Is the "war on terror" really World War IV?
That's what the American strategist Eliot Cohen argues and the term is apt. It captures two points: that the cold war was in fact World War III and that the war on terror is as global, as varied, and as important as prior world wars.
Militant Islam distinguishes itself from any other contemporary political movement in the magnitude of its ambitions, seeking not just to influence the adherents of one religion or control one region. Rather, it aspires to unlimited and universal power. Only Islamists have the temerity to challenge the liberal world order in a cosmic battle over the future course of the human experience. This translates into a worldwide battlefield.
Of course, a war in which so much is at stake cannot be about mere terrorism, and Cohen notes that "The enemy in this war is not terrorism' but militant Islam." As in world wars II and III, the ultimate enemy is a cohort of powerful ideas that can cause some of the most competent members of society to dedicate themselves to a vision and go so far as willingly sacrifice their lives to speed its attainment. The U.S. government, though usually reluctant to make this point, does allude to it on occasion, as when President George W. Bush states that the enemy is "a fringe form of Islamic extremism" and a "new totalitarian threat."
Terrorism, in other words, is just one dimension of a war that has many fronts and takes many forms. Violence is an important symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Other methods might include acts of violence by loners, smuggling, rioting, lawful street demonstrations, raising money, teaching, proselytizing, intimidating, and even running for elected office. These methods complement each other, constituting the sophistication and reach of militant Islam. The battleground includes Muslim-majority countries as well as countries like Argentina where Islam is a minor presence.
Militant Islam's varied and persistent offensive is often missed in the focus on Al-Qaeda and other well-developed networks. A look at the daily rhythm of the war makes this clear. Here are some top-of-the-news stories from a random two-week period in late 2002; note that Al-Qaeda-style terrorism makes up just a portion of the general assault:
- November 20, Saudi Arabia: An Islamist burns down a McDonald's near Riyadh.
- November 20, Nigeria: Muslims rampage in the north, shout "God is great," and attack Christians, leading to 215 deaths, after a Nigerian fashion writer named Isioma Daniel comments on a planned beauty pageant in Nigeria that the Prophet Muhammad "would probably have chosen a wife from among [the contestants]."
- November 21, Kuwait: A policeman in a patrol car flags down two American soldiers driving along a desert highway, ostensibly for speeding, then shoots and seriously injures them.
- November 21, Lebanon: An Islamist murders an American nurse and missionary, Bonnie Penner, as she opens her clinic for the day.
- November 21, Indonesia: Imam Samudra, the self-acknowledged organizer of the Bali attack on October 12 that killed more than 180 people, is seized.
- November 21, Israel: A Palestinian Islamist suicide bombs an Israeli bus, killing eleven and injuring dozens.
- November 22, France: Police arrest five Islamists, including Redouane Daoud (who escaped from a Dutch detention center in June), and accused them of providing logistical support to Islamists engaged in jihad.
- November 24, India: Islamists attack a Hindu temple in Jammu and Kashmir, killing at least twelve people and injuring fifty.
- November 24, Pakistan: Security forces arrest three men attempting to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan in a truck carrying hundreds of mortar rounds and antitank rockets hidden under bags of dry fruit.
- November 24, Jordan: Islamist rioting in Maan leads to one death and several wounded.
- November 25, Nigeria: Mahamoud Shinkafi, the deputy governor of one Nigerian state, announces that "the blood of Isioma Daniel [the fashion writer] can be shed."
- November 26, Hong Kong: Three Islamists of South Asian origin appear in court for extradition hearings on charges they sold drugs to raise money to buy missiles for Al-Qaeda.
- November 26, Malaysia: Authorities arrest three suspected members of the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, accusing them of planning suicide missions against Western embassies in Singapore.
- November 26, United Arab Emirates: A customs officer fires on a U.S. military helicopter but misses.
- November 26, France: Prosecutors place five men of Algerian origin under investigation for "criminal association with a terrorist group" connected to shoe bomber Richard C. Reid.
- November 27, United States: Prosecutors accuse Jesse Maali in Orlando, Florida, of having financial ties to Middle Eastern organizations that advocate violence.
- November 28, Turkey: Parliament approves a government formed by the Justice and Development Party, a watered-down Islamist party.
- November 28, Kenya: Islamist suicide bombers kill three Israelis and ten Kenyans in an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa; also, two missiles just miss a commercial Israeli airliner with 271 on board on takeoff from Mombasa.
- November 28, Belgium: Police arrest Dyab Abou Jahjah, head of the Arab European League, an Islamist group, on grounds he incited two days of Muslim rioting in Antwerp.
- November 29, Pakistan: A pro-Taliban Islamist wins the elections and takes charge in a key province.
- November 30, India: In a surge of violence in Kashmir, Islamists kill ten and wound more than twenty in four separate incidents.
- December 2, Holland: Four Islamists believed linked to Al-Qaeda go on trial in Rotterdam, charged with planning attacks on U.S. targets in Europe, including the embassy in Paris.
- December 3, Germany: A Berlin court case reveals that an alleged member of the Hamburg cell that led the September 11 attacks had the business card of a Saudi diplomat based in Berlin.
- December 3, United Kingdom: British authorities in Manchester arrest Hassan Butt, who had claimed to have recruited some two hundred British Muslims to fight for the Taliban.
- December 3, Germany: Aeroubi Beandalis, one of four Algerians accused of plotting to blow up a French Christmas market in 2000, admitted to a court in Frankfurt that he was intending to turn pressure cookers into bombs.
This range of activities implies that an effective defense cannot be limited to disrupting networks of violence. The forces must include anti-Islamist Muslims as well as non-Muslims, intellectuals as well as special forces, teachers as well as police officers, filmmakers as well as forensic accountants.World War IV, in short, involves many fronts and requires a strategy that looks far beyond counterterrorism. The sooner we understand this, the faster we can win.
 Eliot A. Cohen, "World War IV," The Wall Street Journal, 20 November 2001.
 Though a historian might prefer World War V, on the basis that the Napoleonic Wars, whose battlefields ranged from the Caribbean to Egypt to India, was the first world war.
 "Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People," 20 September 2001.
 "Remarks by the President to a Special Session of the German Bundestag: President Bush Thanks Germany for Support Against Terror," 23 May 2002.
 Independent, 22 November 2002.
 ThisDay, 16 November 2002.
 Associated Press, 26 November 2002.