It often seems that the more spectacularly successful an act of terror is, the more counter-productive its consequences. This is especially the case when the terror is expressive rather than instrumental, inspired by religion and not politics. The actions undertaken by the activists that bin Laden has trained have been notable for a wanton disregard of human life and apparent obliviousness to context. When he has allied his networks with communities that are oppressed–whether Palestinians, Chechens, Bosnian Muslims or Kosovan Albanians–his terror tactics have often weakened and compromised them. But it would be wrong to conclude that terror is always ineffective. The cases cited had a front line character, where Islamic populations live commingled with those of other faiths or none. In states with an overwhelmingly Muslim population matters could well be different.
Nationalist movements have sometimes used terror to undeniable effect–the FLN in Algeria, Irgun in Israel. This was because they were linked to an over-arching political strategy, using terror to raise the cost of continuing occupation by the colonial power, and because there was a complex of social forces–summoned up by the national movement – which could take advantage of the confusion. The terror operations of Islamic jihad in mixed, secularised or ‘frontline’ zones lack this characteristic since they energise rather than disrupt their opponents, and since the community of believers is not a plausible social basis upon which to construct a new power. The terror actions of Hamas have divided rather than united Palestinians, leading to some Israeli ‘quiet toleration’ of the group in earlier days. Religious terror sets off reactions which, at least in many parts of the modern world, it cannot itself profit from. However in the more unstable and autocratic Islamic states themselves the terror tactics could work – even if most believers are thoroughly alienated by them. In these cases the implicit political project is that of creating a more virtuous and representative state, something that could well seem appealing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and possibly in countries like Egypt and Algeria as well.
These dangers could be much reduced by democratic progress in the Islamic world and the disabling of Al Qaeda, two objectives that could re-inforce one another. But if the US puts itself at the head of a coalition to smash bin Laden comprising Russia, its client states and its most pliant European allies, then this will cast him in the role of a new Saladin and perilously exacerbate dangers that are anyway quite acute. This doesn’t mean that the US should do nothing. Its huge influence over Saudi Arabia and Pakistan give it the opportunity to undo at last some of the damage of the past. If the Taliban’s sponsors now undertook to weaken bin Laden and Al Qaeda by withdrawing all financial, material and human support this would be not only positive but long overdue. But the authorities in Riyadh and Islamabad may well not feel strong enough to do so, or will comply with the policy in a half-hearted and ineffective way, allowing Al Qaeda to escape with most of its resources.
So at a moment when the US president has unprecedented opportunities for waging war his best policy would have been to act only indirectly, by turning off the money flows that have sustained the terror machine, and allow Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbours to take the lead. Bush instead opted to bomb, and to send US and British forces. This has been the easy bit. But some leaders and militants of Al Qaeda are likely to escape and regroup elsewhere, whether in Afghanistan’s mountain fastnesses or, via Pakistan, the wider Islamic world. Washington knows that even if the first phase of the operation is successful in military terms, and the Taliban driven out of the main Afghan towns, the war is not over and the terrorist threat barely diminished–and US success in Afghanistan could prepare the way for future setbacks elsewhere.