We are at what could be a pivotal moment in the struggle against militant extremism. Not one but two possible turning points present themselves — one deeply threatening, the other offering opportunity. Because the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, along with other recent terrorist incidents in Australia, Belgium, Britain, and Canada, may someday be seen as the dawn of a new era in the history of terrorism or, alternatively, they may be seen as a moment that galvanized a global alliance into effective action to contain a growing and potentially profound threat.
While the furor over the White House’s tone-deaf failure to send a senior representative to the Paris memorial for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo and related attacks continues to captivate the Twitterverse and the cable TV news world (whose roots trace back to mud wrestling rather than to Cronkite or Murrow), this squabble distracts from bigger concerns.
INCXYZ[dis_AuthorBox1.cfm]Did the White House blow it? Even they admit they did. It shouldn’t be a surprise. These are the folks who thought it was a good idea to roll out U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s folks for a big celebration on the South Lawn of the White House. These are the same people who announced their decision to attack Syria hours before they announced their decision to change their minds, and the ones who thought “don’t do stupid shit” was a smart foreign-policy platform on which the president of the United States should stand. Shame on us for being surprised by this kind of bone-headed amateurism at this stage of U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure. But given the stakes associated with the larger issues associated with the Paris attack, greater shame accrues because we’ve allowed ourselves to be so easily distracted — in particular from considering these twin points of inflection that lie before us.
After all, no message the White House could have delivered by having a senior official walk arm-in-arm with world leaders through the streets of Paris is more important than the one we should be receiving as a consequence of recent events. Which is that more than 13 years after 9/11, after spending trillions of dollars on what was billed as an all-out “War on Terror,” we are losing.
Not only are there, as the last State Department report on terrorism revealed, record numbers of terrorist attacks and casualties from these attacks worldwide, but it is just as important for us to acknowledge that the nature of the terrorism threat is morphing. We have one terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS), seeking to take and hold territory, to function as its name implies, like any of the other national entities that have claimed for themselves a piece of the world map. We have extremists establishing new strongholds, often at a horrific cost, from Africa to Asia. (Boko Haram’s attack in Baga, Nigeria, last week claimed as many as 2,000 lives, but because those who died were not white, were not Westerners, were far from the TV cameras, the story didn’t receive anything like the 24/7 attention garnered by the attack on the Paris magazine.)
Finally, we have entered what might be seen as a new era in the recruitment, training, and methods of terrorists themselves. Estimates suggest that about 1,000 foreign fighters a month are being drawn to just the conflict in Syria and Iraq. There they get the kind of training that was coolly and brutally displayed by the cell that carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks. While most of those drawn to this petri dish of evil are from the Middle East and North Africa, Europol said on Tuesday that as many as 5,000 foreign fighters are from Europe; other sources say that about 150 people have tried to join their ranks from the United States. And, as we are seeing, when they return, they can do great damage.
What is more, albeit somewhat paradoxically, the relatively small-scale, low-tech nature of recent attacks is further evidence that the terrorist groups with which these foreign fighters are affiliated are growing more sophisticated.They don’t need mega-plots or weapons of mass destruction to achieve their core goal — which is spreading terror. As each of the recent attacks has demonstrated, one or two people with an automatic weapon (or even something as crude as an axe) can strike blows that command the attention of the world’s media.
The media is their unwitting ally in this, unable to look away, essentially obligated to cover these attacks; the more extensive the coverage is the more it deepens insecurity. (And the more hysterical or pandering to fears and prejudices it is, the more that is compounded.) And it is important to remember that for terrorists, the key metric of success is not the number of people they may kill or the scale of buildings they may damage, it is how much fear they spread. Further, if the attacks trigger backlash in the societies that are attacked — be they from nationalists or political opportunists — this fans the flames of conflict, deepens divisions, and leads to the promulgation of bad laws and policies, all of which serve the extremists’ long-term goals. In much the same way that this new generation of terrorists who have grown up in the wake of our failed efforts to contain them (often in part motivated by the bad choices we made in trying to do so, from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo to the invasion of Iraq) have used new media to help recruit and get out their message, they are learning how to use all the world’s media as their ultimate force multiplier. Even a seeming lone wolf, like the nut job who took over a Sydney café, has demonstrated that one guy with a rifle and an iPad can commandeer the world’s attention for days and trigger political reactions and rhetoric at the highest levels.
Clearly, it would be better if the media and the pundits and political leaders who respond to these attacks were cognizant that they are being used and were thereby motivated to use a little restraint and circumspection as they respond. But for the most part they can’t help themselves.
I was on a television show this past weekend and one of the guests before me was Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. When asked about the Paris attacks, he launched into a tirade about how it was time that we framed this conflict as a “religious war.” Think about that. How on Earth does this idea help anything? Not only does it ignore all that is good and great among the 1 billion practitioners of Islam, the religion on which Graham clearly wants to wage war, and further ignore the fact that these terrorists and their ideology are a perversion that has virtually nothing to do with Islam, but, senator, doesn’t it also ignore the fact that religious wars throughout history have brought nothing but catastrophe to the world?
Of course, irresponsible commentary plays right into the hands of the terrorists, who want nothing more than to be seen as being on a religious mission rather than the sociopathic crime spree that they are actually conducting. Further, it exacerbates cultural differences at just the moment when we should be seeking to build bridges — at a moment when we need allies in the Muslim world more than ever to help contain and excise this metastasizing threat.
Most importantly, Graham’s apparent misguided nostalgia for the Crusades and similarly inflamed reactions miss the genuine opportunity that lies before us.
Recent events, for all that is horrific about them, have presented us with one of those moments when deft leaders could craft together a new, stronger coalition to collectively and effectively contain and reduce the threat posed by violent extremism. George W. Bush was presented with just such a moment in the wake of the attacks on 9/11, but because of some of the choices he made — notably the way we entered into and conducted the Iraq War – he wasted it and alienated many among our allies. Barack Obama thought he could undo the damage his predecessor did just by not being George W. Bush and, aside from the door prize he got on arrival from the Nobel Committee, his approach hasn’t worked terribly well either. Spying on those allies in the name of fighting terrorism didn’t help much. And putting together a coalition to go after the Islamic State, while a step in the right direction, is too narrowly focused and lacks a strategy or clear endgame. But now, in the wake of Paris, the moment may be back. And, given the likelihood of future attacks in Europe and elsewhere as foreign fighters return home, the motivation for our allies to work with the United States to contain this threat is likely to remain for some time to come. It’s worth recognizing too that this is an issue in which other major powers including, notably, China, India, and Russia, all have their own reasons to join in and cooperate on this front.
Now is a moment for the president of the United States to meet with his allies and put together enhanced plans to identify the roots of the problem, to share intelligence, collaborate on police work, cut off these terrorist networks’ funding sources, to engage in joint military operations, and to aggressively foster coalitions of moderates across the Muslim world so that viable models and counter-narratives can undercut the efforts of contemporary extremist groups.
This is not about fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, or al Qaeda in Yemen. Defeating “core al Qaeda” demonstrated that if you beat one faction, another will only take its place. It is about committing the resources necessary to a long-term, global effort to better understand, contain, and eliminate this threat. Prior to the Paris attacks, pulling together such an effort with sufficient support from our European allies was less likely. But today, perhaps that has changed. Certainly, the only way to know for sure is if the president and his senior foreign-policy team show true leadership, reach out to our most important allies, and make the effort. And then we will see whether the apparent unity shown at the event he failed to attend offers an opportunity for the same actors to unite behind a shared and worthy goal — avoiding such heart-wrenching memorials in the future.