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Old as the middle ages, but as vicious as ever, terrorism is a tactic that leverages small, spectacular attacks to seize entire populations with fear. September 11 focused America's attention on radical Islam and the terrorist threat -- some even say too much.
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A history of terrorism from the Middle Ages onward, with analysis of terrorist strategies -- and how governments can defeat them.
This article appears in the Foreign Affairs eBook, "The U.S. vs. al Qaeda: A History of the War on Terror."
Comments on (1) the difficulty of obtaining a widely-accepted definition of terrorism (2) the response to terrorism by democratic states (3) the particular case of state-sponsored terrorism. Stress that terrorism "makes a great noise, but so far it has not been very destructive".
A little-noticed declaration of jihad by Usama bin Ladin in an Arabic newspaper underscores the Islamist's main grievance: infidel U.S. troops in Arabia.
Osama bin Laden's attacks on the United States were aimed at another audience: the entire Muslim world. Hoping that U.S. retaliation would unite the faithful against the West, bin Laden sought to spark revolutions in Arab nations and elsewhere. War with America was never his end; it was just a means to promote radical Islam. The sooner Washington understands this, the better its chances of winning the wider struggle.
September 11 revealed the soft underbelly of globalization: trade and travel lanes so open that they allow terrorists to do their worst. The need for greater oversight of the goods and people that flow into the United States is obvious. But draconian border-control measures would cripple the U.S. economy. Washington must work with other governments to make international trade safe -- or else close the book on globalization.
Despite all the ominous warnings of wily terrorists and imminent attacks, there has been neither a successful strike nor a close call in the United States since 9/11. The reasonable -- but rarely heard -- explanation is that there are no terrorists within the United States, and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.
On 9/11, the global jihadist movement burst into the world's consciousness, but a decade later, thanks in part to the Arab Spring and the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is in crisis. With Western-backed dictators falling, al Qaeda might seem closer than ever to its goal of building Islamic states. But the revolutions have empowered the group's chief rivals instead: Islamist parliamentarians, who are willing to use ballots, not bombs.
It can, but only if U.S. officials start to think clearly about what success in the war on terror would actually look like. Victory will come only when Washington succeeds in discrediting the terrorists' ideology and undermining their support. These achievements, in turn, will require accepting that the terrorist threat can never be eradicated completely and that acting as though it can will only make it worse.