Whether yesterday’s attacks in Spain, in which 190 people were killed and nearly 1500 wounded, were carried out by the Basque separatist ETA or by al-Qaeda, they make one thing very clear: terrorism cannot be fought by military means.
After the first Gulf War, and particularly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, U.S. military analysts concerned themselves extensively with the question of terrorism. An early conclusion was that it is precisely the extreme dominance of the U.S. military that makes potential opponents turn to what is sometimes called “asymmetric warfare” — i.e., attacks in which the other side also has a chance of inflicting damage. For example, Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued in 1998, says, “America’s unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies (whether nations or terrorist groups) that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault.”
The Bush administration’s response, involving a tremendous new wave of militarism, new weapons systems, and a newly aggressive posture in the world could not have done more to exacerbate the threat of terrorist attacks if it had been planned that way.
Worse, there has been a shift in the modality of attacks after 9/11. The 9/11 attacks and previous ones by al-Qaeda, like that on the U.S.S. Cole or those on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, were attacks on hard targets, requiring suicide bombers and, in the case of 9/11, a highly sophisticated operation. Furthermore, the targets were ones of obvious political significance; there was hardly a more potent symbol of American economic might and world domination than the World Trade Center. Contrary to popular depictions, at the time al-Qaeda was not simply ravening to kill any American anywhere.
That changed after the Afghanistan war, with a decision made by elders of Al-Qaeda in Thailand in January 2002 to turn more toward soft targets. The first major such attack was the November 2002 Bali nightclub bombing which killed nearly 200. Just as with the Madrid bombing, the targets had no particular political significance: while it is true that Aznar supported the war on Iraq, 90% of the Spanish people opposed it, and they were the victims of the attack.
And thus we are led to the reductio ad absurdum: more military prowess leads to more terrorist attacks, more defense of hard or politically significant targets leads to more indiscriminate attacks on soft targets, and it is simply impossible to defend all soft targets. Today the trains of Madrid. Tomorrow the New York subway?
The progression of events in Iraq under the occupation mirrors this.
Initially, one saw mainly attacks on the U.S. military. It quickly responded by increasing the level of alert, and so August of last year saw numerous terrorist attacks. The U.N. humanitarian headquarters was attacked and Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim was assassinated at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. These were still aimed at very specific persons or organizations and involved targets with some level of protection.
As Iraq began to fill up with concrete barricades and razor wire, the targets changed. Attackers who had earlier concentrated on the Iraqi police as collaborators with the occupation took to bombing lines of people waiting to interview for jobs as police. Cleaning women who worked on a CPA base were gunned down. Attacks against random targets of opportunity proliferated. The culmination was on Ashura, the holiest day of the year for the Shi’a a dozen suicide bombers attacked processions in Baghdad and Kerbala (and tried to in Basra and Najaf), killing likely over 200 people.
The Spanish government has a heavy political investment in the claim that the ETA perpetrated these attacks, and there is some evidence in that direction. There is also much in the other direction, including a van found near Madrid with explosive detonators and an Arabic tape of Quranic verses, a claim of responsibility by an Islamist group, and a denunciation of the attacks by the spokesman of Batasuna, the Basque party most closely associated with the ETA.
But it doesn’t matter. If al-Qaeda didn’t do this, whoever did it was inspired by al-Qaeda. The attack involves the same modus operandi, the same abandonment of clear political purpose for body count as the sole criterion. If non-Islamist organizations come to adopt the same methods, the danger is only increased.
So far, all military measures in the “war on terrorism” have strengthened the emerging archipelago of Islamist terrorist organizations. Weakening it requires taking away the political ground on which they stand. That ground is not the virtually nihilistic domestic political programs of these groups. It is their opposition to U.S. imperial control of the Islamic world, a grievance that most Muslims share.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a dove or a hawk, left or right, concerned with the suffering of others or concerned merely with your own skin. Military means will not work. The beginning of a solution is the end of the twin occupations in the Middle East. Only after that will it be possible to take measures against terrorism that don’t worsen the problem.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes (http://www.empirenotes.org). Some of this material is excerpted from his book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org