Nine Years Since 9/11
And still so much to learn.


Clifford D. May

Nine years ago this week, I began a series of discussions about terrorism with Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and a small group of concerned philanthropists. Since Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11/01 atrocities, that won’t surprise you. What might: Our first conversation took place before, not after, terrorists hijacked passengers jets and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those with whom I met grasped this: While America was happily cashing in the post–Cold War “peace dividend,” terrorists were bombing the World Trade Center (for what turned out to be the first time), slaughtering American troops at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, bombing two American embassies in Africa, and driving an explosive-laden boat into the USS Cole. Most political leaders, intelligence analysts, academics, and journalists did not see much significance in this pattern.

In the weeks that followed, we organized the Foundation for Defense of Democracies to undertake research to better understand terrorism and the forces driving it, develop useful policy options, and help educate the public.

Among the most significant lesson I’ve learned: Terrorism is not the core of the problem. It is merely the weapon of choice for some of the regimes, movements, and ideologies that are waging a war against the U.S. and other democratic societies.

The terrorists regard themselves as “jihadis” — heroic Islamic warriors and conquerors. They see their enemies as “infidels” — enemies of Allah who deserve death and would be better off dead.  

Yes, the jihadis and those who support them have grievances against America, Europe, India, and, of course, Israel. But resolving policy differences is not their goal. Their goal is to humiliate, defeat, and subdue the West, and to restore to Muslims the power and glory they enjoyed in the distant past and which, they are confident, they are destined to enjoy again in the not-too-distant future.

Not all those who seek this restoration engage in acts of terrorism or even support them. There are those — call them “Islamists” — who are not militants. They believe non-violent strategies can more effectively hasten the transition from the rule of law as constructed by men to the rule of law as ordained by Allah, along with the transfer of global dominance from Judeo-Christian and secular societies to “the Muslim world.”

It should go without saying but probably does not: Most of the world’s Muslims are not participating in this struggle, are not eager for bloodshed, and do not want to live under clerical dictatorships. But if, as has been conservatively estimated, only 7 percent of the world’s Muslims support Jihadism and/or Islamism, that’s more than 80 million people — a formidable force backed by enormous Middle Eastern oil wealth. By contrast, Islamic reformers and peacemakers are isolated, targeted, and without substantial resources.

After 9/11, the Bush administration conceived this conflict as a “Global War on Terrorism.” The link with Islam as preached by fiery clerics was acknowledged but not examined. The Obama administration has backed away from even that incomplete analysis. Government spokesmen now talk only of “violent extremism” and “overseas contingency operations.” The first term ignores the ideologies motivating those battling us. The second term denies that it’s a serious global conflict. President Obama has conceded that al-Qaeda is at war with the U.S. — as though that’s all there was to it; as though that explained something.