Commentary Magazine


Topic: radical Islam

Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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Paris Attack Wasn’t “Senseless Violence”

President Obama’s condemnation of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office today in Paris rightly referred to the perpetrators as “terrorists” and expressed solidarity with France even if it did come in a tone expressed with his usual lack of emotion. The official statement issued later also properly labeled it an act of terrorism. But the problem isn’t whether the administration is ready, as it was initially reluctant to do after Benghazi, to speak of terrorism, as it is the president’s refusal to discuss the motivation of the attackers and readiness to speak of it as the “senseless violence of the few.” This wasn’t senseless, Mr. President. Indeed, based on the administration’s past lukewarm defense of freedom of speech against Islamist attacks, it made a great deal of sense for terrorists to think they could get away with this atrocity.

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President Obama’s condemnation of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office today in Paris rightly referred to the perpetrators as “terrorists” and expressed solidarity with France even if it did come in a tone expressed with his usual lack of emotion. The official statement issued later also properly labeled it an act of terrorism. But the problem isn’t whether the administration is ready, as it was initially reluctant to do after Benghazi, to speak of terrorism, as it is the president’s refusal to discuss the motivation of the attackers and readiness to speak of it as the “senseless violence of the few.” This wasn’t senseless, Mr. President. Indeed, based on the administration’s past lukewarm defense of freedom of speech against Islamist attacks, it made a great deal of sense for terrorists to think they could get away with this atrocity.

Throughout the last two decades during which Islamist terrorists have been waging a war against the West, the United States government has always been properly reluctant to speak of the conflict as one between the American people and the religion of Islam. The U.S. has no argument with its millions of loyal Muslim citizens or with any faith per se. Nor does it have a brief for conflict with the many Muslim countries with which it enjoys warm relations. The arguments of both al-Qaeda and ISIS and their sympathizers, which speak of American wars “against Muslims,” are vicious libels. The wars, in which the U.S. has engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention in Bosnia before that, were waged to free Muslims. It is the terrorists who wish to silence and enslave Muslims in their nightmare vision of a new caliphate, not the Americans.

But that sensible reluctance to grant the terrorists their wish by allowing them to make this a war of Muslim versus non-Muslim should not extend to blindness about what is motivating the terrorists. As much as we may hope that Islamists don’t represent the views of most Muslims, it is ridiculous for the president or any other American official to be issuing statements (as they have at times) in which Washington pretends to be the authority on what is or is not authentic Islam. Suffice it to say that Islamists appear to have the support of tens of millions of Muslims in the Middle East as well as elsewhere and it is futile for any American president to be declaring them mistaken about their faith.

But more important than that is the steadfast refusal of the U.S. to state what is obvious. Ignoring the fact that the motivations of those who committed the act of terrorism in Paris were religious isn’t helping anyone.

For Islamists, silencing those who offend their religious sensibilities makes perfect sense. More to the point, doing so has worked very nicely to silence critics and opponents who rightly fear to call down the wrath of jihadists on their heads. As I noted earlier today, there is no cost to mounting a Broadway musical mocking Mormons, a peaceful and productive American minority group that took the insults lobbed at them with good humor and patience. But there is potentially a very great price to be paid if you wish to skewer the religious motivations of terrorists with the blood of countless Muslims as well as non-Muslims on their hands.

By cowering and apologizing every time radical believers in Islam express outrage at some actual or perceived slight to their faith, the U.S. has strengthened the conviction of the extremists that no one may offend them with impunity.

The social media campaigns spreading across the Internet today, as people express solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo satirists, is commendable. But what is needed even more is a universal condemnation of Islamists and calls for Muslims, both in the West and throughout the Middle East, to acknowledge that a sizable percentage of their co-religionists—and not just the tiny minority that the president spoke of—are laboring under the delusion that they can tell Europeans or Americans what they may or may not read or watch.

Islamist terrorists have proliferated precisely because they have been perceived as both the “strong horse” that can only be opposed at the risk of one’s life and because Westerners have so often purposely misunderstood the nature of the challenge they face. They are likely to remain a deadly problem until our leaders stop acting as if the successful tactics of the opponents of freedom are pointless or not rooted in a theological worldview that is shared by many of their co-religionists. Pretending that they are not a significant force in the Muslim world is what is senseless, Mr. President, not the actions of the terrorists.

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The War Goes On

Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

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Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

I have long felt it’s a tribute to America that we have gone out of our way not to target Muslims en masse in the aftermath of 9/11, and that President Bush’s role in keeping passions in check was admirable and crucial. At the same time, it would be foolish, and borderline suicidal, to pretend we don’t know what the “root cause” of this age of terrorism is: political Islam, abroad and increasingly at home. This lethal ideological infection doesn’t seem to be receding. And it’s not clear what, if anything, we can do to stop it (drone strikes are a tactic, not a strategy).

As someone who has supported championing liberty in the Arab world, I have to take into account what is happening in Egypt. I’m not sure what the alternative is–America cannot be on the side of increased repression–but the radicalization of Egypt in the aftermath of its elections is not what I hoped would emerge. Now it’s still early, and things could improve. (Wise people I know predicted things could get worse before they get better, since the transition from oppression and a smashed civil society to freedom isn’t quick or easy. The analogy is that we’re at the stage prior to a fever breaking.) On the other hand, things could also get worse. In any event, our duty is to see the world as it is.

Michael Gerson wisely points out we don’t want to be at war with Islam. But unfortunately a not-insignificant number of Muslims believe they are at war with us. And I’m quite open to suggestions of what exactly we are supposed to do–what we are even able to do–about that, other than defend ourselves and defeat them on various battlefields, including this one.

The war against us goes on, whether we like it or not.

(Updated to clarify Salon.com’s language.)

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Embassy Attack Perpetrators Do Not Represent Islam

The U.S. should respond strongly and sternly to the unprovoked attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo and to the deaths of our ambassador to Libya and several of his aides. But we must also react smartly and not succumb to the rage of the moment into thinking that Sam Bacile, the amateur filmmaker whose anti-Mohammad video was initially blamed for these assaults, is right when he says, “Islam is a cancer.”

Not only is that hate speech, it is also wrong on its face because it assumes that the kind of people who carried out these outrages are typical Muslims—that somehow Islam by its very nature drives its adherents to intolerance and violence. That is not the case—Islam, like other religions, is complex and multifaceted. It has meant many things to many people over the ages. Most of its followers, like the followers of other religions, are peaceful and law-abiding and not interested in attacking anyone. The radicals are hardly representative of the mainstream, but even small numbers of extremists can sully the image of an entire country or religion by skillful attacks and manipulation of the news media.

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The U.S. should respond strongly and sternly to the unprovoked attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo and to the deaths of our ambassador to Libya and several of his aides. But we must also react smartly and not succumb to the rage of the moment into thinking that Sam Bacile, the amateur filmmaker whose anti-Mohammad video was initially blamed for these assaults, is right when he says, “Islam is a cancer.”

Not only is that hate speech, it is also wrong on its face because it assumes that the kind of people who carried out these outrages are typical Muslims—that somehow Islam by its very nature drives its adherents to intolerance and violence. That is not the case—Islam, like other religions, is complex and multifaceted. It has meant many things to many people over the ages. Most of its followers, like the followers of other religions, are peaceful and law-abiding and not interested in attacking anyone. The radicals are hardly representative of the mainstream, but even small numbers of extremists can sully the image of an entire country or religion by skillful attacks and manipulation of the news media.

Indeed, evidence is emerging of the planning that went into both assaults, with USA Today reporting: “The protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was announced Aug. 30 by Jamaa Islamiya, a State Department-designated terrorist group, to protest the ongoing imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman. He is serving a life sentence in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.”

Meanwhile the New York Times is reporting: “The Obama administration suspects that the fiery attack in Libya that killed the American ambassador and three other diplomats may have been planned rather than a spontaneous mob getting out of control…” The Times article further notes: “About 24 hours before the consulate attack… Al Qaeda posted to militant forums on the Web a video in which its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, acknowledged the death in an American  drone strike in June of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and called on Libyans to avenge the death.”

This conforms squarely with recent experience in Afghanistan, where seemingly spontaneous riots and attacks in response to Koran-burnings were actually carried out with considerable planning and complicity from the insurgency. There is no doubt that there is religious passion in the Muslim world that extremists can exploit, but these outrages are the work of calculating extremists and do not represent the actions of the average man-on-the-street—certainly the anti-American protests have attracted far fewer followers than the protests that were being held not so long ago in both Egypt and Libya to protest the previous rulers of those countries. Rather than succumb to extremism ourselves in the face of Islamist extremists, we must make critical distinctions and understand that the radicals do not speak for their whole of their countries nor for the whole of a religion with more than a billion adherents.

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