Man fighting man is as old as time, even the Bible’s founding family had brother killing brother in the first pages of Genesis. World history is one long saga local, regional and world wars. But in the last ten years or so something different seems to be going on, killing that is more frightening, more random and could happen in your own backyard. Every week we turn on the news to watch the horrors of another terrorist attack on innocent civilians, somewhere in the world, by one extremist group or another. The terrorists are right wing or left wing extremists who kill for a political cause, or religious zealots who murder in the name of Allah or God. Why is warfare in this Age of Terrorism different?
First, today’s terrorists worship death. Throughout history, warriors have planned to fight and die if necessary, but to survive if possible. Today’s suicide bombers have turned that notion on its head. They don’t expect to survive, and don’t even bother making plans to escape. This death cult debuted on the world stage with Al Qaeda on September 11, but in the interceding ten years has been taken up by different groups and well as individuals. The September 11 hijackers learned how to fly 747s, but skipped the lessons on how to land them, because they expected to die.
In 2008, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, one of the founders and later Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, advocated teaching youngsters to become “mujahidin who love to die as much as others love to live.” Extremist leaders see that as their competitive advantage – as long as their followers are more willing to die than the people they attack are willing to die defending themselves, the terrorists will ultimately prevail. As long as they can sell enough of their people on the death cult as an instant ticket into a heavenly afterlife, they win.
Second, today’s terrorists, be they Islamic extremists or right wing extremists, don’t distinguish between military and civilian victims. Their ideological extremism dictates that everyone of a certain culture is the enemy, not just the governments or armies. And since they are all enemies, they are all fair game. No man, woman or child is innocent or exempt.
And therein lies their second competitive advantage. It’s easier to target civilians because they’re easier to kill. They’re less protected than military targets, rarely able to offer resistance, and just about anything can be used as a weapon against them– fertilizer, dynamite, a jet plane filled with fuel.
Finally, terrorism is asymmetrical warfare. For the ideological extremists, there are no rules. They don’t worry about civilian casualties, their own or their enemies. If their own people die conducting suicide attacks, they go to heaven. If their own people die in those attacks, they’re collateral damage, to be exploited for their political advantage in the world court of public opinion.
Yet the culture, or people, or religion terrorists attack do still play by the rules. We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties - our and theirs - when defending ourselves at home or attacking terrorist bases abroad. We bend over backwards to extend legal rights to suspected terrorists, even if doing so exposes us to danger.
Despite all this, we have made great strides in defeating terrorism in the last decade. Much of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been killed, and their organization degraded. But it has come at great cost to us. And, despite two wars and over a trillion dollars, our efforts have not ended the threat of terrorism.
While Osama bin Laden may be dead, a new second generation of Islamic terrorists has taken their place, and they have opened franchises throughout the world, in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and even in Europe. They’ve proven adaptive and innovative. According to US intelligence officials, they now represent a greater threat to the US homeland than Al Qaeda. And, while they have not executed any large scale attacks on the level of September 11, they and we know one fundamental truth – they only have to succeed once, while we have to be successful 100% of the time. Eventually, they will get lucky.
There is a third generation of terrorists now emerging, who seem less tethered to international movements, and as likely to be right wing fanatics as Islamic jihadists. They are lone wolf, homegrown extremists who find their way to terrorism through the internet. They don’t go to training camps in Pakistan, and often have no military experience themselves. These individuals are often self-radicalized, and play out their violent fantasies on line first before putting them into action on their neighbors.
Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage in Oslo last week is one of this coming wave of terrorists. He combines the three deadly aspects of the original Islamic terrorists – death cult, targeting civilians and asymmetrical fighting - with a new element. He could be the neighbor next door.