The Futility of the War on Terror

The dramatic TV coverage of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 is still dramatically vivid in most of our memories. The hijacking of four passenger jets from domestic passenger flights and their subsequent deliberate crashing in order to kill defenceless civilians horrified us all. The appalling sight of the demolition of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Centre in New York City resulting in the death of almost 3000 people is indelibly etched on my mind and no doubt on many of yours.

It was established that the perpetrators of these suicide missions were operatives from the militant Muslim terrorist group al-Qaeda. The atrocities understandably provoked a good deal of nationalist rage in the United States. As a result, and probably predictably, President Bush declared a “War on Terror” designed to hunt down those responsible and to protect Western democracies from the recurrence of such atrocities.

The hijackings had been carefully planned and executed. The terrorists had travelled to the United States and enrolled in pilot training courses in preparation of taking control of the jets and crashing them into their designated targets. They had chosen jets that were scheduled to fly long distances so that there was a large amount of fuel on board ensuring that the crashes would unleash destructive fireballs thus rendering the incidents more lethal.

In the face of such provocation and the subsequent ire and indignation of the American people, it is unlikely that the President would choose to act otherwise (than to declare the War on Terror). An immediate, forceful, active response seemed to be demanded and not surprisingly after President Bush announced this response his popularity soared.

Perhaps it is time, (after all it is twelve years since the initiating event), to take stock on the effectiveness of the War on Terror.

Well, I suppose some might argue the success of the enterprise by pointing out there has been no recurrence of terrorism as dramatic as the demolition of the Twin Towers.

But despite that, acts of terrorism enacted by Muslim extremists seem more prevalent than ever. Our defensive strategies and increased surveillance have probably reduced the likelihood of (as the Americans call it) another 9/11 event. But that has come at a cost – no doubt a justified cost, but still a cost – of inconvenience for travellers and others having to undergo frequent security checks and other restrictions and imposts in order to detect potential terrorists.

In an act of retribution, after a huge investment with this in mind, Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the original atrocity was killed. There seems little evidence that his demise has ameliorated the problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that the so-called War on Terror is a misnomer. It comes from associating this struggle with the wars of history. Once upon a time when you fought a war the two antagonists opposed each other in battle or a series of battles. After a period of time one side dominated, defeated their opponents and subjugated them. This “war” is so different.

To begin with the opponents are diffuse and distributed. There will never be a deciding battle. The radical Muslim extremists are embedded in Muslim countries and failed states throughout the world. Sometimes they are supported by governments, sometimes have tacit support and often have little support at all.


The principal dilemma that we face is that eliminating a terrorist or terrorist enclave will often result in damage to the surrounding community which in itself will cause sufficient resentment to encourage the recruitment and radicalisation of more terrorists.

There will never be a deciding battle because of the broad distribution of the terrorists in multiple communities. It is in fact a many headed Hydra, such that the removal of one head will, more than likely, cause sufficient antagonism to generate another two!

The terrorist movement is further facilitated by modern technology. Through the internet and social media, cells can coalesce in virtual communities sharing strategies and recipes for explosives.

We must also take care when prosecuting these militant Muslims, because often in doing so, we will offend ordinary Muslims that might not now pose a threat but can easily be driven to extremism if they perceive our actions as anti-Muslim.

This seems to put us in a hopeless situation – so what are we to do?

Firstly we should take all prudent steps to defend our citizens from wanton acts of terrorism. As well as wanting to protect innocent victims we must also be cognisant that every successful attack on a Western democracy encourages the militants to do more. As I pointed out above this does not come without some cost and inconvenience but not only must we protect our citizens from violence we must not allow terrorists to believe we offer easy targets.

Secondly, we must refrain from the temptation to seek retribution at every provocation. This might seem unjust but we need to be pragmatic here. If our retributive action causes moderate Muslims to be radicalised then we have shot ourselves in the foot! In the long term it seems to me that we are unlikely to change the minds of terrorists but we must guard against turning more of the moderate Muslim population against us.

Thirdly, we have to acknowledge that within the Muslim community terrorists are but a small minority. We have to guard against the impact of the media. Most of its coverage of Muslims will focus on the militant terrorists. It is easy with this backgrounding over a period of time to come to believe Muslims are intolerant, fundamentalist and inimical to us. This is not the case. If we look at our own Muslim communities we will find many who are model citizens, respecting our democracy and demonstrating love and compassion.

Finally we need to do what we can to facilitate the raising of the standard of living in the third world including the Muslim countries. One of the underlying themes of militant Islam is that the West has managed to improve its lot but only at their expense. Facilitating material progress along with better education would seem to be the best long term strategy. In the end the well-being of all of us is in the international community is dependent on what the evolutionary psychologists call “reciprocal altruism” and it needs to be extended to all members of the international community if civil societies are to prosper and endure.

I am not an apologist for Muslim fundamentalism. Far from it. If you have read my essays over a long period of time I have pointed out the flaws of fundamentalism, its naïve thinking and simplistic, ignorant, belief systems in both Muslim and Christian societies. Because of the factors enunciated above however I don’t believe terrorism will be defeated by force of arms and a new more enlightened approach is needed. I have no doubts that without patience, tolerance and compassion applied to the solution we might never do away with terrorism.

In support of this point of view you might care to read a couple of other related essays I have previously written.

You will find them in my blog archives:

July 2013 – Another Look at Altruism

October 2009 – Compassion and Humanity

The links below would normally allow you to access them but at the time of publication they don’t seem to be working: ‎ ‎ ‎

6 Replies to “The Futility of the War on Terror”

  1. Thanks Ted
    I was beginning to become a little ‘terrified’ from what I m reading about the Islamic Muslims and their disregard for other cultures and religions. Hopefully the radicals are in the minority, but they sure have an impact in the media.

  2. The media is a business and like any other business they have a product to sell. Their product is “truth” but unfortunately the better teller of the truth gets the ratings and the revenue. No one can accuse the media of any country of buggering up a good story with the facts.

    I have no idea how many lives have been lost as a result of US retaliation for 9/11 but I am confident it is many times greater than the original atrocities. Almost all of these deaths were Government supported clinically planned and executed activities. They were of course analysed carefully before hand with the collateral damage considered before the final recommendations, approvals and strike orders were given. In that sense the US are no different to al-Qaeda who could have increased the 9/11 death toll 20 fold if they had delayed their attack a few hours and struck during business hours. Their aim at least appears to be to attack the American symbols and institutions rather than kill as many Americans as possible.

    Even terrorists have humanity embedded deep down there somewhere. They are just people like us who have had a different set of circumstances shape their values. We are wasting our time trying to change the paradigm of the terrorists, that would take a paradigm shift and they are rare. We can however change the influencing factors for the next generation and this I think is the key to it all. It requires us to turn the other cheek. I agree Ted, protect ourselves for today but plan for a better tomorrow through help and compassion and not more killing if it can possibly be avoided.

    I may be wrong but I expect that history will not reflect kindly on the actions of the US through the second half of the 20th Century

  3. I want to pick up on your point of ordinary Muslims turning to extremism, or terrorism (I also wonder if you mean the same thing by both these words). An inspired (enraged or whatever) drive to an inceased commitment and devotion to your fundamental world view or belief system turn a person into an extremist (terrorist) if

  4. I accidentally hit submit button……

    To take off from my above sentence – An inspired (enraged or whatever) drive to an increased commitment and devotion to a fundamental worldview or belief system should not turn an otherwise ordinary commitment into extremist/terrorist activity unless there was something immoral at the fundamental level of the belief system……..or a misinterpretation or incorrect belief about the belief system.

  5. I accidentally hit submit button……

    To take off from my above sentence from the word ‘devotion’ – to a fundamental worldview or belief system should not turn an otherwise ordinary commitment into extremist/terrorist activity unless there was something immoral at the fundamental level of the belief system……..or a misinterpretation or incorrect belief about the belief system.

  6. In some ways you are right Matt, but I think the problem is ubiquitous. And it happens on both sides. When Bush declared his War on Terror his justification was about self-defense, but underlying it was also retribution. If I am a Muslim villager in Afghanistan and a drone strike designed to take out a senior al-Qaeda operative also manages to kill a half dozen innocent villagers including some of my family I might rationalise joining al-Qaeda as a defensive strategy but it also is more likely to be an act of retribution. Many Christian and Muslim fundamentalists still are driven by the Old Testament philosophy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” with their own exorbitant interest rate applied!

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