It is Not al-Qaeda we Need to Worry About
That al-Qaeda as a concept cannot be defeated is not in itself a very revealing comment. As General Richards correctly pointed out, “I don’t think you can probably defeat an idea, it’s something we need to battle back against.” But in many ways it is not the al-Qaeda ideology that should concern us, but rather what the shape of future terrorism is increasingly looking like.
Historically the problem of terrorism is something that has been a constant problem in one form or another. To just track it through the last century, we start with Anarchists, through to left and right wing extremists who then towards the second half of the century started to transform into Middle Eastern extremists before evolving into jihadist nihilists. And all along the way, different groups of separatists have used violence to advance their causes.
Extremists using violence in pursuit of ideas is not new. It has been a constant for much of the past century and is likely to be with us for a while yet in one form or another. Jihadist nihilism is likely to eventually fade into the background while some other form of politically motivated violence will take to the fore. Society will always have its malcontents.
What should in fact be of greater concern is the fact that it has now become so much easier to wreak havoc with ever more commonly available devices. Nowadays a lone lunatic in a basement can persuade themselves to act using any of a number of widely available online ideologies and construct devices of increasingly alarming yield.
In some cases it is possible to see groups trying to hijack these lone lunatics into their ideological frame to guide them towards carrying out their actions under their name. The concept of individual jihad is one repeatedly advocated by new al-Qaeda bogeyman Anwar al-Awlaki and his ideas appear to have persuaded individuals in the West to act without seeming leadership. Roshonara Chaudhry apportioned some level of blame to her frenzied attack on Stephen Timms, MP to Awlaki’s ideas and similarly, Nidal Hassan Malik appears to have had some level of inspiration from the preacher before he launched on his shooting spree at a US military base. It is only a matter of time before some other loner attempts something more dramatic based on Awlaki’s teachings or their interpretations of them.
But beyond Awlaki, it is possible to imagine how ever-smaller groups of individuals will develop ever more extreme ideas and find the capacity to turn them into ever increasing levels of violence.
None of this is to shout wolf and cause mass alarm about a threat that cannot be eradicated, but it is important to recognize that terrorism as a problem is unlikely to go away permanently, and the focus should be on increasing our resilience when the problem strikes us in whatever form it should take. The potential overreaction to an attack by a loner from any faith who kills hundreds of people in a major city is going to be same no matter what his religious orientation.
The real point that General Richards should be advancing is not that we should resign ourselves to the fact that we are not going to be able to defeat al-Qaeda, but rather that terrorism is not something that can be defeated globally with some military deployment. A conclusion that will become increasingly accurate as we face an ever more disaggregated threat.