Back to the future on Terrorism

It’s hard not to be panicky about the terrorist threat these days. We’ve seen a terrorist group take over a large chunk of Iraq and impose a brutal regime. There’s no end in sight to the Syrian civil war and little hope of reuniting the country. Extremist forces are increasingly taking over the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime. In Afghanistan, as the deadline approaches for NATO’s withdrawal, Taliban forces are staging a comeback.
Europe is particularly threatened by the return of EU citizens who have been fighting with radical al-Qaida-lined groups in Syria, according to Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counterterrorism coordinator. The US head of National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew G. Olsen, also warned about “wider array of threats in a greater variety of locations across the Middle East and around the world.” What happened to the global war on terrorism (GWT) and Western determination after 9/11 to put an end to terrorism once and for all?  

A shifting threat
Until August 2013, I was employed by the CIA, authoring the National Intelligence Council’s long range analysis – what is called ‘global trends’ – which is briefed to the US President at the start of his administration. In compiling my book I’ve gone back to evaluate those forecasts. The first global trends report I did was for the Bush Administration three years after 9/11, when the global war on terror was in full swing. Hopes were high in and out of government that terrorism could be defeated. I was far less sanguine: “The key factors show no signs of abating over the next 15 years. The revival of Muslim identity will create a framework for the spread of radical Islamic ideology both inside and outside the Middle East, including Western Europe, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.”
The press played up the fact that while the administration contended “Iraq was an integral part of US efforts to combat terrorism,” the report I authored warned that Iraq was providing terrorists with “a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills.” One of my global scenarios in the work was of a caliphate, which got right many of features of ISIS, including its breakaway from al-Qa’ida. 

In the 2008 edition I talked about al-Qa’ida breaking up – almost three years before Osama bin Laden’s takedown. Past terrorist waves usually saw the group originating it – in this case core al-Qa’ida – breaking up midway through the cycle. The violence does not cease and could actually increase, but the splintered survivors are more locally focused. The threat is now from the splinter groups, some of which are more capable than I or others originally anticipated as shown by the rapid ISIS gains in Iraq. In the recent words of General Clapper, director of National Intelligence, “the terrorist threat is not diminishing. It is spreading globally and it is morphing more and more into so-called franchises.”
Oddly, in the wake of the Western failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pendulum is now swinging away from any intervention. If, God forbid, another 9/11-like attack occurred today, I think the US could well turn its back on the Middle East, albeit after lobbing a few missiles into the group held responsible. The attempt this time would be to harden borders, restricting inflows into the US homeland. No war on terrorism, but instead Fortress America. Clapper’s worries that US intelligence capabilities have been hurt by a “perfect storm” of “lost intelligence sources” because of Snowden and “significant budget cuts” could also favour a posture of more defence than offence.       

Wider issues in the region
Both extremist reactions – sins of commission and those of omission – ignore the broader context and tend to treat terrorism as a standalone. It’s no accident that the Middle East – where the terrorist threat is the greatest – has lagged most other regions (except Africa) in exploiting globalisation’s opportunities. In many Middle East and North Africa countries, higher educational attainment correlates with rising joblessness. The social contract that held states together has frayed. It’s been some time since Arab governments could “co-opt the educated youth into what used to be a relatively well paid civil service,” according to the UN’s Arab development reports. Governments everywhere have to be smarter to succeed. In the Middle East, the challenges are even greater because of the many religious and ethnic splits that were never overcome by Arab nationalism.
From the beginning of my work on global trends, I strove to weave terrorism into a wider tapestry. That’s also the reason why I focus on the multiple factors that are coming together to produce revolutionary change. Back after 9/11 when terrorism was everything in foreign policy, the global trends reports drew policymaker attention to other challenges facing the US, such as the rise of China and the downsides of rapid globalization. Even before the 2008 financial crisis, economic insecurity was growing in Middle America, for example, which the reports highlighted. 
Some of those broad trends favored terrorism and we stressed them in the analysis. Increasing individual empowerment meant individuals and small groups would have greater access to lethal weaponry. The use of bio or nuclear weapons someday by terrorists is not far-fetched. Cybercrime is a lot more common today than cyberterrorism, but it’s probably just a matter of time. I saw it as equally wrong to hype the terrorist threat then as it is to downplay it now. A broader perspective helps policymakers gauge terrorism’s relative importance in the vast panoply of US global interests.   

How should the west respond?
What particularly worries me now is the rapid collapse of the nation-state in Iraq and Syria, essentially leaving a huge safe haven at the core of the Middle East. The operating space for terrorists has increased immensely. We are back to pre-9/11 when al-Qa’ida had free reign in Afghanistan, but the area is much larger. Just how rapid was the collapse of Arab Spring hopes and resurgence in authoritarianism in Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf was also a bit of a surprise. The growing suppression of opposition in those countries makes for fertile ground for extremism and even terrorism. It’s clear the terrorist threat is rising, but we should take care, too, to learn from past mistakes.  
First, we need to avoid the panic. In re-reading some of the writings by US terrorist experts in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a sense of terrorism as an unstoppable tsunami: “now that the World Trade Center is gone, Grand Central Station at rush hour would be an obvious target for Manhattan. Coordinated attacks on shopping malls, tourist attractions, casinos, schools, churches and synagogues, and sports events also are possible.” If there is a consoling factor, it is that terrorists tend to be too harsh and brutal, which eventually alienates their own supporters. But it will take time for the disaffection to grow to the point of threatening, for example, the caliphate’s hold in Sunni areas in Iraq. Combatting potential attacks in US and Europe must be priority, counteracting just the symptoms won’t get at the root causes. 
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see the US or Europe militarily intervening on a big scale. But, we need to be more active than we are, especially in stopping the regional conflagration from growing. Getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit down and start mending ties would be a start if we are to stem the escalation of current tensions into all-out war in the Middle East. Ramping up the pressure on the Shia government in Baghdad to draw the Sunnis back in is essential to combatting ISIS. Although naïve perhaps about chances for a near term settlement, Secretary Kerry is right about trying to keep a peace process alive between Israel and the Palestinians. Most importantly, the US and Europe need to work together on a global plan for economic development of the Middle East. The Chinese recently offered to go in on some joint infrastructure projects in Africa with the US, why not a global effort in the Middle East. I have no illusions the terrorist threat will decrease immediately even if we managed all these things, but it could put them on the back foot.   

Preparing to adapt
Scenarios are a big part of plotting out the future. They can be good or bad, but the point is that we need to get used to the future being radically different from the present, not just a linear projection. I can see areas where there may be a qualitative leap forward unimaginable to most today. For instance, we could see the elimination of most extreme poverty in our lifetime. But I can also see where things could go seriously wrong, and the Middle East and terrorism are in that category.
The drift toward a region-wide conflict pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran and its allies is a recipe for more widespread violence and chaos, so creating the breeding grounds for terrorism. In my book, I play out the logical conclusion of such continued Sunni-Shia conflict and it is predictably disastrous for all of us. The US and Europe have more than enough to occupy ourselves; publics are more than apathetic – they want to stay out. However, this is no time for leaders to put their heads in the sand.

The Future Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action by Mathew Burrows is published by Palgrave Mamcillan

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