What’s Wrong with the War on Terrorism?

By Joseph Straw

Brian Michael Jenkins began a lifelong study of terrorism in 1972 after the attacks at the Munich Olympic Games, and he has become one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic, currently serving as senior advisor to the president of the think tank RAND Corp.  He recently published Unconquerable Nation: Knowing our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, and Security Management Assistant Editor Joseph Straw talked with him about the book, terrorism generally, and private security’s role. (His remarks have been edited.)

SM: You take exception to the term “global war on terror.” What would you call it and why?

Jenkins: The problem is a conceptual one. The Global War on Terror brings too many things together. It is concurrently a campaign against al Qaeda and the jihadists who are responsible for 9-11 and have carried out a number of terrorist attacks worldwide since 9-11; it is combating an insurgency in Afghanistan; it is combating an insurgency in Iraq that wasn’t originally part of the Global War on Terror.

It is also a continuation of an effort that has been going on for decades to combat terrorism, and here we’re not talking about terrorist organizations—specific groups—but we’re talking about combating the use of terrorist tactics as a mode of armed conflict.

And, to a degree, we have conflated our concerns about nuclear proliferation with concerns about terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction, especially the possibility that they could acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore, in this sweeping use of the phrase, we include our concerns about nuclear proliferation.

All of those are important challenges to our national security. They all are intertwined to a certain degree. But to try to address them within a single framework, I think, is inappropriate. And in some cases, we’re going to have to disaggregate these various conflicts and develop strategies that will deal with them individually.

SM: You say that we have spent the last five years “scaring ourselves to death” and that instead we should be realistic about risk. The threat does seem fairly dire; and as they say, we have to be right every time and the terrorists only have to get it right once. How would you characterize the threat we face?

Jenkins: There’s no question the terrorist threat is real, and our operative presumption has to be that there will be, or could be, another terrorist attack. Americans have to realize, however, that even the heightened probability of a major terrorist attack does not automatically translate into a significant level of risk for every individual.

I like to point out that the average American has about a 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident; about a 1 in 18,000 chance of being a victim of an ordinary homicide. If we take our actuarial chart from 9-11 to today, then the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are less than 1 in 500,000. So the measures we are taking as a nation to ensure our security, we must do, because of the enormous impact of these events. But it doesn’t mean that we as individuals ought to live in fear.

SM: You note that in the Cold War we spent a lot of intelligence resources trying to get to know our enemy, whereas we tend to dismiss the jihadists as mad dogs and evildoers, no further inquiry needed. This, you argue, has prevented us from understanding our enemy. What should we do instead?

Jenkins: We must begin by actually looking at what they say about themselves. They flood the Internet and the airwaves with their speeches, with discussions of their strategy, with discussions about tactics. We should be familiar with this because this tells us a great deal about why they think they’re fighting; the messages that they use to radicalize and recruit young men and persuade them to turn themselves into weapons; how they plan to go about pursuing this struggle.

I’m fond of quoting the movie Patton. After a triumph over the German forces, George C. Scott, playing the role of Patton says, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book.” And in a sense that’s a good place to begin. These people are out to get us. They write volumes. They write books, and we should read them.



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