War on Terror 2.0: Name, target, execute

Western security policy must focus on both non-state and quasi-state actors, intercepting and preempting the viral spread of jihadist terror at its source—on the ground, in whichever nations and regions it emerges.

Daniel Arbess. Credit: Courtesy.
Daniel Arbess

The War on Terror started with the goal of vanquishing Al-Qaeda and became a 20-year effort to export American-style liberties and democracy across a region that has neither the cultural inclination nor the institutional foundation for them. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan marks a final failure of the idealistic neoconservative “regime-change” chapter of U.S.-led foreign policy, warranting a realistic reset of what the “war on terror” is about.

Call it War on Terror 2.0. The target is decentralized, non-state actors inspired by a violent theology of jihad, or holy war, and the governments and other institutions that they infiltrate. While political Islam may not be eliminated from within nations, when its more virulent manifestations threaten to spread across borders, it becomes a vital threat to democracies and the civil world order. Violent jihad must be identified and interdicted at its source, exactly as Congress first authorized on Sept. 18, 2001, using necessary force against “nations, organizations or persons” that “plan, authorize, commit or harbor others” who wage terror.

Who are these people? On Aug. 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised to “hold the Taliban accountable” for its commitment to “prevent terrorist groups” including Al Qaeda IS-Khorasan—the ISIS affiliate in the region encompassing present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and surrounding nations—”from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies.” These organizations, and others like them, use violence to impose a form of political Islam that gives precedence to medieval conceptions of Sharia law over civil laws and global norms. Even recognizing this much is a positive step by the Biden administration over the random-sounding “extremist violence” description of its predecessors.

Let’s remember, however, that not all “jihad” is overtly violent. It is understood that the term “jihad” in seventh-century Islamic liturgy could refer to a range of actions. “Greater Jihad” refers to the internal private struggle for religious devotion. Dawah involves systematic proselytization of Islamist ideology and anticipates establishing an Islamic state. The present-day medievalists add violence to their holy war (“lesser jihad”), targeting whoever are deemed to be non-believers. Other monotheistic religions also include original biblical-era liturgy that offends modern sensibilities, such as polygamy or sexual preferences considered “abominations” punishable by stoning. It’s only radical Islamism, though, which sustains medieval theological violence to this day.

It would be a misnomer to describe War on Terror 2.0 as a battle for civilization; it’s really a battle within many local civilizations. Modern Muslims living in nations that accord Sharia precedence over secular laws do so at the mercy of whichever version of political Islam prevails for their tribe or nation.

While the current Taliban leadership seemed relatively moderate at the start, globally condemned radical groups like Haqqani are already figuring prominently in its government. And only time will tell how many street-level soldiers will be lured back to the more extreme jihadist agenda, with their $100 billion of American-bestowed high-tech weapons systems in tow.

The dynamic is already murkier farther south and west. Pakistan, the West’s erstwhile “frenemy,” has coddled the Taliban from the start for its own purposes. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has historically advanced Salafist Islamism, which has included strict Sharia and the exporting of violent jihad.

KSA is modernizing and even considering joining the Abraham Accords (even if they might have their own idea about who Abraham was) with Israel to confront Iran and the Shi’ite Crescent. But what kind of peaceful Sharia nation is led by a king-in-waiting who personally oversees the barbaric murder of a journalist critic, no matter how distasteful his views?

A similar failure to effectively balance conceptions of Islamic identity and law with the practical norms of modernity exists in varying degrees across the Middle East and North Africa, leaving medieval jihadism to spread like wildfire through East Africa, and more recently across the center Sahal region from east to west, where hundreds of millions are vulnerable to radicalizing streams of Islam. Western Europe is one step away on the map.

It is thus complicated and dangerous for modern Muslims to survive under constantly shifting conceptions of Sharia law across time, nations and tribes. It’s easy to understand why very few have the courage and power of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Emirati diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash to openly advocate Islamist reform, much less Western-style liberal democracy. Nor was the post-Arab Spring Tunisian experiment striving for moderate, market-oriented Sharia democracy particularly fruitful to either secularists or Islamists.

This is nevertheless the moment of truth for Muslim leadership globally. If the two main sects, Sunni and Shi’ite, come to align themselves with the accepted international norms and resolve to renounce and address medieval jihadists, prospects for War on Terror 2.0 look good.

If, on the other hand, Sunnis and Shi’ites remain preoccupied with their own historic rivalries and indifferent or worse to violent jihad, Western nations will be obliged to preempt the spread of jihad at greater cost to the Muslim nations incubating it.

Western security policy must focus on both non-state and quasi-state actors, intercepting and preempting the viral spread of jihadist terror at its source—on the ground, in whichever nations and regions it emerges. This does not necessarily require large-scale ground deployments: precision targeting continues improving as does remote execution using airborne technology (aircraft to drones). Such a narrow mission would still rely on effective communication with reliable intelligence partners on the ground, right down to the neighborhood level. That should be forthcoming with sufficient incentives, positive and negative, to local governments and groups.

Daniel J. Arbess is CEO of New York-based Xerion Investments, a policy analyst, philanthropist and social entrepreneur. He is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and serves on the board of the Global Virus Initiative and Cancer Expert Now.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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