After the September 11 attack, most Americans realized that the biggest threat to the nation is the global network of Al-Qaeda. Some expanded the scope of the threat, saying the threat is from Islamic Extremism. The Bush administration further widened the concept to "global terrorism," and America's response became the "War on Terror," while the core objective of the response remained containing Al-Qaeda and its network.
The Bush Administration's approach was tactical, in the sense that the USA wanted to muster the support of several world nations which were facing similar threats of violence from non state players. The Bush administration hoped that this approach might help America build a global alliance to fight the Al-Qaeda network.
Seven years after 9/11, Mr David Miliband, Foreign Secretary of the UK, a key US ally in the war on terror, wrote in The Guardian last week:
It is clear that we need to take a fundamental look at our efforts to prevent extremism…The idea of a "war on terror" gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida. The reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate. Lashkar-e-Taiba has roots in Pakistan and says its cause is Kashmir. Hezbollah says it stands for resistance to occupation of the Golan Heights. The Shia and Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq have myriad demands. They are as diverse as the 1970s European movements of the IRA, Baader-Meinhof, and Eta. All used terrorism and sometimes they supported each other, but their causes were not unified and their cooperation was opportunistic. So it is today.
The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common.
As the generalized approach towards terrorism saw the efforts to eliminate Al-Qaida being diluted, it also paved the way for oppressive governments around the globe to legitimize state sponsored terrorism as war on terror, and contain legitimate insurgencies.
During August of 2004, Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean south of India, witnessed unprecedented mass demonstrations at the capital against the arbitrary rule of Mr. Gayoom and demanding democratic reforms. The demonstrators were dispersed by force by the national police and a large number of pro democracy activists were taken into custody. True to his style, Mr Gayoom declared an emergency the very next day. Dr. S Chandrasekharan reports how the Maldivian leader, Mr Gayoom used Anti Terrorism laws to suppress opposition.
Governments worldwide have been seen lobbying Washington to get insurgency groups in their countries listed as terrorists, allowing these governments to stop funding of these organizations from their diaspora communities living in the western world.
Sri Lanka, another Island nation in the Indian ocean, was successful in getting Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Department of State. LTTE is a rebel group fighting for the rights of the Tamil minorities of Sri Lanka which complains of years of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese. The organization has the overwhelming support of Tamils around the globe, and the ban cut its revenue source. Encouraged by the ban of LTTE by the USA and other western nations, Sri Lanka unilaterally pulled out of a two-year-old ceasefire brokered earlier by Norway, and turned to pursuing a military approach. After two years of fighting, Sri Lanka is on the verge of crushing the Tamil resistance, amidst accusations of serious human rights violations, as well as the flouting of other democratic values.
With respect to the Sep 11 attacks, the enemies were clearly identified: Al-Qaida. However, America spent millions of dollars assisting several third world nations which were facing internal insurgencies from Islamic and Non Islamic insurgency groups, several of which had nothing in common with Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda's idealogies. Instead of declaring a focused campaign against Al-Qaeda, the USA listed all resistance organizations as terrorists, thereby lumping all insurgencies together as terrorists. The US Department of State lists 42 organizations as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This not only weakened the war on Al-Qaida, but tarnished America's image as a champion of liberty and freedom, and projected it as a representative of corrupt and oppressive governments in several oppressed communities.
A more focused approach to eliminating Al-Qaeda by approaching the war as "War on Al-Qaeda" not only would have contained Al Qaeda more effectively, if not possibly eliminating it altogether, but also would have avoided the foul play and misuse of the US policies by oppressive governments around the globe.