In a world full of uncertainty, one variable remains constant: change. Similar to the adapting species of Darwin’s evolutionary environments, we can be sure that change is always around the corner and our ability to adapt, and most importantly keep ahead of coming changes in the war on terror, will once again be tested. From a Western point of view, our response to terrorism has been predictable. We went on the offensive, striking militarily and largely dismantling Al Qaeda bases and training facilities in Afghanistan. We fostered alliances with Pakistan and other “moderate” Arab states, built an international coalition of 31 countries, widened our
search for terrorist support groups — such as Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party — and made gallant attempts to further involve the United Nations in the war on terror.
Today, unsurprisingly, Jihadist terrorist tactics have changed and adapted. No longer are our enemies content with firebombing discos, coffee shops and supposed “soft targets” abroad that require minimal planning and coordination. The attacks at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, on the USS Cole, and even on our homeland at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sent a different message. The terrorists were clearly telling us: “We can attack and kill your people, both military and civilian, wherever they are.” Our enemies are becoming more complex, more coordinated and more deadly.
Even so, their objectives remain the same: First, to drive the “infidels,” including more moderate secular Middle Eastern governments, from their holy lands; and second, to spread their extremist radical religious tenets to as much of the world as possible.
As in chess, each move we make elicits new moves by a shrewd, intelligent and adaptable enemy. They realize the vast superiority of Western military prowess and note their own inability to conventionally cope with our coalition forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In response, their ability to adapt and change strategy has been clearly demonstrated.
Their new forms of attack, like the previous, continue to cause loss of life. However, the goals they are trying to achieve have changed. Current targets are specifically selected to drive home messages that directly affect the attitudes of citizens in the West, and hence affect Western government policy and structure, as well as the global economy. In other words, our enemies have suddenly taken a deep, vested interest in the domestic politics and economics of their adversaries.
Take the train bombings in Madrid in March. It was not a coincidence that this act of terror occurred just days before national elections. For the Jihadist terrorists, their success in turning the election was remarkable. The conservative Popular Party of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s government was replaced by its socialist counterpart, which had pledged to remove Spain’s troops from Iraq. With the change of government, Spain’s new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, did just that. Score this one as an Al Qaeda success. In yet another example, the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities can clearly be characterized as an attack on Western economic interests. With energy prices already at two-decade highs, it is patently obvious to even the most casual observer that the attack was meant to stem the supply of oil, thereby forcing the price even higher. The subsequent effect on energy-dependent Western economies would be significant. While the jury is still out on whether this will be a success or not, the initial indications are it may be.
With a full understanding that change will continue to occur, we must incorporate a broader understanding of Middle Eastern thought, which motivates its society. With radical Islamists having a distaste for democracy, lack of regard for human rights and a desire to return to what the past held instead of looking forward to what may lie ahead, this dangerous slice of Middle Eastern society plagues the Arab world like a virus.
Throughout our military past, it was easy to understand our enemies. We were capable of understanding the threat they posed and how to protect ourselves from it. This is no longer the case. The threat of Jihadist terrorism is like no other we have ever encountered. And to address the threat as we have in the past would be foolish; it would be naïve to think our old approaches to responding to terrorism will work in the future.
The way to win this global war on terror is to accept that our enemy is ever-changing with a goal to permanently disrupt our very way of life. We must accept the fact that this threat is not going to go away until we make it go away.
To keep ourselves one step ahead of those who want to do us harm is to realize and fully take into account the fundamental cultural and philosophical differences between Westerners and Jihadists. Reacting to their attacks is not enough. It will take an aggressive, proactive approach on our part to maintain control of the situation, and ultimately protect our own security.
Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) is chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities.