A few years ago I sat at a friend’s kitchen table on a cool summer evening in Dublin, Ireland. I don’t visit there very often, so I inevitably wanted to catch up on Irish sports, the music community, as well as the political scene of a country that, for its size, is well adept at making world headlines.
We had so grown used to things being quiet up in Northern Ireland, that when another visitor arrived in a dark leather jacket and greeted the room in a loud Belfast brogue, I almost felt foolish when asking him how things were in the north. He gave me a quizzical look and responded, “Haven’t you heard? Terrorism isn’t sexy anymore.”
He’d made an interesting point. Violent European nationalist movements in Catalonia, Corsica, South Tyrol, Northern Ireland and elsewhere have given up, some of them long since, the armed struggle for independence. One last hold out, ETA, still menaces, yet has been reduced to an ever-changing group of renegades who have so little popular support among the Basque people and intelligent leadership within their ranks that they can hardly engage in any activity without being crippled by recurrent high-level arrests. Last week it was Mikel Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, the organization’s suspected military chief, and in May it was Javier Lopez Pena, ETA’s overall leader. Independence movements within China have, despite a recent upswing in political activity, for the most part shied away from using violence. Ideological terror organizations such as the Red Army Faction in Germany or the Red Brigade in Italy have disbanded, and Peru’s Shining Path and Colombia’s Maoist rebels are in their modern form often indistinguishable from organized crime syndicates.
The truth is that 9/11 scared the hell out of everybody, even the terrorists we knew and loved to hate. The more extreme Al Qaeda becomes both in its doctrine and methodology, the more it does to take the wind out of the sails of would-be mom and pop terror outfits around the world. As the recently released “Global Trends 2025” report makes very clear, Al Qaeda risks even doing itself in if it continues to push for hard-line violence aiming at “unachievable strategic objectives,” without more actively engaging in charitable social programs to help alleviate some of the more immediate pains of people throughout much of the Muslim world. The message is clear: terrorism as a tactic of asymmetrical warfare is losing in popularity among the discontented peoples of the world, and terrorists aren’t doing much to help themselves, or their art.
Barack Obama has already become the apple of the world media’s eye. And with Kenyans sporting “I voted” stickers, Indonesians lauding the man who studied in “our country,” and even senior Arab leaders marveling at the kind of country that could elect as president a man with the middle name Hussein while being engaged in what has so often been coined the “War on Islamic Terror,” Al Qaeda seems to have dropped the ball. In personally insulting president-elect Obama, Ayman al-Zawahri last week made terrorism again seem so…unappealing.
Obama has a real opportunity here. It is yet to be seen whether his promising message will translate into real policies of wisdom and balance around the world. If he can convince a hopeful and eagerly watching planet that he is a fair player, terrorism will be dealt a terrible blow. If he fails the repercussions could be severe; perhaps then the same old romantic conception that history has shown to so profoundly stir the human heart would gain renewed footing amongst the disillusioned: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori!
Nicholas Siegel is research assistant to the president of the Atlantic Council.