“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
-President George W. Bush
Just days after the 15th anniversary of September 11th, the American people are more enthralled with the deployment of warfare against terrorism than ever before. Combined with the fervent polarization of our political climate on measures of response for demolishing terrorism, we have a recipe brewing rumors, misinformation, and misconceptions. President George W. Bush’s reactionary response to the tumultuous events that happened that bleak September morning have become muscle memory to many factions of society. His administration is responsible for a complete overhaul of what we now know and perceive as data collection, intelligence analysis, intelligence communities, and warfare in general.
Scholars have noted that this modern era may, in future times, give rise to World War III. For many reasons we are seeing mirrors between the onset of the two World Wars. Each World War began with a change in technology and military practices. Trench warfare highlighted the Great War whilst atomic bombs and more ramped up plane usage dominated the Second World War. Now, we have a large portion of the world combating terrorist groups. Terrorism itself is in a sense a revamped, old asymmetric warfare tactic now harbored by non-state entities. Terrorism works because they do what they can with the supplies they have. Their usage of suicide bombers and surgical terror strikes are effective due to low costs and enabled bodies. They can “declare” war on a state or group but that declaration is not formally recognized under the Rules of War. Thus they must resort to tactics that give them the most media coverage,the most impact, and the largest response. This pairs their intent and capabilities with the necessary attention that terrorist groups thrive on. Many times they are successful in what they employ. Does this mean that terrorism could be the new quid-pro-quo for modern warfare tactics?
Military response against groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda grows every day as more and more countries wage war and create coalitions against these groups.
Lieutenant Colonel of the Florida State University’s Army ROTC program, Clinton Alexander, remarks the following in a recent interview:
BTM: There is no global definition of terrorism. For example, US Law Title 22 of the US code section 2656f (d) states that targets of terrorism must be noncombatants. But sometimes that is not the case. The military has been targeted numerous times. Sometimes violence isn’t even carried out towards humans. Does targeting the military of a country make terrorism something else in this case?
LTC Alexander: I would say if they are trying to attack you when you are deployed in a combat zone…to me, I would not consider that terrorism personally, I would say it is part of the warfare. Although, the tactics could be terrorist-like tactics. I think what might be considered terrorism for me would be if I’m here in the homeland or I’m oversees maybe stationed in Germany, and I was attacked strictly because I am a US citizen, or a member of the military and the goal was to send a message that ‘we are attacking America’ based on my position as a US soldier, and representing America. I would say that it is probably terrorism in my book.
BTM: Wars can only be declared between states. Terrorist are non-state entities who cannot definitively declare war on a state enemy. So, is their form of violence a plausible alternative for a group who has political aspirations? They cannot engage on a standard warfront, so are their pinpointed targets a way of sending their message effectively?
LTC Alexander: An asymmetrical threat is a good way to put it, or hybrid. It (ISIS) is not a nation state, as we perceive it, but they are organized and have a mission statement. It is not just a random gang, it is highly organized. Hybrid-asymmetrical is a good way to describe that threat.
BTM: Do you believe that domestic/ homegrown terrorism is a serious threat for the US?
LTC Alexander: It is a threat. How serious of a threat? It is hard to tell. It is a concern for anybody who lives in America. Regardless of where you live, domestic terrorism is probably harder to see because they (domestic terrorists) are woven into the fabric of society. That can become a real challenge and it is something I think more and more, that local law enforcement in conjunction with federal law enforcement are certainly paying more attention to nowadays.
BTM: Do you think that ISIS goals are more political than religious?
LTC Alexander: Well, it is hard to tell. Is it a political organization masked in religion, or is it a religious organization masked in some sort of political terrorism? It is hard to understand what their true intentions are. If ISIS somehow got control of a Middle East state, such as Iraq, well then what are they going to do? Now they are in charge and they have to provide health care, essential services, electricity, water, sewer, trash to the people, well in that regards they would be a political organization. It is hard to see, without them coming into full fruition, what they want. And if they do become in control, do they then lose all of their terrorist fight and say oh gosh this is so hard…feeding all of these people and trying to organize all of these people and take care of them? So from that regard, it is probably much easier for them to remain terrorists. It is much easier to be the terrorist than to have to govern a country.
BTM: How large of a threat do you think ISIS is, or even any other terrorists groups?
LTC Alexander: It is hard to tell. You really haven’t heard much from them recently. It really makes you wonder if the campaigns against them by Russia, America, EU… particularly since the Paris attacks were effective. There have been key places in Iraq that have been retaken; so, it makes you wonder just how big of a threat they really are… Time will really determine just how serious of a threat they are. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have been making a strong play; so, are they resurging or is it just proof that as we have drawn back in Afghanistan that maybe they have seen a weakness and tried to exploit it? Al-Qaeda is probably still out there. Although, maybe in some regards they are enjoying the spotlight not being on them so that they can plan new attacks. That’s one of the dangers of over estimating or over sensitizing ourselves to ISIS. It sort of creates this area where other groups, HAMAS, or al-Qaeda can operate under the radar…
BTM: Do you believe that terrorism is going to be the global standard of warfare in the coming years? What about nuclear weapons? Is it possible to live amongst terrorists peacefully?
LTC Alexander: You may not necessarily see it military on military warfare, but there may be terrorist-like tactics. For the immediate future you will probably see that. It depends on where you are. In the future, anything you are going to see is going to be a hybrid solution- a mix of air, land, sea power, guerilla warfare tactics, cyber, any of those are all fair-game.
The distinction between warfare and terrorism may be hard to find at first glance. Since 9/11 the United States and other close allies have shifted their military focus towards combating terrorism. As the Lieutenant Colonel stated, there are many “ifs,” “maybes,” and a general bleakness associated with the vast array of terrorist capabilities. Terrorism works because it is planned with the intent to surprise and instill fear. Without the component of surprise, terrorism would fall behind in the tactical field along with muskets and trench warfare. Perhaps we are now witnessing a major shift in military warfare; the increased used of guerilla tactics, cyber, and a mix of traditional militia tools.