International terrorism was at the forefront of global politics in the first decade of this young century. The concept is actually relatively new.
After the September 11 attacks shook America to its core, the Bush administration declared war on “international terrorism” and sought to enlist others in the cause. This was initially intended to serve as the organizing principle for a new international system. But really it was the same good-versus-evil dichotomy, with international terrorism taking the place once occupied by the Soviet threat.
It seemed at first that they might succeed. The broad coalition in the “war on terror” overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and drove them out of Kabul. But this was the high watermark for the coalition.
There was a design flaw in the war on terror. A global counterterrorism campaign must be comprehensive and rooted in cooperation, but the United States ended up using it as a tool to maintain global dominance. That drive toward dominance included exerting pressure – hard and soft – on other countries to follow America’s lead. But no one likes to be pressured.
Washington’s dubious motivation was only part of the problem. Many began to doubt that “international terrorism” really existed as a distinct phenomenon.
In the era of globalization, we are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. The “martyrs” are no longer confined to the Middle East. They are found on the Moscow subway system and at Russian airports. However, the recent attacks in Moscow and Nalchik were not committed by the abstract international terrorists we are called on to fight. These attacks were carried out by specific Islamic groups from the Caucasus.
Terrorism today can have a global impact while still being rooted in local problems. International terrorism is, in fact, a collection of various separatist and nationalist movements. Each of these groups – in Russia, Indonesia, Sudan, Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, China, India, Turkey or Yemen – is opposed to its respective government and calls for self-determination or the overthrow of the current regime.
Even the unprecedented attacks of September 11 were a specific extremist group’s response to U.S. ambitions in the world, which successive administrations have been pursuing since the end of the Cold War. They see America as a global empire controlling vast territories, either directly or indirectly.
As such, George W. Bush’s attempt to make international terrorism the focus of global politics was doomed from the start. First of all, the concept was overly broad and subject to various interpretations by different political leaders. Most governments tried to use the perceived terrorist threat to expand their power. U.S. intelligence agencies were granted greater authority, while Russia put an end to the direct election of regional governors.
Second, because international terrorism is a manufactured concept, it could not bring countries together to work toward a common goal. Each new country joining the coalition against international terrorism brought its own interpretation of the concept. Again, this was to be expected, as there was no common threat in actuality. Terrorists are not a monolith, even if they do share some motives and means. As a result, the war on international terrorism is at best an empty slogan and at worst a source of irritation between countries caused by the inevitable double standards.
Third, there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to terrorism, because terrorism is rooted in local grievances specific to each country.
The purpose of a major terrorist attack is to undermine a specific government, to make it look weak and ineffectual. Therefore, the initial reaction of the government is always to prove its strength by striking back with sanctioned violence.
If a quasi-state is involved, such as the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of the late 1990s or the Taliban regime, it becomes the target of revenge. Both Russia and the United States sent in troops that ultimately succeeded in destroying the basic terrorist infrastructure in Chechnya and Afghanistan, respectively. But neither knew what to do next, when the surviving enemies fled and became ghosts in the hills, posing even greater danger.
No government has found the answer yet. The illusion of stability brought by the use of overwhelming force fades very quickly, and it becomes clear that the new, unconventional war may drag on forever. Each new act of retribution swells the ranks of the enemy.
Eliminating the roots of terrorism is a long and complex process with no guarantee of success. The United States learned this lesson in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia learned it in the mountains of the Caucasus. America can at least leave these foreign lands when the situation becomes unbearable, although the terrorists could strike again on U.S. soil. Russia is not so fortunate. Russia cannot leave the Caucasus, and so it will have to keep trying to find a balance between suppression and development in its fight against terrorism.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.