National Security & Defense

Terrorism Is Not Random

CCTV image of Manchester bomber Salman Abedi on the night of the attack (Manchester Police/handout via Reuters)
We must look at Muslim immigration with clear eyes.

Tim McVeigh was God’s gift to the Left, and the Left will forever keep his memory alive, tending it like a kind of sacred flame.

Al-Qaeda attacks the United States on September 11, 2001? Yes, but don’t forget about McVeigh. Omar Mateen lets loose an “Allahu akbar!” before massacring 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando? Yes, but remember McVeigh. Salman Abedi and his pack of “lone” wolves get a jump on Ramadan by nail-bombing a bunch of little girls and their grandmothers at a concert in Manchester? Terrible, of course, but let us not forget about the real threat: right-wing terrorism on the McVeigh model.

The more you know about McVeigh, the less he fits the mold of right-ring extremist. He was an agnostic who declared “science is my religion,” who held views on U.S. foreign policy that fell somewhere between those of Noam Chomsky and those of Oliver Stone, and who had a weakness for adolescent Nietzschean posturing, whose final statement was William Ernest Henley’s poem “Sol Invictus,” with its romantic conclusion: “I am the captain of my soul.” But there was also the militia stuff and the Waco obsession and other aspects of his worldview that had more than a whiff of right-wingery about them. Jared Lee Loughner was obsessed with monetary policy, as was John Salvi, who feared that the Vatican was planning to issue its own currency. Lots of loons are sui generis.

But lots of them aren’t.

The Venn-diagram overlap between the world’s Muslims and the world’s terrorists may be small, but it is not trivial, and the confrontation between the Islamic world and the West puts a cold light on areas of concern beyond political violence. In the Islamic world itself, we see a heritage of high culture and great civilizational achievements, but a great deal of it looks like Karachi at the high end and rural Yemen at the low end: violent, backward, cruel, and uninterested in progress to the extent that “progress” is synonymous with Westernization — which, multiculturalist pieties notwithstanding, it is. Even if you set aside the propensity of certain Muslim fanatics to bomb pizza shops and to name public plazas in celebration of fanatics who bomb pizza shops, there’s still a lot of real life as lived in Afghanistan or Egypt that just isn’t going to fly in Chicago. In places such as Minneapolis, we have done a fairly poor job integrating the relatively small number of Muslim immigrants we already have.

And that is of some intense concern in light of the experiences of the many Western European metropolises that are today home to large and poorly assimilated Muslim minority populations, immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants, a non-trivial number of whom are not especially interested in becoming German, Dutch, Swedish, French, or British. It is from among this population that international terrorist networks are able to recruit their local boots on the ground, maladjusted misfits and losers (for once, the president’s penchant for insults is appropriate) such as Omar Mateen and Salman Abedi and the Tsarnaev brothers. It may very well be the case that 99 out of 100 members of Muslim immigrant communities reject jihadism and Islamic supremacism, but the 100th man is Salman Abedi. If you happened to live in a city that does not have a significant, poorly assimilated Muslim minority population on the Malmö model, would you want one? Why? Maybe there is invidious prejudice in that, but that is not all there is to it.

If you happened to live in a city that does not have a significant, poorly assimilated Muslim minority population on the Malmö model, would you want one?

In the case of many terrorist incidents in the West, immigration and travel to and from Islamist hot spots abroad is a part of the equation: San Bernardino, Manchester, 9/11, Orlando, 7/7. The Trump administration is trying, in its habitually incompetent way, to take that fact into consideration, twice failing to impose travel restrictions that fall well within the president’s statutory powers under U.S. immigration law. If anything, the administration does not go far enough. Anti-terrorism considerations should be a substantial part of our public policy not only where visitors’ visas and the like are concerned, but especially in the matter of immigration. The responsibility of the American government is to the American people, as sympathetic as many of those Syrian refugees might be. We do not seem to have much of a well-developed policy on them at the moment, but the most intelligent and decent one would be seeing to it that they are reasonably well looked after — in Syria, or in one of the bordering countries.

We were, impossible as it sounds to say it, in one sense lucky to have al-Qaeda as our main terrorist threat in the years immediately following September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda was, as an ideological matter, focused on spectacular attacks when it came to the West, desiring each to be more dramatic than the last. Osama bin Laden et al. found 9/11 difficult to follow up on, especially with U.S. forces hunting them down in their safe havens. The Islamic State has no such ideological limitation, and it is happy to bomb a concert here and behead a hostage there. The mullahs in Iran may dream of a nuclear Armageddon, but the Islamic State would be perfectly satisfied with a permanent intifada being fought in every Western city of any consequence.

No one wants to see the United States turned into a police state — which almost certainly would mean, among other things, subjecting our own Muslim communities and the U.S. citizens in them to an extraordinary degree of surveillance and other invasive counterterrorism measures. The most humane and effective policy consistent with our traditions of constitutional government and civil liberty is to limit the pool of potential Islamist allies in the United States, where Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the population. The pretense that Islamist terrorism in the West can be understood as a phenomenon separate from the Muslim immigration and the character of Muslim immigrant communities serves no one very well — least of all those Muslim immigrants in Minneapolis or the Bronx who thought they were leaving this sort of trouble behind in Sana’a or Kismayo.


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— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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