WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) — The only certainty over the next five years is that events now unpredictable will profoundly affect the trajectory of the Global War on Terror.
Nonetheless, we can attempt to look beyond the headlines and discern some long-range trends that can give us some idea about what the state of this unconventional war will be on Sept. 11, 2011.
There's no question that terrorism will continue as a phenomenon on Sept. 11, 2011 — and beyond — as it has continued in its contemporary form for the past four decades. It takes nations with huge and costly armies and armaments to wage conventional war, but a small band of terrorists can change the course of history at a cost measured in just thousands of dollars, as happened on Sept 11, 2001.
Even lesser terrorist attacks — like the rail bombings in London and Madrid and still smaller strikes — make headlines around the world and oblige us to divert still more resources to security. This gives the terrorists a heady, almost intoxicating sense of power and confirmation that their cause is just. They are not going to give this up to retire and move to Miami.
Before the Global War on Terror, U.S. efforts sought to "combat terrorism." The verb implied an enduring task. Five years from now, we could very well see the Global War on Terror — a term implying a conflict with a distinct beginning and end like World War II — replaced by a continuing campaign to combat terrorism that combines diplomacy, intelligence, traditional law enforcement and super-precision warfare.
Radicalization in the Islamic world will continue. Terrorist violence is merely one symptom — an effort by jihadist fanatics to define and direct the phenomenon. But al-Qaida is riding this wave, not making it.
The jihadist enterprise will continue to spread because terrorists see themselves as holy warriors serving God in a just war that will last until Judgment Day. Their organization and tactics will morph according to developments — the survival of jihad's central voice, the course of events in Afghanistan and Iraq, hostility between Sunnis and Shiites.
Having played his critical role in shaping the ideology of jihadism over the past two decades, Osama bin Laden himself may become increasingly irrelevant if he remains alive in 2011. His death or capture will mean less than it would have five years ago. Each year, his followers may see him more as a revered Founding Father of al-Qaida and less as the supreme leader of their contemporary struggle.
Terrorists will become more proficient over the next five years as a consequence of accumulated experience gained largely in Iraq. However, terrorist proficiency does not automatically mean entry into the domain of mass destruction — that is, violence above the scale of Sept. 11, 2001. Tomorrow's terrorist may simply be a technically more competent killer. Changes in tactics and weapons will remain incremental.
There will probably be no peace in Iraq by 2011. High levels of violence will likely continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether U.S. troops are still there. Perhaps not formally partitioned, there is little chance Iraq will be unified. And there will be no unity in radical Islam beyond a shared, general hostility toward the United States, the West in general, and Israel.
It is always a safe bet that Israel, the Arabs and other Muslims will not be able to achieve a lasting peace. Israel appears destined to remain under siege in 2011 by enemies seeking to wipe it off the map, challenged by fanatics on its frontiers and in foreign capitals. The Palestinian condition will most likely remain wretched.
Making the world of 2011 even more dangerous than the world today, Iran and North Korea seem determined to continue pursuing nuclear weapons. No one knows how much progress they will make in five years. But if nuclear weapons proliferate, particularly among unstable regimes, the chances grow that such weapons could be used in a terrorist attack that would dwarf those of Sept. 11, 2001.
However, even hostile nuclear states may not be willing to turn over nuclear weapons to uncontrollable terrorists — who could then use such weapons on the states. Traditional strategies of deterrence may find new applications.
In the United States, increased experience in dealing with the security risks posed by terrorists will probably make the nation better prepared to prevent new terrorist attacks. Security measures currently in effect will remain, and the deployment of new technology will gradually increase their effectiveness and possibly their efficiency. But complete security is impossible. Terrorists can attack any time, anywhere, and by any available means. No nation can protect everything, everywhere, all the time.
No matter what happens in the struggle against terrorism by 2011 and beyond, Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world forever, just as World War I and World War II changed the world of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
Yet it is important to realize that the odds of any one of us falling victim to a terrorist attack are less than one in 500,000 — compared with odds of about one in 7,000 of dying in a traffic accident. The republic is not in danger of collapse.
America's response to the threat of terrorism in the next five years must combine courage with dedication to the nation's ideals of liberty and justice. Even if terrorists strike again, the United States will remain an unconquerable nation in 2011 and beyond.
© 2006 United Press International
Brian Michael Jenkins has studied terrorism for more 30 years for the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization. He is the author of the new RAND book, "Unconquerable Nation," which recommends a strategy for America to fight terrorism at home and abroad.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on October 6, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.