“Reassessing an Evolving Enemy”
By: J. Thomas Hunter
Passengers aboard Detroit-bound Flight 253 were en route to becoming names etched into a marble plaque had it not been for the malfunction of a terrorist’s bomb. On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian Islamist, completed 80% of a devastating attack with a crude liquid explosive. Though he failed to kill Americans, he succeeded in refocusing the nation’s attention on the threat of Islamic radicalism. In 2008, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy composed an exhaustive study about the changing landscape of Muslim radicalism and how American counterterrorism agents should address the new challenges. (The piece is titled, “Terrorist Threat and U.S. Response: A Changing Landscape.”) On December 14th, 2009, one of the policy piece’s writers and the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Matthew Levitt, addressed the Heritage Foundation where he reiterated many of the suggestions made in “Terrorist Threat.” Levitt argues that there are some bright spots in America’s counterterrorism programs, but there is definitely room for improvement. Abdulmutallab’s near-success in murdering Christmas travelers underscores Levitt’s point.
What We Have Learned (or at least, should have learned) Since 9-11: Islamic Terrorists are Primarily Motivated by Ideology, not Money.
A common myth advanced by liberals is that otherwise good Muslims turn to terrorism because they lack economic opportunities. Former Democrat congressmen from Indiana, Timothy Roemer and Lee Hamilton, made this argument as part of their support for Barack Obama’s presidency in 2008. In a piece titled, “Obama Plan to Fight Terrorism Would Make America Safer,” they write, “The ideology of hate that al-Qaida uses to recruit must be met with a program to support…economic opportunity.” This fallacy, in conjunction with a dogged refusal by the left to recognize Islamic terrorism’s relation to the Muslim faith, concludes that the existential threat America faces stems from a non-ideological global poverty backlash. There are several real-life examples, though, that contradict this liberal theory.
Abdulmutallab is just one example of the many terrorists who come from privileged backgrounds, and trade financial promise for a life of deadly extremism. Andrew Johnson and Emily Dugan, writing for the U.K.’s Independent Newspaper, note this particular terrorist’s previous standing in life. “With his wealth, privilege and education at one of Britain’s leading universities, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab had the world at his feet…for the three years he studied in London, he stayed in a £2 million flat. [His] father, Umaru, is the former economics minister of Nigeria. He retired earlier this month as the chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria but is still on the boards of several of Nigeria’s biggest firms…[and] holds the Commander of the Order of the Niger as well as the Italian Order of Merit.”
The BBC’s, Dominic Casciani, writes about a U.K.-born doctor who detonated car bombs across London in 2007. “Bilal Abdulla,” Casciani writes, “was born in the U.K. to a well-to-do Iraqi family with a tradition of medical careers. They had close ties to the West and Abdulla regarded England as a much-loved second home.” One of Abdulla’s accomplices was an Indian-born Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering named, Karfeel Ahmed. Dr. Ahmed died after suffering burns from a suicide bomb attack.
Osama bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, both share privileged backgrounds in common.
Arguing that economic depression causes terrorism, or is the primary factor behind fueling terrorism, is as daft as arguing that economic depression plays no role at all in terrorism. The one clear link, however, between the richest of Islamic terrorists and the poorest of Islamic terrorists is Islam itself. Debate continues over whether or not Islam must be corrupted before it can lead its practitioners to deviant lifestyles. What is clear, though, is that terror suspects are routinely described as becoming “more religious” before they act violently. Abdulmutallab is no exception to the rule.
Counterterrorism or Counter-radicalism?
One of the major challenges facing counterterrorism experts in America is finding a way to cripple an ideology without infringing upon individual liberties. Civil libertarians excoriated the Patriot Act and the Protect America Act—two policies that sought to stop terrorists long before they struck. Preempting attacks has played a major role in counter terror efforts since 2001. Levitt, in his speech to Heritage, however, described counterterrorism as a strategy that is doomed to failure from the start. In his view, the very word counterterrorism implies responding to a threat after it has manifested itself. He, instead, recommends counter-radicalism—a strategy aimed at stopping the ideology that spawns Islamic terrorism.
There are two ways to counter Islamist ideology. First, government agents could monitor the messages taught in mosques throughout the nation, and arrest clerics or practitioners who espouse a message consistent with terrorism. This practice would enrage civil libertarians and may not be the most effective means of curbing radicalism—in America. Western Europe, which has been fighting terrorism in multiple forms and for many years longer than America, is much more comfortable with this brand of counter-radicalism.
The second, and far more feasible alternative for Americans, is to foster non-violent Muslim communities. Terror groups that operate in the West usually lure young Muslims into small groups where they indoctrinate the young men and surround them with equally radical believers. Likewise, Muslim youth groups that embrace the Quran yet reject terrorism exist and, as a matter of policy, be encouraged to diffuse radicalism in the Muslim community. A bright spot in the War on Terror, according to Levitt, is the conversation that it has caused in Muslim communities worldwide. Al-Qaeda, interested in its image in the Muslim world, has lost a great deal of credibility among Muslims for having killed more Muslims than Western soldiers have. “Terrorist Threat” emphasizes that “more than 50% of the victims of al-Qaeda [in 2007] were Muslim, and approximately 100 mosques were targeted by the group.” Some Muslims are realizing this and are rejecting radical Islam. They recognize that it is not a path that leads to social or political victory.
Confronting the Future Threat: Al-Qaeda Reborn
American military action in Afghanistan severely crippled al-Qaeda until 2007. The terrorist group has since moved to Western Pakistan and has slowly been rebuilding so that it can launch large-scale attacks again. In the meantime, according to “Terrorist Threat,” al-Qaeda has been “franchising” throughout the Middle East such that smaller, self-sufficient groups affiliated with al-Qaeda can operate independently from the main base in Afghanistan. “These affiliates include al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” Though al-Qaeda is a determined and resurging enemy, its “franchising” strategy does nothing for its strength. The decentralized organization appears incapable of conducting attacks on the scale of the 9-11 attacks. If America has learned anything from the Christmas Day attempt, though, it should have learned that a weak al-Qaeda is not an impotent al-Qaeda. The group still poses a greater threat to the U.S. than any other terrorist organization.
Terrorism, it seems, is here to stay. Al-Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups obsess about killing Americans and it is important to be vigilant and ever mindful of and flexible enough to face the changing threat. Much of the American public grew weary of Republican obsession with terrorism and supported Obama’s presidency because he promised to take a more congenial tone with terrorists. Obama promised to meet with terror-sponsoring state leaders without preconditions, gave conciliatory speeches to the Muslim world, and pandered shamelessly to Muslims by refusing to acknowledge the obvious Islamic influence on modern terrorism. With Abdulmutallab’s terror attempt fresh in our minds along with the carnage caused by the Islamist terrorist at Fort Hood, the threat from Islamic terrorism is returning to the forefront of contemporary politics as an important issue. America should overcome Islamism by killing its adherents and delegitimizing its ideas.