As I write this, European police are searching for “hit teams” plotting attacks against civilians in Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden. Why would al-Qaeda plan such strikes now? That’s like asking why dogs bark. It’s what they do.
Al-Qaeda is in the jihad business. If al-Qaeda can’t produce, other organizations will, and then they will have the edge when it comes to raising funds from Middle Eastern radicals who control enormous and self-replenishing fortunes thanks to infidel dependence on oil.
But factor in this, too: In recent days, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been strutting upon the world stage, addressing the United Nations, denouncing capitalism, and declaring that the atrocities of 9/11 were an inside job — the work of “American intelligence” carried out in order to “reverse the declining American economy and its grip on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime.” If you think that’s insulting to Americans, imagine how Osama bin Laden must feel.
People forget — too many have never grasped — that there are two jihadi camps, one Sunni, one Shia, two sides of the same coin. They are rivals, not enemies. Often they compete. Sometimes they cooperate.
In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran — the first modern jihadi state. Thirty-one years ago next month, Iranian militants committed an act of war against America — not their last — when they seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats there hostage. The Carter administration’s feckless response sent a message. Khomeini summed it up crisply: “The Americans cannot do a thing.”
Sunni radicals — not least in Saudi Arabia,where Wahhabism, an especially supremacist and intolerant reading of Islam, is the state religion — were energized. Maybe America is not so super a power after all. Maybe the West is exhausted and in decline. Maybe the time is ripe for global revolution, for restoring Islam to the prominence it once enjoyed, still deserves, and is destined to regain. Maybe the world is ready to accept the gift of sharia, Islamic law.
Ten years later, in 1989, Khomeini kicked off the campaign to establish sharia-without-borders by ordering the assassination of Salman Rushdie, a British novelist who, Khomeini declared, had committed the “crime” of insulting Islam. Nations that valued freedom should — at a minimum — have cut all ties with Iran. They did not. Today, critics of Islam are routinely subjected to death threats; Feisal Abdul Rauf, a “moderate” imam, warns that if a mosque cannot be built on the edge of Ground Zero, Americans must expect his more extremist coreligionists to commit acts of violence against them; and the possibility of prohibiting, under international law, offenses to Islam is being seriously debated at the United Nations.
The most recent terrorist plans reportedly include “commando-style raids and hostage-taking” in European cities, the approach used by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani al-Qaeda affiliate, in Mumbai in 2008. Some intelligence analysts think these plots may have been disrupted by recent Predator-drone strikes against terrorist planners in the remote tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. But that is not certain, which is why Sweden, Britain, and France have raised their threat levels and the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert for Europe. On Tuesday, France also arrested eleven terrorist suspects.
But even as President Obama was escalating the fight against jihadis in North Waziristan, he was declining to fully utilize the non-lethal tools he has available to pressure jihadis in Tehran. In July, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act in response to Iran’s rulers’ continuing their illicit drive for nuclear weapons, their support for terrorism abroad — including against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan — and their brutal oppression of dissidents at home.
Passage of the new law has prompted dozens of foreign companies to abandon Iran. As a result, Iran’s economy has been reeling, with unemployment and inflation climbing into double digits and gasoline imports plunging along with the value of Iran’s currency.
The next step should be aggressive enforcement. But last week, President Obama sanctioned exactly one company, a Swiss-based Iranian energy-trading firm, ignoring the many other firms helping enable Iran’s nuclear-weapons-development program. How relieved must be Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Once again, Khomeini’s wisdom has been reconfirmed: “The Americans cannot do a thing.”
In Congress, members of both parties expressed disappointment. “We cannot stop here,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.). “We need to meaningfully implement the tough new sanctions law that Congress passed this summer, which holds every last company in business with Iran’s energy sector accountable, and cuts Iran off from the global economy until Iran’s rulers end their nuclear development.”
“I hope this is not as far as the executive branch is willing to go,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The heavy lifting remains undone.”
The president’s ambivalence vis-à-vis Iran coincides with Bob Woodward’s revelation that he also is not committed to defeating America’s enemies on the Afghanistan/Pakistan front. In his new book, Obama’s Wars, Woodward writes that even though Obama long ago declared Afghanistan “the good war,” the fight that had to be won, he has nonetheless been “looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out.”
If the drone attacks Obama has authorized are damaging al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, that’s to his credit. If terrorist plots on European targets have been successfully disrupted, kudos to his counterterrorism team.
Even so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this administration is failing to connect the dots and continuing to ignore the fact that a diverse collection of jihadi regimes and organizations are waging a war against the West. To insist upon viewing this global conflict as only scattered “overseas contingency operations,” or as only a war against al-Qaeda, makes it impossible to devise and implement an effective policy.
The top priorities of such a policy would include: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, disabling the Taliban in Afghanistan, and denying al-Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan.
At no time soon will we be able to destroy all terrorist cells everywhere — from Yemen to Hamburg, from Somalia to Buffalo. But terrorist planners, financiers, and operatives should face relentless pressure. Wherever they are, they should constantly fear they will be discovered and eliminated. Iran’s rulers should be under the guns — metaphorically for the present, but they need to be convinced that the days when “America cannot do a thing” are over.
Al-Qaeda and the terrorist groups it leads have a mission. Iran’s revolutionary theocrats and the terrorist groups they instruct have goals and a strategy to achieve them. One cannot say the same about the United States and the West. That is a serious disability at a critical moment in history.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.