Teaching graduate students about homeland security is a curious job. We may go months with the media ignoring terrorism, while it focuses entirely on crime, immigration issues, environmental hazards and natural disasters. In fact, the Obama Administration did its best to eliminate the term “terrorism” early in its tenure, substituting “workplace violence” and “man caused disasters.” And until recently, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. has been so quiet that some have questioned whether his department should be eliminated.
But then reality always intrudes. We have an undeniable terrorist event, and suddenly the airwaves and internet (and legacy print media) are full of “experts” writing on the subject. The good news is that sometimes the authors really are experts, and what they write or say really is worthwhile.
And so it has been recently. Atop the flood of dreck published about “violent extremism,” float a handful of very insightful articles and interviews about Islamic terrorism and the danger it poses. This posting will highlight six such sources.
The first is a Charlie Rose television interview with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (USA, Ret), former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He speaks from more than a decade of experience chasing individual enemies to kill or capture them. His thesis is that we have completely misunderstood Islamic extremists in general, and ISIS in particular. He concludes that while there are many peaceful Muslims in the world, and in fact Islamic allies in our fight, there is a core of many millions who are motivated by their religious beliefs to conquer the world and destroy us in the process. To defeat this very serious threat, we must recognize it, call it by its proper name, organize an allied response, and mount an effective US response – both within our government and within our nation. Even more importantly, we must press “moderate Muslims” to craft and advance a narrative that counters the Al Qaeda/ISIS version of religious duty. And finally, we must understand the failure of the “nation-state” model in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Our strategy is to advance a political solution that will no longer work in a significant part of the world. We are trying to promote democracy and honest government. What we are getting is corruption and ethnic discrimination. Many overseas, cheated by their own governments, see ISIS as promoting a viable alternative. To end the threat, we must solve that problem. Flynn’s interview offers an uncompromising analysis of our failure to see truth, and use accurate language to analyze and combat our enemies.
Secondly, I strongly recommend anotherRose interview, this one with Michael Morell, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (click) He delivers the clearest explanation I have seen anywhere of the growing instability in the Mideast. Virtually every state in the region is wracked by internal conflict. Many of the various internal opponents have split with their governments and are supporting opposing groups in other countries. Thus the discussion of the “root cause” of terrorism leads to wrong conclusions unless you understand there are many overlapping causes, and they require multiple, layered, and coordinated solutions. The center of these challenges lies, Morrell maintains, in Iran, which is determined to re-establish the Persian Empire as the political and religious center of the region, and perhaps of the world. This intent threatens the US (Iran has killed more Americans than any other current opponent), and the US threatens Iran in return. But deescalating these counter threats will not be easy (unless we simply surrender), because the Iranian vision of the world demands the reduction of US power and presence. The implications of this analysis are sobering.
Third, anybody who has followed the news recently knows of the debate over President Obama’s apparent inability to use the words “Islamic” and “terrorist” in the same sentence. An answer now dominating the discussion is provided by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 Atlantic. In an extended essay that provides a definitive response to the President’s reluctance, Wood asserts: “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” That is, ISIS (and those who build on the same model) are most certainly Islamic in the 7th century sense of the word. They may not be the only legitimate version of Islam in the world but they represent a sizable minority view. To the millions who follow them or a similar vision, their beliefs do represent a legitimate interpretation of the Islamic faith, and thus carry the emotional power of religious duty. The implications of this conclusion are dire. Adherents expect to fail and perhaps die, but thereby do their duty by ushering in a new divine order. Killing them all will be exceedingly difficult. Convincing them without killing them will be nearly impossible.
Those put off by the length of Wood’s essay can find an excellent summary of his work by Peggy Noonan . Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal (as a good capitalist publication) wants to sell you access. But the short version of Ms. Noonan’s summary is that ISIS is very Islamic, in a medieval sense. The solution is not invasion and occupation (because it is too risky, not because it is unjustified). The solution is a “slow bleed” of ISIS through air strikes, while hoping that it will become a failed state. What to do if that hope does not materialize is never made clear.
The final debate de jour (with long term importance) is over the “root cause” of terrorism (or in the Administration’s preferred prevarication, “violent extremism”). I think the Administration spokesperson recently excoriated for connecting violence to a lack of jobs deserves a break on this one. Clearly she did intend to make a more sophisticated point that the violence was the product of a range of conditions, from Western oppression to a lack of economic opportunity. The problem is that her broader point is demonstrably false as well. While attention to this claim is new, the argument itself is not. For a point by point refutation of the idea that anyone but the terrorists are responsible for their behavior, it is hard to beat this decade old essay by David Meir-Levi . His response is powerfully presented and carefully cataloged. I will not attempt to summarize as the reader needs to see the weight of the argument as a whole.
Another suggestion, more current and less strident, comes from Ira Straus, a former Fulbright professor of political science. As he provides his own summary of his own article, I will merely repeat: “There we have, in a nutshell, the root causes of Islamic terrorism. Its primary bases for recruitment and support: Islam and Islamism. Its secondary safe spaces and aids in radicalization: the non-Muslim Left, and the Western media and intelligentsia. Its economic base: oil.” But lest you assume this is merely an anti-Muslim screed, please note what hero Straus cites as offering the best solution: “President el-Sisi of Egypt. In his speech at Al-Azhar University, the world’s most respected institution of Islamic learning, he demanded that Islam expurgate [the claims of terrorist justification] from its ideological doctrines and practices.”
And there you have it – a wealth of mostly new deliberations on Islamic terrorism and its causes. What we would all like is for this issue to go away so we can return to our more mundane studies of hazards and natural disasters. Unfortunately, these speakers and authors suggest (correctly I fear) that’s not likely to happen any time soon.