In the aftermath of the Jakarta embassy bombing and the Beslan siege, governments will be asking their intelligence advisers the same questions they’ve been asking since September 11. How big are the terrorist groups we’re facing? Are we winning the war, and how much longer will it take?
The answers to these questions are unsettling. It is impossible to know the size of the jihadist terrorist groups, because the greatest danger is posed not by defined groups with clear organisational structures but by shifting networks sitting within the broad movement of sympathisers. The perpetrators of the Jakarta embassy bombing have probably never met the Beslan school hostage-takers or those behind the Madrid attacks; each group of terrorists differs in their aims, their targets and their methods. But, linked by constantly circulating accounts of Muslim grievances, conspiracy theories and justifications for violence, all see themselves as part of a common struggle against the same adversary.
As they adapt to local counter-terrorism efforts, movements like Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qa'ida are no longer relying on trained cadres and established cells to mount attacks. They have dispersed, often using highly-skilled and well-connected facilitators, such as Dr Azahari, the man widely suspected to have planned the Jakarta embassy bombing, to formulate attack plots and assemble the resources and personnel needed to carry out the attack. These facilitators are able to choose help from a large pool of sympathisers, many of whom have been radicalised through participation in religious violence in places such as Ambon and Maluku. Most of those who participate in an operation will then simply melt back into their local community.
The jihadist terrorist movement has an almost endless capacity to generate both terrorist facilitators and willing foot-soldiers. Across the Muslim world jihadist terrorists have a broad array of targets, deep pools of frustrated young men, a series of festering Muslim-against-non-Muslim conflicts that are perfect for training and recruitment, and a range of communal resentments waiting to be sparked into violence. The movement thrives on cross border flows, not of people or weapons, but of information - the doctrine of violent jihad; how to make explosives, how to place a truck bomb for maximum impact.
The movement’s transnational nature maximises participation by allowing any militant with the will and ability to carry out an attack to feel he is part of the ongoing struggle - no initiation needed, no authorisation required. And because it is dispersed, the movement is not prone to the antagonistic meetings or bitter doctrinal conflicts that have torn other militant groups apart.
The answer to the second question, how much longer the war against jihadist terrorism will take, is no more palatable than the answer to the first. The very nature of the War on Terror means that the West is unable to bring its full resources to bear against the enemy, and that the current counter-terrorism coalition is very fragile.
This is a war that has to be fought in other states. Where countries like the UK have pursued jihadist terrorists on their own soil, they have been remarkably effective, as the long string of arrests and disrupted attacks in Britain attests. But al Qa'ida, Jemaah Islamiyah and their fellow travellers have to be fought mainly in Muslim countries, relying on partnerships with local governments and security forces.
There are no "state sponsors" of these jihadist groups that can be intimidated into cracking down on them. Rather, the US and its allies have to work with governments that are also threatened by Muslim extremism. A delicate balance has to be found between achieving effective action against the terrorists (often in the face of incompetence, habits of brutality, and the presence of extremist sympathisers in local security forces) and pushing the local regime into actions that weaken its legitimacy in the face of rising domestic extremism.
The current efforts against jihadist terrorism have been achieved largely thanks to a huge US effort in diplomatic cajoling and intelligence and law-enforcement support to a wide array of countries. As the terrorists disperse, thinking and acting in local terms, the US has to remain committed to tracking and fighting the problem as a whole. It is unclear how long the US can sustain this level of focus and effort.
The coalition of countries fighting against jihadist terrorism is fragile. The acrimonious exchanges between American and European commentators after the Madrid bombings showed how easily co-operation can be endangered by diverging interpretations of the problem. For many regimes in the Muslim world, taking on Islamic extremists is fraught with dangers to their own domestic legitimacy - hence Indonesia’s refusal to outlaw Jemaah Islamiyah. As the US demands action against groups other than those directly implicated in high profile attacks, Muslim governments could become less willing to co-operate.
The war against jihadist terrorism is far from over. Without a major rededication of effort and the building of sustained structures of counter-terrorism co-operation, it will be lost.