The New War on Terrorism: Yemen Is a Symptom of a Far More Complex Mix of Threats

By Anthony Cordesman

Few talk today about the "Global War on Terrorism," and few should. The phrase was always too broad and too ambiguous, and it implied some kind of unity in the threat that never existed. It is important, however, to look beyond today's headlines about Yemen and consider the broader range of threats the US now faces on a regional basis.

These threats are likely to be lasting enough to be "generational" in character, and to extend well beyond this decade. Moreover, they involve far more than a war on terrorism, and involve a wide mix of insurgencies and state actors using different means and pursuing different goals. They also require wide mix of different US responses - and often efforts that will last until 2020 and beyond.

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Failed or Potentially Failing States

The first set of threats the US must deal with is not terrorist movements, but rather a range of failed, or potentially failing states. Most already have terrorist elements, some have nascent or active insurgencies, and some - in the worst case - could come under radical or extremist control and become hostile state actors and sanctuaries. The most obvious candidates are Somalia and Yemen - states whose internal divisions, economic weaknesses, failed governments, and demographics and population growth, combine to pose almost insuperable problems. The US is already deeply involved in trying to reduce the threat they already pose and is likely to be actively involved, or pushed into a containment strategy, through 2020 and beyond.

The potential map of such countries, however, is far broader. It involves Afghanistan and Iraq -- two states where the US is already fighting both insurgents and terrorists, and which illustrate how meaningless the distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency has become. Iraq is by far the less likely, but scarcely an impossible, case. Afghanistan is a case where the odds of US victory are close to even, and whose fate cannot be separated from developments in a third nation - Pakistan. An Islamist extremist "terrorist" or "insurgent" takeover of a nuclear-armed Pakistan seems unlikely, but is possible. Once again, the US is already deeply involved in trying to reduce the internal threats in each state, and is likely to be actively involved, or pushed into a containment strategy, through 2020 and beyond.

These five countries, however, are only the most visible such points on the map. The Arab-Israeli conflict is now tied to a deeply divided Palestinian movement that risks becoming the world's first failed protostate. Gaza is linked to both Islamist extremism and Iranian funding and arms shipments. Developments in the West Bank are more favorable, but uncertain and increasingly affected by both an Israeli and Palestinian loss of belief that peace process can work. A relatively stable Jordan is surrounded by unstable neighbors, and a failed peace process inevitably affects its future stability. Lebanon's fragile unity is linked to the fate of the Hezbollah - which has become a near-state actor within a state, and one that poses its own threat in terms of irregular warfare, and support of attacks on Israel. Moreover, Lebanon divisions also have led to the growth of Sunni extremist elements, some tied to Al Qa'ida.

The US faces a decade of succession issues in the Gulf, Levant and North Africa - and in critical regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. None currently seems like to lead to control by Islamist extremists, but "unlikely" is a very different word from "impossible." Insurgency and terrorism go on at low levels in Algeria, and all of North Africa has regimes with uncertain capacity to govern, critical economic problems, and critical challenges in terms of demographics and population growth. The Sahara is a steadily less meaningful barrier as Islamist extremist influences grow in Sub-Saharan Africa and in key countries like Nigeria.


No country in Central Asia as yet has a regime that convincingly has the loyalty of its people and serves their interests. None are failed states, but all have post-Soviet regimes with uncertain ability to survive and deal with internal tensions and their own Islamists. Again, at the margin of probability, Turkey poses at least some risk that its secular and religious political tensions could escalate to the crisis point.

This mix of threats within a threat is not "global," but it does cut across all of the regional lines that are normally used in strategic analysis, and all of the major lines of national security responsibility within the United State government. It is also a mix of threat where the US may not be at "war" with terrorism, but is involved with no end in sight.

In virtually every case, the United State is already working to deal with extremist and terrorist threats, and - in some cases -- to prevent or contain the risk of insurgency or regime overthrow. In most case a host country is a friend, ally, or at least willing to cooperate in some areas. This means US must, at a minimum, provide aid in intelligence and counterterrorism, and broader aid in creating military and paramilitary forces that can limit the risk of any form of insurgency. It must also provide at least some aid in improving governance and economic development. In no case, however, can the United States plan for any country to achieve stability during the next decade. Once again, the strategic timeframe is 2010 and beyond.

Iran and the Myth of a "Shi'ite Crescent"

The second set of threats centers around Iraq and its interactions with neighboring states. Iran is developing long-range missile forces and is seeking to pose a nuclear threat. It also is developing massive capabilities for irregular warfare that threaten the US presence in the Gulf, its Gulf neighbors, Gulf energy exports, and the global economy. Iran may not be able to close the Strait of Hormuz, but it can intimidate and wage protracted forms of asymmetric warfare.

Here it is important to note that neither the Bush Administration, Obama Administration, or any Administration since the Ford Administration has done anything to reduce US strategic dependence on Gulf oil or has done anything that will do so through 2030 - which is as far as the US government projects in the Annual Energy Outlook issued by the Department of Energy.

Any crisis in Gulf exports affects a region that still has far more than 50% of the world's petroleum reserves, and the Department of Energy projects that the US will be heavily dependent on petroleum (30-60%) through at least 2030). This means the US must compete with all the other nations in the world for petroleum at world prices. Moreover, the US economy is now dependent on the global economy, and on massive Asian imports - many of which are only possible if Asia continue to get Gulf oil.

At the same time, Iran illustrates the fact that it is as unrealistic to draw lines between military threats and threats from terrorism and insurgency, as it is to try to create semantic barriers between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Iran supports extremist and hostile elements through its arms exports, financial contributions, military and other forms of training.

A combination of Iran's Vevak and other less visible intelligence services, and elements of its Revolutionary Guards, train terrorist and hard-line forces both in Iran and outside it in nations like Iraq and Lebanon - as well as deal with Shi'ite ethnic groups throughout the region and in Afghanistan. Iran is also seeking to expand its influence over Turkey and in Central Asia. In short, Iran poses a direct military threat, the threat of irregular warfare, and the use of proxies or allied forces. And yet again, the strategic timeframe is 2010 and beyond.

Syria poses a more complex case. It is still actively involved in Iraq and in supporting Sunni and neo-Ba'athist terrorist and extremist movements like Al Qa'ida in Iraq. Syria cooperates with Iran in Lebanon and other covert operations. This support seems to be more opportunist and defensive than ideological, and Syria might well settle for some form of eventual peace agreement with Israel. Syria has a Sunni majority, and its Alawites are no more actually Shi'ite than Japan was actually Aryan at the time it was allied with Germany.

Somewhat similar problems emerge in the case of both Lebanon and Iraq. No reliable numbers exist on the sectarian and ethnic balance in either country, but their Shi'ite population is simply the largest faction, and not dominant. What the Shi'ites in Lebanon and Iraq do have in common with Syria's Alawites -- and with other Islamic sects in countries like Afghanistan, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen -- is that Sunni Islamist extremists are often more ideologically hostile to them than to Christian and Jews. Sunni Islamist extremists call other sects of Islam polytheists or apostates - the worst sin in Islam.

The fact that Syria should become linked with Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran in the myth of a "Shi'ite crescent" is a symbol of the fact that most of the struggles in all of the countries listed are not tied to any clash between civilizations, but rather involved in one within the Islam world - a clash that not only threatens moderate and secular regimes - but every element of Islam that does not accept a perverted extremist view of what Islam and the world should become.

The Challenge of Ideology, Religion, and International Networks

The final key element of this evolving mix of threats is what we usually called "terrorism." It is important, however, to note that even the most direct form of such threats - Al Qa'ida and Bin Laden - involve far more than terrorism. They are part of a deep ideological struggle for the future of Islam at a time when far too many secular governments and political parties in Islamic countries have failed by every meaningful standard.

"Terrorism" is only one tool for such groups. They support insurgency and work with sympathetic regimes. They want control of every state and the region. They use other movements and proxies - even if they sharply disagree in religious terms. Most important, their terrorist actions are not the most important aspect of their threat.

Violent religious extremists pose a massive ideological challenge at a time when no secular alternative to Islam has broad credibility with populations alienated by failed governance, failed economies and structural unemployment of over 30%, social disruption and the pressures of massive population growth and hyper-urbanization, and the breakdown of education and opportunity for youth in countries where some 60% of the population is often under 30, and 40% is 14 years of age or younger.

Yemen and Somalia may be the worst examples of nations that face the kind of pressures that such ideological and "terrorist" movements can feed upon, but such pressures exist in virtually every country in the vast area that has just been described - as well as in key parts of Asia. Moreover, the "swamp" such pressure create may eventually be "drainable," but not soon - and possibly not for decades. The demographic and economic pressures involved are now so great that even far more effective government and economic policies cannot reduce them to manageable levels for the next decade.

This makes it extremely dangerous to focus on terrorism per se, or to demonize Bin Laden or focus on Al Qa'ida in general terms. The Islamist extremist threat in Iraq only loosely affiliated with Al Qa'ida years after it drove Iraq into a state of civil war. Islamist extremist insurgents in Algeria loosely affiliated with Al Qa'ida after operating for decades. Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula emerged in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in ways that give them significant independence in choosing leaders and carrying out attacks. The extremists in Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan - and much of the rest of the world - are either independent or only loosely affiliated with Al Qa'ida "central."

Anyone who talks about a war on terrorism needs to understand that these threats will be nearly as great if all the elements of Al Qa'ida in the FATA area of Pakistan disappear tomorrow. Killing Bin Laden might do more to create a martyr and a new rallying cry than weaken the movement. "Terrorism" can be contained and weakened. Each new movement can be dealt with in turn. There will, however, always be new movements. Al Qa'ida is only today's leading brand name. There will inevitably be a long series of new names emerging indefinitely into the future.

Moreover, there is only so much that counterterrorism can do. The Internet and modern communications, the ease of travel, and the international bond of religion have become linked to informal networks of extremists that usually operate with a high degree of autonomy and often near independence.

Such threats also will never have clear boundaries. They are linked to disaffected Muslim immigrants in Europe and US, and throughout the world. The low population growth rates in Europe have already ensure that the problem is generational in most of Europe, and the US is a natural target as both the symbol of the foreign enemy such movement hate and the ally of Israel and the secular and moderate local governments they are seeking to destroy. This means that each new emerging movement can find ways to communicate and create new, highly resilient "distributed networks." There will be an ongoing dual between counterterrorism and such movements for the foreseeable future.

Putting These Threats in Perspective

These realities may seem daunting to those who somehow expect an end to history, and some kind of victory in the "war on terrorism" that has a neat, quick ending. The US has not, and cannot, defeat such threats in any definitive final way.

Such expectations, however, are both futile and dangerous. The US and its friends and allies - both inside and outside the Islamic world - have already shown they can contain, defeat, and deter such movements and threats whenever they cooperate with anything approaching effective unity of action. The US has also shown during the Cold War that it could live quite well with a constant mix of complex international threats and challenges that last for more than half a century.

There are good reasons to assume that that the US and its allies can adapt to meet new versions of such threats and do on a sustained basis. Imperfect as they are, US counterterrorism capabilities are far better than in 2001. The US has improved its posture in USCENTCOM, created new regional commands, and restructured its military forces to deal with insurgency, irregular warfare, and armed nation building.

Moreover, rather than fight a clash of civilizations, the US is actively cooperating with the vast majority of governments with Islamic populations. In fact, some of these governments are making far more effective efforts in the area where US efforts will be limited at best -directly challenging extremists for their perversion of Islam.

What Americans - and all the other populations affected - need to understand is that they have no choice other than to deal with such threats in an enduring struggle. One again, today's headlines over Yemen at most cover one current symptom of the disease. The challenge is not to deal with Yemen, improved security in air travel, or any other part of the problem with some quick fix. There is no meaningful exit strategy from reality, and there is no place to hide. If anything, the lesson should be that the US does need to rethink its strategy in terms of how best to make an enduring commitment that balances the use of deterrence, containment, diplomacy, aid, counterterrorism, and military force to meet all of this complex mix of threats - and continue to do so over the next quarter of a century.

Anthony Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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