Mitt Romney has repeatedly argued that even though Osama Bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda remains a major threat to American security, while President Obama has described Al Qaeda’s leadership as decimated. Who’s right?
In fact, they are both right. Al Qaeda’s leadership is decimated, and the Obama team deserves much credit. But Al Qaeda has also splintered into affiliates and offshoots that keep bouncing back, like a Whac-A-Mole game. Al Qaeda can be repressed as Mr. Obama suggests, but it is hard for any US president to completely eliminate the terror network – and Americans should know why.
A large part of the reason is oil and globalization.
Many people have commented on the link between oil and terror, but what is more interesting is how oil and globalization have worked together to abet terrorism. The overlapping oil and globalization eras have produced circumstances that helped create and now still buttress the Al Qaeda phenomenon.
In the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, both private and government monies from oil-rich Persian Gulf countries supported Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs,” including their recruitment, housing, communications, and training when they were fighting the invading Russians. These revenues also helped bolster the Taliban, which housed Al Qaeda and still cooperates with it, and helped Pakistan build nuclear capabilities that both Mr. Romney and Obama believe could be stolen by terrorists and militants.
But Al Qaeda could not have become a transnational force without the interconnectedness of globalization. Cultural and economic globalization gave Al Qaeda access to the global highways and side roads it needed to spread around the world, set up shop in dozens of countries, communicate at far distances, and plan large-scale terrorist attacks.
These pathways continue to allow Al Qaeda’s affiliates and offshoots to play the Whac-A-Mole game, popping up here and there. Oil money remains vital to their operations. While it’s too soon to tell how bin Laden’s death will affect such funding, it would be foolish to assume that it will end.
Terrorists also rail against US support for oil-rich regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and mistakenly believe that America wants to “steal” Middle East oil. In fact, the United States and its firms have barely even cashed in on oil contracts in Iraq.
Meanwhile, worldwide communications help terrorists convey their negative narrative. According to numerous polls of Muslim countries over the past decade, Al Qaeda’s message has weakened substantially, but it still carries weight with millions of people.
While oil has fueled terrorism, globalization has offered terrorists vulnerable outlets for attack. In a more connected world, just a handful of angry men can wreak havoc, which is partly what makes the Al Qaeda threat so hard to eliminate.
In previous centuries, the September 11 attacks would have hardly been known to the world; but in 2001 they hit a key node of a globalized world – New York – producing ripple effects around the world. All financial markets, including oil, were affected. Big businesses felt the shock waves. That kind of impact could never have been felt in a much less globalized world.
Today's communications and the 24/7 media age also allow terrorists to seem more threatening than their capabilities suggest. We can all watch terror threats unfold in real time. Even a hapless underwear or shoe bomber can stir global fear. And a small, well planned attack such as the one that recently killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya gains global coverage.
Yes, Al Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated, making a massive 9/11 attack far harder to achieve. Obama is right. But Al Qaeda’s bankrupt ideas live on and are communicated to millions, partly via affiliates and offshoots. Oil has helped fuel and motivate them, while globalization has allowed them to exploit that fuel to do things that otherwise would be more difficult and costly.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat terror networks. This work starts with targeting the circumstances and causes that fuel terrorism in the first place. For one, the next American president must work to decrease world oil dependence by investing in renewable energy.
But terrorism, while fueled by oil and aided by globalization, has other causes as well. America can also take the lead, with its Arab, European, and Asian allies, to support economic development in the Middle East as an anti-terrorism strategy. The US must also continue to help these nations fight poverty, improve employment opportunities, develop civil society, and broaden education.
The next administration will need to remain vigilant in fighting terrorism, but the best defense in this case is a strong offense.
Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is the author of “The Petroleum Triangle: Oil, Globalization, and Terror” and “The Absence of Grand Strategy: The United States in the Persian Gulf.”