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A world in the shadows of terrorism

Never have a few people, disrupted the lives of so many

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The terror attack on Charlie Hebdo, the worst on French soil in 50 years and the clashes it spawned, showed in bold relief how vulnerable are open democratic states to the diabolical machinations of a handful of trained killers. Paris, the political and cultural heart of France, a country of 66 million people, and a major world power with a nuclear arsenal, was neutralized for two days by four terrorists, according to preliminary reports.

Never have a few people, disrupted the lives of so many, with such low cost. In recent years, until the shocking rise of ISIS last summer, the literature on terrorism was dominated by the relatively new strain of terror threat cyber-attacks. Huge financial and significant human resources have been allocated to defend against this kind of terrorism that could cripple a modern economy, and to develop offensive cyber capabilities, particularly after major American corporations and key national security structures like the Pentagon have been subjected to successful hacking attacks. But conventional terror attacks, as we have seen recently in Canada, Australia and now France are as deadly and as crippling as ever.

Asymmetrical warfare

Asymmetrical warfare is as old as the age of ancient empires. The ‘barbarians’, (the name given by the Romans to those less developed than them and who fought them and laid siege to Roman cities) and particularly the fierce Germanic tribes waged this kind of war against the center of gravity of the Roman empire, usually using unconventional, hence asymmetrical tools to gradually degrade and weaken the empire.

Never have a few people, disrupted the lives of so many

Hisham Melhem

Until the mid-twentieth century, empires, then powerful Nation-states dealt harshly with the varieties of ‘barbarians’ they encountered on the battle fields, whether they were trying to breach the ramparts of the civilized cities, or when they were in their own habitats. The empires and the powerful states that dominated the West (and the world) since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had a high threshold of pain in the pursuit of their political, strategic and economic interests. Any review of the costs of wars and conflicts from the Napoleonic wars to the Second World War reveals the astonishing pain States were willing to exact on their own societies and peoples to finance even unnecessary wars. These attitudes to casualties and to the human/material costs of conflicts in general began to change, because of the rising cost of warfare, and critical public opinions and free media and the need for democratic governments to convince parliaments that their national security policies are prudent.

Terrorism in a globalized world

Until the 19th century, the impact of terrorism was limited; after all what can you do with a dagger even if you are willing to die. The cult of the ‘assassins’ (from the Arabic Hashshashin, but properly they were known as Nizari Ismailis, an offshoot of the Shiite sect) in medieval Syria and Persia, led by charismatic men in their mountainous redoubts, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain at Masyaf, Syria and Hassan-i-Sabbah at Alamut, Persia dispatched young Fedayeen armed with a dagger to assassinate publicly. They were so brazen in Syria that they tried twice unsuccessfully to assassinate the famed Kurdish leader Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), arguably the most important Muslim leader in the war against the Crusades.

The marriage of political anarchy and the modern weapons of hand guns and grenades in the 19th century elevated terrorism into a higher ground. In that century Terrorism shook every European capital, from Madrid to Moscow. Many political figures were publicly assassinated. Terrorism was so ubiquitous, that it informed the works of the greatest novelists of the era, from Dostoyevsky and Turgenev in Russia, to Emile Zola in France and Charles Dickens in England. The impulses that animated the ‘assassins’ of the middle ages, and the anarchists of the 19th century as well as al-Qaeda foot soldiers maybe the same, but their means, and their worlds were radically different .The war waged by al-Qaeda against the U.S. although it involved a miniscule number of terrorists, but because of the tools they employed, using commercial airplanes as missiles, and the targets they destroyed, the damage was exponential and unique in the annals of terrorism. On 9/11, nineteen young Muslims shocked the world into the era of terrorism in a globalized world.

Altered modern states

The biggest asymmetry between the U.S. and al-Qaeda is in cost each party incurred on 9/11. Al-Qaeda spent less than a half a million dollars plotting the attacks to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and probably the congress. If one includes the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Cost for the U.S. is a least $3.3 Trillion according to the New York Times, and the cost is rising. The attacks forced the U.S. to establish a huge security bureaucracy, and called it the Department of Homeland Security, which has intruded in unprecedented ways on the lives of ordinary Americans. This is a not so brave new world altered by the actions of a handful of people; some of them are still on the run in the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. These are the new ‘assassins’, who can be found in their faraway readouts, just as next door, in New York or in Boston.

It is true that the U.S has so far preventing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups from executing another successful major attack against the homeland, but terror in a variety of forms and levels remained with us. There were so many close calls, and everyone knows that the nature of the beasts means that even the best national security measures cannot be one hundred percent proof. The aggressive campaign against, al-Qaeda in Yemen, al-Shabab in Somalia, and in the last few months the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has kept the war overseas, with occasional visits to the homeland.

From the grave

The apparent connection between the perpetrators of the Paris attacks and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda leader killed by an American drone in 2011 is another astonishing proof of the resilience and the malignancy of the fanatical modern-day terror. Anwar al-Awlaki was a modern version of the old man of the mountain, in that he was charismatic, articulate terror guru who appealed in his perfect English to alienated, disgruntled Muslims in the West to join the cause against America. In fact al-Awlaki is responsible directly or indirectly for almost fifty attacks or attempted attacks against U.S. Targets. And apparently he is still haunting France and possibly the U.S. from his grave, three years after he was dispatched to the lowest levels in hell.

Anwar al-Awlaki has ‘inspired’ people like Nidal Hassan, the U.S. Army major who gunned down 13 fellow soldiers in Fort Hood in 2009. Major Hassan was allegedly a ‘pen pal’ with al-Awlaki chatting regularly on line. On Christmas day 2009, a young Nigerian student named Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalab tried to destroy an American earliner over the city of Detroit. Abdulmuttalab met al-Awlaki and listened to his preaching of Jihad against the U.S. in Yemen.

Threshold of pain

Although, most European societies have experienced repeated acts of terror, whether home grown or from abroad since the Second World War, their threshold of pain has been diminishing. Ten years ago al-Qaeda bombed the Madrid Metro killing 201 people. The objective was to force Spain to withdraw her small military contingent in Iraq. Al-Qaeda won, when a new government in Madrid ended Spain’s unpopular participation in the Iraqi war. In recent years, European countries have shown great reluctance to engage in military campaigns or missions even in the Balkans or in nearby African states with the exception of France and to a lesser extent England. Their threshold of pain in Afghanistan and Iraq was very thin. Europe could not stop the bleeding of Kosovo and Bosnia without the direct involvement of the United States.

But even the diminishing American ability to absorb the pain of human casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two longest conflicts in the country’s history, is a testament that we are living in a new altered state, that what the country used to endure in the past is no longer acceptable today. The Obama administration is so concerned that it could suffer casualties in Iraq or Syria, that it has neutralized itself. The war on al-Qaeda and ISIS and against terror in a globalized world , has exposed modern day democracies – given their transparent political institution, and their people’s high standards of living- to new dangers that cannot be addressed effectively without demonstrating the willingness and readiness to suffer sacrifices and endure pain. This simple fact is fully understood by the modern day ‘assassins’ planning terror in their redoubts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Raqqa and Yemen. Those who have a higher threshold of pain will win and inherit the future.


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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.