The ‘war on terror’ comes of age

The global “war on terror” will continue to define what is possible in politics at home and abroad.

SWAT teams enter a suburban neighborhood to search an apartment
Police deployed militarised technology during the April manhunt for the Boston bombers [Reuters]

Three recent developments help us see the shape of things to come in the next iteration of the “war on terror”. They suggest a future with more, albeit low-level, terror attacks in the West. Domestically, this will mean that security in the name of counter-terror will intensify and deepen, while becoming more a part of normal life. Abroad, the “war on terror” is being universalised and merged with humanitarian intervention and state building, as the recent UN Security Council resolution on Mali so clearly demonstrates. 

The first revealing development is the spate of “lone wolf” attacks. In Boston, London and Paris, disturbed and mal-adapted young men have outlined a horrifying response to a key problem for religious belligerents: how to bring violence to the West in an age of high security.

Individuals who are more or less native to a society, and who conceive, organise and execute attacks largely on their own, are extraordinarily difficult for intelligence services to track, and for security forces to defend against. 

It is particularly galling that the perpetrators of these attacks try to solve their personal difficulties by seeking murderous glory in “the global jihad”. They manage to rain destruction down upon their long-suffering families as well as their victims. But they do make viable instruments of terror.

Of course, they are self-defeating as well as self-destructive instruments. The most immediate effects of their actions are to empower white racists, fuel discrimination against Muslims – and those who might possibly be Muslim – and attract the attentions of the police to Muslim communities. 

Their more sustained, and ironic, consequence is to help bring the occupation it has visited upon others home to the West. 

Colonial origins

It is curious and little-appreciated that many of the security techniques we take for granted in the West originated in efforts to control colonised populations. 

The passport and the police, the fingerprint and the concentration camp, all had origins in the colonies. They later became, and remain, normal parts of the security repertoire that Western states use to regulate their populations at home. 

The recent acts of individual “terror” amount to excellent excuses to further develop for home use the latest advances in controlling populations abroad. Conveniently, there are many former soldiers and contractors who are ready to take up new domestic security jobs. 

A shortlist might include the increased use of private security contractors; increased surveillance of electronic communications, as is now being proposed in the UK; restrictions on freedom of speech; further securitisation of public space; biometric collection and databases; more scanners in ever-more domains of ordinary life, not just at airports, courthouses, etc; and so on with the post-9/11 catalogue of security techniques.  

Empire – 9/12 and the ‘war on terror’

The way in which a Boston suburb so rapidly turned into a little Chechnya, with the police in soldiers’ uniforms and armoured vehicles, in a full-blown fire fight, offers one portent. Police in Springfield, Massachusetts, using counterinsurgency techniques to fight gangs are another. But mostly this will be a lighter-touch occupation than those experienced by Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians, yet more fine-grained and individualised. It speaks of an attempt to normalise the “war on terror” in the Homeland. 

And that is exactly what the second development registers: President Obama’s speech last month about a new, more limited legal basis for drone attacks, a more restricted definition of the “war on terror”, and a renewal of his commitment to close Guantanamo. 

Liberals criticised the president for not going far enough in shutting down George W Bush’s terrible legacy, while Republicans thought he was prematurely declaring victory over al-Qaeda. All should have listened to the Pentagon spokesman who last week said the “war on terror” would last another 10 or 20 years. 

What Obama was doing was providing a more normal, sustainable and non-extraordinary basis for the “war on terror”, so that it may continue indefinitely. 

Our sad future

Guantanamo is an abomination, where men cleared for release are force-fed in a bureaucratised medical nightmare. It is also a millstone around the neck of the US in its foreign relations and a lightning-rod for domestic criticism, as an articulate protester at Obama’s speech made clear. Eventually it has to go. Much better to put things on a normal, not emergency, footing – so that the “war on terror” can go on burrowing deep into the bureaucratic routines of modern life. 

The final dark glass through which we can glimpse our sad future is UN Security Council Resolution 2100, which authorises an intervention force for Mali. Little commented upon, it basically commits the UN to the goals of the “war on terror”. 

Under (rather thin) cover of a variety of diplomatic euphemisms, orchestrated by the former colonial power, France, the Security Council proposes to wage a kind of limited war to re-establish rule over the sovereign territory of Mali. “Terrorists” and “extremists” are identified as the enemy of “stability”, the purpose of the mission is to restore “national unity”, and the mandate falls under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, identifying the situation in Mali as a threat to international peace and security. 

The resolution even authorises the French and African forces in Mali to “use all necessary means” in carrying out their mandate. No amount of human suffering in the 1990s could get the UN to use such language, not to save Somalis, Bosnians or Rwandans from far more pressing dangers than roving bands of Tuaregs and Islamists in the vast wastes of northern Mali. 

That UN-authorised “peacekeeping” forces end up waging war against self-declared jihadis should not surprise us too much. After all, the great distinction between civilisation and barbarism – upon which the entire edifice of “humanitarian intervention” is built – maps neatly on to the basic justification for the “war on terror”: that it is a war against uncivilised monsters. 

And so the war continues. President George W Bush’s demon child, the global “war on terror”, has come of age. It will continue to define what is possible in politics at home and abroad for a second decade and beyond. 

Tarak Barkawi is associate professor in the department of politics at the New School for Social Research, in New York City.