The effects of the fight against terrorism in a domestic and global security context

This essay will offer a brief historical context of the events that triggered the current War against Terrorism. It will then explain what effects the response to terrorism has had, both indirectly and directly. The essay will finally attempt to ascertain whether or not the War on Terrorism has actually made the world a safer place or not. The essay will concentrate on post-September 11th America, as this attack and the subsequent consequences are what is most commonly associated with the war against terrorism.

Brief overview of terrorism

Terrorism is by no means a new concept. As early as 350 years BCE, the Greek historian Xenophon described how psychological warfare had proven effective. The gunpowder plot conceived by Guy Fawkes in 1605 was a famous attempt at an act of terrorism. It has been argued that the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution could not have happened without terrorism-style tactics. (TF 2004)

Through the post-world-war II era, terrorism has caused several groups to forcefully inject their monikers into the public consciousness: The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers and many other organisations have caused notoriety and fear wherever their actions have taken place. Up until the 1990s, the putsches have mostly occurred between neighbouring countries or within the country of the terrorists’ origin.

Although the United States of America had on the whole been spared from terrorism attacks, this changed abruptly in 1993, when the World Trade Centre was bombed for the first time. The attack on the World Trade Centre caused president Bill Clinton to authorise new laws and regulations permitting pre-emptive strikes against possible terrorists in 1995. In the years following this, several attacks were made on US embassies and other buildings with a high density of US citizens on non-US soil. In 1996, Osama Bin Laden declared war against American military personnel in all Arab countries, a situation that gradually escalated until Bin Laden called for a worldwide war in 1998. In the years following this, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) progressively increased the alert levels on Bin Laden, and several new laws designed to deal with terrorism were launched. On September 11th 2001, however, it was tragically proved that the measures were inadequate, when three planes were hi-jacked. Two of these passenger liners crashed into the two World Trade Centre towers, killing nearly 3000 people. (US News & World Report 2004)

Counter-terrorism in the United States of America

After September 2001, the world was a distinctly different place in terms of global security. When the US realised that they were vulnerable, a score of new laws (including the much-discussed Patriot Act and the set-up of the Department for Homeland Security, the first major restructuring in the US government in more than 50 years) and policies were introduced. This has had a profound effect on the way Americans lead their daily lives: The attacks on September 11 exploited the American belief that liberty is one of the most important and most basic of human rights. Post September 11th 2001, the United States has been more than willing to give up a lot of the liberty so deeply ingrained into its culture, in exchange for security – or at least the perception of heightened security. (The Economist 2003)

Many American citizens have claimed that the constant threat of being searched on the streets scares them. Once the Patriot Act was passed, warrants were no longer required, where an association or suspicion of terrorist activity is present. In principle, this is not an issue to law-abiding citizens, but the Patriot Act controversially introduced Guilt by Association, which means that it is possible to be castigated for crimes that one has no direct influence over. This means that if Mr Smith is a good friend of Mr Jones, Mr Charles has Mr Jones in his address book, and Mr Charles is suspected of funding terrorist organisations (even funding a school ran by the Basque ETA would qualify as “funding terrorist organisations”), Mr Smith could theoretically be placed under surveillance. (The Economist 2003)

There is a trade-off between personal liberty and security. Not everybody believes the trade-off made is a defensible sacrifice: Some American civil rights groups have pointed out that acts of terrorism affect a minuscule percentage of a population directly, while a law like the Patriot Act impinges on every single citizen. Some suggest that this means that the counter-terrorism laws have a larger domestic impact on “the American way of life” than the threat of terrorism itself.

Global Counter-Terrorism

After the initial shock of the September 11 attacks wore off, the US military mobilised and attacked Afghanistan, as this was known to be the base of Al Quaida. When the inertia of the war in Afghanistan was starting to fade (without a trace of Osama Bin Laden), the first few steps toward the controversial war in Iraq were made.

The effects of the war in Afghanistan are somewhat unclear – many considered it a valid response to the September 11th attacks, but the 9000 civilians who were killed or seriously injured did not contribute positively to the Arab world view of American military operations. The war in Iraq, however, may have a very different impact. Although there is little doubt that Saddam Hussein was once a ruthless and violent dictator, the three reasons used to go to war were sketchy: The first reason was the fear of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the second reason was self defence, as it was famously claimed that Iraq could have weapons ready for deployment against British and US troops within 45 minutes. The final reason was humanitarian intervention.

In terms of international law, the reasons behind the war raised a few eyebrows: The use of force against Iraq was not authorised by existing UN Security Council resolutions. This meant that the Coalition (United States and United Kingdom, primarily) acted on its own initiative, rather than under international cooperation. When the US claimed they were acting in pre-emptive self-defence, they used an application of “self defence” which differed from the prevailing understandings of the self-defence laws. Although these laws may be changed at some time in the near future: Traditionally, for self-defence laws to apply, one would have to wait for a first strike, or immediate threat of an attack. However, with the advent of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapons (also known as weapons of mass destruction), “Waiting for a first strike” is no longer a viable option, because such an attack could have devastating consequences. As the UN secretary general Kofi Annan put it in October of 2001: “It is hard to imagine how the tragedy of September 11 could have been worse. Yet the truth is that a single attack involving a nuclear or biological weapon could have killed millions” (MacAskill 2001)

Finally, when the previous two arguments failed, the United States, backed by the British government, claimed that the attack on Iraq had to take place, on the base of humanitarian intervention against Hussein’s regime. However, “humanitarian intervention is not referred to in the UN Charter as being an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force.” (Sifris 2003), and is therefore looked down upon, as the war was eventually started without a UN mandate – and to a mixed response around the world.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – especially the latter – give the distinct impression that the United States government is not interested in international cooperation; That they will do what they believe is right, regardless of what the rest of the world believes. In June of 2003, Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote that

"The 'real reason' for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world." (Friedman, quoted in Lemann 2003)

If Friedman is correct, the Arab world has a good reason to be angry. Attacking a country because one can is hardly a good way to make friends. An attack on Iraq effectively showed the US military firepower, which, it seems, was the purpose of the exercise. President George W Bush said, "We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness." (Bush 2003) If this is true, however, why have weaker countries such as Norway not been victims of terrorist attacks? It is worth considering if there may perhaps be a deeper reason for the terrorist attack on the US on September 11th. In an essay entitled Why do they hate us so much, Scott Bidstrup highlights the many hypocrisies and inconsistencies in US foreign policies, and predicts that if the US do not modify their foreign policies, the terrorist attacks will continue:

Our glaring hypocrisy, which is continuing to be an irritant to the rest of the world, will continue to foster terrorist movements around the world. They will continue to attack American as well as foreign interests. They'll use the many examples of our continuing hypocrisy in the recruitment of new suicide bombers, technical experts and subversives. (Bidstrup 2003)

If we accept that Bidstrup is at least scraping the surface of the real problem – that the cause of terrorism is not that the United States is weak, but that the terrorists feel that the only way to get their point across is to take desperate measures – Bush’ attacks on two Arab countries may prove rather dangerous, as a war in neighbouring countries may put the limelight back on America – and the country’s somewhat chequered past – back on the agenda. It may be perceived that, instead of laying low and trying to improve their image, the US goes all-out to remind the Arab world exactly what parts of US policy they dislike, further inflaming the situation and possibly causing further terrorist attacks, rather than preventing them.

The internment of prisoners of war in Camp X-Ray, and later camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay military base on Cuba has raised further questions, not only from the Arab world, but also from America’s closest ally, Great Britain. When a country enters another country on humanitarian grounds, one cannot ignore the hypocrisy of ignoring the Geneva Convention, in the form of detaining prisoners of war for several years, in bad conditions on a prison camp in Cuba. The recent allegations of torture by British and American soldiers in prisons in Iraq further inflames the situation, and may have caused irreparable further damage to the reputations of the two countries. This may in itself be another incentive to initiating acts of terrorism.


Terrorism has been with us in a large portion of recorded history – from ancient times via the raping and pillaging Vikings to today’s technology-savvy terrorists in their tightly organised cell-structure with ties to organised crime of all types. The fight against terrorism, however, has never been as intense or as serious as it is today.

As the Patriot Act continues to restrain civil liberties in the US, and the British government introduce pilot programmes on mandatory identification card schemes, it seems as if the citizens get no choice: Indeed, it appears we have reached a situation where questioning the logic behind restrictions of liberties is the same as admitting you have something to hide – and under the new legislation, that could conceivably be enough to be put under surveillance. As an Orwellian society emerges, one can only wonder how the new government mandates could be abused.

Although there is no doubt that fighting terrorism is a noble cause, the way America (and their trusty allies) have gone about picking their fights may easily come back to haunt the nations involved; the lack of respect for international agreements for fellow nations is bound to generate a response in one form or another.

While it is easy to criticise the nations fighting terrorism for being uncouth, perhaps even reckless in their choices, it is difficult to offer advice on how the situation could have been improved. Not fighting terrorism is not a politically viable option (a president accepting an attack on his country without responding would not retain his position for long), and until someone manages to come up with a better solution than the one being applied in 2004, it would appear the unease felt with the way terrorism is currently dealt with will remain a necessary evil for the immediate future.



S Bidstrup (2003) Why do they hate us so much?

G. Bush (2003) Address of the President to the Nation, September 7 2003

The Economist (March 8, 2003) A question of freedom; Civil liberties and terrorism. The Economist

N. Lemann.(2003) Real Reasons. Article, Sept 22, 2003 p81
New York: The New Yorker

E. MacAskill (2 Oct 2001) Giuliani urges UN action. Article.
London: The Guardian

R Sifris (2003) Operation Iraqi freedom: United States v. Iraq - the legality of the war.
Melbourne Journal of International Law, Oct 2003 v4 i2 p521

TF (Terrorism Files) (2004) The History of Terrorism.

U.S. News & World Report, (April 5, 2004) The Trail of Terror.
US News and World Report vol 136 issue 11, p22