New recruits belonging to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebel group march in Afgoye, 17 February 2011.

Reuters RTR21PY3 by Feisal Omar

New recruits belonging to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebel group march in Afgoye, 17 February 2011.


by Ryan Clow

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There is a protracted global war being fought. Like it or not, we are in it. It is not a war between the West and Islam; however, it is a war between Western nations and terrorists. While practically different from past wars in the way it is fought, philosophically, this war is no different. It is a war of ideology; both sides believing themselves justified.

Remarkably, some in the West feel comfortable in contemplating half measures in the war against terrorism. In an interview with The Telegraph (14 November 2010), the British Chief of Defence, General Sir David Richards, discussed containment of terrorism, rather than victory, as a ‘best-case’ scenario. This stance is generous, considering the chorus of observers who now openly bemoan a perceived or imminent loss in the war in Afghanistan. And yet, these views seem to reflect a broader willingness to essentially consider the most palatable form of defeat rather than to endure the requirements of victory.

Containment sounds like another failed attempt to avoid a decisive engagement, namely, appeasement. Non-compromised victory should be the only resolution we in the West seek in the war against terrorism. While victory in this war may end up looking different than past wars, the outcome must be the same. One side has to ultimately submit, and one side will ultimately submit.

Their Strategy

For many, Al-Qaeda represents terrorism. While it is probably true that Al-Qaeda is currently the main terrorist organization in the world, terrorism, even Islamic-based terrorism, did not start with Al-Qaeda. It merely represents a crescendo in a violent ideological movement. Without decisive action against the phenomenon of terrorism, finding a solution to the terrorist problem has become more difficult.

Al-Qaeda has played an instrumental role in evolution of the terrorist problem. They have been the architect of an effective strategy enabled by a viral narrative. Their approach is simple, but not simplistic. Key messages have inspired resonance for the idea that the West has created an injustice in the world that disadvantages Muslims.

Western presence in traditionally Muslim lands is given as evidence of this injustice. The only resolution championed is the re-establishment of the Muslim supremacy in their lands by any means necessary. In this way, they have been able to inspire action on the physical plane as a force multiplying effect for their efforts on the moral plane. Regardless of whether this narrative will resonate in the future is somewhat a moot point, since it has created the conditions of a dangerous world that we presently live in.

Hamas militants stand guard near the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, 18 October 2011.

Reuters RTR2SS1G by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Hamas militants stand guard near the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, 18 October 2011.

Based upon this narrative, an equally simple yet effective strategy has been developed. Fighting two fronts, let alone two phases of war simultaneously, is not a desirable position. Yet, increasingly that is the position in which we find ourselves. Terrorists are limiting our option space.

A cornerstone of the terrorist approach is the effort to shift the fight to favourable ground. Taking lessons learned from places such as ‘circa-1980s’ Afghanistan, terrorists have come to realize that a Western invasion is not necessarily a disadvantage. This is especially true when there is no enduringly tractable narrative to articulate our presence and purpose in Muslim lands.

Terrorists have seized opportunities in failed and failing states to develop the conditions that favour their fight. As we committed forces in various places, they leveraged their positions with a steady stream of men, money, weapons, and rhetoric. Their effective exploitation of the situation has caused us to ‘fix’ our forces in many locations, which reinforces their narrative and thus reinforces their strategy. It is an evolution of the old method of attrition.

More importantly, their approach has created coalescence between terrorists and a broader social milieu, providing weight to the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ theme of the terrorist narrative. A dangerous situation has been created. Due to the lack of a powerful Western counter-narrative, there is an open ended strategic question related to our true aim that has largely been left unanswered for many: are we trying to destroy terrorists or Islam?

There is a concurrent effort to open new fronts before the last battle is fought on the old front. Terrorists realize that, unless consolidated, their position in many countries remains tenuous. As both risk mitigation and probably an indication of the intent to progress a deliberate strategy, and with their narrative as their vanguard, they are setting the conditions to establish new fronts.

While one thrust of their strategy seeks to deny the opportunity for offensive action on our part, a more insidious effort seeks to remove the option to adopt a defensive posture. They are also attacking us from within. This reality speaks to fragility of the rationale for containment. Quite simply, the buffer of time and space is being compressed, and without decisive action, we are increasing the risk of having to fight the war within friendly lines. Likewise, an old spin on the method of divide and conquer.

By launching attacks – or simply creating the threat of attack – in Western nations, terrorists achieve a number of objectives. At a base human level, they create fear. Fear festers and turns to frustration, frustration turns to anger, anger turns to criticism, and over/unconstructive criticism generally leads to inaction. On a more ethereal level, their efforts then cause us to question our motives and our methods. Ultimately, this process turns us upon ourselves without prompting the recognition of the true cause of our introspection.

Counter-productive Mindset

Past wars galvanized Western populations. As watershed moments in the modern history of the Western world, they became known as ‘the Great War’ or ‘the war to end all wars.’ Our war against terrorism has made clear the increasing Western discomfort for the general concept of war. This discomfort results in a perceptible awkwardness with the way we now approach an immutable reality of human existence.

The Happy Man Today is the Man at the Front

CWM 19900348-020, CWM 19750046-009

Recruiting Poster for the First World War

Whereas past generations rallied around a cause, and the nation adopted a war footing, this is no longer the case. Probably beginning with the generational shift post-Second World War, it is now the norm to have a highly polarized, highly critical public opinion expressed by Western citizens who are, on the whole, becoming increasingly disengaged from the fight. Our general reluctance to collectively encumber ourselves with the terrorist problem as past generations did with their problems, such as Nazi aggression, leaves the burden of the fight to be borne by fewer shoulders. Becoming unwilling participants en masse increases the risk of defeat.

Western nations now curb the language of war. Barely a decade after the worst terrorist attack on Western soil, few people want to use the lexicon of a “global war on terror” anymore. This is despite the fact that terrorists have affirmed their declarations of war on us, and despite the massive costs we continue to pay in blood and treasure on a daily basis. Allowing ourselves to become the victim of language indicates a shortcoming in our message to the world.

More to the point, Western nations have also curbed our participation in the war against terrorism, while paradoxically continuing to engage in that war. The ‘troop surge’ in Afghanistan, and, more aptly, it being viewed as an effort of last resort, seem to indicate that we may have collectively fallen out of touch with what it takes to effectively wage war. A number of questions have been asked. Amongst the most important: Are that many troops required to win the war or to rectify the situation in which we find ourselves?

Unproductive Methods

In many ways, the Western approach to the war against terrorism seems to be a ‘committee approach.’ We no longer seem to draw a distinction in the roles, and thus, the unique effects of the instruments of national power and their relationship vis-à-vis war. Rather, the attempt is made to meld their effects together across a singular continuum of time. Without distinct phases and distinct main efforts, it becomes difficult to establish or recognize the decisive points and transition conditions required to progress a strategy.

Stop waiting get ready to beat Hitler

LAC Acc.No.1983-30-122, LAC Acc.No.1987-72-106 The Hubert Rogers Collection

Recruiting Poster for the Second World War

The emergence (or resurgence) of the counter-insurgency (COIN) body of thought may have unwittingly prolonged the life of the committee approach, particularly as a rationale for the view of war as a singular time continuum. A transition condition was reached, and arguably passed, in Afghanistan in late-2001 with the culmination of distinctly counter-terrorism operations. By maintaining a presence without maintaining the initiative, it seems we slipped into COIN as a way to make sense of the complex situation in Afghanistan rather than having decisively entered into the next phase of a deliberate strategy.

An interesting ‘groupthink’ has now developed around COIN. Its doctrine is not the problem; COIN becoming fashionable (and probably misunderstood) is the problem. It seems for many that war is now synonymous with counterinsurgency. And, with every counterinsurgency, there is a demand for a ‘population-centric approach.’ While not to be dismissed out of hand, a relevant population-centric approach to the war against terrorism needs to be examined.

Soldiers with Afghan children

DND IS 2011-1026-05

Soldiers with Afghan children

Affected populations are always an important factor in war. Yet, the influence of the population on the outcome of any war cannot be characterized in nebulous terms. The role of the population must be understood, particularly in terms of motivations, overall influence, and receptivity, in order that it can be positively leveraged in any plan for war. We must get away from a highly generalized concept of ‘the population,’ if for no other reason than it seems an impediment to deeper inquiries about the causes of terrorism and the effects of our response to terrorists.

There is a trap in an ill-defined population-centric approach. That is, we run the risk of ceasing to think like ourselves and for ourselves. We also run the risk of fighting our opposition from a reactive posture, rather than from a responsive posture. In short, we will stop fighting our strategy.

There is also an increasing premium placed upon cultural awareness. In many cases, a lack of perceived progress at the various fronts in our war against terrorism has been blamed on a lack of understanding for the culture in which we operate. This notion of cultural sensitivity seems to have entered a state of cultural hypersensitivity. Invading a country, especially on a large scale for a sustained period, creates an abnormal circumstance. It should be no wonder that people do not welcome us graciously, especially over time, and especially when there is no tangible change in the life circumstances of the average person as a result of our presence.

The nature of our presence and the manner in which conduct ourselves while outside our borders will ultimately determine how the world perceives us.

Strategic Re-set

The basis of a new approach could start with defining a more clear and powerful narrative. Borrowing language from Marshall McLuhan, the medium through which we express ourselves would then become the message. For this to occur, a change is required in the paradigm through which we view terrorism.

A revised strategic approach would make a meaningful distinction between anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism. If ultimately successful, both labels would increasingly disappear, along with the predication of our interaction with the world, in many cases, being based upon terrorism. This does not de-value the lexicon of a war on terrorism. Rather, it brings it to a finer point.

In terms of anti-terrorism, the main effort would be to address a number of global conditions that enable the receptivity of the terrorist narrative, such as social, economic, and demographic factors that fester into grievances. The distinction should be significant enough to elevate the phenomenon of terrorism to the level of grand strategy. Western nations would then undertake anti-terrorism efforts as any other global issue, to be dealt with in a systems approach akin to the way we approach economics (and probably how we should think of the environment). An inability to effectively deal with the conditions that can precipitate terrorism is not then explained away as a failure of the war against terrorism, and rather, it makes it a matter of greater human dignity.

The death of Osama Bin Laden and the “Arab Spring” do not draw a curtain on the issue of terrorism. In fact, it places us at a decisive point. While these events are hoped to have positive consequences, there is also a potential for a negative outcome, especially where the ingredients for a potentially dangerous mix exist: core grievances that exist throughout the world not being addressed means that an opportunity to strengthen and evolve the alternative to the terrorist narrative is being missed.

Osama bin Laden as seen in this still image taken from a video released on
12 September 2011.

Reuters RTR2R81X by Reuters TV

Osama bin Laden as seen in this still image taken from a video released on 12 September 2011.

The express purpose of the ‘anti-terrorism book end,’ counter-terrorism, becomes almost, if not, singular: eliminate the most dangerous individuals who choose to remain outside the legitimate fold. In plain terms, the main effort for this portion of the strategy is killing the terrorist. However, as we become increasingly successful in parsing the general conditions (and populations) from the core of malign actors, these operations would increasingly become limited engagements, based upon limited objectives, against a limited number of targets. As we progress this strategy, it would make offensive action a temporary condition.

Counter-terrorism does not simply become a treatise on killing. It actually aspires to less killing over time as an inverse axis to anti-terrorism. The ability to achieve decisive action against the terrorist becomes the measure of the victory in the war against terrorism, while our ability to positively affect the global commons becomes the measure of our improvement of humanity.

A key to this proposed approach will be to the ability to effectively balance anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism, to accurately identify the decision points and transition conditions that affect our ability to manage the initiative before we slip indecisively into action that is not a clear progression of our strategy. Practically, this means efforts, not predicated upon terrorism, to foster strengthened civil societies in those nations that desperately demand it. By doing so, a legitimate venue for discourse occurs.

In order to maintain relevance, terrorist organizations will be forced into the legitimate fold where their ideas are open to true inquiry by the masses. While the potential legitimacy of extreme ideas may seem a dangerous proposition to some, allowing malign influences to remain comfortably on the margins of the legitimate fold is a much more risky proposition, and a more powerful position for a terrorist organization.

Those who choose to remain outside the legitimate fold will then be unable to masquerade for anything other than being enemies of the state, and, in an increasingly globalized world, the enemies of the global commons. As part of this effort, we should focus upon providing help where it is requested, but should be prepared to remove that help when there is a lack of commitment. We must also recognize when a threat is prevalent and be prepared to remove those threats.

Getting from the current situation to the desired state is difficult to envision. It is probably not even possible as the next evolution. Rather, it is only likely to be realized through a series of incremental gains based, at least in part, upon our ability to manage the initiative in the war against terrorism, in turn based upon a more strategic paradigm. Going forward, a nuanced balancing of Western roles that mentor, enable, or, when required, direct the winds of change in the world is the way that the West will achieve victory.


Victory in wars past meant some extreme demands, hard fought progress over time, and some dark days endured in the process of victory. The concept of victory in the war on terror is not the childish notion of winning, but rather, in many ways, speaks to our existence as we know it. Preserving that existence should be only reason why we ask young people to die for us. We therefore owe it to them to approach any fight with the intent of emerging victorious.

Oliver Ryan Clow has worked in the counter-terrorism field since 2006 as a civilian employee with Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, Department of National Defence. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada (MA War Studies, 2000) and the University of Ottawa. He has previously been published in the Canadian Military Journal, the Royal United Services Institute Journal (UK) and the Royal Air Force Airpower Review (UK).

Soldiers on patrol

DND IS 2011-1026-09

Soldiers on patrol