This Week in Geopolitics

The War Whose Name No One Dares to Utter

April 4, 2016

French President François Hollande and US President Barack Obama held a joint press conference last week. At the conference, Hollande referred to Islamist terrorism, but his remark was inaudible on the video that was released. After the omission was noticed, the White House said that it was due to a technical error, and a later release contained the restored wording. The muting of Hollande’s remark may have been a technical snafu, but it reminded me of Obama’s unwillingness to refer to “Islamist terrorists.” And that thought, in turn, drove home a rather extraordinary fact.

Fifteen years after 9/11, there is no consensus in the United States as to what the enemy should be called. This semantic murkiness reflects a deeper conundrum: there is no consensus as to who the enemy is. Obama is not the first president to struggle with the problem. President George W. Bush named the conflict the Global War on Terror, effectively dodging the question of who the enemy actually might be. In his famous definition of the Axis of Evil, he named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in the Axis of Evil may have been valid on some level, but it did nothing to focus the country on the war it was waging. Nor did the concept of a “war on terror.” Even less useful was Bush’s conflating the criminal code with the rules of war. And Obama has only compounded the situation.

There are good reasons for the lack of consensus. After 9/11, as the war effort in Afghanistan and then Iraq ramped up, the United States depended on Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Central Asian states, as allies. Whatever the quality of their support, it was needed. Talking about “Islamist terrorists” would have only complicated matters, potentially offending allies. Neither Bush nor Obama wanted to go that route.

The problem with proclaiming a “war on terror,” lies in defining a war against a strategy rather than an opponent. Imagine some of our ships sunk by submarines and the United States declaring a global war on underwater warfare. Terror is an inherent part of any war. It is utilized to undermine the enemy’s will to fight and to split the enemy public from its government. The Germans used terror bombing against the British; the British and Americans used it against the Germans; and the Americans used it against the Japanese. The Japanese terrorized China. Terror can’t be the enemy. The enemy must be a nation or some other actual entity. It has to have a name.

This line of reasoning brings us to names and some legal questions. It has never quite been clear whether the United States is waging a war or investigating a crime. Immediately after 9/11, Bush pledged to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice. Similarly, Obama sought to have Guantanamo prisoners tried in a US criminal court. Yet, US divisions were deploying in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting what seemed by all appearances to be a war, and both presidents frequently referred to it as a war.

There is a tremendous difference between fighting crime and fighting a war. In the US, the goals of fighting crime are to apprehend criminals, judge their acts, and mete out punishment, usually after crimes have been committed. War is the reverse. The goal is not punishment but rather the destruction of the enemy army. A soldier is not killed for what he has done, but to prevent him from posing a threat. The soldier is a target by association.

Imagine if, after Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised to bring all the pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor to justice. He didn’t, because it was understood that the Japanese pilots were not guilty of any crime. They were, however, part and parcel of the Japanese military and therefore subject to destruction.

In the conduct of war, warriors must be identified as such. All soldiers’ identities, rights, and immunities flow from the uniforms they wear. The Geneva Convention of 1949 recognizes the right of forces that are not formally military to conduct organized resistance to occupation, such as the resistance in Europe during World War II. However, the Convention requires two things. First, the partisans, as they are referred to, must be marked as soldiers. They must at least wear armbands if they lack uniforms. Second, they must carry their weapons openly.

It has long been a rule of war that a soldier not in uniform has no right to the protections of the laws or the customs of war. Nathan Hale, an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, was executed after he was captured spying out of uniform. In World War II, Americans executed German soldiers who were captured wearing American uniforms at the Battle of the Bulge.

It must be understood that the Geneva Convention offers no protection to the attackers in Brussels—like other terrorists, they were not identifiable as soldiers. Then the question is, who and what are they? If mere criminals, their acts and rights fall under the normal legal system, not the Geneva Convention.

The same action may be a crime or an act of war—or a war crime. A US citizen who attacks a US military facility alone and for his own reasons is a criminal. An enemy of the United States—military or partisan—who attacks the same facility and is apprehended alive must be held as a prisoner of war. But an attacker acting out of uniform on behalf of an organization that uses terror as a strategy is a war criminal. If caught, he or she is not a prisoner of war and is not guaranteed any rights other than those criminal law requires.

With the exception of the Islamic State’s seizure of territory, which resembles conventional warfare, all that can be said of Islamist terrorism today is that there is a jihadist uprising within the broader Muslim community, and it is engaged in a low-intensity conflict against non-Muslims. Its targets include Christians, Hindus, and Jews as well as Euro-American secularists. The jihadists also attack Muslim targets they regard as hostile. In many countries, far more Muslims than non-Muslims have died at their hands. At this stage, the jihadists wage war by attacking randomly and unpredictably with explosives and firearms, and their targets are primarily civilian. Their movement has various names and factions, and the lines between them blur. Sowing such confusion is an intentional security measure, but it also reflects splits within the decentralized movement.

The jihadist movement does not require membership cards or dues, or even formal contact among factions or individuals. It is a movement of shared values and beliefs. Its tactics are simple and can be carried out by anyone with a will and a modicum of tradecraft. These people are encouraged by various means to undertake their actions without instruction, which actually increases the effectiveness of the organization. Searching for multiple operatives and combing communications for evidence of intent will not help capture people like the husband and wife team who attacked in San Bernardino.

The movement’s strategy is to destabilize society sufficiently so that the Muslim communities in Western nations come under extreme pressure. That pressure will, in turn, radicalize these communities and create a near-war situation, which however it ends, will benefit radical Islamism. It’s a low-cost, low-probability strategy that plays to the terrorists’ strengths. They have time, and they have patience. The failure of any one terrorist act does not mean defeat of the movement.

The unwillingness of Obama and others to single out Muslims makes sense. But the counter-strategy must constantly grind against itself. Firmly drawing the distinction between radical Islamists and ordinary Muslims is a vital strategy—one that reflects reality and must be used against the radicals. At the same time, it is impossible not to face the fact that there is no marker for radicalism. Not all Muslims are radical Islamists, but all radical Islamists are Muslims. This remains the core dilemma.

The failure to name the enemy with functional precision reflects the monumental challenge of fighting a decentralized movement. But our unwillingness to name the enemy does not help to distinguish our Muslim friends from our jihadist enemies. The price of resulting public confusion is evident in the YouGov/Huffington Post survey released last week that found that 51 percent of Americans now support banning all non-citizen Muslims from the United States.

The Muslim community understands itself at least as well as the United States does. It is aware of the factions within Islam, and it understands the United States’ dilemma. The only people offended by the term “radical Islamist” are those who wish to be offended.

We are waging war, not against a nation-state, but against a movement. We must be clear that non-state actors in that movement do not have the protection of the Geneva Convention. It may well be that IS fighters in Syria and Iraq are soldiers in the conventional sense, but those who struck in New York, Paris, and Brussels were not.

Ambiguity on the part of our senior political and military leadership engenders confusion among our citizens and troops. Obama’s intent may be to calm the Muslim community and to discourage hostility toward Muslims; but while that intention is praiseworthy, it is also failing in every way. The President’s failure to clearly name the enemy and state the legal basis for combatting it combine to create a crisis of confidence that does not eliminate anti-Muslim sentiment.

The constraints on Obama to act as he does can be understood. But the enemy must be named because the unintended consequences of ongoing ambiguity are too costly. The movement is blurred, and its membership is fungible, but it can be named according to its purpose and function. It is radical Islamism, an international movement of Islam that is fragmented in organizational terms yet unified in waging war against Christians, Hindus, and Jews, as well as many Muslims.

George Friedman
George Friedman

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April 7, 2016, 5:41 p.m.

You are referring to a secondary definition of Islamist.  The primary definition is someone that subsrcibes to the religion of Islam.  Either way, my point is that it is important to clarify that all Muslims are not our enemies, particularly because moderate Muslims are the best defense against the radicals (although if you wanted to offer that moderate Muslims do not seem to be protesting loud enough, I’ll give you that).

Sigmund Silber

April 6, 2016, 12:08 a.m.

“Also, there is a major problem with the term “radical Islamist.”  From that phrase alone, it is unclear whether “radical” is used as a term to distinguish between radical and non-radical Islamists”

Very good point. Islamist means “advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam”

Not all Islamists seek to achieve this through violence but they all by definition seek to achieve it. George Friedman is ignorant There is no other way to put it.


April 4, 2016, 8:32 p.m.

This article brings up some good points.  However, many of the analogies (submarines, Pearl Harbor) don’t fit becuase the attacks they refer to were conducted by identifiable, Nation-owned assets. Japanese planes? Japan is the enemy. German U-boats? Germany is the enemy.

Also, there is a major problem with the term “radical Islamist.”  From that phrase alone, it is unclear whether “radical” is used as a term to distinguish between radical and non-radical Islamists or whether it is a term used redundantly for emphasis.  For example, in the phrase “wealthy billionaires,”  “wealthy” is used as emphasis, not to distinguish rich billionaires from their poverty-stricken billionaire peers.  In others words, the phrase “radical Islam/ist” may be seen as emphasizing the opinion held by some that ALL Islamist are radical, the same way “wealthy billionaires” emphasizes the wealth of ALL billionaires.  So the phrase “War on Radical Islam” could be reduced to “War on Islam (whom we know they are radicals).”

The terms “Islamic terrorist/ism,” “radical jihadis,”  “Islamic jihadis” don’t have the same issue because the noun in these groups (jihadis and terrorist) ARE who we want to fight (terroirst and jihadis). 

I think the “War on Terrorism” indirectly does indirectly refer to a defined group: those that use terrorism as their PRIMARY tool of war. Call it the “War on Terrorist Groups” if that fits your mold better, but it’s not as catchy.