The barbaric murder this week of the American journalist James Foley by a British jihadist has served as a tragic reminder of the gravity of the global threat posed by the Salafi jihad movement. For the first time in years, the Western public, seeing the horrific images of Foley’s butchering, has been confronted with the reality of our enemy. Those who thought the death of Osama bin Laden three years ago signaled the beginning of the end of his vile cause, a view championed by the Obama administration, were naively mistaken. Bin Laden’s demise was, as Churchill said of British victory at El Alamein, “the end of the beginning” of the struggle against the Salafi jihad movement.
And a movement it is, rather than an organization; those who apply Western, military-style organizational charts to it, in the manner beloved by intelligence analysts everywhere, are and have always been wrong. It shares an ideology but operates differently depending where it goes: there is tactical flexibility nested in severe ideological rigidity. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) never had a monopoly on the global jihad movement, and its slow, predictable decline under the uninspired leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri has opened the door to the even more extreme jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). While AQ is far from dead — its Yemen-based franchise in particular, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains very dangerous — it’s evident that the center of gravity in the global jihad movement has shifted to the fanatics of the Islamic State and their self-proclaimed Caliphate.
The struggle between AQ and the group now calling itself IS goes back a decade in Iraq, beginning with Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and, given the gradual decline of bin Laden’s faction, it was perhaps inevitable that the even more murderous IS would win out. Its message of uncompromising holy war against all enemies, from “infidels” outside the Muslim world to the many “apostates” within it, appeals to the basest human instincts and is intoxicating to angry young men who pine for murder, martyrdom, and glory. IS embraces the extreme Salafi vision — they are takfiris to use the proper term — of jihad for jihad’s sake, a fanatical fantasy of “pure” Islam that invariably kills more Muslims than “infidels.” The takfiri tendency lies in the DNA of the Salafi jihad movement, and has burst forth murderously on many occasions, most horrifically in Algeria in the 1990s, where the local AQ affiliate, the Armed islamic Group (GIA), was expelled from the “official” movement for its indiscriminate killing, just as IS was recently. The only difference now is that the world has noticed, with horror, the mass killings of innocents perpetrated by IS murderers in Iraq. True “shock and awe” in Iraq has been delivered by masked fanatics rallied around a black flag, not the U.S. military.
I’ve watched the global jihad movement closely for years, both as a security practitioner and a scholar, and I’ve analyzed its metastasis as it’s moved from region to region. I’ve written books about its strategy and operations as well as its growth in the 1990s into a worldwide phenomenon. Since 9/11, I’ve witnessed two American presidents wage war against the global jihad movement in a rather similar manner, contrary to much public fuss about the differences between Bush and Obama-style counterterrorism, and from the outset I’ve maintained that the U.S. approach is deeply flawed and doomed to fail. My sharper critiques of American counterterrorism strategy have been largely confined to secret and off-record discussions inside the government, within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community (IC), as well as with key Allies. As I am now leaving government employ, I am free to speak my mind. This is a start.
Let me state unambiguously that this is a war that the West must win. Our Salafi jihadist enemy is a threat to virtually every country on earth, including Western ones. Their vision is fanatical and uncompromising. They are a foe who must be killed off through attrition. There is no room for negotiation or dialogue. We must face the reality that our struggle against these fanatics will last decades, not years; everybody currently waging this war will retire before the job is done.
Winning the war will require the full effort of Western governments, working with each other and partners across the Muslim world. This is a two-front war, against Salafi jihadists who struggle against the Muslim world, and also against the fanatics in our midst who reside inside the West itself. For years, we’ve heard facile statements that America embraces a (bad) military-focused approach to counterterrorism while Europeans stick to a (good) law enforcement model. This view was arguably true a decade ago but is wholly false today, with all Western governments now employing police, militaries, and above all intelligence to combat the Salafi jihad wherever it finds sanctuary.
First, the external front. Here there is some good news. In the first place, the very fanaticism of IS and its make-believe Caliphate will ultimately undo it. Without exception, Salafi jihadists who embrace takfiri methods sooner or later wind up alienating the great majority of Muslims around them. While Iraqi Sunnis have allowed IS to play a vanguard role in their broad-based uprising against the Shia-run regime in Baghdad which they hate, eventually mainstream Sunnis will sour on IS butchery visited on co-religionists. Yet this should not overly comfort us, as it will be years, not months, before most Iraqi Sunnis realize they fear IS fanatics more than Shia.
Yet the war against IS in Iraq will be aided by the fact that we have many allies and partners in the struggle who are eager to put the “boots on the ground” that we do not wish to. Kurdish militias are fighting for their lives and Shia militias may be able to show the stamina in battle that the U.S-raised and trained Iraqi military so humiliatingly failed to against IS. We are already assisting Kurds, and more help is needed, with the proviso that DoD should supply weapons, logistics, and some intelligence — and no more: let locals fight in the manner they know how to. The collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of lightly armed fanatics, with whole divisions fleeing before an IS battalion, illustrates that the U.S. military, having wasted years and billions of dollars on Baghdad’s security forces, is thoroughly incompetent at building Middle Eastern militaries. We need to stop pretending otherwise and let the Iraqis, who are quite competent at killing, get on with fighting the fanatics.
Here U.S. and Allied airpower will be decisive, as long as it is applied properly. For years, I dined out on my oft-stated belief that if the Salafi jihadists wanted to destroy their cause, all they had to do was 1. embrace takfirism as a strategy, and 2. set up physical sanctuary somewhere, the Caliphate they pine for. Which is exactly what the Islamic State has done. I believed this because takfiri views are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who find them repugnant and barbaric, moreover setting up shop in any place for very long would be an open invitation to be crushed mercilessly by American airpower. I had assumed, naively, that no U.S. president would hesitate to dispatch AC-130 gunships to annihilate any jihadists foolish enough to control large swaths of territory.
Let me be clear: Attriting IS out of existence in Iraq — and Syria too — where they have erased the Allied-drawn state boundaries of the post-World War One settlement, will not be quick but it can be done through proper application of Western airpower tied to proxy forces on the ground. Indeed, this is the sort of fight the U.S. military today is ideally suited for. Since 9/11, the DoD and IC have honed their terrorist-killing acumen, with secret warriors of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), guided by time-sensitive intelligence, becoming the bane of jihadists in many countries. They have no equal at what they do in secret. The JSOC-IC combination will be critical to destroying IS, one deadly raid at a time.
Just as important will be airpower, delivered through both manned and unmanned platforms. As yet, IS has only rudimentary air defenses, and U.S. and Allied air forces can deliver hammer blows to their battalions without serious losses on our side. Contrary to what activists tell you, the U.S. military goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths, what we euphemistically term “collateral damage,” in its use of airpower. We must understand that IS will use civilians as shields, as HAMAS has done in Gaza. This must not deter us. IS leaders (high-value targets or “HVTs” in the trade) must be killed wherever they are, regardless of whose house they are hiding in. After enough airstrikes, Sunnis will seek to expel IS from their midst for fear of our lethal reach.
The virulent extremism of the Islamic State — they represent to the Salafi cause roughly what the Khmer Rouge did to Marxism-Leninism — means that nearly everybody will want to partner with the West to some degree in fighting it. Once they see the seriousness of our intent, certain Gulf states whose support for IS has been important to their growth will quickly reconsider their position. Even Russia could be a valuable partner in the fight against IS, while Putin’s friends in Damascus are very eager to eliminate this existential threat to the Assad regime. Iran must be handled carefully, as Tehran will be an enemy of the West as long as it is ruled by the mullahs, but they are deadly serious about destroying the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. To wax Churchillian again, the British prime minister famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons, and that nicely sums up Iran’s place in the loose anti-IS coalition too.
I have been a frequent critic of post-9/11 American beliefs that there is a military solution to every problem, a viewpoint that has caused much heartache for the United States and many foreigners in recent years. In the long run, the wave of Salafi radicalism that has shaken the Muslim world in recent decades will burn itself out. Islam has seen similar waves before. But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon, and the wave may not have crested yet. Moreover, political problems across the Middle East that have assisted the rise of extremism, for instance the sectarian stupidity of the Baghdad government that emerged under U.S. tutelage, leading to a Sunni rebellion with IS at its head, are largely beyond the West’s control to repair or even ameliorate. A Bosnian-style partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish entities, devolving power on ethno-sectarian lines while maintaining a notional Iraqi state, looks like an even better idea now than when Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden proposed it in 2006 (whatever my criticisms of Bosnian dysfunction, that country looks like Switzerland compared to Iraq now), but we ought not believe that politico-economic reform in the Muslim world, however welcome and necessary it may be, offers any short term solutions to the problem of Salafi jihadism. Right now the sole remedy to the challenge presented by the Islamic State is crushing it with brutal force.
The issue, then, is intent. We have it in our power to destroy IS in Iraq and Syria, and although that attrition-based strategy will not achieve success quickly, ultimate victory over at least this part of the Salafi jihad movement is assured as long as we pursue the struggle with patience and vigor. Will, not way, is our problem. President Obama’s take on the jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and his reaction to the rise of the Islamic State does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. While none can fault Obama for a lack of ardor for certain aspects of the war that he refuses to call a war, as the death of Osama bin Laden and hundreds of lethal drone strikes during his presidency attest, his unwillingness to confront the ideological aspects of the struggle has been troubling to many who wage that war. Obvious White House squeamishness about the “I-word,” coupled with idiocies like terming the massacre of thirteen U.S. soldiers by Nidal Hasan, Army psychiatrist turned self-styled jihadist, an incident of “workplace violence,” bespeak a fundamental lack of seriousness about the struggle we are in. While we must always be careful about delineating Islam from Islamism, and I have been sharply critical of those who do not, pretending that Salafi jihadism is not what it actually is only helps the enemy.
President Obama’s penchant for golf, particularly at inopportune moments, has received much criticism of late, with even what might be termed the court press reporting frankly on its negative impact on public perception, including scathing op-eds. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the president is tired of the hard job of being Commander-in-Chief. Certainly his public comments on the Islamic State lack the dire tone emanating from some senior administration officials. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of IS in alarming terms as a threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen…They’re beyond just a terrorist group.” General Martin Dempsey, DoD’s military head, stated that IS possesses an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” and the group “will eventually have to be defeated.” It’s an open secret in the Pentagon that such blunt statements reflect widespread concerns in DoD and the IC that President Obama is not taking the current threat seriously enough. At a minimum, the president must inject his national security staff, which I’ve never found talented or inspired, with purpose and seriousness, while antics such as disclosing failed top secret counterterrorism operations to score political points are unworthy of the presidency and must cease at once.
It is hoped that, confronted by the rising madness and violence of IS in Iraq and Syria, Obama will find the ability to pursue the war against Salafi jihadism with the required vigor, as well as to communicate to the public the nature of the threat we face, including the reality that the struggle will be long and difficult. The Islamic State can be crushed in what remains of Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is a generational enterprise, but refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight IS with all the means at our disposal will not only give the enemy time to grow and metastasize further, it would amount to presidential dereliction of duty. If President Obama does not possess the will to wage this war that has been forced upon us, he should consider devoting himself to golf full time and stepping aside in favor of Joe Biden, who has demonstrated some quite sensible views on terrorism over the years.
That said, the war against IS inside the Muslim world is only part of the struggle we now face, and in many ways it’s the easy part. That James Foley’s killer is British (his identity has been established by British intelligence but not yet released to the public) has focused attention on the painful fact that a considerable number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the West. British citizens are estimated to represent a quarter of the roughly 2,000 Europeans fighting with IS at present. Numbers of Westerners in IS ranks are difficult to estimate and the true figure is likely 3,000 or more. Additionally, since many jihadists go to Syria or Iraq for a few months and return home, leading to a high turnover rate, the number of Westerners who have fought with IS in the Middle East exceeds 5,000 and is rising fast.
Going to Syria or Iraq to join IS is very much in vogue among radical Salafis across the West. Getting there is easy, especially for Europeans: Turkey’s looking the other way about the movement of thousands of foreign fighters through the country en route to the jihad is a key factor here. The fanatical IS message resonates among an alarming number of European youths: in a recent poll, sixteen percent of French had a “favorable” view of IS while three percent admitted to having a “very favorable” view of the Islamic State. Warnings from dissenting experts that extremism among European Muslims is considerably more commonplace than it’s politic to admit fell on deaf ears on grounds of political correctness, but have been proved wholly correct. It’s fashionable among hardline European Salafis to go to Syria or Iraq to fight, though in reality most of them spend far more time hanging out than actually engaging in combat. Many of their rest centers, safely away from the front, are surprisingly lavish, leading to the Syrian war being memorably termed a “five-star jihad” in extremist circles.
Historically, only five to ten percent of foreign fighters engage directly in terrorism when they return home, but that figure is cold comfort given the unprecedently vast numbers of Westerners who are going to Iraq and Syria. Some returnees have already engaged in terrorism in Europe, while it is obvious that even effective European security services are overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadists coming back. French intelligence is monitoring some 300 persons, one-third of them women, with links to the Syrian jihad; as they require 24/7 surveillance, this is a daunting task for even the best resourced and most technically capable security services. Some European intelligence agencies, seeing “huge growth” in jihadist numbers, admit to being deluged by potential terrorists. Britain’s security services are likewise overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadist targets they must monitor, a situation that was hardly helped by the massive leaks by Edward Snowden, which the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, scathingly called a “gift” to terrorists.
Moreover, for every returning jihadist who plots terrorism, ten or twenty more veterans engage in furthering the cause through proselytizing, preaching, fund-raising, and generally radicalizing and preparing the next generation of angry youths for jihad. Those who have actually gone to Syria or Iraq, where they have learned to butcher innocents, have enormous cachet among the wannabes back in Europe, who find their message of vitriolic hate toxically enticing. I have been warning for a decade that the West, particularly Europe, functions as a de facto safe haven for many Salafi jihadists who make up what I call the Sixth Column. We have seemingly forgotten that the 9/11 plot was hashed out more in Hamburg, Germany than in any Muslim country. It is long past time for the West to deal with this threat seriously.
There is no single profile for who abandons life in the postmodern West to join the Salafi jihad, particularly its most virulent brand. Some are rabidly pious Muslims, but many lack a firm foundation in matters Islamic, and a surprisingly large number of Western jihadists seem to have scant interest in anything theological: many join for the hate and the camaraderie, a need to belong, not the belief. They are consumed by rage and frustration and seek out a belief system that justifies acting out their evil urges — not the other way around. Many are ne’er-do-wells who have spent time in prison and possess unstable family backgrounds, but the son of privilege who abandons a life of comfort to wage jihad abroad is a Salafi cliche for a reason. Many are born Muslims who revert to a faith they never seriously practiced in their youth, while others are converts. Most are young, with many still in their teens, but the nearly middle-aged are not unknown in jihadist ranks either. Their psychology in many cases resembles that of a spree killer more than any popular conception of an arch-terrorist, while their ideology — a cut-and-paste version of Qutbism, dumbed-down for the online generation, that thrives on hate — is astonishingly consistent worldwide. Women often play an important role behind the scenes in radicalizing their men and keeping them that way.
One trend that is clearly visible among Western jihadists is the prominence of online recruiting and propaganda. Most young Salafis today enter the movement virtually, becoming markedly radical before ever meeting another extremist in the flesh. The time required to become dangerously extreme has shortened noticeably, no doubt due to the prevalence of online jihadism, the digihad, if you like. Back in the 1990s, most Westerners who “joined the caravan” (to use the movement term) were radicalized gradually, over months and even years, slowly turning their backs on their old life, while it is now commonplace to see young men who decide to abandon normalcy in favor of the jihad after only a few months of radicalization, and sometimes only a few weeks. All this makes it increasingly difficult for Western security services to track would-be terrorists, or to differentiate the merely extreme from the positively dangerous.
While the United States has been fortunate in many ways compared to Europe, possessing a Muslim community that is proportionately smaller and far less radicalized than in much of the European Union (EU), there is no reason to think that this will last forever. Americans are fighting with IS abroad too and some will return home with jihad still on their minds. The FBI, with the Intelligence Community, has done a commendable job since 9/11 keeping the domestic terrorism threat largely under wraps, aided by the fact that most of America’s homegrown jihadists to date have been frankly inept, some of them almost comically so. That, too, is a trend that is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
America has no room for comfort as it confronts the Salafi jihadist threat. The enemy’s desire to strike the United States directly remains as great as it ever was, while the fact that we functionally do not have border security means that any terrorists who seek to enter the country illegally will have no more difficulty than the millions of Latin Americans who have infiltrated without detection. Moreover, the large numbers of extremists possessing EU passports (and Canadian too: about 130 Canadians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq), who are able to enter the USA without a visa, mean that attacks on the country can be handled by foreigners easily.
What, then, is to be done? Legal changes are in order if we are serious about defeating this enemy. Some European countries have recently criminalized going abroad as a foreign fighter, or facilitating that, and this is something that all Western countries should adopt promptly. While this will not cease jihad tourism, it will certainly complicate matters for would-be holy warriors. Westerners who do engage in jihad abroad should be deprived of citizenship and told to not come home, ever. While free speech is to be defended, it should at least be asked if engaging in jihadist propaganda ought to be criminalized (as, say, Holocaust denial has been in much of the EU). At a minimum, those who engage in material support of any Salafi jihad-related activity should face severe legal penalty.
In the United States, this also means we must end our security-theater act and get serious about stopping terrorism. The terrorist threat to our airlines is as great as it has ever been, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently admitted, citing his “extreme, extreme concern” about the threat emanating from Syria. The TSA is equal parts laughingstock and nuisance and needs to be wholly revamped into a serious security agency, relying on profiling rather than making life difficult for countless innocent people every day. “America doesn’t have an airline security system, America has a system for bothering people,” said the former head of security for El Al, Israel’s national airline, and seldom have truer words been spoken.
Yet the long-term way to defeat, rather than merely deter, Salafi jihadism, is through intelligence and covert action, not war in any conventional sense. While pummeling IS kinetically in Iraq and Syria is a necessary first step, it is only the beginning. The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.
That strategy is the topic of a forthcoming blog post ….
One wonders though if we in the West have the political will and the moral conviction necessary to carry on this fight, consistently, even as public attention waxes and wanes, and as administrations come and go…
As an undergraduate hoping to work in the IC, thank you for this blog. It’s been pretty illuminating reading for the past few months that I’ve followed it!
Thank you, good luck!
Without having established the apparently necessary habit of cataloging what I read when I do so, I don’t have the proper references for the following.
I have read numerous discussions of (to mention one) the final authorization of the OBL raid as having come NOT from POTUS but SECSTA and DIRCIA, with POTUS being quite on the outside of the group making that trigger decision.
It was also commented that Ms. Jarrett was STRONGLY OPPOSED to the OBL op, encouraging POTUS to delay or deny it multiple times.
One wonders where the testicular fortitude which has been missing throughout the current POTUS’s administration would be coming from with the current absence of Ms Clinton and Mr Panetta.
Especially considering the lack of acceptance of the Military options by POTUS, and the apparent distrust between JCS and POTUS.
I share many of your concerns and have heard many of the same accounts.
“After enough airstrikes, Sunnis will seek to expel IS from their midst for fear of our lethal reach.”
That doesn’t seem to be working in Gaza. What is different here?
Gaza is tiny, that’s a big part of it — nowhere to go
This is a spot-on and informed analysis of the situation. Great to hear these points being made. What worries me now is the propaganda value IS will get if we are perceived to be aligned with the Alawites and IRGC. Even if Maliki is ousted there’s still plenty for Sunni Iraqis to worry about.
There certainly is ….
Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
Good info on Salafi Jihad movement : butchers too radical for the wildmen of Al Qaeda.
ISIS is Russia and Irans problem and not ours we shouldent drop a single bomb on them and not fire a single shot,if we do nothing Russia and Iran will have to act,this will significantly weaken both of them,so when its over, we can finish Russia and Iran off,isis if anything should left well alone no NATO troop’s for Iraq,if anything we should take full advantage of it,It is a trap
This would be a very fine strategy if not for one minor factoid:
Who the US is at war with is not PURELY a US decision. The other side gets a vote.
In THIS case IS(IS) has defacto and openly declared that they are at war with the US.
(Unfortunately they have no legal mechanism for that declaration so it must be defacto rather than dejure.)
A quick trip through the history books–indices alone would work– will show that there are undesirable results should a nation ignore another nation indicating a state of war exists between them.
The most recent beheading and the verbiage surrounding it expresses IS(IS) position relative to the US.
The presence of IS(IS) personnel in CONUS should suggest to even the most jaded of us the truth of the state of war which exists plus the fact that IS(IS) is about to demonstrate extraregionality. Given the mindset present in the region, THAT announcement is most certainly NOT an event I look forward to. I don’t FEAR it, but there is a LOT of trepidation as I consider what they might use for their debutante ball.
I can assure you we are NOT going to like the sound track.
As for not acting and expecting that inaction to force RU and China to “act” I’m unsure exactly what would cause them to do any more than you are suggesting the US do. They are only closer to the area if one disregards international air travel, and their societies would allow a much more robust internal defense should they determine this to be needed. Their borders are much better defended and as I said their internal options are not constrained as are ours.
While I prefer our form of government, with the rights that have survived executive and legislative attacks (grist for another mill another time) there are inherent flaws when dealing with an existential threat that doesn’t respect any of the norms present in most societies.
Bluemudpatriot expect major resistance to any attempt to put ground forces into theater,the fct is your as usual asking the uk to go point not this time sorry its not in our interests,the pressing pint is the ukraine and russia isis is a distraction and trap,what you have posted is the backward thinking thats got us into the mess were in in the first place,they want us to react pure and simple its a trap and russia and chin are smart enough to work that out as usual were being taken for mugs,i do agree partly with you i just think this time its a mistake,too gun ho
sorry about the missing letters kbd is bust on this laptop,i had to paste this
The use “commandos” idea is priceless. How long do you propose the US play wack-a-mole? The Shia and Sunnis are more than happy to kill one another. The West would do well to get out of their way and let them fight. What you appear to be advocating will keep the US mired in cycles of attacking and nation building for generations. Short of the wholesale slaughter of military aged males and generations of occupation in the ME, your plan is simply enriching the military – industrial – congressional complex. Who do you currently work for? Might you have an agenda?
fully agreed james russia is our enemy
Thank you for your analysis. If I may share some concerns further for your comment.
I agree IS presents a threat to the Gulf and Iran regimes – even if all decide to join in the fight how can the US control the opportunism that might arise between the sunna and shia actors to not finance jihadists for its own purposes fueling the whole mess further. Should fight against IS empower shia militas, such as badrists or sadrists, would the Gulf countries react with financing other jihadi sunna groups in return or vice versa. At the end I don’t think we should view Al Nusra as moderates. Would Iran as they have done before turn their back against the West as they had done before when the opportunity arises?
I completely agree with your assessment on the EU regarding the jihadi threat, and the political correctness that engulfs it – rather hard to find a politician willing to give an honest assessment lest acting directly for a fear of being branded a whateverphobe one chooses, racist, etc. I think the EU acts with a hope that turning away from the problem will somehow make it cease – that was the case with the newspaper caricatures where the EU was not acting out of respect for diversity but out of fear of reprisals from salafi groups hoping for the problem to get solved itself over time but the problem has, unfortunately got worse. For example, one of my Bosnian friends who comes from a very secular family had a cousin and his wife moving to Sweden becoming hardcore salafis after only two years their family in Bosnia shaking their heads in disbelief. The EU almost never refuses a status to a refugee with a dangerous background having a policy of not returning them back to the countries where these radicals would be in danger of their lives. This is how it comes to the fact that there such high numbers of radical preachers, salafis, MB members, and jihadis. Let me stress another issue – I don’t have a feeling the EU population is ready for lending a support to another campaign in the ME, and I don’t think there has been even some realization by the EU political actors about the problem, and finally – would the EU again move away from the problem for hoping it solves itself, and believing that such passivity would save them from any attacks inside the EU?
I also believe that we are giving too much stress on the colonial issues, and the history of Western involvement. I do agree that we have influenced the events up to a certain point but I would say that the region faces the ideological problem you have described and is facing a rather tense modernity problem which I find in some aspects similar to the events starting to shape Europe over 500 years ago, the events that proved to persist for quite some time. Of course today events happen faster due to the information and logistics technologies nonexistent at the time Europe faced its problems. It is interesting to read issues among the Muslim scholars after the Mongol invasions, then to the Wahabbi sieges over two hundred years ago, fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the Indian Moghuls up to the modern times. I recommend reading the arguments between the liberal and radical scholars at the end of the 19th century all the way to MB which has probably been the mother of jihadi groups having today a massive number of radical scholar, and here I have to say A. Zelin is doing a very good up-to-date job translating it. What probably unleashed the jihadi threat in modern times, in my opinion, is the siege of Grand Mosque by Juhayman who was a great inspiration for many young people at the time, and his literature is rather popular by jihadis. The second I would say is the revolution in Iran, and only after that I would put in place the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Gulf wars that followed in the next decades. But the salafis and other radicals have a more internal (at first) than external issue which I would say presents a greater danger since only moving away from the area would not change anything. The belief among the people in the area that having caliphate would just make all the problems go away is quite strong, I live in the area and can confirm it (reminding me also of my visit to Russia where I was listening all the time during my stay that if only the SU or Czar came back all would be great…)
Another mistake I’d say is a belief in secularism in the area which never actually existed. Nasser came to power with the help of MB, Mosadek opened the door for Khomeini and other islamists in Iran, Hussein of Jordan opened the door for MB though he killed many later, similar goes with Asad, Mubarak invited salafis, and so on. I must say that anyone who engages in the area must keep that in mind – for example even when we condone Western backed coups such as in Iran I don’t think we should fall into assessing Mosadek as a secular democrat. Nasserists in Egypt today are very much against the peace with Israel, and were very happy to support radical islamists when needed. Another issue are tribes that act very independently even in countries such as Egypt where a higher bidder in monetary means and favors might swiftly get them on their side. I live in Egypt and favorable views among young people are not that rare, and considering the unobstructed flow of people and goods between Lybia and Sudan could be worrying.
I very much agree with you this is a problem that will persist for quite some time in the future especially because the West fails to see the importance and dangers of it. I worry not about the salafis and radical preachers preaching out in the open because they can be controlled. I worry more about the radicals who live a secular life in the West as a cover such as the hijackers on 9/11 who even spent some time in Vegas. If for example the EU is not very successfull in preventing jihadis fighting in the open how will she find and discharge those undercover? The promotion of radicalism is huge from TV programs to preaching and internet, reaching many. In Cairo I have seen quite a few European salafis of European descent, two of them from Switzerland (actually Swiss not only by citizenship) even trying to go after me, and believe me they are experienced hunters acting convincingly for people longing for belonging to some kind of group, looking for a desperate recognition. I am also worried about the influx of refugees where jihadis can sneak in easily – I certainly agree with your fifth column analogy, and while not trying make a left-right political issue but a security one – isn’t the easy influx of people we are seeing on the US southern borders (the same goes for the EU) somehow a too easy path to come unchecked to the West. If the US authorities could not make good checks at its embassies fourteen years ago with visa applications how can you be sure that at least some jihadis cannot sneak in through such loosely closed borders – only nineteen were needed to sneak in to kill almost 3000 at the time.
And the last question – do you think China would be more willing to join the coalition due to their jihadi problems that have been growing over the years? I have read China has asked even Pakistan, their ally, to act accordingly.
I apologize for the long comment and questions.
Thank you for your great columns. With regards.
Thank you for your kind words and your comments, which are very interesting. China is a quite willing participant in the GWOT (or whatever we are next calling it): their terrorism problem is growing rapidly and they are far from squeamish in dealing with it.
About the EU I am much less optimistic ….
Hussein in power = Salafists not an issue in Iraq
Gaddafi in power = Salafists not an issue in Libya
Mubarak in power = Salafists under control in Egypt
Assad Senior and Junior in power = Salafists under control in Syria
Putin (by way of Kadyrov in Chechnya) = Salafists under control in Chechnya and Dagestan
Serbian and Croatian regions in Bosnia = Salafists under control
It seems that wherever the USA has engaged in or supported regime change (whether overtly or covertly), Salafists seem to pop up out of nowhere.
Is this a feature or a bug of American interventionism?
Or to engage in some reductionism = No America, no Salafism?
What are your opinions on this, gentlemen?
“No comment” 🙂
Hahaha, how diplomatic of you John!
When juxtaposed like that…. one has to wonder
When did US foreign policy end up being the hidden sword arm of the House of Saud ? What exactly is their hold on us ?
Interesting that you (conveniently?) do not mention Afghanistan. Although the US supported the Mujahideen against the Soviet-Union, I would say it would be rather far-fetched to pin the rise of radical Islam there on the intervention by the US. Even without US support, it is likely that the Mujahideen would have prevailed eventually (John?).
And Bosnia, like John already noted, looks like Switzerland when compared to Iraq now, so that is not a very good example either.
Then Chechnya. Regardless of the question of US involvement (not sure which involvement you mean?), if you take a closer look at the history of the Chechen uprising you see that the issue of religion hardly played any role of significance in the beginning at all. Only later with the influx of foreign fighters and the need to secure funds from sources in the Middle-East did the rebels start to adopt Wahabi retoric and teachings. Only in part though, as the incursion into Dagestan by Khattab and Basajev that was the casus belli for the second Chechnyan war that ended the de-facto independence of the Chechnyan state, was heavily opposed by president Maskhadov’s government at the time. This all to say that it is very difficult to say where the root cause of the rise of radical islam in Chechnya actually lies. In any case, there was no question of keeping ‘salafists under control’ before the Chechen uprising.
As to ‘No America, no Salafism’: it is without doubt so that radical Islam is at least partly fuelled by the economic, political, and military hegemony of the West vis-a-vis the Islamic world. That is also felt by (a minority of) young Muslims who fail to succeed in the western societies and try to find ways to deal with the feeling of weakness and inferiority they experience as a result of this. Contrary to people with other religions that experience the same problems, they do not face the choice of joining the global war of their preferred religion. I somehow find it hard to believe that the rapper who beheaded James Foley would have been around in Syria if he would have had any success as a musician.
Another interesting aspect to this is that many of the regimes you mention were in fact themselves actively supported by US governments at one time or another (Saddam Hussein, Mubarak..). A more interesting question is to what extent it was actually the support of these regimes by the US (and the West) that fostered the development of radical Islam rather than the withdrawal of that support. The Iranian Islamic revolution against a US backed Shah comes to mind in this context as well.
If the rest of the US goverment is as politically correct as you are we in more trouble than I thought.
Your quote, “unprecedently vast numbers of Westerners who are going to Iraq and Syria. ”
What is a westerner? Someone who lives in the west? A legal citizen of west?
or more definative, Born in the west? or even more definative, born in west of Christian European background???? You have also mentioned of recent converts, converts from what?
Converts from Christianity? or converts fromn Islamic immigrants. . Are you still afraid to say it like it is because you might loose your ability to be employed. Speak up man.
Your politicaly correct link, (below) to 16% French approve of IS survey on page 16 of that report no mention of ethnicity or religon in France and Germany and little information on England.
Click to access New%20EU%20Members-Combined-July%202014-V3.pdf
In your blog post after this current one you mention, ” some fifty Italians are fighting with the Islamic State (IS — get my assessment of that dangerous group here), of whom a shocking eighty percent are converts, not immigrants or born Muslims.”
Apparently, you are saying that these 80% Italian converts are then ethnically Italians and of Christian heritage?
I get accused of being PC … well, never. Noted.
Reblogged this on The View From Here and commented:
Some honest talk about fighting radical Islam and defeating ISIL by John Schindler (@20committee). To even begin this fight, we (the West) must acknowledge radical Islam and ISIL honestly. We must not try to sugarcoat or in any other way dismiss the reality of extremism. They fight by their own rules. It’s time we got a new playbook.
Thank you for your detailed analysis and synthesis. Regarding the long term way to defeat Salafi jihadism, I believe what is needed in addition to, and simultaneous with, the actions you summarize in your last paragraph is a massive and detailed destruction of the Islamic view of their god’s demand of ‘true’ Muslims to convert the world to Islam by either peaceful conversion, coercive slavery, or all else failing by murder of the recalcitrant kaffirs and apostates and non-‘true’ believers.
If this re-culturing demands severe actions against hate-mongering mullahs, imams, ayatollahs, and other vermin, so be it by any means necessary.
This will mean uprooting key teachings and beliefs emanating from the Koran, Hadith, and bases of Sharia law and Islamic jurisprudence. No easy or short term job.
Pasteur admitted a long time ago that it wasn’t simply the ‘bad’ bugs that resulted in disease but the distorted, warped, disharmonious environment that allowed the disease entities [jihadists in our case] to proliferate and kill the host.
While I remain ambivalent on the issue of boots on the ground, you make a strong case against it here, aside from IC operatives and special forces — unless I misread you.
But another phenomenon beyond the scope of this post I think receives too little attention today in our American and Western view: the loss of socio-cultural identity. What has always been with us in our free and open society is a healthy degree of socio-cultural skepticism and pessimism. Yet over the course of the post-68 decades, this pessimism and skepticism has devolved into the outright rejectionism central to the post-modern worldview among our academic, intellectual, and cultural elites.
Our socio-cultural rejectionism is out is plain sight, in the rise of moral relativism, identity-group grievance-mongering, and what I consider historical nihilism. Mark Steyn has grasped at this in his two apocalyptic books America Alone and After America. The received wisdom from our intellectual elites holds that the Anglo-Western world wasn’t born perfect, and thus concludes that this entire historical heritage must be rejected outright as fatally flawed and corrupt. Into this vacuum marches the post-modern multicultural ideology that other societies in the world must have the answers that our own heritage fails to offer.
In the Muslim world of the 1950s — in Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul — there was a sense that the Western world held the keys to success: expanding wealth (better: Wohlstand), broad intellectual curiosity, individual liberty. As we in the West in subsequent decades have abandoned the notion that anything good came from that successful heritage, so our would-be emulators have joined in the rejectionism or been pushed aside. It has become a corroding husk of a once-proud identity, to which no one would want to aspire.
This has been the opening into which the radicals, who offer an identity that is not just brutally barbaric, but also successful on its own terms. As we have come to revile our own past as too flawed to study at all — Obama’s disparaging reference to the “18th Century mindset” here — our potential imitators have wandered off in search of others who may provide some answers. Among these are not only minority Arab immigrants in the West, but also young white Western men who have been taught that they have no heritage but one of shame.
In sum (!), if we have no identity to offer, no heritage to learn from, eager young and youngish minds full of hope and ambition will turn elsewhere. If we don’t return to a more generous — in my view, a far more realistic — teaching of our heritage and our past, the obviously disastrous results around the world will continue to be of our own making.
Yes, it does look puzzling, doesn’t it? But it needn’t be. Couldn’t it be so simple as that those same Groups that we do know wanted to annihilate the West from around October 1917 still want to annihilate the West? Couldn’t it just be that their methods have changed, slightly, over the years? There are plenty of indications in favour of that hypothesis and, due to the gravity of the present situation, it would be foolish not to take them seriously:
It is possible to discern parallel lines, in Europe and the Middle East, from May 1968, or June 2 1967 if you prefer, past RAF and Munich -72 up until the machinations of the EU of today and the MB/AQ/IS-complex. In assessing the Operatsye Multikulturnaja, the Cui Bono part is rather obvious: The old “Axis of Evil” of course, as always.
The fact is AQ have had numerous boots on the ground in Europe long before today’s sprouting IS cells, and that development has taken time and a very serious and methodical effort to achieve, not the least through a semi-official co-operation between large European mainstream parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. Curiously enough we find many of the old radical student activists of 1968 and thereafter in the center of it all, now labeling themselves as liberals.
It must be established that the present situation, with IS armies forming all over the place, doesn’t exactly come from a bright blue sky. The tendencies have been clear for decades, not least in statistics of serious crime and documentation of active efforts of radicalization. All this evidence has been viciously fought back and subdued by the “islamophobia” crowd, however for what now seems an obvious reason. Very Little, if anything, is still being done today to secure Peace and stability in Europe. In fact the pace of new potential recruits streaming into Europe is accelerating rather than being brought to a standstill. There were even numerous cries from politicians from big mainstream parties just a few months ago, documented by as mainstream media, calling for a policy of “Open Borders” free for all.
Defeating ISIS is all well and good, but then what?
While defeating ISIS should be a high priority, what happens once it has been defeated? ISIS has, arguably, filled a political void in the Middle East. Once ISIS is defeated or minimized, what is to stop an even more fanatical and dangerous group from taking its place? Is this just the latest round of mowing the jihadi grass?
Defeating ISIS will take a military response, no doubt. But eventually the bombs will stop and then something will have to be there to fill the void.
I’ll take almost anything over ISIS.
People used to say the same about Al Qaeda after 9-11 though. And here we are now. Pretending that the end of ISIS will bring the end of global jihad is just diverting attention resources and ingenuity from the real issues that gave it rise. It’s banding one wound while an other infested soar opens elsewhere on the body. There’s got to be a better cheaper long term approach.
And while you mention the 6th column over there in Europe it would have been judicious to mention our own fifth column here in the US that prevents us from taking the right foreign policy decisions for our country.
Don’t sovereigns that have a history of success with the elements of special war engage their enemies by direct methods as well as proxies that are more liberal as well as much, much more conservative? It’s a meme I’ve seen in your writings here but also in great detail in those Rita Kronenbitter articles at the Hoover Institute.
I don’t know if we have the chops or the capacity for that type of investment since the media glare is a bit strong when it comes to the light.
Lot of glare indeed. That’s a huge and important question: will ponder.
Thank you for a great article. Glad to have found this site and will be back to read more of your postings…….keep up the great work you are doing and again thanx.
Thank you for your kind feedback
One more comment, now regarding the difference between islamists and muslims:
Of course all Muslims are not Islamists, but all Germans weren’t Nazis either. That didn’t make Nazism much less of a threat, or easier to defeat, so that should definitely not be a reason to make us believe that nothing should be done or that nothing can be done about this threat.
In fact, when that argument is put forward as a reason not do anything, doesn’t it reek a lot of the old “Human Shield”-tactic about it? The latest war in Gaza was a very pedagocical illustration to the efficiency of a systematic use of that tactic, or rather strategy. To be sure, the large muslim minorities in Europe are effectively and cynically being used as willing or unwitting human shields already.
I don’t see all the disappointment In President Obama’s strategy. His administration is not about sabre-rattling, it’s all results oriented. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/08/obamas-iraq-policy-has-been
Some results ….
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