Counter-Terrorism: Who's At Fault, And What To Do About It


August 18, 2006: Islamic terrorism is an ancient problem, which is an important point to remember whenever one contemplates the current outbreak, where it came from, and how to deal with it. How ancient is Islamic terrorism? Well, consider that the word "assassin" comes from a group of very successful Islamic terrorists who existed a thousand years ago, who used drugs (hashish) to give suicide assassins a taste of paradise before sending out on missions that would get them killed. These guys were called "hashish eaters", and that word, when picked up by English speakers, emphasized the murder aspect, and was mispronounced as "assassin"
OK, so ruthless men have been using Islamic radicalism to create terrorists for a long time. No argument about that. But where did the current crop come from? Historically, a noticeable increase in violence by Islamic radicals occurred every three or four generations. Most Islamic countries experienced it, and some got a more lethal dose than others. The terrorists almost always lost, usually when a powerful ruler in the area launched a major military operation against the population, usually a tribe or part of a province, that was supporting the terrorists. Much bloodshed ensued. Today these measures would be described as genocide and war crimes. But in the past, the "massive retribution" approach worked and the terrorists disappeared. So the second lesson learned here is that, what worked in the past, won't work today because customs have changed. We have become kinder and gentler, and must come up with different methods of dealing with terrorists.
Where exactly did the current crop of Islamic terrorists come from? Basically, they came from Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi sect of Islam had always been among the most strict and intolerant. The Saud family owed their power, in large part, to a 19th century alliance with the Wahhabi sect. Holy Warriors from the Wahhabi tribes provided the crucial muscle that enabled the Sauds to conquer Saudi Arabia and establish their kingdom 70 years ago. But the Sauds realized that the more reactionary attitudes of the Wahhabis would hurt the kingdom in the long run. Many Wahhabi clerics were opposed to modern technology (unless it was a weapon). Radio, automobiles and all manner of gadgets were resisted, and the Sauds were constantly haggling with the Wahhabi clerics. Finally, in the 1970s, after a serious outbreak of Islamic terrorism, the Sauds made a deal with the Wahhabi clerics. The Wahabbis could control education in the kingdom, and have their own "lifestyle police" to enforce proper Islamic standards on Saudis, in return for keeping Islamic terrorism under control.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Wahhabi preachers saw this as an assault, by communist atheists (which is what Islamic conservatives considered the Soviets) on an Islamic state. The Wahhabi declared jihad against Russia. Billions of dollars, and thousands of Arabs (most of them Saudis) went off to help the Afghans fight the Russians. The Pakistanis cooperated because, at about the same time, the generals running Pakistan had seized on Islamic conservatism as a cure for the corruption that was making the country ungovernable. The Wahhabis, and their money, were welcomed. The Americans were there as well, as the "Afghan Freedom Fighters" were popular in the United States. Shortly after the Russian invasion, President Jimmy Carter had berated the Russians, and pulled the United States out of 1980 Olympics in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan.
President Ronald Reagan carried on U.S. support for the Afghans, but most of the money and weapons were being supplied by the Saudis. In addition to guns, the Saudis also brought in Wahhabi preachers, to set up religious schools for the millions of Afghan refugees. Pakistanis were allowed to attend these schools as well. The result was that the Pushtun tribes on both sides of the Afghan border, were radicalized with Wahabbi beliefs. At this point, Saudi Arabia was also exporting billions of dollars, and thousands of Wahhabi preachers, to many other Islamic countries in Asia and Africa. Some of that money went to Moslem communities in Europe and the Americas as well. But in the 1980s, Pakistan was where the Wahabbis were building a new generation of Islamic radicals.
In the 1990s, Islamic radicals in the Pakistani military created the Taliban, by arming Afghan students in Wahhabi religious schools in Pakistan, providing some training and technical support, and sending the lads off to end the civil war raging in Afghanistan. But when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, the Pakistanis began to have second thoughts. In fact, by then, the Pakistani generals and politicians had abandoned Islamic conservatism, for it had proved no solution to Pakistans problems. Too late. When September 11, 2001 came along, and American troops engineered the overthrow of the Taliban government two months later, the Pakistanis found Islamic terrorism had become entrenched among their Pushtun tribes, and was spreading to some urban areas. After al Qaeda was chased out of Afghanistan, the terrorist group declared war on the Pakistani government, for siding with the Americans. That war continues, with al Qaeda losing, but not yet destroyed.
Meanwhile, back in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off the Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia. While the Wahhabi religious establishment did not back the Islamic terrorists, it had to come out against Islamic terrorism once Saudi al Qaeda began making attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Within two years, all the al Qaeda activity in Iraq, which mainly consisted of killing Iraqis, led to a sharp drop in the popularity of Islamic terrorism throughout the Moslem world.
But, because of international media networks, Islamic terrorism was no longer a bunch of separate problems, occurring in different cycles. There was now one, world wide, movement. As in the past, the Islamic terrorist recruits came mainly from those who felt most oppressed. These days, that includes the young population in most Arab states, which are all run by dictators or monarchs. The dictators and kings don't want democracy, and Islamic radicals consider democracy un-Islamic. So the only way to vote is to set off a bomb somewhere.
That somewhere, it turned out, was not at home. These Arab despots had equipped themselves with an efficient police state security apparatus, which has managed to shut down Islamic radicals wherever they have shown up in Moslem nations. That led to al Qaeda's campaign against Western nations. This was seen as an indirect way of bringing down Arab tyrants, which al Qaeda now believed were being propped up by the Western infidels. The American invasion of Iraq forced the Islamic terrorists to rush home, and fight against an outbreak of democracy in their heartland.
So how do you fight Islamic terrorism these days? Can't use the old ("kill 'em all") methods, so all you can do is keep the killers out of your own territory, and wait for the madness to die out naturally, as it has done many times before. Changing the poor and misgoverned Moslem nations that generate Islamic radicalism is another option. But that takes time as well, and the current wave of Islamic terrorism may die out before democracy takes root in the Arab world.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close