The nature of terrorism and how to fight it have become defining global security questions since the end of the Cold War, especially after the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his advisers see Islamist terrorism as the sharp edge of a threat to Judeo-Christian civilization, in some ways equivalent to the ideological and military struggles against Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union. That’s a view with potentially broad implications for government policies and foreign relations. It’s also hotly debated.
The issue of who is or might be a terrorist is driving divisions within countries and between them. Battles over policies on who can get asylum in the U.S. and European Union are being fought between those who emphasize the risk that Muslim refugees will include terrorists and those who focus on welcoming families fleeing terrorized lands. In mid-2017, Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries cut ties with Qatar in part because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi bloc considers a terrorist group. The EU and U.S. do not, although the Trump administration has considered giving it that designation. For Trump, the threat of terrorism is so great he’s pushed to have the North Atlantic Treaty Organization focus on it. That’s exacerbated worries among the European states in the alliance that the U.S. president is insufficiently committed to NATO’s original mission — the joint territorial defense of its members — at a time when the increasing assertiveness of Russia is their bigger concern.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks by the jihadists of al-Qaeda, in which nearly 3,000 people died, there’s been a perception that terrorism is on the rise everywhere. In fact, it’s gone way up in some places and down in others. The number of terrorism fatalities worldwide has increased almost ninefold since 2000, as measured in the authoritative Global Terrorism Database, a project led by the University of Maryland. But the surge has been almost entirely in the Middle East and South Asia. In Western Europe, there are fewer terrorist incidents and fewer casualties today than in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s, when countries struggled with militant movements, such as the Irish Republican Army in the U.K., the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Basque separatists in Spain. More Americans were killed by terrorists in the 15 years before Sept. 11 than in the 15 since, with the vast majority of the earlier attacks carried out by animal rights, environmental, anti-abortion, white supremacist and domestic anti-government groups. The Global Terrorism Database defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”
Some commentators think the “war on terrorism” is a misnomer that inflates the threat and distorts responses. Terrorists, they say, should be treated as criminals and combatted primarily by intelligence agencies, police and targeted drone strikes. They see the Sept. 11-inspired U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a strategic error that spawned new terrorist threats, notably the al-Qaeda spinoff Islamic State. Military responses, they argue, have damaged Western values, in particular the rule of law. They warn, too, against alienating moderate Muslims by associating Islam with terrorists who invoke an extremist interpretation of the religion. Trump’s mid-2017 call to defend Western civilization against attack, redolent of the “clash of civilizations” predicted by the late U.S. academic Samuel Huntington, drew concern on this score. Some analysts argue that Egypt’s criminalizing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had pursued power by democratic means, has driven parts of the movement to take up arms. Other say that Islamist terrorism is different from that of prior militants such as those of the IRA or the Palestine Liberation Organization. That’s because al-Qaeda, Islamic State and their clones are transnational and their aims are rooted in religious belief, making negotiating with them difficult. These thinkers say that the desire to be politically correct prevents Western leaders from recognizing that international terrorism is specific to Islam and poses a tremendous threat.
The Reference Shelf
- “Inside Terrorism,” scholar Bruce Hoffman’s classic book on the phenomenon.
- Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations?”
- U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech on the threat of terrorism to Western civilization.
- The University of Maryland’s database of terrorist attacks worldwide.
- An essay by authors Shadi Hamid and William McCants on the dangers of criminalizing political Islam.
First published Oct. 1, 2017
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Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org