Tom Nichols, Professor of Strategy, Naval War College & author of The Russian Presidency, "New Age of Terrorism: Demandless Terrorists,"The National Review, September 19, 2001


Editor's note: The opinions are those of the author and not of any agency of the U.S. government.

There was one thing you could count on from terrorists back in the 1970s: with every explosion or assassination, there was a demand, a manifesto, a claim of responsibility, that left little doubt about what the violence was meant to accomplish. Some of these demands were utopian; others were so parochial that they were almost incomprehensible outside of their immediate circumstances. But at the least, there was a clarity of purpose to terrorist acts that reminded victims and sympathizers alike that these were not merely random lightning strikes of violence, but strategies aimed at using armed force to achieve a specific purpose.

Terrorists in the 21st century, by comparison, are a confused lot. Osama bin Laden's "who, me?" refrain is not only silly on its face — and this constant attempt to evade responsibility, by the way, is what makes his attacks "cowardly," not the bold nature of their execution — but it also suggests that the terrorists themselves may not have a clear idea of what they want. As disturbing as it is, we have to contend with the possibility that we are entering an era where terrorism is detached from any clear strategic goals.

The strategic incoherence of the attacks launched since the early 1990s (the initial attempt to destroy the Twin Towers in 1993 was followed by car bombs in Africa, exactly the reverse of a pattern of escalation) suggest that the search for "reasons" and "understanding" are pointless exercises. Osama bin Laden himself has said that what he wants is to kill Americans and plunder their wealth, and in that he's succeeded. But if the terrorists have any long-range goals beyond immediate gratification from the slaughter of U.S. citizens, then either they do not understand the basics of terrorism, or they've abandoned any pretense of strategy in favor of self-indulgent, self-defeating addiction to violence.

Terrorism, after all, is a strategy used by the weak against the strong. The whole point is to exhaust the enemy without wounding him so badly that he will ultimately bring the advantages of his size and power into the fray. Moreover, terrorism should isolate the opponent, divorce him from the comfort of his friends and allies, and generate sympathy for the cause in whose name he has been struck. In general, the object is to convince the target that life would be more placid if only he would grant the one thing, or few things, that are being demanded of him. This is why Irish terrorists, sensibly, will not do the British government the inadvertent favor of blowing up airliners in London that might accidentally be loaded with otherwise sympathetic Irish Americans.

Now consider the attacks in New York. (The attack on the Pentagon, a military target, makes a great deal of sense, and had it occurred by itself I might be writing of the audacity and strategic brilliance of the terrorists rather than their obtuseness.) The attackers choose to visibly alter forever the Manhattan skyline and therefore keep alive a burning desire for revenge in the United States; worse, the sheer ferocity of the attack is confirmation that there will be no peace under any circumstances. Moreover, their obsession with the symbolism of the towers blinded them to the fact that it was the one target that would guarantee that the maximum number of foreigners, including many from states with no interest in this fight, would be hurt and killed. The resulting outrage from the international community and consequent outpouring of support for the U.S. was, or should have been, predictable, and the terrorists now face an emerging coalition far larger than the one they attacked.

It's been suggested that this is exactly what bin Laden wants, a kind of gotterdammerung between the West and the Islamic world. This realignment of warring coalitions will then result in…well, what? The destruction of the West? The rallying of the Islamic faithful? A reckoning in which all Arab states have to choose sides in a global war with the United States? All of these grandiose hopes border on hallucinatory, and if this is what bin Laden had in mind, then years of education and travel have taught him nothing about the West, his fellow Arabs, or how the international system actually works.

If there is no real endgame foreseen in bin Laden's strategy, then there is no real motivation here other than hate. And Islamic extremists do hate the West, for the same reason the dinosaurs hated tar pits: They know that we are the instrument of their extinction. As long as we remain a secular, tolerant, modern, and democratic culture, they will feel us to be a constant threat to their theocratic, intolerant, retrograde, and dictatorial aims. They know, whether they will admit it to themselves or not, that our way of life is a threat to theirs because theirs cannot compete with it. (The idea that some of the hijackers, those putative soldiers of jihad, spent their last night on earth getting tanked on vodka and paying for lap dances in some dive in Florida is probably enough to make the most stiff-necked mullah wince; imagine the effects of the greater seductions of education, prosperity, and freedom.) They hate us, in short, solely because we exist.

The issue here is not one of religion but of liberty, and this is not only what infuriates the terrorists most but also what prevents them from attaching coherent demands to their actions. Whatever the material attractions of life in the West, hundreds of millions of free human beings will choose to be devout believers in Islam no matter where they live. Far fewer, however, will choose to be under the impoverishing boot of men like bin Laden and live lives of misery and oppression in the name of Islam, and he and his supporters almost certainly know it. What demand then logically follows from this? To be less "modern?" The Western idea that people can flourish and worship as they please without the hand of the government driving them to their knees on their prayer mats is one that maddens fundamentalist totalitarians like bin Laden and the Taliban to the point, literally, of suicide.

It is therefore worth knowing that such terrorists do not have "demands," as we once understood them, and that the "root causes" of their actions cannot be addressed, as so many of the usual suspects in Europe and Canada (and sadly, even in some latte-drenched corners of the United States) would have us do. At the least, it relieves us of any obligation even to feint at negotiations with them, or to pressure other nations, including Israel, to do so as well.

But more important, it leads to the inescapable conclusion that we have been left with no other option but retaliation, then war, and eventually, unconditional surrender. Osama bin Laden must be delivered to Western hands and regimes like the Taliban must be destroyed not because Westerners are cruel or vindictive people, but because we have been served notice, in the clearest terms, that our enemies demand nothing less than our extinction.

The terrorists have asked for nothing, and we can therefore offer them nothing. Thus has bin Laden and his sort created a situation of unlimited war that can only end with the complete capitulation of one side or the other. One day, when this war is over, the losers will think back to September 11, 2001, and perhaps realize that they would have been better off to wear down the Americans rather than to enrage them. At the least, they might consider that at some point they should have just tried to make a demand — even one — and indulged the world in the fantasy that their terror was aimed at a goal that could have been satisfied.