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.
In his address on Iraq last week, President Obama added that “open-ended war” does not “serve” American interests. That’s true but irrelevant, since wars are not theatrical productions — you can’t just bring down the curtain at a time certain. Wars generally continue until one side wins and the other loses.
The U.S. and the West are not prepared to escalate the conflict in order to defeat our enemies any time soon. Nor are we likely to accept defeat in the near term. So what we’re left with is indeed an “open-ended war,” a long war, a low-intensity war, on a variety of fronts.
Afghanistan is one of them. It is instructive to note that the Sunday Times of London reported last weekend that Iranians are paying members of the Taliban to kill American soldiers there. Think about that: Iran’s rulers are collaborating with the Taliban, an affiliate of al-Qaeda — evidence, hardly the first, that while Shia jihadis and Sunni jihadis may be rivals, they can and do find common causes: slaughtering Americans, for one.
Political leaders and the intelligence community ought to be seriously contemplating what this means — and what it will mean if Tehran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. Based on past performance, we cannot be confident they are engaging in such contemplation.
According to the Times, Iran is financing the Taliban using aid money from the West that is being paid to Iranian firms involved in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. In other words: NATO countries are funding the slaughter of NATO troops. Will President Obama hold Iran responsible and take steps to end this practice? Will he even speak clearly of Iranian culpability?
More likely, he will repeat that our goal must be to avoid “open-ended war.” How encouraging that will be to the jihadis and Islamists in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Gaza, and other fronts. It will reassure them that, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, they are thinking strategically — while their infidel enemies are not.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.