Commentary Magazine


Revisionist History and the War on Terror

To the Editor:

Contrary to what Seth Mandel writes in “The Failed War on the ‘War on Terror’” [November 2013], jihad is not the motivation for Islamic terrorists, it is the campaign—a campaign that is ironically somewhat analogous to the War on Terror itself. The terrorists’ motivation is to raise the cost to the target above the relative level of interest in a particular dispute in order to effect a desired policy change (such as removal of Western, primarily U.S., forces from the Islamic world). There is a solid argument, made by academics such as Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could fall into the category of “provocative terrorism,” aimed at fomenting domestic revolution through the radicalization of domestic constituencies by drawing a disproportionate or misguided response from the target (which the United States has provided in spades). Suddenly the crazy guys who preached the evil neo-imperialist agenda of the West didn’t seem so crazy after the upsurge in “collateral damage.”

Tom Wynter
Sydney, Australia

Seth Mandel writes:

Tom Wynter objects to my classification of jihad as the motivation for Islamist terror attacks, instead claiming jihad is simply an act and its motivation is both more banal and practical, its success graded on the military reaction it inspires. He suggests 9/11 succeeded precisely for this reason. But I find this unconvincing. It ignores the jihadists’ own statements, the spiritual basis for reward and punishment in Islamic theology, and the success of holy war as a recruiting tool. Mr. Wynter, like so many in the Western world, prefers to graft rationality and realpolitik onto what is at root a religious template.

But I think Mr. Wynter’s argument fails on his terms as well as mine. Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 propaganda tended to paint his enemies—including the United States—as paper tigers, cowards in camouflage. The success of his attack on 9/11 was used as a recruiting tool before the American military response, and he in fact changed course after the invasion of Afghanistan and the post-9/11 antiterror infrastructure turned the tide against him, claiming that the military response was really his aim. Terrorism analysts rolled their eyes at this shameless revisionism, and rightly so.

Mr. Wynter mentions the scholarship of Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, presumably a reference to their joint 2006 paper The Strategies of Terrorism. It’s true that “provocation” is one of the authors’ five proposed goals for terrorist attacks, but they don’t seem to think that was the motivation for 9/11. As prominent examples of successful acts of terrorism, they offer 9/11 because the United States subsequently pulled soldiers out of Saudi Arabia and the Beirut barracks bombing because of the American military withdrawal that followed.

Of course the United States should minimize collateral damage. But even when mistakes are made, they do nothing to rationalize, let alone justify, the acts of terrorism that preceded them.




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