Terrorism — A Confusing Target for the United States
Does the United States need a more nuanced approach?
October 6, 2004
One can plausibly argue that all terrorism is “bad” — and that all terrorists must be stopped. But one cannot say that all terrorism is the same — or that one must place the same priority on defeating all terrorist groups.
The reason is quite simple. Once the U.S. government makes its stated goal to defeat the amorphous threat of terrorism, each and every sub-state actor that uses terrorism as a tool of war will become America’s enemy — and any government that attempts to defeat them America’s friend.
Without differentiating between groups, the U.S. effectively puts itself in a position where it condones the use of force against all terrorists.
On the surface this may sound appealing — an eye for an eye.
Reality is quite different, though. The United States wants a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
It admonishes China for human rights violations. How would the U.S. government respond to a vicious crackdown, say, against Muslim Uighers in the west of China?
Americans hope that democracy will spread throughout the Middle East. What would we think of an organized resistance against an oppressive Muslim regime?
As appealing as a “clear” worldview may be, international politics will always consist of shades of gray. And terrorism is just as murky.
Terrorism may be an illegitimate form of violence, but it is the tool of the weak. Americans will face it not only in the battle against al Qaeda, but will witness its use by oppressed, desperate — and sometimes legitimate — groups throughout the world for a long time to come.
Of course, distinctions between terrorists are often blurred. And when the common bond unifying the terrorist group is religion, Americans are understandably even more confused.
This was seen most recently with Chechnya. So, perhaps it was not surprising to see just how surprised everyone was to hear that Chechnya and al Qaeda have very little to do with one another.
Contrary to al Qaeda’s goals, the Chechens are striving for a Chechnya free of Russian oppression — not worldwide Islamic revolution. Until Americans and their allies make this distinction, confusion will abound.
Bush Administration officials were apparently shocked when — after they suggested there might be a political solution to the Chechnya problem — Russian President Vladimir Putin retorted “Why don’t you ask [Osama bin Laden] what he wants — and give it to him so he’ll leave you in peace?”
With those remarks, Mr. Putin got to the core of what is wrong with current U.S. anti-terrorism policy. If the United States is fighting a war against terrorism and the Chechens are terrorists, then shouldn’t President Bush urge Mr. Putin to be steadfast in crushing the Chechen rebels — rather than urging a political solution?
Once again, the problem is that the United States is not really fighting a war against terrorism.
It is fighting a war against al Qaeda and any groups willing to inflict damage on the United States and its allies on behalf of al Qaeda. The United States is not fighting the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, Basque separatists or even the Chechens. It is stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place — because it has mixed up the whole lot of them.
Ethnic terrorist groups like the Chechens that are concerned with elevating the status of a particular minority within a country, carving out political rights or some form of territorial autonomy are their own entity. And they are most often the groups that elicit a significant level of popular support and sympathy.
They are the people most often associated with the pithy idea of one man’s terrorist as another man’s freedom fighter. This is because they have often been oppressed and brutalized by the reigning government or ethnic majority. This is the history of Chechnya.
The Chechens were subject to genocidal killings and displacements even before Stalin. And the more they were oppressed, the stronger became their identity — and the more their cause solidified.
But just because they are bound by a common religion does not mean they are akin to al Qaeda.
Yes, ethnic Chechens are Sunni Muslim. Yes, other Islamic based groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are willing to support them.
But the Chechens are not hoping for Armageddon. The Chechens don’t much care about the rise of Islam. The Chechens care about Chechnya.
Al Qaeda has certainly helped the Chechens by providing training and arms. But there are no more than 200 foreign fighters in Chechnya — and even that number is most likely a significant overestimation, as we are probably talking about no more than a handful.
Even with such a small contribution, if the Chechens were to win independence, Osama bin Laden could well try to use it as a victory for the Muslim world.
Yet, we can reframe the problem not as a fight for the rise of Islam, but rather as the struggle of a people with a long-standing identity — and a long-standing desire for territorial autonomy.
Granting some of their demands can be seen as a victory for freedom, democracy and self-determination.
We can abhor the method — but we do not have to abhor the cause.
President Putin can negotiate with the Chechens. They have a clear political and territorial aim. They see a distinct geographic area as theirs. There is a palpable oppression by their enemy.
The U.S. cannot negotiate with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has no strict territorial boundaries.
When the debate is framed as a desire to “bring down the West” and elevate Islam to its rightful place in the world, there are few, if any, limits on the damage the groups are willing to inflict, and no possible settlements.
The sad thing is that the Bush Administration understands this — but has nevertheless chosen to oversimplify the issue to appear resolute. President Bush used to speak of fighting “terrorists with global reach.”
Although this distinction was never stressed, it now seems to have been abandoned altogether. The United States can no longer afford to say it is fighting a war against all terrorists — even if big ideas that pit good against evil and black against white hold mass appeal.
If it does, U.S. policies will seem inconsistent. The hypocrisy will grow. And every victory for any Muslim-based terrorist group will seem like a victory for al Qaeda.
Justine A. Rosenthal
Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution Justine Rosenthal is a Foreign Policy Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her areas of expertise include international terrorism, counter-terrorism strategies, nuclear proliferation, civil warfare and East Asian security. Prior to working at Brookings, Ms. Rosenthal was the Director of the Executive Office for the Council on Foreign Relations. […]