The President's principal counter-terror adviser John Brennan spoke today at CSIS and outlined the Obama administration's approach to fighting the extremists who oppose us in many countries worldwide. The one change that is both cosmetic and doctrinal is an avoidance of any war on terror and a complete avoidance of mentioning that virtually all the terrorists causing trouble are Islamist extremists who desire to impose a new Caliphate and Sharia law on the rest of us.
I understand the retirement of a War on Terror, Brennan rightly notes that terror is a tactic and that we actually fight al Qaeda and it's allies. Correct if somewhat incomplete as there are quite a few terror groups not affiliated with AQ, such as the Maoist New People's Army in the Philippines. But when discussing the hot wars in Afghanistan and still somewhat in Iraq it is reasonable to talk of our war against al Qaeda. Where they fall off the tracks a bit is in validating some of the root causes philosophy about terror and downplaying the primacy of religion, specifically Islam, in the recruitment and justification for terrorism. Mr. Brennan said:
Instead, as the president has made clear, we are at war with al-Qaida, which attacked us
on 9/11 and killed 3,000 people. We are at war with its violent extremist allies who seek to carry
on al-Qaida’s murderous agenda. These are the terrorists we will destroy; these are the
extremists we will defeat. Even as the president takes a more focused view of the threat, his
approach includes a third element – a broader, more accurate understanding of the causes and
conditions that help fuel violent extremism, be they in Pakistan and Afghanistan or Somalia and
The president has been very clear on this. Poverty does not cause violence and terrorism.
Lack of education does not cause terrorism. But just as there is no excuse for the wanton
slaughter of innocents, there is no denying that when children have no hope for an education,
when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when
governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, then people become more
susceptible to ideologies of violence and death.
Not quite. There are many countries that meet the standard he outlines of a government that fails miserably to care for it's people, and yet there are only a handful that suffer numerous terror attacks or provide the fodder for suicide attacks. And the leadership of al Qaeda is overwhelmingly educated and ideologically rather than economically driven. He references the attacks of 9/11 but the 19 men who carried them out came from middle class backgrounds and were almost all educated, employed and connected to the modern world. That was the problem, they abhor what the modern world is all about and wish to shackle the rest of the world to their Islamic paradise. The one unifiying factor in modern terrorism and of the enemies we currently fight is radical Islam, and what the administration is minimizing is the amount of support in all Islamic countries for the extremists who take their jihad into battle against the infidels.
Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are therefore, often the final, murderous
manifestations of a long process rooted in helplessness, humiliation and hatred. Therefore, any
comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors, the conditions that help fuel
violent extremism. Indeed, the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan apply
equally to the broader fight against extremism.
The main thing we have learned in Iraq was that in the face of an insurgency that is killing civilians in bunches nothing can be done until the populace is secure. This took a reaction by the Sunnis in Anbar who were revulsed by the barbarities of the foreign al Qaedists who were torturing, raping and killing the very people they purported to be saving from a Crusader occupation. The Americans, over a number of years, showed that they really did have the best wishes of the people in mind. This led the Sunni Sheiks to denounce the terrorists in their midst and soon they were actively hunting them down with our assistance.We couldn't even begin re-construction until we defeated the terrorists both militarily and because their deranged Islamist actions horrified the populace.
The idea that changing socio-economic conditions in Muslim countries around the world will stop terrorism is foolish. Obviously we can generate good will toward America and the West by helping raise the standards of living there and that should be a part of our overall plan. But the common factors in these countries are Islam and tyranny. There are no Muslim countries that are prosperous and all are run by either an autocratic or theocratic tyranny or tyrant. Pretending that the conditions created by this combination of religion and oppression are the cause of terror and not that the religion and the tyranny themselves is absolutely backwards.
We cannot shoot ourselves out of this challenge. We can take out all the terrorists we
want – their leadership and their foot soldiers – but if we fail to confront the broader political,
economic and social conditions under which extremists thrive, then there will always be another
recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream. Indeed, our failure to address these
conditions also plays into the extremists’ hands, allowing them to make the false claim that the
United States actually wants to keep people impoverished and unempowered.
We cannot shoot ourselves out of this battle, but we cannot win it if we misidentify the causative factors. Poverty is not why the bulk of al Qaeda recruits packed their bags. It is not why the 9/11 bombers were willing to commit suicide, it is not why educated Muslims from dozens of countries flocked to Fallujah to battle the infidels, it is not why Thai Buddhists numbering in the Thousands have been slaughtered over the past several years. It is the belief by a large number of Muslims that the West is evil and Islam is good, or the willingness to accept that ideology. The failure of the admistration's plan is that they want to pretend this is not so and simply try to make the rest of the Muslims like us. That does no good if the 10-20% who believe violent jihad against the West is blessed by Allah keep up their horrors. We need to confront and defeat that if we are to prevail.