Fighting Terrorists

A front-page article in the Washington Post announced that: “Saudi Arabia launches alliance to fight terrorism.”[1] This news truly gave me pause. If the irony of this does not hit you in the face, and even if it does, please read on.

Before exploring approaches to fighting terrorism, we need to define who or what our terrorist enemy is. The failure to do so clearly has badly undermined our efforts to defeat this enemy. Clearly the thousands of young men and women from around the world fighting in Iraq and Syria under the self designated Islamic State are terrorist enemies, as are Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed 15 of Farook’s co workers in San Bernardino, California recently, and so are the French and Belgian Jihadists who killed 130 people in Paris on November 13th. Dropping bombs on San Bernardino or Paris or carpet bombing the Levant will not stop this enemy and the collateral damage, both human and physical,… well, you get the point.

If we understood why they were doing what they are doing, either at home or in far off places, we might be better able to deter them. What is their goal? Several steps are needed to reach such an understanding, but they all claim to be fulfilling what they understand to be their obligation to Allah to kill non-believers who refuse to convert to Islam:

I have been ordered by Allah to fight and kill all people (non-Muslims) until they say “No God except Allah.”

The above statement is a hadith collected and recorded by Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the two most important compilers of the oral history of the words and deeds of Muhammad.

So our enemies are young Muslims who accept martyrdom and the prospect of early entry to paradise by fulfilling the commands of their religion as it has been taught to them. Those of us who live beyond this period of desperate searching for the meaning and purpose of our lives and make it to a more mature adulthood generally find less demanding objectives and meanings for our lives. Do most Muslims accept this version of their religion? This is a complicated subject but obviously we see the vast, vast majority of Muslims living in compliance with the laws and customs of whatever country they live in. Have they embraced a more peaceful understanding of Islam or have they managed to ignore those aspects of their religious beliefs that are clearly unacceptable in the modern civilized world?

Following 9/11, once I was able to return to the U.S., I asked a Pakistani colleague why he and his fellow Muslims did not speak out to condemn this barbaric act made in the name of Islam. He replied that it was very difficult for a Muslim to publically criticize a fellow Muslim. I only now think I understand what he meant. For a Muslim to criticize or renounce his religion is called apostasy. According to Dr. Tawfik Hamid in his very illuminating book Inside Jihad: “The portion of Sharia concerned with apostates is known as Redda law, and according to the literal implementation of Redda in Saudi Arabia, the punishment for apostasy is death.”[2]  Thus condemning Muslim’s who kill non-believers can be dangerous.

The proponents of this strict, fundamentalist form of Islam are called Salafists. According to Dr. Hamid: “Salafists desire a return to the Islamic Caliphate. They do not respect secular states or weak Islamic regimes. They believe Sharia law should constitute, ideally, the only legal system in any society, because it is the divine law…. For Salafists, the perfect world is one in which apostates are slain, adulterous women are stoned to death, enslavement of war captives is permitted, polygamy is admired and wives can be beaten when the husband deems it appropriate.”[3] Such views are not compatible with our Constitution or culture nor with any other modern culture and should be condemned as unacceptable.

According to Dr. Hamid, Salafist interpretations of Islam promulgated around the world by the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam financed by the Saudi Arabian government has come to dominate the understanding of the teachings of Muhammad by most Muslims. In exchange for the commitment of the Wahhabi leadership to respect and not politically challenge the Saudi royal family, the Saudi rulers financed the Wahhabi movement and its expansion. So the irony of Saudi Arabia launching an alliance to combat terrorism is that it is Saudi Arabia that continues to finance its primary cause, the Salafist version of Islam. For starters the Saudi government should cut off the funds it now provided to the promotion and spread of such teachings.

If the United States or any other military were able to kill every ISIS fighter in the Levant (Iraq and Syria), even if it could do so without destroying the cities and communities and kill their citizens that ISIS now occupies and controls, and even if it could leave behind or install a creditable, peaceful, and broadly accepted government that could prevent a new ISIS from arising, this would not end the threat of Islamic terrorism. As long as young men and women around the world continue to believe that their ticket to paradise entails fulfilling their religious duty to kill infidels, innocent people will continue to die at their hands and we will remain at risk.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has the right idea, if he means it, that “we” must “stop the flow of funds to terrorists and confront the ideology of extremism that promotes killing of the innocent.”[4] But according to Dr. Hamid, this is not enough. “Islamic terror is not likely to decrease until Muslims cease being passive terrorist and become active defenders of hard truth, true peace and real tolerance.”[5] “For every jihadist in the world there is a much larger number of individuals who quietly approve of his conduct. Islamic terror often makes passive terrorist secretly proud.”[6] This is because the passive terrorist believes on the basis of Salafist teachings that the active terrorist is fulfilling the requirements of Islam. “In the case of passive terrorists the schism is one between the cultural mind and the religious mind.”[7]

Islam needs a reformation. While peaceful forms of Islam already exist (e.g., Sufism), Dr. Hamid argues that a more rigorous and scholarly reinterpretation can emerge from a refocusing on the Koran (the word of Allah), which does not contain many of the offending texts in the hadiths and Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad), and placing certain commands and acts in the historical context in which they originally occurred as is generally done when interpreting the Bible.

The United States and other secular societies need the help of peaceful Muslims, those who have accepted the secular laws of their country (e.g. the U.S. Constitution) and thus rejected those Salafist teachings that contradict them. We need their help in attracting Muslims to its acceptable and peaceful versions and we need their help in isolating and exposing the few Islamic terrorists among them. These peaceful Muslims, in turn, need our condemnation of the intolerant and violent elements of Salafism, to help support their campaign for reformation. To ignore that Islamic terrorists are acting on their understanding of their religion, i.e. that they are Islamic, undercuts any effort and hope for the reformation that Islam needs in order to peacefully take its place in the modern world.

In his farewell speech to the Nation in 1988 Reagan spoke of America as a shinning city on the hill: “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Implicit in Reagan’s vision was that anyone “with the will and heart to get here,” had already embraced the laws and customs of their new land. Those who have and who satisfy our other requirements for immigration should be welcomed.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/saudi-arabia-launches-islamic-military-alliance-to-combat-terrorism/2015/12/15/ad568a1c-a361-11e5-9c4e-be37f66848bb_story.html

[2] Tawfik Hamid Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works, Why it Should Terrify Us, How to Defeat it, Mountain Lake Press, 2015 page 83. http://www.tawfikhamid.com/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Washington Post Op. Cit.

[5] Hamid, Op. cit. page 98

[6] Ibid. page 87

[7] Ibid. page 102

The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.