Commentary Magazine


Topic: Beslan

Pakistan: Incubator of Evil

Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

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Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that in both cases the perpetrators of these horrifying outrages were killing in the name of Islam. That is not because Islam is a religion uniquely conducive to this sort of evil. Recall that in the 17th century massacres every bit as vile were routinely carried out in Germany in the name of Christianity during the Thirty Years War. In more recent years Serb Orthodox extremists murdered Muslim Bosnians in similar fashion during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s. And of course the most costly conflict of modern times, the civil war in Congo, has nothing to do with Islam–it is, rather, all about tribal antagonisms.

But there is no doubt that Islamism–not Islam, per se, but the extremist variant practiced by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS–has become the most important animating philosophy for terrorism today and Pakistan has established itself as one of the centers of this violent faith. For this development Pakistani leaders have no one to blame but themselves: They have been promoting violent Islamism as a state policy since the early 1980s when then-President Zia al Huq was supporting the most extreme elements of the Afghan mujahideen.

More recently Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has emerged as one of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism in the world (the other being the Iranian Quds Force). It is directly responsible for a long string of atrocities carried out in Afghanistan and India by ISI proxies such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In short, the Pakistani state has a lot of blood on its hands–not only Indian and Afghan blood but a lot of American blood too, because a lot of Americans have died in Pakistani-sponsored attacks in Afghanistan. And not just in Afghanistan: There is also good cause to think the ISI consciously gave Osama bin Laden shelter in Pakistan after he had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.

Unfortunately for Pakistan it cannot control where extremists strike. The old adage holds that if you keep snakes in your backyard you can expect to be bitten. Pakistan proves how true that is–and now it has been bitten especially hard by monsters who deliberately set out to kill children. True, these particular monsters are from the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) which is not exactly the same group as the Afghan Taliban. But the two in fact share an ideology, among other things. Both, for instance, acknowledge Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader.

Sooner or later the Pakistani army must learn that it cannot fight some Islamist extremists while making common cause with others. My fear is that after decades of cooperation with these fanatics, the army itself may be so sympathetic to this extremist ideology that significant elements of it have essentially gone over to the enemy. Aside from an Iranian nuke, it is hard to imagine a scarier scenario in the world today than these Pakistani extremists-in-uniform getting access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

For too long America has tended to look away from the problem or pretended that Pakistan is really our friend. I don’t know what the solution is to this enormous menace, but at a minimum we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize Pakistan for what it is: an incubator of evil.

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Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

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When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

There were the beginnings of a similar moment when terrorists from Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group, abducted hundreds of school girls, most of whom remain missing. Even al-Qaeda criticized Boko Haram’s action as destructive to the overall cause which al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists embrace.

Alas, it seems that the public—and Islamists—are becoming accustomed to such brutality and are no longer willing to condemn it on such a broad scale. Cases in point are the capture and enslavement of Yezidi girls and the systematic execution of journalists and aid workers by proponents of ISIS. Now certainly, these have been subject to the usual rote condemnations by governments and by groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that have taken Saudi and Qatari money and often associate with more radical Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, when push comes to shove, many Islamists and the groups and countries which support them are not putting their money where their mouth is. Arab countries—the same countries whose citizens often donated to ISIS and associated charities—have been reluctant to help. Turkey’s excuse—that it is afraid for hostages held in Mosul—does not pass the smell test given that Turkey has not hesitated to wage war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even when that group has held Turks hostage. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to label ISIS as terrorists simply reinforces the issue.

It’s all well and good to dismiss ISIS actions as “un-Islamic” as CAIR has done or, for that matter, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have done. But the truth is that to millions of Muslims, they are very Islamic. To deny the religious component of “Jihad John” or ISIS’s actions is to deny that there is an exegesis within Islamic thought that not only allows but blesses such actions. It is to deny that there is a battle of interpretation which must be won. Nor is it logical to embrace a politically correct and scrubbed 21st century definition of jihad when ISIS reaches back to interpretations of a millennium and more ago when jihad was understood by Islamic theologians to mean an often offensive holy war.

The fact that the visceral outrage which confronted the Beslan murders has now been replaced by pro-forma but ultimately meaningless condemnations of Islamic terror by Muslim majority states and Islamic advocacy organizations suggests that far from rising up with righteous outrage against the actions of the latest Islamist group, the broader Islamic world has become inured to such actions conducted in its name and unwilling to recoil and shame its proponents and supporters in the same way.

Indeed, the thousands of foreign terrorists which now flock to Syria and Iraq did not radicalize in the last two months, nor did they embrace the most radical interpretations of Islam simply because they disliked former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, they were instructed in hundreds of mosques scattered across Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. They were taught the Koran and its meaning by thousands of teachers and imams funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. These mosques were protected from criticism by so-called Islamic civil-rights and advocacy groups who conflated any criticism of radical Islamist ideology with Islamophobia. If only the same organizations instead began to name and publicly shame the extremists who preach in American, European, or Middle Eastern mosques.

Press releases won’t cut it, nor diplomatic handshakes and symbolic press conferences. The problem lies deeper, and ultimately boils down to the tolerance for extremism in so many European, American, and Middle Eastern mosques upon which ISIS recruiters rely.

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Algerian Tactics Recall Russian Disasters

Reports out of Algeria are still sketchy but it appears that Algerian security forces attacked the Islamist group holding hostages at a gas plant near the Libyan border—and in the process killed a number of hostages along with hostage-takers.

This is not exactly how the United States, Britain, Israel, France or other Western nations would approach a hostage crisis. The security forces in all those countries would seek a resolution that would be most likely to leave the hostages unharmed and plan an attack only if there was absolutely no alternative or if there was actionable intelligence which suggested a good chance to free the hostages. See, for instance, the hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama that ended with Navy SEAL snipers taking out the hostage takers and freeing the captain, Richard Phillips.

The Algerians, by contrast, appear to have blundered in, guns blazing. This should not be particularly surprising since (a) Algeria is not a democracy and (b) it has long cultivated a ruthless style of counterinsurgency. During the war pitting Algerian security forces against Muslim militants (including the predecessors of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in the 1990s, an estimated 100,000 or more people died as a result of the indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics employed by both sides.

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Reports out of Algeria are still sketchy but it appears that Algerian security forces attacked the Islamist group holding hostages at a gas plant near the Libyan border—and in the process killed a number of hostages along with hostage-takers.

This is not exactly how the United States, Britain, Israel, France or other Western nations would approach a hostage crisis. The security forces in all those countries would seek a resolution that would be most likely to leave the hostages unharmed and plan an attack only if there was absolutely no alternative or if there was actionable intelligence which suggested a good chance to free the hostages. See, for instance, the hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama that ended with Navy SEAL snipers taking out the hostage takers and freeing the captain, Richard Phillips.

The Algerians, by contrast, appear to have blundered in, guns blazing. This should not be particularly surprising since (a) Algeria is not a democracy and (b) it has long cultivated a ruthless style of counterinsurgency. During the war pitting Algerian security forces against Muslim militants (including the predecessors of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in the 1990s, an estimated 100,000 or more people died as a result of the indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics employed by both sides.

The Algerian way of fighting Islamist militants is eerily similar to that of the Russians who have pursued a similar scorched-earth approach in Chechnya. When confronted with Islamist hostage-takers, Russian security forces also rushed in–and the result was hundreds of dead hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002 and a Beslan school in 2004. In all these cases the assaults went so wrong partly because of a lack of skill on the part of the attackers and partly because their superiors simply didn’t care that much about who lived and died.

Of course there was no accountability for the Russian forces because their government is not democratic. The same undoubtedly will be the case in Algeria. Such blunderbuss tactics can work, at least for a time, but in the present instance they will exacerbate Algeria’s relations with the U.S., Britain, Japan and other countries whose hostages were in the line of fire and which were not consulted before the assault.

All of this should make us all the more thankful for the highly skilled and highly humane U.S. Special Operations Forces as they have developed over the last few decades. Some of their operations go awry too, but if you are ever taken hostage, you had better pray to be rescued by SEAL Team Six or Delta Force—not by the Algerian army.

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