Commentary Magazine


Topic: Beslan

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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