The War on Terror Then and Now: Battling a Mutating Monster

The 9/11 Memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center complex. © john mcsporran (CC BY 2.0)
The 9/11 Memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center complex. © john mcsporran (CC BY 2.0)

Fifteen years after the attacks of 9/11 precipitated the war on terrorism, security expert Noboru Yamaguchi discusses the challenge of responding to terror’s ever-mutating threat to security around the globe.

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On September 11, 2001, an event occurred that profoundly altered the course of history. In a series of coordinated attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda, terrorists hijacked four US passenger airliners, flying two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and another into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. (The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.) The attacks precipitated an American-led international response that the US government christened the “global war on terrorism.”

Today, 15 years later, the conflict continues with no end in sight, as conditions in the Middle East continue to fuel extremism and terror. As we pass the 15-year mark in this war, I would like to highlight three security challenges confronting the international community.

New Potential for Mass-Destruction

The first challenge is confronting the ever-growing threat of mass destruction and murder by a range of methods to which we gave little thought prior to 9/11—including some that remain largely under the radar.

The terrorists’ use of such a commonplace object as a passenger plane to achieve massive destruction has raised a host of new concerns. The automobiles, trains, and airplanes that permit us to transport people and goods in large quantities at high speeds can be converted fairly easily into highly destructive weapons. The transportation networks on which we depend hold hidden dangers, and the same can be said of almost every aspect of our public infrastructure.

The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on March 11, 2011, underscored the dangers posed by our own infrastructure. The earthquake that hit the Tohoku region also triggered a secondary disaster of huge proportions when the resulting tsunami disabled the reactors’ cooling system, leading to multiple meltdowns and the release of radioactive material over a large area. We cannot discount the possibility of an act of sabotage with similar consequences. Given the importance of computer control systems in today’s nuclear power plants, it is conceivable that a cyber attack by a hostile group could disable a plant in much the same way that the tsunami did.

Computer networks play a critical role in virtually every aspect of our public infrastructure, and their role is expanding daily. Rapid advances in information and communications technology have brought artificial intelligence and the internet of things within reach. The diffusion of such technologies could leave us all the more vulnerable to cyber attacks that could cause widespread chaos and destruction by crippling public transportation or telecommunications networks, the water or power supply, or healthcare systems and facilities, not to mention industrial infrastructure like chemical plants and oil refineries. We must prepare and defend ourselves against this threat.

In Japan, much discussion has been devoted to the topic of cyber security in recent years, but the emphasis is usually on criminal activity targeting the financial system or the theft of confidential information. We need to focus more on the threat of cyber terrorism—not merely conventional cyber crime but the use of computer networks to cause physical damage and destruction on a large scale. It is urgent that we pursue measures to detect and defend against such attacks and confine whatever damage they may cause.

Changes in Organization

The second challenge is adapting to the changing means by which terrorist groups direct and manage such organizational functions as fundraising, recruitment, planning, preparation, and implementation.

In the days when Osama bin Laden was at the helm of al-Qaeda, the group had no fixed headquarters or regionally centralized structure. Instead, it had a far-flung network of cells and relied on email and cellphone communications to plan and coordinate attacks. Al-Qaeda’s financial support network, centered on wealthy donors, was dispersed as well, albeit concentrated in the Middle East. In the context of this physical dispersion, electronic communications were essential to the sort of funding, planning (extending to airline pilot training for the perpetrators), and real-time coordination needed to carry out four nearly simultaneous hijackings on September 11.

Within a decade, however, intelligence agencies in the United States and elsewhere had dramatically boosted their surveillance capabilities vis-à-vis email and cellphone communications, making it extremely difficult to transmit the information and money involved in large-scale international terrorist operations without being detected.

Taking over where al-Qaeda left off, the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, has adopted a different strategy. By seizing physical control of territory in Syria and northern Iraq, it has been able to raise revenue through the sale of oil, gas, and other resources produced in those areas, supplemented by taxes and fees levied on local businesses and individuals. This territory also appears to constitute the base for much of the training and preparation that support ISIS-sponsored terrorism. That being the case, the international community is right to place high priority on reclaiming this territory, since doing so will deprive ISIS of its main physical bases and sources of revenue.

The point to keep in mind, however, is that taking back this physical territory will not eliminate the threat posed by ISIS. Recent advances in encoding technology are making it easier for dispersed terrorist cells to evade government surveillance as they communicate with one another electronically. We must prepare for the possibility that terrorist groups will shift back to the geographically decentralized model of the bin Laden era. Good intelligence is vital to the prevention of a resurgence in the old al-Qaeda model of terrorism, and for this an effective global intelligence network is essential.

Smart Development Policies

Challenge number three is to patiently pursue long-term policies and strategies that address the conditions that give rise to terrorism. We may erase ISIS’s territorial gains over the short term, but unless we can immunize the local populace from the influence of terrorist groups, their resurgence is only a matter of time. We must help build an environment in which local residents feel motivated not only to withhold their support from terrorists but also to inform authorities of their movements. This requires not merely good law enforcement but also the development of public infrastructure—including roads, electric power, and water supply—to support the economic stability of local communities. It also requires job creation via a combination of public works projects and efforts to revitalize and nurture local industry.

We need to recognize that economic development and the restoration of public order are inextricably linked. Beginning in 2003, members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces played an active role in postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq. From the initial deployment of a contingent to Samawah in southern Iraq until the withdrawal of troops in 2008, the program aimed to restore stability to local communities by providing clean water and rebuilding hospitals, roads, and other public infrastructure. At the same time, the program was at pains to ensure that such reconstruction and rehabilitation projects generated local jobs.

When people have gainful employment, they are motivated to protect the source of their income. In Iraq, this meant maintaining the basic level of safety needed for the SDF to carry out its reconstruction activities. As a consequence, residents of the communities that benefited from these activities were careful to keep undesirable elements from moving into the area. Improved safety and stability resulting from such local cooperation made it possible to implement more ambitious projects using Japan’s official development assistance. By the time the Ground Self-Defense Force units withdrew from Samawah in 2006, numerous jobs had been created, and the construction of a thermal power plant was underway. This is a good example of how economic development and public order reinforce one another in a virtuous circle.

Conversely, a vicious circle can take hold if the local people lack opportunities to build decent lives through legitimate means. One of the biggest reasons for the failure to restore order and root out terrorism in Afghanistan is the rampant cultivation of opium poppies. A lawless environment works to the benefit of those groups that make their money through such illicit means as the production and sale of opium. And we know that terrorist groups rely heavily on profits from the drug trade to fund their activities. From this standpoint, terrorists have an economic as well as a political stake in undermining stable government and the restoration of law and order.

We can assume that many Afghan farmers resort to poppy cultivation not out of any malicious intent but because they see no other viable way of earning a living. Finding attractive alternatives for these farmers is thus a basic prerequisite for restoring law and order to the region. One noteworthy development project established a processing facility to produce juice concentrate from pomegranates, a major fruit crop in parts of Afghanistan. Other programs are promoting cultivation of herbs, such as saffron, that command high prices. By building distribution systems to deliver these products to overseas markets, we can help set in motion the virtuous circle described above.

Japan Is Not Immune

To conclude, I would like to comment on the relevance of all of this to Japan. From a Japanese perspective, the threat of terrorism may seem fairly remote. Conditions in the country today are not particularly conducive to the rise of homegrown terrorism, and Japan does not present itself as an obvious target for Muslim extremists from a geographical or religious standpoint. But the Japanese people would be foolish to conclude that terrorism is other people’s problem.

From a historical standpoint, we would do well to recall that Japan was once an exporter of terrorism. On May 30, 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army, acting on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, attacked Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) near Tel Aviv, killing 26 people and injuring 73. The perpetrators did not expect to return alive, and some commentators see a link between this massacre and the subsequent perception among Islamic extremists equating suicide attacks with jihad.

The Red Army and other radical leftist groups in Japan carried out numerous domestic attacks as well during the 1970s, including the 1974 bombing of the Tokyo headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which killed 8 and injured 376. Japan managed to overcome such instability and build a safe and peaceful society, thanks both to the determination of law enforcement officials, who took full advantage of international intelligence networks in tracking down the culprits, and to the deradicalization of Japanese politics accompanying the development of our economy and the maturation of our society. In these respects, Japan’s experience holds important lessons for the global war on terrorism.

On a more immediate level, recent events have made it abundantly clear that neither Japanese society nor Japanese nationality confers immunity from the threat of Islamic terrorism. The July 1, 2016, attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claimed seven Japanese lives, and one of the terrorists is believed to have resided in Japan until recently. Any effort on the part of Japan or any other country to halt such violence and bring peace to international society will be considered a hostile act by terrorist groups and their supporters.

At a time when the international community has aligned itself squarely against the scourge of terror, there can be no middle ground or neutral position. Japan must take an unequivocally clear and consistent stand: We will not tolerate terrorism, nor will we compromise with terrorists in any way, shape, or form.

Noboru Yamaguchi

  • Senior Fellow

    Professor, International University of Japan