Will the War on Terror become the Tower of Babel?

Al Qa'ida

I have little idea what is meant by 'Al Qa'ida' or worse still 'Al Qa'ida-linked'. Personally, I see Al Qa'ida in cadres. First, there is, or was 'The Elite', consisting of perhaps ten people - Bin Laden, Zubeida, Al Zawahiri, Mohammed Atef, for example - who were at the centre of the organization. It was they who used to be in control of the truly fearsome capabilities that Al Qa'ida had - or nearly had. Secondly, there were the 'Field Commanders'. These were a few hundred who did a long course in terrorism in Afghanistan, perhaps more than once; men like Mohammed Atta or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They can plan things on their own but rely on 'The Elite' to match them up with money, target information, trained personnel and special weapons.

Thirdly, the 'Foot Soldiers' were those like, say, John Walker, who were in fact mostly Arabs, Pakistanis or Chechens. They went to Afghanistan, received rudimentary infantry training and then went to fight the nearest Jihad of the day, against the Northern Alliance. The best of these were in O55 brigade but even they were not necessarily competent terrorists. Such people could now shoot servicemen in the Middle East or maybe, just maybe, make a crude bomb. They are not skilled in evading detection or at maintaining good operational security. Finally, there are the 'Angry Young Men' who, for a wide range of reasons, want to act. They have never been to Afghanistan. They may have met someone - who met someone - who had been there. Mostly, they act incompetently ( John Reid the shoe bomber) and are detected, leading the authorities to their colleagues (the London and then Manchester ricin arrests).

But all the above are described as 'Al Qa'ida'. The term has no definite boundaries. Yet nearly all laymen who hear the term assume the accused have the capabilities that in truth are only held by the Elite. Panic and unjustified fear is spread by applying the term Al Qa'ida to people, some of whom are operating at very low levels of competence.

International Law is another example of linguistic laxity. I do not myself know what 'International Law' is - and I studied it. The word 'law' implies absolute moral and legal certainty. There is relative certainty what Criminal Law is. All those who break it are liable to sanctions. Domestic laws apply equally to all, whether they like it or not. For the most part there are no contradictions between different Criminal Laws. A brief acquaintance with Rosalyn Higgins, Problems and Process: International Law and How to Use It, quickly shows that none of these conditions apply in International Law. There is simply no certainty and no clarity. Only those countries who sign them are bound by International Law. It has a much more diffuse and cloudy character. Therefore, it is disingenuous to say that an action is 'Against International Law', as if that were the end of the matter. The use of the term conjures up a notion of criminality, which is simplistic and misleading. Those who quote 'International Law' with certainty invariably do so with a political purpose. In doing so, they mislead.

The detention of prisoners at Camp X-Ray is a case in point. Both the US and Human Rights groups claim International Law to be on their side. The US claims this because they treat the detainees as if they were governed by the Geneva Conventions. The human rights groups because the US will not declare them to actually be PoWs. They lie beyond the reach of US courts because Camp X-ray, under the terms of the lease, is Cuban territory. In reality they are in a sort of legal limbo, not declared Prisoners of War, but subject to the Geneva Conventions and US military tribunals. The layman is entitled to be confused and neither side has yet quoted International Law with any clarity.


What, then, is a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction'? I am personally unaware of a gold standard definition and, having raised the matter in various fora, feel confident there is none. But not only is the term freely applied, but it is, partly, the basis for the doctrine of preemption. We need a clear definition and soon.

  • Fission and fusion weapons are clearly counted in, but dirty (radiation) bombs seem to have crept in, no questions asked.
  • Biological weapons seem ambiguous. Anthrax, smallpox and fatal communicable diseases are clearly 'Microbial or biological agents' as defined in the Hague Conventions of 1972, but what about food poisoning which is not fatal but is certainly brought about by a 'Toxin' and could easily be induced for malicious purposes?
  • Chemical weapons are probably the most difficult since in the end all chemical weapons are poisons, or as the Hague Convention calls them, 'Toxins'.
  • Ballistic missiles are now somehow WMD, when in fact they seem to have been counted in only because of the provisions of the 1991 Gulf War treaty denying missiles of greater than a certain range to Iraq. Of course, many countries maintain long-range missiles for conventional use. So this important term which is bound up with the 'War on Terror' needs some specific definition.

As a young officer I never took to the tedious pedantry of doctrinal definition. Now that I am a citizen trying to follow the War on Terror I wish there was more. Presently we 'babble'; a word derived from the Hebrew 'Babel' after the Tower that could not be built to heaven because God considered it an arrogant project. He rendered work on the Tower impossible by making those involved speak different languages. The War on Terror is too important to suffer a similar fate.

Simon Sole is Director, Exclusive Analysis

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