In September 1972, the Black September group, a Palestinian terrorist organization, kidnapped and murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich,shocking the world. Nearly three decades later, al Qaeda operatives mounted a horrific attack on American soil, killing almost 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Modern terrorism is a violent and indiscriminate action, popularized following the Second World War, that enables relatively inefficient, small, and weak militant groups or individuals to gain international attention with few resources or actual power. The political ideologies that inspire an individual or collective organization to commit terrorism are found past the far fringes of liberalism’s borders: radicalism and conservatism. Terrorism remains an evolving global security threat, but our current solutions of combating terror fails to address the underlying causes of extremism.
Terrorism has always existed in some form throughout history. Cold War rivalries obscured terrorist security threats and the evolution of far-right extremism in the Middle East. Yet decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, America’s foreign policy still lacks a coherent framework that addresses these harmful ideologies. The underlying issues that can reduce extremism must be incorporated into America’s counterterrorism policy. First, America must reaffirm its support for poverty reduction through an ethical, transformative globalization policy enforced by the United Nations. Second, the UN must be granted greater authority to aggressively counter exploitative multinational corporations and corruption in state governments. America cannot repeat the same mistakes of prior policymakers — a new counterterrorism strategy that contains a long-term approach towards economic development can and will counter extremist networks.
Cold War Leftists
Radical leftists during the Cold War crafted an array of terrorist tactics that were later utilized by modern terrorist groups. The Cold War period and the fallout from Nazism brought an East versus West mentality of armed conflict across the world with both superpowers on opposing sides: the United States and the Soviet Union. The ‘you are either with us or against us’ style of international relations split states into capitalists (with) or communists (against) camps. What formed from the fight for hegemonic power between capitalism and communism was the creation of influential terrorist organizations and client states with plentiful sources of income from their superpower backers. One such proxy group, Black September, named after the Jordanian September 1970- July 1971 battle against armed PLO militants, embraced Communism and thus received funding and training from the Soviet Union to counter the ‘Zionist bulldog’ of the Middle East, Israel. Black September organized kidnappings and targeted assassinations, fueling instability and inspiring other present-day terrorist groups to adopt similar tactics.
Present-day Islamist terrorists also borrowed heavily from groups such as the the German Red Army Faction (RAF). The RAF would also directly train with Black September and the PLO to commit terrorist attacks and hijackings in Europe, particularly in West Germany, Italy (the Red Brigades), and France. The RAF pursued a diverse range of terrorist activities, including the assassination attempt on General Hague, the kidnapping and later murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer (a powerful industrialist with a Nazi past), and the hijacking of 85 civilian planes in 1969 alone, both in Europe and the Middle East. General Alexander Sakharovsky, head of the Soviet KGB, who was responsible for directing, funding, and training the RAF, the PLO and Black September, once stated that “Airplane hijacking is my own invention.” The West, like the Soviets, also played a part in creating the roots of modern terrorism through the funding of groups like the Afghan Mujahideen. Members of these groups would later form the Taliban and fill the ranks of al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda And What’s Next
al Qaeda adopted terrorist tactics from Soviet-era organizations, including bombings and plane hijackings, but on a far more violent scale, executing their attacks with deadly efficiency and brutality. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States assumed the role of hegemonic superpower and developed a sense of invulnerability toward post-Cold War security threats. Meanwhile, the al Qaeda network, empowered by the Soviet-Afghan and Yugoslavia conflicts, cemented its credibility as the leading Jihadist organization with the power and reach to commit terrorist attacks across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. al Qaeda was responsible for several notable terrorist attacks prior to 9/11, including the 1992 Yemen Hotel bombing, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 U.S. Nairobi Embassy bombing, and the USS Cole bombing. While al Qaeda’s reach expanded, the U.S. downplayed the terrorist threat and assigned counterterrorism responsibilities to a limited Special Operations community without large-scale military involvement. This decision was a mistake. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was awoken to a new reality on September 11th, 2001 when a group of 19 al Qaeda operatives hijacked and weaponized four commercial planes, forever changing history.
Just a few months after the attacks, al-Qaeda’s base of operations in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan became the new battleground against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, both groups were subsequently thrown out of power and forced to flee into the mountainous areas on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The occupation of Afghanistan was a medium military intervention primarily focused on destroying al-Qaeda and eliminating any safe havens for the group and its supporters.
After two years of fighting in Afghanistan, American forces invaded Iraq, galvanizing the Islamist Jihadist movement to fight a bloody war against the ‘Crusader’ United States. The mistakes that empowered the Islamists were the false narrative of the Iraq War and the incomplete nation-building mission. Additionally, the new social media age and the mass spread of rhetoric and false information allowed for greater recruiting capabilities for al-Qaeda and those sympathetic to their cause.
ISIL And Islamist Resurgence: Post Iraq War
The U.S. failed to reconcile the ethnic and religious tension in Iraq before taking a swift exit in 2011. The previously-oppressed Shia Iraqi citizens monopolized their power, excluding Sunni opposition groups and implementing policies that deepened resentment and hate towards the newly formed government and the United States. The Sunni Jihadi groups across the border in Syria were emboldened by their success against the Assad Regime and exploited ethnic tensions and hate toward the Iraqi government, launching the most well-known terrorist group of the modern era: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. ISIL exploited the fractured political climate in Iraq by capturing large swaths of Iraqi land and connecting it with their territorial gains in Syria, establishing the Islamic State caliphate.
ISIL is still fighting a multi-front war with the United States, Iraq, Iran, Russian, Syrian, Kurdish groups, and several state-sponsored militias. The ability for ISIL to recruit tens of thousands of foreign fighters, commit devastating terrorist attacks, such as the November 2015 Paris attack, and govern vast territories shocked the entire world, hardened anti-terrorism efforts, yet also inspired unfounded racism toward Muslims. The Syrian civil war, exacerbated by the brutality of ISIL and Assad’s army, has prompted the most significant refugee crisis in modern history, consisting of over 13 million people. Millions of refugees are held in camps in neighboring states like Jordan and Turkey, and hundreds of thousands are taking refuge in Europe and North America.
The backlash of religious extremists also took a toll on the political climate across the globe. The volume of refugees escaping the conflict to the West have exacerbated and united the far right groups, which lead to many anti-refugee, far-right, or racist governments taking power in places like Italy, Austria, the Brexit Vote, and the Alt-Right in the United States. That resurgence of the far right across the world has not been seen in such popular movement since the Nazi party in 1933 Germany, creating even further tribalist camps, division, and isolation in both the west and the ‘Muslim world’.
Moreover, ISIL established a global terrorist organization with multiple affiliates, including Boko Haram in Africa and ISIL Philippines in Southeast Asia. Jihadist groups from across the world have also pledged allegiance to ISIL. ISIL set into motion a process that, like September 11th, is transforming the course of history. The cycle of violence and terrorism has transitioned from leftist terrorist groups toward Islamic Jihadists, but little attention has been paid to the underlying causes that push individuals to political or religious extremism.
Combating Terrorism Through Development
From the leftist terrorist of the Cold War to the far-right Jihadist, two essential characteristics of all terrorist actors are motivations and grievances. All terrorist groups see their role as being for justice, fighting what they view as an oppressive government, such as the “Imperial West,” and corruption of their social existence. Would Islamists hold power in states such as Saudi Arabia if it were not for the division of the Middle East in the name of destroying the Ottoman Empire, or the many disastrous Cold War-era proxy conflicts between capitalism and communism across the global south? Our past foreign policy of destabilizing, exploiting and empowering corrupt, oppressive states across the world has generated a plethora of present-day security threats and our inaction to address the base-level causes of radicalization leaves our national security at risk.
Additionally, since the end of the Vietnam war, the United States, as a global leader, has failed to follow through with actions such as the Iraq war. That is not to say that we should have invaded Iraq, but after doing so, the only course of action that should have been taken was to stabilize the state before exiting. As Ret. Gen. Colin Powell said: “you break it, you own it”, meaning if one takes an action, one must follow through with a clear end goal. The policy mistakes and ‘failure to own it’ of the Iraq War left the U.S. in a quagmire in the Middle East and aided the formation of ISIL. If our counterterrorism strategies are not reevaluated, our next generation of security threats will be far more frightening if we continuously refuse ownership of the problems that we create.
Radicalism is derived from a place of extreme poverty, corruption, and exploitation of land and labor. That means a solution to terrorism also lies within the responsibilities of multinational organizations like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. With the help of world powers and regional powers, multinational organizations must be given the support to promote and enforce ethical free trade agreements and new international labor laws requiring companies to pay a proportional minimum wage to workers. These institutions must be granted the ability to take on corruption at the international level and the enforcement measures needed to prevent exploitative policies. Firstly, these institutions should be granted the power to arrest leaders wanted for genocide and ethnic cleansing, such as tackling the case of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted by the International Criminal Court for his direct support of the Arab Janjaweed terrorist organization and its role in the Darfur genocide. Second, these institutions must commit to the absolute destruction of all chemical weapons and stockpiles when discovered and used on civilians, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Thirdly, multinational organizations must be granted greater ability to hold all world leaders, including those in the West, responsible for war crimes, exploitation, and the violation of international norms as set by the global community. No single nation, regardless of its military or economic power, should hold immunity from what it prescribes others states to do.
On the micro-level, bottom-up approaches for development should be encouraged, such as microlending availability to women and men with small business, directing international aid for communities, and holding companies and states responsible in developing nations if they exploit resources and minority groups. The corruption and profiteering of foreign oil firms, for example, illustrate a cycle of exploitation and violence that yields resentment, hostility, and armed insurrection. Oil firms in the Nigerian River Delta, for instance, exploit the land for its oil without the monetary or social benefits returning to the people who are living in these regions. These companies rent the land while the Nigerian government profits from these rent payouts without any oversight or dispersal of profits toward infrastructure or development. The local population is forced into extreme poverty and a violent existence. We as a global community need to be proactive, fair, and hold all states, corporations, and entities to the same equal standard regardless of power and money. Terrorism and unconventional conflicts will continue to shape the existence of modern states as it has our past if serious changes are not incorporated into America’s counterterrorism policy. If leading states, the international community, and multinational governmental organizations fail to take concrete steps in addressing the underlying cause for individuals and groups to fall victim to extreme ideologies than we will continue to see further hardline organizations like ISIL will emerge with greater frequency. International and cohesive development of the Global South and of historically exploited states with a bottom-up approach will yield a decrease in global security issues and will further unify the global community.