Although the rhetoric on the War on Terror has subsided somewhat since Bush left office, terrorism itself remains an unfortunate reality around the world. The War on Terror was largely a propaganda machine, which perpetuated a cultural climate of fear. As Coaty points out in Understanding the War on Terror, fear-mongering is destructive rhetoric. In the end, too much fear-driven crisis leads to uninformed and ill-devised political strategies. The responses to terrorism should be complex and multifaceted, taking into account the complex and multifaceted nature of terrorism itself. Terrorism has taught an important lesson in global politics and culture: the world is no longer dominated by the modern nation state. Just as capitalist enterprises around the world have learned how to transcend national boundaries and operate on a global scale, so too have extra-governmental organizations from terrorist groups to NGOs. In Understanding the War on Terror, Coaty describes the new, increasingly anarchic, state of international politics. The War on Terror has evolved from an anachronistic foreign policy towards one that takes into account the diversity and complexity of global affairs. The future of the war on terror depends on redefining terrorism, preventing it, and developing intelligent and coordinated responses.
Terrorism existed long before September 11, and long before Al Qaeda. As Coaty points out in Chapter 2 of Understanding the War on Terror, early modern and modern history are filled with examples of how terrorism has been used as a political strategy. Even beyond that, the definition of terrorism changes when one considers the way warfare itself has evolved. Prior to the predominance of the modern nation-state as the primary political entity, small-scale attacks, coups, and invasions could all be construed as terrorism.
In the post-modern sense, though, terrorism has come to mean any organized or quasi-organized use of targeted violence with the goal of intimidation. Terrorism attacks civilians. It is not directed at military targets, which angers and baffles most people. Understanding this fact is a key to evolving a more sensible definition of terrorism and developing nuanced responses to it. Terrorist organizations are generally trans-national ones without the military power or numbers to engage a foe directly, military to military. Intimidating civilians has the strategic objective of submitting the target, and tricking the target into to an aggressive response. This leads to a lot of problems, as the United States learned in its response to September 11. The initial September 11 terrorist attack was carefully orchestrated and executed with aplomb. Yet rather than respond directly with new military strategies, the Bush administration reacted in precisely the ways Al Qaeda had hoped: with military aggression and policy of fear and antagonism that made America look like the bad guy instead the victim.
Coaty explains how terrorism itself has evolved since the days of targeted guerilla attacks on monarchy targets in Western Europe. Using other examples, such as Russian revolutionaries and the Nazis, rounds out a discussion of how terrorism evolved in the early modern era through the twentieth century. In early modern Europe, terrorism was viewed as any subversive attack against the established government. It was not about attacking civilians, and therefore was a far cry from the current definition of terrorism. On the other end of the spectrum is Nazism. Nazism can easily be framed as a state-sponsored terrorist regime. Its express intent was to target innocent civilians with a grand scheme of social engineering. However terrible, Nazism does not necessarily fit the current (and future) definitions of terrorism. This is because the Nazi party was elected by the German people.
Jumping ahead to current regimes like that of North Korea, one can see how terrorism has evolved. North Korea is, like Nazi Germany, a terrorist-type government. Chapter 5 of Understanding the War on Terror shows how North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria have all sponsored or supported terrorism. Those nations are not terrorist organizations themselves. This fundamental difference between being a sponsor of terrorism and a terrorist organization comes down to the role of the nation-state in political affairs and diplomacy. If the nation-state model prevails as a convenient method of enhancing international relations, then terrorism must be categorized as an essentially trans-national phenomenon. It might be geographically specific, or confined to one nation-state. But terrorist organizations cannot, by definition, be national governments. A national government that sends suicide bombers into Madrid is making an egregious error, which can lead to a formal declaration of war between two parties. This hypothetical war would be supported on both sides by their respective allies. Such a model differs entirely from the War on Terror. In the War on Terror, formal declarations of war cannot be drafted because the aggression is not manifesting at the formal, national, level. Formal declarations of war cannot be drafted because it is not about two categorically equal entities meeting each other on a military arena. With a terrorist regime, only one entity is recognized as a "nation," or as a legitimate "player" in the political landscape. The other entity might be sponsored by nations and legitimate players, like an athlete in an event. But ultimately that entity fights only for itself and its own needs.
Hamas is a special case. Coaty does not spend much time on Hamas and the politics of Palestine, but this issue must be examined more closely in the future. The case of Hamas fuses the interests of a known terrorist group with the interests of what coud foreseeably become a formal nation-state. The trouble with Palestine is that its people elected Hamas. All throughout the Middle East, radical governments are being democratically elected. This means that terrorist organizations and governments are growing closer together in some places like Egypt. The consequences could be devastating. The political philosophies of terrorist organizations could become fused with and facilitated by the military might of a formal nation. When a terrorist organization like the Taliban has weapons, they use them. When a terrorist organization like Hamas gains legitimate political power, it could have access to a host of resources that it would not otherwise have. It remains to be seen whether the Muslim Brotherhood and other right-wing governments in the Middle East prove to be kind and gentle neighbors or aggressive in their approach to foreign policy.
Al Qaeda might be neutered, but it still exists. The future of terrorism transcends Al Qaeda, while also learning from the lessons of September 11. The United States itself can be portrayed as a state sponsor of terror in the 20th century. It fomented wars in Central America, by propping up dictatorial regimes. It did the same in Iran. The invasion of Vietnam is another example of how America has been the perpetrator of terrorism around the world. Self-insight and the power of hindsight will help the United States move towards a more sensible foreign policy in the future. The future of American foreign policy must be devoid of terrorism, if the nation wants to set an example for emerging democracies.
One of the most important chapters of Understanding the War on Terror is the last chapter, "Terrorism and the Individual." In this chapter, Coaty addresses the phenomenon of homegrown violent extremists and drug cartels. These are two faces of terrorism that are sometimes portrayed as being categorically different from the likes of Al Qaeda. Their agendas and philosophies, missions and goals might be different. But the methodologies of homegrown terrorists and of drug cartels are the same. In fact, their underlying military strategies are also similar to that of Al Qaeda and other classically post-modern terrorist groups. Homegrown violent extremists are trans-national, and trans-governmental. They enjoy a direct parallel with subversive anti-government groups throughout history. As a modus operendi, homegrown violent extremists use small-scale attacks that target civilians because they lack the…