Recent attacks in the United States have renewed the American public’s focus on terrorism. We often wonder, are we winning in the fight against terrorism? Or, more importantly, how do we win? Can we achieve victory against enemies who seem hell bent on destroying our way of life? Certainly, in the popular media and the general public, the most likely answer appears to be to attack groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda with military force. However, is this the correct approach? Can we kill our way out of the problem?
A military response is tempting. The United States remains, despite assertions to the contrary, the most powerful country on earth. The U.S. economy is the largest in the world. The United States Navy, for example, has more vessel tonnage than the next 13 navies combined. The U.S. military has approximately 2 million active and reserve service members, while groups such as Al-Qaeda have less than 1,000 effective members. In pure military terms, we outnumber the enemy significantly; so eliminating the threat should be a simple matter, right? The answer is not so simple, however.
Before we can effectively control terrorism, we must first understand some basic truths. First, terrorism, rather than being a relatively new phenomena, dates back to at least the 11th Century. Second, terrorism cannot be “defeated” any more so than any other crime problem can be defeated; i.e. we can not win a global war on terrorism any more than we can win a global war on burglary, domestic violence or prostitution. A victory in the global war on terror, in my view, remains elusive so long as one expects victory in the classic military sense. Instead, we should place emphasis on disrupting and dismantling individual terrorist groups while at the same time making the general public aware that the threat of terrorism remains despite victories in taking down terrorist leaders via direct action.
Once the correct goal is established, then we must attack terrorism by drying up the source of supply for terrorist recruits. Historically, economic misery has served as a stimulus for radical ideology. Germany, for example, suffered a 30 percent unemployment rate just before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. While precise figures are unavailable, many researchers believe that unemployment in the critical 15 to 24 age group was even higher. The same situation existed in Italy before the rise of Fascism in the early 1920s. Most scholars agree that high youth unemployment contributes significantly to political instability.
The current situation in the Middle East region is equally as troubling. Saudi Arabia, for example, has a youth population of approximately five million and a youth unemployment rate of nearly 40%. Other statistics are more striking. Estimates of the number of Saudis below the poverty line range from between 12.7% and 25%. Press reports and private estimates as of 2013 “suggest that between 2 million and 4 million” of the country’s native Saudis live on “less than about $530 a month” – about $17 a day. In contrast, Forbes magazine estimates that former King Abdullah had a personal fortune of $18 billion in 2013. And the Kingdom’s education system is also flawed. According to open source reporting, the Kingdom depends “on huge numbers of expatriate workers to fill technical and administrative positions” in part because of an educational system that, in spite of “generous budgets”, has suffered from “poorly trained teachers, low retention rates, lack of rigorous standards, weak scientific and technical instruction and excessive attention to religious subjects.
Nor is the problem limited to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, one of our staunchest allies in the “war on terror”, youth unemployment, according to open source reporting, hovers close to 32%, while in steadfast U.S. ally Morocco nearly 4 out of 5 people aged 15 to 34 lack jobs. In Tunisia, the unemployment rate in this same demographic is close to 38 percent. Algeria fares little better with a youth unemployment rate of 26 percent. It is important to note that the five states referenced above have a combined population of approximately 210 million; representing 55% of the total population of the Middle East North Africa region.
When one looks at the above set of statistics in light of the support of radical Muslim dogma by some governments in the region, it is easy to understand why the combination of economic despair and radical ideology gives groups such as Al-Qaeda a near endless supply of foot soldiers to use in their war against us. And, if we look at history, we know that wars are not as often won by superior generalship as they are by superior soldiering.
So, how do we win? First, we need to de mystify terrorism and look at it as we would any other crime problem, i.e. stop looking at our “war on terrorism” as an epic struggle of good vs. evil and instead frame it as a conflict between those that uphold the rule of law and those that don’t. Taking the above approach allows us to see members of groups such as Al-Qaeda as the thugs that they are rather than as supermen driven by some divine force. Changing the narrative will also change the American public’s perception of the fight against terrorism from a “war” to be waged in the short term with messianic zeal to a problem that needs to be contained over the long haul.
Second, as we would in combating narcotics trafficking or gang activity, the United States must launch an all out assault on the economic conditions that, in the MENA region, fuels terrorism as oxygen nourishes fire. Rather than just using the military, the U.S. and its European allies can use the threat of economic sanctions to force regimes such as Saudi Arabia to liberalize their economies. In short, the U.S. must demand increased economic opportunities in the MENA region just as boisterously as we plea for basing rights for our troops. If we fail to hold regimes in the region accountable for their lack of economic reform, I fear that the U.S. will continue to be condemned to an eternity of rolling the Global War on Terror boulder uphill while watching it roll back down again with each emerging threat.