Commentary Magazine


Topic: terrorism

Yemen’s Lesson For the Future of Terror

“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

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“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

The above items are largely self-explanatory. Far from decimated, Al Qaeda is, in combination with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, chasing the US out of Yemen, which, far from being a shining example of US counter-terrorism policy in action, is an abysmal failure. This is a serious blow to US national security because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has long been judged the Al Qaeda affiliate most interested in striking the US homeland. Thus the attacks on AQAP that Special Operations Forces have carried out in Yemen have been necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians.

We will not be entirely helpless to fight AQAP even now–there is a Special Operations base in Djibouti directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and there is reportedly a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia. But even if Predators and other aircraft can still reach targets in Yemen with ease, it will be harder to identify high-value targets without any American personnel on the background–and you can bet that if Embassy and Special Operations personnel have pulled out, so have CIA, NSA, and other intelligence officers.

The only other point to make is that this is a cautionary tale for the future of Afghanistan. President Obama seems to think that it would still be possible for a small number of US Special Operations Forces to be based in Afghanistan in order to target Al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if all other US forces are pulled out after 2016. Yemen shows why this is a very bad idea–not even the most skilled SOF forces can operate in a country that is in utter chaos as Yemen is today. Afghanistan needs to be minimally stable in order to be a useful platform for launching SOF strikes, and to keep it minimally stable will require a long-term commitment of at least 10,000 US troops. But to make that kind of commitment Obama will have to admit that, contrary to his earlier boasts, the war in Afghanistan is not “winding down,” just as Al Qaeda is not “decimated,” and Yemen is not an example of “successfully” fighting terrorists.

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Twenty Years Since Japan’s 9/11

Twenty years ago today, Japan suffered its worst terrorist atrocity, the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways by the religious cult known as Aum Shinrikyo. Over at the Wall Street Journal, my column this week looks at the lessons for the West that still resonate from the Aum attacks.

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Twenty years ago today, Japan suffered its worst terrorist atrocity, the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways by the religious cult known as Aum Shinrikyo. Over at the Wall Street Journal, my column this week looks at the lessons for the West that still resonate from the Aum attacks.

In many ways, those lessons are stronger today than they ever have been. Right now, the Boston Marathon bombing trial is going on, revisiting the question of how to identify and stop homegrown terrorism. Japanese authorities failed miserably in stopping Aum, even though they had committed numerous acts of terror before, including a prior gas attack, using nerve agents, and old-fashioned murder. The lesson is clear: let homegrown terrorism fester, and it will metastasize, eventually causing a catastrophe.

And what about ISIS? Aum may have been the first of the millenarian death cults. Aum’s leader Shoko Asahara (who still sits on Japan’s Death Row, awaiting punishment) essentially made up his cult’s religion, but the apocalyptic or messianic aspect served increasingly as its guiding force. We see that now with ISIS, as they behead and immolate their way through the Middle East, using religion as both justification and incitement. Religious cults that venerate death are a unique poison that cannot be rationalized with, nor contained. They must be destroyed.

Aum Shinrikyo is not an exact parallel to what we face today, but it holds eerie similarities that we can perhaps see better for the time that has passed. In two decades, Japan may not have suffered a similar attack, but the type of threat it faced on that deadly morning is now a part of our larger world.

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Tunisia’s Fragile Success Under Attack

Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

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Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

This may cause some to wonder if Tunisia is truly an Arab Spring success story. They shouldn’t. Terrorist attacks also happen in countries such as France and Britain and the United States without calling into question the fundamental legitimacy of the state. Granted, Tunisia’s democracy is much newer and more fragile, but it has been making impressive strides since popular protests, sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit seller, ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, Tunisia has seen two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2014, as well as one presidential election, in late 2014.

The elections have been free and fair (as I saw for myself), and the results have been relatively heartening. The Islamist Ennahda party was the top vote getter in 2011 but after taking power it voluntarily gave up the prime minister’s office to a technocrat in order to reassure voters worried about an Egyptian-style Muslim Brotherhood takeover. In the more recent parliamentary election, Ennahda finished in second place, with 28 percent of the vote, with the top vote getter being a secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”), which won 37.5 percent.

In the December presidential election, the winner, with 55.6 percent of the vote, was Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old warhorse who served in numerous cabinet posts under Ben Ali and helped to found Nidaa Tounes. The new prime minister Habib Essid is another veteran of the Ben Ali cabinet and member of Nidaa Tounes, but in order to form a government he had to share power with Ennahda and two smaller parties.

Thus Tunisia has a truly representative government led by secularists but with significant representation from Islamists who, by previously giving up power, have shown they are less authoritarian than their counterparts in Egypt or Turkey–or simply less able to seize power in such a secular state.

To be sure Tunisia has significant challenges ahead, particularly in reviving a moribund economy that has been weighed down by high levels of corruption and state spending and in maintaining security in the face of terrorist groups that remain all too active.  If the current government can’t deliver on the promise of a better life for ordinary Tunisians, the consequences will not be good for the future of Tunisian democracy, And there is no doubt that greater freedom has also provided greater opportunity for some terrorist groups to stage attacks such as the one today. The attack today is a significant blow because it jeopardizes the tourist trade which is a vital part of Tunisia’s economy and its best bet for economic growth.

But on the whole, and despite setbacks like the one today, Tunisia remains an impressive, if fragile, success story–the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring. It deserves more American support and more American notice. It shouldn’t take a terrorist attack for Americans to pay attention to Tunisia.

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A Hollow Victory in Tikrit

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

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There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

But even if this “victory” stands up, our jubilation should be tightly controlled. Yes, it’s a good thing if ISIS is suffering defeats, but who’s winning? It’s not the United States and it’s not  the lawful Iraqi state led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The real victor here, if there is a victory, is Iran. Most of the fighters who are taking Tikrit are Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, not soldiers of Iraq. The real leader of this operation is not any general appointed by Prime Minister Abadi but rather Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who has been a high-profile presence on the front lines.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. With Iran and its proxies taking the lead in fighting ISIS, there is a real danger that U.S. support for the anti-ISIS drive will wind up delivering Iraq into the hands of Iran. This is, of course, the danger that many opponents of the Iraq War warned about, but it was a danger kept in check as long as there was a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The U.S. departure at the end of 2011, however, opened the floodgates for Iranian influence.

By focusing U.S. efforts solely on rolling back ISIS, President Obama is providing another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. This is a very bad development for two reasons: First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.

Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.

The U.S. desperately needs a plan not to just to roll back ISIS influence but also to roll back Iranian influence. The kind of plan implemented in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraues in Iraq, when U.S. forces targeted Iranian operatives for exposure and arrest. There is, alas, no sign of such a plan today–if anything, the U.S. seems to be tacitly conceding Iran the right to a dominant role in Iraq, Syria, etc., as part of a broader rapprochement that, Obama hopes, will include a nuclear deal.

This is a monstrous mistake. A victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.

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The Disastrous World Obama Has Helped Create

Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

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Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

The Islamic State has now taken control of much of Syria and large parts of Iraq. Libya has descended into violence and chaos; it’s becoming a terrorist haven. The U.S.-backed government in Yemen has collapsed. And Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, has taken an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, reinforcing fears that ISIS is expanding its support well beyond its base in Syria and Iraq.

These developments have created a rising sense of gloom among current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials. The Washington Post provides a useful summary:

  • In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” (Mr. Clapper testified last month that more than 20,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, including at least 3,400 from the West — “a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States.”)
  • Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.
  • Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA under President Obama, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”
  • “You’ve got a much bigger counterterrorism problem than you had a few years ago,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. Terrorist groups “have never had territory of this magnitude. Never had this much money. Never this much access to Western passport holders. Never had the narrative they have now.”

All of this illustrates how farcical the upbeat assessments by Mr. Obama were.

I’d also urge people to recall the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where Mr. Obama promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s ascent to the presidency would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation, he told us. “We have the power to make the world we seek,” the president declared. This came after Mr. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, promised to “repair this world.”

It turns out that by “mutual respect” and “repair this world” Mr. Obama really meant “disdain and contempt” and “do substantial, durable damage to it.”

President Obama, through a pernicious combination of staggering ineptness and intention–he is the first president of the post-World War II generation who does not believe American power is a force for good in the world–has done incalculable harm when it comes to creating a stable world order that advances justice and upholds human dignity.

As the Post story reminds us, DNI James Clapper was asked whether he stood by his assertion that the country was beset by more crises and threats that at any other time in his 50-year career. “Yes, sir,” he said, “and if I’m here next year, I’ll probably say it again.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s New Beginning.

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Bibi’s Speech Already Bearing Fruit

Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

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Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

Obviously the main point of the speech was Iran’s nuclear program. But Netanyahu also sought to convey the kind of regime Iran is and what it does with its military and financial might. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” Netanyahu said. He recited a litany of examples of Iranian troublemaking, and pointed out that these are all recent–that this is the regime on a path to a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu said:

Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.

Just last week, near Hormuz, Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. That’s just last week, while they’re having nuclear talks with the United States. But unfortunately, for the last 36 years, Iran’s attacks against the United States have been anything but mock. And the targets have been all too real.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the Middle East, Iran attacks America and its allies through its global terror network. It blew up the Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. It helped Al Qaida bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. It even attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, right here in Washington, D.C.

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.

Netanyahu wants the West’s negotiators to curb Iran’s terrorism and expansionism as part of the negotiations. And he’s not alone.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry cannot dispute the characterization of Iran in Netanyahu’s speech, and don’t try to do so. What he said is the uncontested truth. Obama sees Iran’s regional influence as either inevitable or ultimately desirable. Yet those in the region are well aware that Obama’s view of Iran is a fantasy; Tehran is the prime agent of destabilization throughout the Middle East.

One triumph of Netanyahu’s speech today seems to have been to get Obama and especially Kerry to do something they often appear completely incapable of doing: listening to allies. AFP reports that Kerry is heading to the region to try to convince allies that the Obama administration takes the Iranian threat much more seriously than they appear to, nuke or no nuke:

The United States will “confront aggressively” Iran’s bid to expand its influence across the Middle East even if a nuclear deal is reached, a State Department official said Tuesday.

The official’s comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a controversial address to the US Congress, sought to highlight Iran’s expansionist hopes as one reason to halt the nuclear talks.

Top US diplomat John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to reassure US Gulf allies that an Iran deal would not mean Washington would turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions.

“Regardless of what happens in the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region and Iranian aggressiveness in the region,” the official said.

It’s a tough sell. The Obama administration has found itself enabling that very expansion in the stubborn belief that the U.S. and Iran not only share interests but can cooperate to the West’s benefit on various conflicts around the Middle East.

The administration wants to divorce its nuclear diplomacy from Iranian expansionism because it doesn’t want an Iranian retreat in the Middle East, not while ISIS slaughters its way across Iraq and Syria, and not while the administration is intent on leaving a vacuum of American influence into which any number of militant groups can step.

It’s also a tough sell because of the administration’s own rhetoric. AFP quotes a State Department official today as follows: “You can’t read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the US relationship with Iran may go in the future.”

In fact, you absolutely can. The administration’s posture toward Iran, as evident in this conciliatory deal on the table, is that Tehran is a power with legitimate “rights” to enrich uranium and have a nuclear program in place, and that it’s a country that can be trusted with a sunset clause to boot. Netanyahu’s speech clearly and convincingly laid out the case against that view. And Kerry knows it.

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Sorry Peter Beinart: Young Americans Still Haven’t Turned Against Israel

This summer, toward the end of Israel’s Gaza offensive, Peter Beinart found something to smile about in an otherwise hard time—an apparent drop in support for Israel among young Americans. Beinart had been predicting since 2010 that U.S. opinion would grow less tolerant of Israel, but American support for Israel in 2013, as measured by Gallup, matched an all-time high. Now, though, a Gallup poll was showing that only 25 percent of younger U.S. respondents considered Israel’s actions in Gaza justified. Fifty-one percent considered them unjustified. Israel was losing America’s millennials, and so we could expect that, with each new conflict, “the American mood [would] incrementally shift.”

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This summer, toward the end of Israel’s Gaza offensive, Peter Beinart found something to smile about in an otherwise hard time—an apparent drop in support for Israel among young Americans. Beinart had been predicting since 2010 that U.S. opinion would grow less tolerant of Israel, but American support for Israel in 2013, as measured by Gallup, matched an all-time high. Now, though, a Gallup poll was showing that only 25 percent of younger U.S. respondents considered Israel’s actions in Gaza justified. Fifty-one percent considered them unjustified. Israel was losing America’s millennials, and so we could expect that, with each new conflict, “the American mood [would] incrementally shift.”

As I pointed out, previous dramatic declines in American support for Israel, as indicated by this poll or that poll, had been followed by recovery. But Beinart was nonetheless confident that this time the anti-Israel cake would bake at last, at least for the young. And Beinart was far from the only commentator to take this position.

It is therefore of some interest that Gallup is out with a new poll. Here is Lydia Saad, a senior editor: some “six months [after the poll on Gaza], young Americans’ broad sympathies toward the Israelis vs. the Palestinians are the same as a year ago.” Approximately 57 percent of 18-29 year olds surveyed both years said that they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians in the conflict. Sympathy with the Palestinians has also held steady at about 23 percent.

Compare this year to 2005, the year anti-Israel activists started Israeli apartheid week, a period devoted to demonizing Israel, mainly on college campuses, which is in full swing as I write. That year, support for Israel among 18-29 year olds stood at 51 percent. Ten years of a relentless campaign against Israel, specifically targeting the young, has not had its intended effect. It is perhaps for this reason, along with the wearying sameness of the distortions trotted out year after year, that Israeli apartheid week is getting almost no coverage in the United States this year. Look it up now, and the best known media outlet focusing on it is Iran’s Press TV.

I do not mean to say that we should not be concerned about these campaigns which may well, if they are not resisted, have the long-term effect of making Zionism a suspect, if not quite a dirty, word. But those who seized on one striking poll to predict that Israel had finally worn out its welcome with young Americans should be asked to comment on this one. It appears that when they hoped young Americans would pressure Israel into making unilateral concessions with a view to engaging nonexistent peace partners, they may have been indulging in wishful thinking.

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Iran Needs to Come Clean on both Nukes and Terrorism

Journalists and many diplomats who give President Barack Obama credit for his willingness to engage with Iran often forget that two decades before Obama asked Iranian leaders to unclench their fist, George H.W. Bush was as enthusiastic for a breakthrough. Just six months into Bush’s presidency, Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died. Journalists and diplomats saw Khomeini’s successor, former President Ali Khamenei as a moderate. As Khamenei took the leadership, he was replaced as president by the clerical businessman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who, the day after taking office, suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the hostages that Iranian proxies in Lebanon still held.

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Journalists and many diplomats who give President Barack Obama credit for his willingness to engage with Iran often forget that two decades before Obama asked Iranian leaders to unclench their fist, George H.W. Bush was as enthusiastic for a breakthrough. Just six months into Bush’s presidency, Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died. Journalists and diplomats saw Khomeini’s successor, former President Ali Khamenei as a moderate. As Khamenei took the leadership, he was replaced as president by the clerical businessman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who, the day after taking office, suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the hostages that Iranian proxies in Lebanon still held.

In an episode I detail in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, Rafsanjani privately told intermediaries that U.S. gestures might catalyze their release. American diplomats smelled a process—an allure that few diplomats can resist. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler voiced her belief that “Iran is genuinely engaged.” Bush issued a national security directive saying that the United States should prepare for “a normal relationship with Iran on the basis of strict reciprocity,” and he asked UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to serve as an intermediary between the national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and Iran’s new president. Pérez de Cuéllar sent Giandomenico Picco, a career UN bureaucrat, to Tehran and met Rafsanjani, where he got a surprise: Rafsanjani dismissed the idea of negotiating the release of hostages out of hand: to talk would be to admit culpability in taking hostages in the first place. Within the Iranian context, there’s a huge difference between projecting the image of moderations and actually being will to act moderately. Coming clean is not something the Iranian government is willing to do.

Hence, it has been the case with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. The irony of those who seize upon the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to argue that Iran doesn’t have any military nuclear program is that the 2007 NIE acknowledged that Iran had earlier had just that: after all, experimenting within nuclear weapons triggers is not part and parcel of the energy cycle. And yet, rather than hold Iran to account and, at a minimum demand that Iran comes clean, the Obama administration seems willing to allow Iran simply to sweep its earlier cheating under the rug. If a nuclear agreement is meant to be a fresh start, however, there is no reason why Iran should not come clean fully. At the very least, intelligence can gauge their sincerity by comparing Iranian admissions with what the Central Intelligence Agency believes it knows through its own sources and methods.

The same failure to demand accountability occurs with regard to continued Iranian involvement in terrorism. That the Islamic Republic facilitated the 9/11 attacks was revealed by none other than the 9/11 Commission. The latest revelations that the documents seized from the Bin Laden compound show continued Iranian complacency with Al Qaeda come as little surprise to Iran watchers, but do raise questions about the Obama administration’s efforts to cover up that fact behind a barrier of classification and a simple refusal to release those documents found in the Abbottabad compound.

While those Al Qaeda documents might now be in the headlines thanks to the dogged work of terrorism expert Thomas Jocelyn, there are other aspects of Iran’s terror sponsorship that requires as much exposure and explanation. Take the latest reported in the pan-Arab daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat:

Iran has been coordinating with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2007 with the aim of carrying out terror attacks against US targets in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, informed sources have told Asharq Al-Awsat. Speaking under condition of anonymity, the sources said coordination between Iran and the global terrorist organization was mainly taking place through Saudi citizen Saleh Al-Qarawi, a senior member of the organization who is on the Kingdom’s most-wanted lists and is the founder of Al-Qaeda affiliate the Abdullah Al-Azzam Brigades. The sources contend Qarawi is the main Al-Qaeda figure coordinating operations from inside Iran, where they say he has been moving freely for a number of years and from where he has been recruiting other Saudi citizens for the organization and coordinating their movement into Iran from the Kingdom. Along with Abdul Mohsen Al-Sharikh, another senior Saudi member of the organization—and also on the Kingdom’s most-wanted lists—the sources accuse Qarawi of planning a terror attack in Saudi Arabia aiming to abduct US citizens residing in the country. The plan eventually failed but the sources say Qarawi and Iran have been coordinating on several other operations, including a planned attack in 2007 against a US army base in Jordan which was foiled by the Jordanian authorities. Qarawi and Iran have also coordinated on another failed operation, the sources said, which planned to attack the US embassy [sic– should be consulate] in Dubai using either a drone aircraft loaded with missiles and bombs or by having a pilot fly a small aircraft used for flight instruction into the embassy building.

It’s admirable to want to bring an end to the enmity which exists between Iran and the United States. But to do it when Tehran seems so unwilling to come clean and stop its efforts to kill Americans does not advance peace; it only emboldens an already overconfident adversary. If Iran wants peace, let them come clean, change their behavior, and make amends. But under no circumstances should the Obama administration or its senior diplomats and officials give Tehran a free pass.

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Is Turkey Hosting Hamas Training Camps?

I was on the set of a Turkish news talk show—maybe SkyTürk or CNNTürk—in Istanbul back in 2006 when news broke that the Turkish government would welcome the leader of Hamas in Turkey. Hamas had won Palestinian elections a few weeks previous, but Turkey’s decision to host the unrepentant terrorist group took both Turks and the West by surprise.

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I was on the set of a Turkish news talk show—maybe SkyTürk or CNNTürk—in Istanbul back in 2006 when news broke that the Turkish government would welcome the leader of Hamas in Turkey. Hamas had won Palestinian elections a few weeks previous, but Turkey’s decision to host the unrepentant terrorist group took both Turks and the West by surprise.

After all, in the wake of the Palestinian elections, the European Union, the United States, and other countries had demanded that Hamas first acquiesce to the basis of the Oslo Accords—that is foreswearing terrorism and recognizing Israel—before it would be a welcome player in the international community. This was good diplomacy, after all, because the precondition of the Palestinian Authority’s existence was the Palestinian abandonment of terror and recognition of Israel. It was not an optional aspect to the agreement. Should the Palestinian Authority cease respecting that aspect of the agreement, Israel would be justified legally in returning to the status quo ante.

The reason for the surprise at Turkish actions was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel just days before that Turkey would not invite the Hamas leader. Erdoğan thought he would be too clever by half, however, and explained that the invitation came not at the behest of Turkey but rather by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which dominated the Turkish government.

Over subsequent years, the relationship between Erdoğan and Hamas grew tighter. Erdoğan’s affair with Hamas had little to do with sympathy toward the Palestinian cause—after all, this was a cause he undermined by favoring Hamas over Fatah—but rather with Hamas’ Islamist and perhaps anti-Semitic vision. Hamas leaders inside Turkey planned recent terrorist plots against Israel.

Perhaps the United States was willing to turn a blind eye toward Erdoğan’s dalliance with a terror group. That might have simply been a factor of the man in the Oval Office. But, if the latest reports are true, then Erdoğan has gone far beyond the realm of plausible deniability. From Israel’s Ynetnews:

Relations been Israel and Turkey have been on a slippery downward slope in recent years; of late, however, the situation has led to grave consequences beyond the realm of politics: Turkey has become a Hamas hotbed, and members of the organization’s military wing are undergoing military training on Turkish soil, with the knowledge, support and assistance of the local authorities. The U.S. administration has appealed in recent months to the Turkish government to prevent Hamas military activity in its territory, arguing that Turkey is a member of NATO and that most NATO members view Hamas as a terrorist organization. The appeals have gone unanswered.

The idea that Turkey—a NATO member—would allow military training camps on its soil for a group designated by the United States and much the rest of the West as a terrorist organization is not something that can be diplomatically cast aside. Just as states—even allied states—are designated as deficient when it comes to combating human trafficking or money laundering on the logic that they work to rectify their status, so too it is time to designate Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism with whatever sanctions incumbent levied until such a time as Turkey rectifies its behavior. Such a designation might have financial implications in the defense sector and general investment, but quiet diplomacy simply has not worked. It’s time to hold Turkey to account.

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An Island of Normalization in the Mideast?

An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

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An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

The QIZ, which the U.S. created 10 years ago in order to bolster Egyptian-Israeli peace by encouraging economic collaboration, allows Egypt to export textiles to America duty-free if Israel contributes a certain percentage of their value. But until now, Egypt has kept its cooperation with Israel as low-profile and limited as possible due to the sweeping consensus against normalization.

After all, this is a country where a leading author was expelled from the writers’ union and saw his books banned for the “crime” of traveling to Israel and writing about his experiences. It’s a country where translated Israeli books sparked such outrage that the culture minister had to defend himself from accusations of “normalization” by saying the translations were intended only to enable Egyptians to “know their enemy” and promising that the project would involve no contact with Israeli publishers, but only with the Israeli authors’ foreign publishers. It’s a country where every candidate in the 2012 presidential election vowed to either scrap or “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel. And none of this was long ago.

Yet now, suddenly, Egypt is running a joint booth with Israel at a trade fair and discussing ways to expand the QIZ.

In part, this may indicate that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is more serious about trying to improve his country’s battered economy than he’s often given credit for–to the point that he’s even willing to bolster cooperate with Israel to do so, despite the risk of antagonizing the anti-normalization trolls, who quite definitely still exist.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this happening without the growing recognition that Egypt and Israel face a common enemy: the Islamist terrorists in the Sinai and their Palestinian collaborators from Gaza. As a result, not only has security cooperation between the two defense establishments never been closer, but attitudes have also begun changing among ordinary Egyptians. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, some Egyptian media commentators openly rooted for Israel to defeat Hamas (which an Egyptian court has since declared a terrorist organization).

Just how much Egypt’s enemy list has changed in recent years was somewhat ironically highlighted by a front-page article in the daily Al Ahram last week, after ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the Obama administration refused to support Egypt’s retaliatory airstrikes. In the best tradition of Egyptian conspiracy theories, the article accused Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. of collaborating to sow “chaos and destruction” in Egypt. Notably absent from the list was the usual suspect–the one that used to routinely figure as the villain in every Egyptian conspiracy theory, like the 2010 classic that blamed the Mossad for shark attacks on Sinai beaches.

Having long since despaired of the dream that the cold peace with Egypt would someday thaw into normalization, most Israelis figured the new and improved security coordination was as good as it gets and expected nothing more. And yet, improbably, more seems to be happening. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything more “normalized” than a joint booth at a trade fair. And it offers hope that just maybe, something good can emerge from the current Mideast madness.

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Stop Letting Qatar Set the Rules

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific story about the tangled relationship between the U.S. and Qatar.

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The Wall Street Journal has a terrific story about the tangled relationship between the U.S. and Qatar.

The article notes: “American officials said the U.S. has uncovered Qatari connections—such as involvement by members of the emirate’s elite business, religious and academic circles—in financing for Hamas, al Qaeda and Islamic State.” Qatar also has close ties to the al-Nusra Front, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood. And of course it also funds Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab TV network that has a decidedly anti-American bias.

Yet at the same time Qatar hosts the forward operating headquarters of Central Command and allows one of its airbases, Al Udeid, to be used by U.S. aircraft to attack ISIS.

Qatar, in short, has perfected the double game of appeasing both the U.S. and its enemies. It’s obvious why Qatar does this: It’s a good survival strategy. What’s less clear is why the U.S. allows Qatar to keep getting away with its duplicity. According to the Journal, the Obama administration even nixed an idea to move a U.S. fighter squadron out of Qatar as a sign of displeasure.

That’s ridiculous. The U.S. should threaten to remove not just a squadron but our entire military presence from Qatar. The fact is, Qatar needs us a lot more than we need Qatar. The U.S. military has bases in all of the other Gulf sheikdoms. It’s hard to see why the infrastructure in Qatar couldn’t easily be shifted to Kuwait or the UAE. But Qatar needs U.S. protection, and if that’s withdrawn that would be increase the risk to the ruling family.

By allowing a postage stamp-sized country like Qatar to push us around, the U.S. is making itself neither feared nor respected. It’s well past time to make a significant move to signal what we really think of Qatar’s double game.

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Ash Carter’s Happy Talk

It’s hardly surprising that the new secretary of defense, Ash Carter, emerged from a long meeting in Kuwait with American generals and diplomats to pronounce himself satisfied with the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). Imagine the headlines if the new Pentagon chief had said that the campaign was unsatisfactory! But what counts is not what Carter says for public consumption. The real question is whether he has swallowed the Kool-Aid or not–and whether his generals have too.

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It’s hardly surprising that the new secretary of defense, Ash Carter, emerged from a long meeting in Kuwait with American generals and diplomats to pronounce himself satisfied with the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). Imagine the headlines if the new Pentagon chief had said that the campaign was unsatisfactory! But what counts is not what Carter says for public consumption. The real question is whether he has swallowed the Kool-Aid or not–and whether his generals have too.

It’s not easy to tell from his public comments, which amount to saying that the Islamic State is “hardly invincible” and that its “lasting defeat … can and will be accomplished.” That may be true, but he left unclear exactly how and when its defeat will be accomplished.

Certainly in the case of Syria–where the U.S. has all but given up training the Free Syrian Army–it is hard to see any ground force on the horizon capable of beating ISIS unless it belongs to Hezbollah, whose victory would hardly be much of an improvement. In Iraq, there is slightly more reason for hope but only if the U.S. relies on Iranian-backed Shiite militias whose takeover, again, would not be any improvement on ISIS.

Lately senior U.S. officers have been bragging that Mosul will be liberated as soon as April or May. But it seems unlikely that this feat could be accomplished by majority Sunni forces since little progress has been made in mobilizing Sunni tribes and the Iraqi Security Forces, which were designed to be genuinely multi-sectarian, have largely fallen apart. That leaves the Shiite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga as the most capable striking forces, but neither one has any credibility in west Mosul, the Sunni part of town.

It’s possible that the assault force could penetrate Mosul and win some victories against the relatively small number of Islamic State militants who are said to be garrisoning the town–especially if the White House lifts the prohibition on allowing U.S. Special Operations Forces and combat-air-controllers to accompany the assault force into battle. But it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly hold the city afterwards. Unless the U.S. can cobble together a capable and credible Sunni force, the likely result would be long-term chaos, with continuing urban warfare that would allow the Islamic State and/or other extremist groups to assert their influence once again.

And that’s to focus only on the difficulty of driving ISIS out of Mosul. Don’t forget that ISIS also controls much of the rest of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. And no matter how hard-pressed ISIS becomes in Iraq, it can always simply cross the Iraq-Syria border and regroup within its Syrian territory where, as previously mentioned, it remains virtually unchallenged.

Ash Carter is a smart guy. Presumably he knows all this. The question, impossible to answer from the outside, is whether he still genuinely believes ISIS is on its way to defeat or whether he’s just making such statements for public consumption. Whichever the case, he has embarked on a dangerous start to his tenure in office, because happy talk for public consumption has a way of overriding any private concerns and taking control of the official mindset. We have already seen the high cost of having an overly optimistic secretary of defense who buys bogus claims of progress from his generals. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Iraq in 2003-2007.

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Verdict on Palestinian Terror Ends Abbas Masquerade as a Force for Peace

Today’s verdict in a federal court in New York City won’t end Palestinian terrorism. Nor will it force the Palestinian Authority or its foreign cheerleaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state or to cease working for its destruction. But the results of the trial in which a jury rightly held the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization responsible for terror attacks carried out during the Second Intifada, in which several Americans were killed and wounded, should remove any doubt about the fact that so-called Palestinian moderates are as connected to terrorism as more extreme factions like Hamas. As significant as the stunning $218.5 million in damages (that will be automatically tripled to $655.5 million under U.S. law because it involves terrorism) assessed against the defendants, the really important point is that the decision strips away the veneer of respectability that figures such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas have acquired from both the Obama administration and the mainstream media.

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Today’s verdict in a federal court in New York City won’t end Palestinian terrorism. Nor will it force the Palestinian Authority or its foreign cheerleaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state or to cease working for its destruction. But the results of the trial in which a jury rightly held the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization responsible for terror attacks carried out during the Second Intifada, in which several Americans were killed and wounded, should remove any doubt about the fact that so-called Palestinian moderates are as connected to terrorism as more extreme factions like Hamas. As significant as the stunning $218.5 million in damages (that will be automatically tripled to $655.5 million under U.S. law because it involves terrorism) assessed against the defendants, the really important point is that the decision strips away the veneer of respectability that figures such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas have acquired from both the Obama administration and the mainstream media.

The case was the work of Shurat HaDin — The Israel Law Center, which, under the leadership of Israeli attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has waged an effective legal campaign against the perpetrators of terror. Darshan-Leitner and the American lawyers who have tried some of these cases have been able to bring the terrorists, their sponsors, as well as their enablers to the bar of justice. Last fall’s verdict in the case against The Arab Bank set down a precedent in which financial institutions could be held accountable for knowingly processing transactions that allow terror groups to do business. In this case against the PA and the PLO, they have brought to light the direct involvement of these institutions in the organization and financing of terrorism.

The reaction from the Obama administration to these verdicts is likely to be consternation. The federal government has opposed all efforts on the part of terror victims to get justice in these cases. But the State Department will be particularly motivated to aid the defendants now. The PA is a kleptocracy run by people like Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat, who have looted the billions in U.S. and Western aid given to the Palestinians over the last two decades. Yet the gravy train never stops for Abbas and company since they are viewed by the Israelis as a necessary evil without whom they would be forced to govern the West Bank themselves while the Obama administration continues to promote the PA as a courageous force for peace even though the record demonstrates they are the principal obstacle to reconciliation.

Recently, Israel has withheld some of the tax revenue it collects for the Palestinians from the PA as a punishment for Abbas’s decision to trash its Oslo Accords commitments by seeking to have the United Nations recognize their independence and to harass the Jewish state in the International Court. So the prospect of being docked more than half a billion is a huge problem for a government that is already bankrupted. But that shouldn’t justify any U.S. actions seeking to overturn the verdicts.

Put simply, the U.S. courts have decided not to let the Palestinians get away with murder. Nor should the administration. Peace will come the moment the Palestinians decided to abandon their opposition to a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Until then, they should not count on an unending U.S. revenue stream or impunity for their involvement in terror. Justice prevailed in a New York courtroom today. As painful as it may be for him to admit that it is Abbas and not his bête noire Benjamin Netanyahu who is the problem, it’s time for President Obama to stop engaging in denial about Palestinian reality. Support for peace or sympathy for the Palestinians should not cause the administration to seek to obstruct that verdict.

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Obama’s Multipronged Assault on Truth and Reality

President Obama is fond of invoking the term “narrative,” so it’s worth considering several instances in which he invokes exactly the wrong narrative–the wrong frame–around events.

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President Obama is fond of invoking the term “narrative,” so it’s worth considering several instances in which he invokes exactly the wrong narrative–the wrong frame–around events.

The most obvious is the president’s repeated insistence that militant Islam is utterly disconnected from the Islamic faith. As this much-discussed essay in the Atlantic points out:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

The author, Graeme Wood, adds this:

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

President Obama continues to insist the opposite, pretending that what is true is false, and even suggesting those who are speaking the truth are actually endangering the lives of innocent people. This makes Mr. Obama’s comments offensive as well as ignorant.

But that hardly exhausts the examples of false narratives employed by the president. As this exchange between Fox’s Ed Henry and White House press secretary Josh Earnest demonstrates, in its statement the White House avoided saying that the 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by members of ISIS were Christian, even though that was the reason they were beheaded. At the same time the president suggested that the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina was because they were Muslim, when in fact that wasn’t by any means clear when the White House issued its statement. (The shooting appears to have involved a long-standing dispute over parking.) So when Christian faith is a factor in a massacre, it’s denied, and when there’s no evidence that the Islamic faith was a factor in a killing, it’s nevertheless asserted.

And then there was the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the president and his attorney general constantly spoke about the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson as if race was a factor in the shooting. That assertion is fiction. It was an invention, just as it was an invention to suggest, as the president did back in 2009, that the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley was racially motivated.

Here, then, are three separate examples of the president imposing a false narrative on events. (I could cite many others.) Which makes Mr. Obama a truly post-modern president, in which there is no objective truth but simply narrative. Mr. Obama doesn’t just distort the facts; he inverts them. He makes things up as he goes along. This kind of thing isn’t unusual to find in the academy. But to see a president and his aides so thoroughly deconstruct truth is quite rare, and evidence of a stunningly rigid and dogmatic mind.

The sheer audacity of Mr. Obama’s multipronged assault on truth is one of the more troubling aspects of his deeply troubling presidency.

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Palestinian Rock Throwing and the Humanity of a Jewish Child

One of the more familiar themes of those seeking to rationalize or even justify Palestinian rock throwing is to treat it as a largely harmless activity, especially when compared to the force the Israeli Defense Forces can bring to bear when it is engaged in combat. But earlier this week we received yet another reminder of how dishonest these arguments can be. On Tuesday, four-year-old Adele Bitton lost a fight for her life that began in March 2013 when rocks thrown by Palestinians into a car driven by her mother near the West Bank city of Ariel sent the vehicle crashing into a truck. She had been unresponsive since the attack due to neurologic injuries suffered in the attack. But little Adele bravely held on until she finally died of a respiratory infection. She is not the first Jew to be murdered as a result of this practice and probably won’t be the last. Palestinians may treat it like a national sport but rock throwing is a murderous terrorist crime, not a mere protest tactic.

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One of the more familiar themes of those seeking to rationalize or even justify Palestinian rock throwing is to treat it as a largely harmless activity, especially when compared to the force the Israeli Defense Forces can bring to bear when it is engaged in combat. But earlier this week we received yet another reminder of how dishonest these arguments can be. On Tuesday, four-year-old Adele Bitton lost a fight for her life that began in March 2013 when rocks thrown by Palestinians into a car driven by her mother near the West Bank city of Ariel sent the vehicle crashing into a truck. She had been unresponsive since the attack due to neurologic injuries suffered in the attack. But little Adele bravely held on until she finally died of a respiratory infection. She is not the first Jew to be murdered as a result of this practice and probably won’t be the last. Palestinians may treat it like a national sport but rock throwing is a murderous terrorist crime, not a mere protest tactic.

Like the justifications heard for the rockets launched indiscriminately at Israeli cities, towns and villages, apologists for the Palestinians say they should be allowed to throw rocks because they don’t have tanks or an air force. For Palestinians, the sight of a Jew in a car living in a place where Arabs would prefer no Jews to live is enough to justify a rock thrown at a moving vehicle. But whatever one thinks about West Bank settlements, the rocks are lethal weapons. When used in this manner they are a practice that any American who was subjected to similar treatment on a U.S. highway would consider attempted murder.

The rocks thrown by Palestinians are neither acts of peaceful disobedience or a plea for Israel to withdraw to the June 1967 lines. To the contrary, like the rockets launched by Hamas, they are a visceral expression of the Palestinian belief that any Jew living anywhere in the country, whether in the West Bank or pre-1967 Israel are fair game for murder. Those who throw them may be depicted as kids just engaging in youthful pranks or conducting a protest against Israeli policies. But the truth is that they are part of a process by which Palestinian youths are desensitized to the humanity of their Jewish neighbors.

The death of this child wasn’t mourned, let alone mentioned in the Western press. Israel’s critics don’t care about her because she was a “settler” and therefore worthy of being singled out for murder. But, like the Palestinian children who are used as human shields by Hamas terrorists, she was a human being whose right to life deserved to be respected. May her memory be for a blessing and may those responsible for her death and the many other Israelis who have been injured and terrorized in this fashion be punished for their crimes.

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Islamism and Obama’s Dangerous Flight from Reality

This past week has been dominated by comments by the president in which he continues to insist that the brutal acts of violence by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic terrorist groups are completely unrelated to Islam, to the point that he and his administration look absurd in their efforts to avoid using words like “radical Islam” or variations of it.

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This past week has been dominated by comments by the president in which he continues to insist that the brutal acts of violence by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic terrorist groups are completely unrelated to Islam, to the point that he and his administration look absurd in their efforts to avoid using words like “radical Islam” or variations of it.

Let me explain why there’s more to all this than simply semantics, starting with this proposition: Engaging in acts of deception and self-deception is unwise. Yet that is precisely what Mr. Obama is doing. He persists in putting forth a false narrative that he insists is a true one. And then there is the supreme arrogance of the president, assuming that his pronouncements about Islam will be received by the Muslim world like pronouncements of the Pope will be received by the Catholic world. Of course, this is a man who declared that if elected president he would stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, so it shouldn’t shock us that he believes his shallow and incomplete theological interpretations of Islam will carry weight across the Islamic world.

Memo to Mr. Obama: They won’t. Having you lecture the Islamic world about the true nature of Islam actually strengthens the jihadists, who will be thrilled to get in a theological debate in which the Christian president of the United States offers one view and Islamic jihadists and imams offer another.

You might also think an American president would understand that in order to defeat an enemy you need to understand the nature of the enemy you face; that in order to win a war, you need to understand the nature of the war you are in. But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama understands neither, which explains why he’s so inept at prosecuting this war and why the Islamic State is extending its reach beyond Syria and Iraq into nations like Algeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya.

The president, then, is utterly clueless and misdiagnosing the problem. Think if you had a pain in your chest and assumed it was heart burn when it was a heart attack. That would be a problem, since to address the threat you have to diagnosis it correctly. When it comes to Islamism, Mr. Obama is badly misdiagnosing the threat we face.

If it were merely a matter of semantics, it would concern me less. If he were waging this war successfully, with intelligence, purpose, and focus, and an unbreakable will to win, he could refer to ISIS as the Islamic version of the Quakers–even, as absurd as it sounds, as a “jayvee team”–and most of us might be willing to overlook it. But in this case, the president’s flawed semantics are a manifestation of a badly confused mind and a fundamentally flawed worldview. And this, in turn, is causing him to downplay the threat we face.

As a result of this, Mr. Obama is waging this war (his attorney general insists we’re not at war) in a half-hearted, going-through-the-motions fashion, constantly putting constraints on what he’s willing to do to confront ISIS specifically and militant Islam more broadly. For example, the president, in sending Congress a use-of-force resolution against ISIS, wants to put into statutory language that Congress “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” He announced the surge of forces in Afghanistan–and declared in the very same speech a withdrawal date. By bungling the Status of Forces Agreement, we ended up withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq, which has led to a descent into chaos and violence. The president was told by many members of his national-security team to support the moderate opposition in Syria, yet he refused until it was too late. He declared the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi to be a great success, only to ignore Libya, which is now a failed state and a haven for jihadists. In interviews, Mr. Obama continually underplays the threat we face. And minutes after speaking about the beheading of an American by ISIS, the president, in a staggeringly inappropriate display, hit the links for a round of golf. In all these actions and more, he is advertising his unseriousness and weakness to our enemies and our allies, many of whom no longer trust us.

To be sure, militant Islam is not a dominant current of thought within Islam. But it is a current of thought that exists and is particularly malevolent and virulent. If Mr. Obama understood this, he might be more prepared to combat it and defeat it. And defeating it on the battlefield is, at the end of the day, the best and really the only way to delegitimize it in the Muslim world. To show them and the world, including the Islamic world, that we are the “strong horse” and they are the “weak horse.”

The president should get on with this task. But we’ve all seen enough to know he won’t. As a result, much death and great horror will continue to spread throughout the world, and eventually, I fear, to America itself.

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Obama Misses the Point About Fighting ISIS

President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

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President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

The president was right to say, “We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion.” But what he neglected to do entirely was to mention the most important way to counter the violent message of what is now the world’s most successful (and most threatening) terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood offers a long and invaluable analysis of what it is that ISIS wants and how to counter it. In the first place, he refutes the canard, popularized in good faith by President Obama, that ISIS is somehow “un-Islamic.” In point of fact, as Wood notes, ISIS leaders “insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”

There is no doubt that, mercifully, ISIS’s is a minority reading of Islam but that does not change the fact that its ideology is rooted in Islam and has legitimacy among some Muslims. A refusal to confront that reality will not help us defeat ISIS.

What will help defeat ISIS? Wood makes an important point here:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

In short, if we can roll back ISIS’s territorial control, we will dissipate its appeal. How we can do that is subject to debate. Wood himself writes that suggestions from some analysts, such as Fred Kagan and me, to deploy tens of thousands of troops to fight ISIS are misguided and will backfire. He writes: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options.”

And yet many months of those air strikes have failed to dislodge ISIS from the vast majority of its territory in Syria and Iraq–which, as Wood notes, is the only way to defeat this evil organization. At best those air strikes have blunted ISIS’ momentum in Iraq. In Syria they have not done even that much: ISIS has continued to expand its territorial control even while being bombed. This means, as Wood writes, that “an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.”

Wood is compelling in analyzing the ISIS threat–less so in suggesting a solution. His work points to the imperative for the US to do more to deny ISIS territorial control. That is why I have suggested the new for more than 10,000 US personnel to be deployed, primarily in an advise and assist capacity, so as to galvanize opposition to ISIS primarily among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Yes, this carries risks–but so does allowing ISIS to continue expanding, not only in the Levant, but also as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan.

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Two Simple Ways Turkey Can Undercut the Islamic State

It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

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It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

Turkey has provided medical aid, safe haven, and perhaps even weaponry to the Islamic State. But its biggest contribution has been free passage. A huge preponderance of the foreign fighters flowing into Syria and Iraq have transited Turkey. It’s as easy as flying in on Turkish Air, transferring to a domestic flight to Gazientep or Hatay near the Syrian border, and then paying a taxi driver to go to the border. Turkish border guards at most charge a $40 bribe to turn the other way, according to journalists and analysts who have made the journey.

I spent much of the last week in Morocco for the Marrakech Security Forum, where I had the opportunity to speak to Arab security professionals. Issues relating to foreign fighters dominated conversations. For example, why is it that so many Moroccans fight for the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq and yet are poorly represented in Boko Haram’s emirate or in Libya, where the Islamic State is also resurgent? Or, conversely, since Islamist radicalism is rife in Algeria, why is it that Algerians are relatively poorly represented in the Islamic State, but yet are ever present in the Libyan fight?

Sometimes, the answers are mundane. It comes down to the Turkish visa regimen. Turkey does not require visas for Moroccans, making Syria accessible to would-be Moroccan jihadists. Ditto for Libyans, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Tunisians. And yet, Turkey requires visas for Algerians, hence the relatively small number of Algerians fighting in Syria and Iraq. It’s simply much easier for Algerians to fight in Libya which has proximity in its favor.

Meanwhile, Moroccans have reported a shift over time in how their extremists travel to fight in self-conceived jihads. In the past, Islamist enablers would recruit young Moroccans and help facilitate their travel to the world’s hotspots. Today, however, most of the Moroccans traveling to join the Islamic State understand they need only fly to Istanbul and then they will easily find a facilitator inside Turkey. Whether in Istanbul’s airports or in regional cities, Islamic state spotters find young would-be jihadis exiting the airport and make themselves known. Picture pimps at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York approaching girls coming off buses from the Midwest in the 1970s; when you’re trained to spot the young and naive, it’s relatively easy work.

This raises two simple policy fixes which might cut off some of the oxygen from the Islamic State:

  • First, if Turkey is serious about the fight against terrorism, it needs to start requiring visas in advance from nationalities which today serve as the chief recruiting pool for the Islamic State. Businessmen and legitimate tourists won’t have a problem applying, and Turkish intelligence might benefit from the vetting as well.
  • And, second, if would-be Islamic State fighters have no problem finding Islamic State fixers in and around Turkey’s airports, then it’s curious that the Turkish intelligence service can’t identify and round them up. Here, the problem is likely less ability than desire on the part of the Turkish government. But that’s no reason to deflect diplomatic attention to a real problem. Once again, perhaps it’s time to designate Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism if only to pressure the Erdoğan government to do what a responsible member of the international community would have done years ago.

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Why Governments “Invest” in the Clintons

“The Clinton Foundation has dropped its self-imposed ban on collecting funds from foreign governments and is winning contributions at an accelerating rate,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “raising ethical questions as Hillary Clinton ramps up her expected bid for the presidency.” After Clinton left the State Department, it appears the foundation quietly resumed passing the hat around to foreign governments, who are no doubt well aware they’re dealing with the possible next president. It sounds icky–as almost any story about Clintonian influence peddling does. But it’s worth taking a stroll down memory lane to point out that the ethical questions it raises are not simply theoretical.

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“The Clinton Foundation has dropped its self-imposed ban on collecting funds from foreign governments and is winning contributions at an accelerating rate,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “raising ethical questions as Hillary Clinton ramps up her expected bid for the presidency.” After Clinton left the State Department, it appears the foundation quietly resumed passing the hat around to foreign governments, who are no doubt well aware they’re dealing with the possible next president. It sounds icky–as almost any story about Clintonian influence peddling does. But it’s worth taking a stroll down memory lane to point out that the ethical questions it raises are not simply theoretical.

In 1995, 20-year-old Alisa Flatow, a North Jersey native, was killed in a terrorist attack in Gaza. The investigation that followed eventually showed Iran’s hand in the attack, and in Palestinian terror in general. The family sued the Iranian government, and won $247.5 million in damages. It was enabled by legislation: the Antiterrorism Act of 1996 allowed Americans to bring suit against foreign governments which are also sponsors of terrorism, and then-New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg added an amendment to put teeth in the bill.

Iran, obviously, refused to pay up. So a judge ordered Iranian assets in America to be seized and sold to pay the judgment. That’s when the Iranians got some help–from President Bill Clinton. As Seth Lipsky wrote last year:

When it came time for Flatow to collect, an incredible thing happened. The Clinton administration went into court and took the side of Iran against Alisa.

It had panicked when Flatow, aiming to enforce the judgment he’d won, sought to claim a building that the Iran ambassador had used as a residence in Washington. Enforcing the judgment, the Clinton administration claimed, would wreak diplomatic havoc. Eventually, the U.S. government paid Flatow and a number of other terror victims a small settlement out of taxpayer funds. In exchange, the U.S. government, at least in theory, will eventually get to settle up with Iran.

One of the Iranian assets was a building at 650 Fifth Avenue in New York, which was partially owned by the Alavi Foundation. The U.S. government tried to argue that Alavi was not an Iranian-government asset and so should be left alone. But the investigation, spearheaded by former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office, eventually found otherwise and also found that two major world banks, Credit Suisse and Lloyds, were helping the Iranians illegally access the American financial system. The case soon also found similar action by French bank BNP Paribas, which last year pled guilty.

But the Alavi Foundation was grateful for Clinton’s intervention on the Iranian government’s behalf and against the victims of terrorism. In 2006 and again in 2008, the foundation donated more than $50,000 total to the Clinton Foundation.

Again: as president, Clinton protected Iranian front groups from being held accountable for terror. They thanked him by cutting fat checks to Clinton after he left office.

This is why stories such as the Journal’s make people uncomfortable. It’s because the Clintons’ behavior is too often just as slimy as it appears. It doesn’t just sound bad–it is. It’s also a reminder that what the Iranians are doing now to Barack Obama they did to Clinton too: demand (and receive) protection and a degree of immunity in return for negotiations that go nowhere.

According to the Journal, first-time donors include the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have ramped up donations as well. And it’s important to note that ever since 2008 (or even before), governments understand that when they’re dealing with Hillary Clinton they’re dealing with someone who might soon be the most powerful person in the world. Back in 2012, I called attention to this passage from Susan Glasser’s story on Hillary’s negotiations with the Chinese government to free dissident Chen Guangcheng:

What would it take for her to run again for president in 2016? “Nothing,” she replied quickly. Then she laughed. Even the Chinese, she said, had asked her about it at Wednesday night’s dinner, suggesting she should run. They were “saying things like, ‘Well, you know, I mean 2016 is not so far away.… You may retire, but you’re very young,’” Clinton recalled.

Maybe, I ventured, that’s why they had in the end been willing to accommodate her on Chen; they were investing in a future with a possible President Clinton.

Not “maybe.” The Clintons are an investment, and they always have been. And as president, Hillary wouldn’t be able to pick and choose which issues to deal with. As American University’s James Thurber told the Journal, “she can’t recuse herself.” That the Clintons have chosen to renew foreign donations on the eve of Hillary’s presidential campaign shows that the more things change, the more the Clintons stay the same.

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What If ISIS Spreads to Pakistan?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love one. The U.S. military-led surge in Iraq largely pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq into oblivion, but the uprising against the Arab Spring created a space for radical Islamists to incubate. The Bashar al-Assad regime ironically found the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)’s presence useful both because he could hold them up as the alternative to his rule and because they often did the dirty work targeting the more moderate opposition. For his part, President Obama opposed any military action in Syria. Rather than excise the tumor when it was small, the United States sat aside as it metastasized, creating the circumstances that last summer enabled the Islamic State to bulldoze through much of Iraq and Syria. Even this was not inevitable: tumors need oxygen, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist dictator, provided it, allowing men and munitions to traverse the Turkey-Syrian border. Libya increasingly risks being the next Syria.

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Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love one. The U.S. military-led surge in Iraq largely pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq into oblivion, but the uprising against the Arab Spring created a space for radical Islamists to incubate. The Bashar al-Assad regime ironically found the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)’s presence useful both because he could hold them up as the alternative to his rule and because they often did the dirty work targeting the more moderate opposition. For his part, President Obama opposed any military action in Syria. Rather than excise the tumor when it was small, the United States sat aside as it metastasized, creating the circumstances that last summer enabled the Islamic State to bulldoze through much of Iraq and Syria. Even this was not inevitable: tumors need oxygen, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist dictator, provided it, allowing men and munitions to traverse the Turkey-Syrian border. Libya increasingly risks being the next Syria.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate might sound overwrought in the West, but Arab security experts in the Middle East with whom I have spoken in recent weeks say it has been tremendously inspiring to Islamists across the world. In Libya, the Sinai, and the Sahel, Islamist terrorist groups swore loyalty to the Islamic State. Boko Haram seeks its own caliphate, but nevertheless expressed its support to Baghdadi.

Clearly, the Islamic State brand reverberates. No matter how much the White House and State Department deny the Islamic basis of the Islamic State, it is resilient and attractive to many in the Islamic world. Right now, the Islamic State talks about conquering Rome, and while lone wolf and sleeper cell terrorism in Europe will continue to be a threat, a full-fledged invasion of Europe is unlikely. The nightmare scenario about which policymakers should be most concerned is a spread of the Islamic State to Pakistan.

Before 9/11, I spent a few weeks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, the group was desperate for recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and continues to embrace an essentially nationalist vision. Ditto the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban group which continues to dominate and terrorize Pakistan’s tribal territory, with ambitions throughout Pakistan. However, as Osama bin Laden once said, everyone loves the strong horse, and the Islamic State—which dismisses modern nationalism as illegitimate—has certainly proven itself that. If Pakistani radicals and militants—and there are no shortage of these in Pakistani society—shift their focus to the Islamic State, then all bets are off.

Pakistani officials might deny or even sneer at such suggestions that they are vulnerable to the Islamic State. But a consistent problem in Pakistani society has been that the elite believe that they can harness radicalism toward Pakistani ends in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and not pay the price. Simply put, the elite bubble is like a one-way mirror: Islamists can see in, but the Pakistani elite can see only their own reflection.

The danger for the West is, of course, that Pakistan is a nuclear power. What a tempting target Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be for the Islamic State or its fellow-travelers. And while Western officials have long fooled themselves into thinking states like Iran developing a bomb could be contained because Iran isn’t suicidal, clearly the Islamic State prioritizes ideology above pragmatism.

Pakistan today might seem safe, but the allure of the Islamic State is a game changer. Indeed, it can change the game in a matter of months, as it has shown in Libya. The West allowed the Islamic State to metastasize. Unfortunately, policymakers still have no clue about how horrendous its terminal phase might be.

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