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With the United States occupying the sole position of leadership in the world by virtue of economic and military strength, it has increasingly found itself in situations where the demands of global and regional stability have been placed squarely on the shoulders of national leaders. Faced with the prospect of ethnic, religious, cultural, and nationalistic clashes that are no longer held in check by the two superpowers, and given the increased threat posed by transnational actors, every agency involved in the application of national power has struggled to develop policies to guide them through the minefield posed by the fractious nature of the "new world disorder." (1)
The attacks of September 11, 2001, however, galvanized the sluggish bureaucratic machinery and served as a focal point to provide some clarity and direction for American national security strategy. With respect to transnational, or global, terrorism, the United States has delineated the steps it intends to take, most notably:
* disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations through direct action against terrorists with global reach and against any group or state sponsor of terrorism that attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction
* exercise the right of self-defense if necessary by acting preemptively against such terrorists
* support moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation. (2)
While these steps seem to cover several aspects of national power and the application of that power across the spectrum of international interaction, they do not clearly identify an enemy. In fact, nowhere in any of the literature addressing global terrorism does identification of the enemy proceed any further or with any greater specificity than the mention of al Qaeda and other known terrorist organizations. Whether this has occurred as a result of a political desire to avoid turning the current conflict into a clash of civilizations as envisioned by Samuel Huntington, or because the transnational nature of some of these organizations makes it difficult to identify a traditional enemy in the nation-state sense, the fact remains the United States has been unable, or unwilling, to adequately describe the enemy or the nature of the war currently being waged.
But the time has come for the United States to face the reality that has long been festering throughout the Middle East but has been wished away for over 80 years, a reality that has manifested itself in a global Islamic insurgency embodied and led by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. If the United States fails to identify the war on terror as essentially a counterinsurgency effort, then combatant commanders will never be able to accurately assess the ways, means, and ends necessary for victory, nor will they be able to properly identify the enemy center of gravity. To that end, this essay seeks to provide a better understanding of terrorists through an analysis of the framework within which they operate. Next, based on an understanding of enemy motivations, an analysis of the nature of the war and the strategy utilized by the enemy will place the conflict within a strategic and operational framework to determine possible courses of action. Finally, options to address the threat will be highlighted.
Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.
--Sun Tzu (3)
Much has been written regarding al Qaeda's organization, ideology, and strategy, but much of the analysis seems to be incomplete. In fact, U.S. interpretation of al Qaeda ideology is perhaps the greatest analytical failure facing strategy and policy planners in their war against terrorism. Indeed, the politically motivated U.S. rhetoric to limit the conflict to a war against terrorism versus an ideological struggle of immense proportion not only limits the scope of the conflict, but also perhaps falsely constrains what might constitute victory in the future. Whether guilty of viewing the problem through the prism of Western ideals and cultural mores or of simply taking a politically expedient step to avoid escalating the situation into a true clash of civilizations, the United States has analogized the conflict to such an extent that it may be impossible to view the strategic landscape as it truly exists. As Michael Vlahos asks in his remarkable and insightful essay, Terror's Mask: The Insurgency Within Islam, "Can we defeat an enemy that we are afraid to name?" (4)
In addition to the question above, the central question that needs to be asked is: Does the ideology espoused by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers truly represent a fringe or radical doctrine that can be discredited amongst the greater Muslim population, or does it touch on something much deeper and more central to Islamic identity and orthodoxy? To answer this question, combatant commanders must not only see al Qaeda as it sees itself, but also as other Muslims see it. Although the United States has branded al Qaeda a terrorist network as though it was a cartel of criminal gangs, it enjoys the support, sometimes passive though it may seem, of …