated today, the promise of the ideologies of liberal democracy offer a strong and attractive incentive to millions who are equally distressed by authoritarian and oppressive regimes – including fundamentalist regimes – in different parts of the "Muslim World."
What we are seeing, consequently, is a global struggle that seeks, on the one hand, the preservation of the present world order, and, on the other, its unqualified destruction. Eventually, neither vision can be expected to emerge unscathed or unamended, and the unipolar New World Order will have to accommodate alternating perspectives to create a more balanced and humane system.
This is an immensely complex war, and understanding its various dimensions – military, political, social, economic, and most importantly, ideological – is the first step towards securing an acceptable outcome. The fight against terrorism is as complex as the support structures of terrorism, and will have to be extended into the areas of ideology, social structures, finance, coalitions and affiliations, development and various aspects of the international economic and political order. There is, in this, no "either-or" conflict between military and non-military means. Military means will remain necessary to contain the immediate threat and impact of terrorism. In the absence of such a response, successive waves of terror will simply demolish the entire structures of governance and order in target societies, undermining and eventually eliminating even the possibility of non-military solutions. Excessive emphasis on military means, to the exclusion of all others, however, will always leave a residual potential for revival. The world will have to adopt a composite, balanced and graded response to all facets of terrorism, its support structures, and its underlying motives and incentives.
(Edited version published in Tehelka.com, November 6, 2001.)