The Two Faces of Terror: Why the West Loses
13 Apr 2017
By G Murphy Donovan for Small Wars Journal
The fight against Islamic terror has two faces today, public relations and strategic hokum. The recent meeting of the ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS in Washington illustrates these phenomena. Whilst the foreign ministers of “68 nations” were wining, dining, and thumping their chests inside the Beltway, another soldier of Islam successfully struck the British parliament in London. Whatever the purpose of the Washington soiree, it was undone in London by a single Muslim martyr with better motivation and better credentials than any infidel foreign minister. Indeed, the slaughter on Westminster Bridge, enjoyed global press coverage above the fold for a week.
In contrast, the very title of the so-called anti-ISIS coalition is a study in rhetorical obfuscation. The GCDI is neither global, nor much of a coalition, nor is it likely to stem the spread of Islamism or terror. Of the 68 nations that came for crudités and cocktails, few ever do anything about terror, jihadists, the Islamic State, or global Islamism.
Atrocity in London was displaced by atrocity in Syria overnight. The alleged Syrian “gas attack against children” took Islamic terror off the front page. Before you could say qui bono, Assad and Russia were again summarily lynched by a press narrative, followed quickly by cruise missile strikes against Shayrat Air Base. After 59 cruise missiles ($60 million US) hit their mark, the Syrian airfield was launching MIG sorties the next day.
Whenever thinking about religious terror becomes too painful, somehow a convenient secular bogyman seems to reappear. Vladimir Putin is now the default setting for conspiracy theory everywhere.
The real fighting coalition on the ground in the Levant has, at best, six national players, three of which are marginalized by American policy. Neither Syria, nor Russia is invited to party in Washington. Kurdistan fighters are real enough, yet they are sure to be thrown to Turkish wolves as soon as their proxy utility is exhausted by CIA and the Pentagon.
Kurds should not have any illusions about friends in NATO. The only country that argues to recognize Kurdistan is Israel. The Israeli justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, alone has publically called for an independent Kurdistan.
Thus, the three (Syrian, Russian, and Kurd) most effective military contingents on the ground are hobbled by strategic myopia in Washington. Syria has survived, with Russian support, decades of Washington sponsored sedition. Next door, Baghdad has become a Shia/Iran client state courtesy of regime change folly in Iraq. Kurdistan, the most civilized nation in the Ummah, is caught between genocidal Turks, perfidious Shia/Sunni religious fanatics, and feckless Americans.
Clearly, Trump era strategic bluster is little different than Obama era posturing. Political rhetoric, conferences, and faux coalitions are still thought to be substitutes for coherent strategy. War at home and abroad is now a cat fight in cyber space where the weapons of choice are invective, fake news, or propaganda. The default setting for political invective is Russia or Vladimir Putin.
As terror struck again in a European capital, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was channeling John Kerry, bragging about “significant progress” against ISIS and claiming that terrorists are finding it “harder to get in and harder to get out.” Get in and out of “where” we know not.
Surely Tillerson isn’t talking about continental Europe or the British Isles. Europe, thanks to EU open borders, is importing unvetted Muslims by the millions and in turn exporting home-grown jihadists by the thousands.
It seems that yet another American administration can’t distinguish between tactics and strategy either. Yes, words matter. Yes, diplomacy matters. Yes, propaganda matters. Alas, none of these tactics are a substitute for a coherent global vision, consistent policy, real allies, and a winning military strategy.
The best illustration of tactical agility and strategic coherence, alas, is now found in jihadist coalitions. The recent rebranding of Sunni Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria provides an example.
On the one hand, Al-Nusra is a long-time affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Levant. You may recall that al-Qaeda was once run by Osama bin Laden who orchestrated the most successful terrorist urban attack in modern history. The New York atrocity was manned and sponsored by Saudi Arabia, yet to be brought before the American bar.
Nevertheless, after 9/11, the al-Nusra franchise cultivated triste immunities with anti-Assad, deep state, American operatives in Syria. Indeed, after the Muamar Gadhafi kill, Libyan weapons were distributed by the CIA Annex near Benghazi to Sunni “allies” like al-Nusra.
Prior to the American sponsored assassination of Gadhafi, Libya was the wealthiest and best armed secular nation in Africa.
In short, the lethal bits and pieces left in the wake of the American sponsored collapse of Libya were redistributed to Syria with the expectation that Assad and Syria might suffer the same fate as Hussein in Iraq and Gadhafi in Libya. Barack Obama called Libya a “shit story,” a rare candid assessment that now applies to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The erstwhile president failed to mention that terror and guano in North Africa was another CIA/US State Department import.
Tragically, regime change fiascos, in Africa and the Levant, produced nothing save chaos and mayhem. However, terror groups like Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and al-Nusra in Syria still thrive, friends with benefits if you will, playing naïve American Intelligence dupes like chumps.
The al Nusra name change is another bit of tactical dexterity lost on American strategists. The separation from al Qaeda created the space for al Nusra to be seen as an “ally” against Assad. Rebranding itself, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of the Syria Front) provides another opportunity for al-Sham to again be what it is not and put the arm on American regime change zealots. The meaning of “sham” in English is surely not lost on literate jihadists.
By targeting the Syrian regime, separated from al-Qaeda’s global focus, al-Sham is yet another local terror franchise eligible for US tax dollars and an exemption from US airstrikes.
“On July 28, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, announced that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership had been instructed to “go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad." Al-Qaeda’s No. 1 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, added, that the brotherhood of Islam … is stronger than any organizational links.”
Stronger indeed! ISIS and al Qaeda machinations in the Middle East are consistent with Islamist doctrine worldwide.
Tactics and alliances might vary, but the strategy of “jihad” and the links within the “brotherhood of Islam” are global constants. Islam is not parsed by Muslims. Only infidels are naïve enough to believe that Islamist factions have significantly different core goals and objectives.
US State Department and American Intelligence data bases, in contrast, illustrate the timidity and incoherence of American policy. After decades of warfare, the Muslim Brotherhood (aka al Ikhwan), the Taliban, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force (Shia), and the Caucasus Emirate do not have terror designations, yet the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) are still on the official State Department sierra list.
Making matters worse, America often cultivates undesignated terrorists as “partners”. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are the most prominent examples. The Taliban in South Asia were formerly celebrated as “mujahedeen” allies while Chechen terrorists in the Caucasus are frequently romanticized as “freedom fighters.”
Any Muslim terrorist with anti-Russian credentials has the bone fides to merit American support and arms. Any Arab silent partner with oil seems to enjoy similar privileges. The Pentagon now scores 50 years of Muslim wars as a stalemate. “Stalemate” is a very charitable assessment of a conflict where neither the Department of Defense nor the White House sees global Islamic jihad as an existential threat.
If the Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS were real, to say nothing of effective, it would be the called a coalition to defeat Islamism, not ISIS. ISIS is just a single facet of a global Muslim threat that flourishes in dozens of branded militant organizations, in hundreds of terror cells, and under uncounted ideological covers. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but virtually all terrorists are Islamists.
The problem is religious imperialism, the soldiers are Muslims, their strategy is Islamism, and their goal is victory. Islam is now the ideological ‘blue screen of death.’ Passive aggressive Muslims, an arguable majority, make the kinetic minority possible. If only ten percent of Muslims are activists, the Jihad has 150 million shooters or proselytizers in the field as we speak.
There are four beliefs that distinguish Islamic leadership from their European/American counterparts. The Islamist is: willing to die for belief, willing to admit the reality of existential war, and willing to name Judeo/Christian states as their enemies. Jihadists are crystal clear about objectives.
The rationale for ignoring the threat or appeasing Islam can be reduced to a single simple minded argument: dramatic pushback from the West might make matters worse. Call it “demographobia,” fear of Muslim numbers; the belief that Muslims are so numerous (1.6 billion) that no nation dare offend Islam or Mohamed.
Putting aside the illogic of clairvoyance, if the truth be told, the real question should be; how bad does the Islamic problem have to get before the West draws real lines in the sand?
Yes, with new policy, things might get worse. Without new strategies, things will surely get worse.
Some potential game changers, policy options, might include the following top ten initiatives:
- Move the American Embassy to Jerusalem.
- Abandon the “two-state” fantasy.
- Recognize Kurdistan.
- Reform NATO. Expel Turkey.
- Revise Foggy Bottom’s official terror list. Add prominent Islamic state sponsors to the list.
- Vet immigrants. Deport Islamist activists.
- Abandon regime change and proxy wars as policies.
- Redefine Islam as a political, vice religious institution.
- Withdraw American troops from internecine Islamic religious wars.
- Insist that the Ummah fund, fight, or resolve all Shia/Sunni sectarian disputes. (Shoot winners as required.)
The objective of global jihad is to replace the weak sisters of social democracy with sharia, Mohamed’s law. The only successful Islamist party in Western Europe today is on record about these objectives. The goal of the Islamist is not democracy, nor assimilation, nor multiculturalism. On the contrary, the goal of Islamists, simply put, is hegemonic Islam.
Muslim zealots are winning today because they have better politicians, better generals, effective tactics, superior strategy, and crystal clear objectives.
Without some countervailing strategic response in the West, the diverse “globalist” future of Western Europe, especially, is beginning to look a lot like the Ummah – or the 7th Century.
Call it back to the future if you will. Insh’allah!
About the Author
G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer, Vietnam veteran, a graduate of Iona College (BA), the University of Southern California (MS), the Defense Intelligence College, and the Air War College. He is a former Senior USAF Research Fellow at RAND Corporation, Santa Monica and the former Director of Research and Russian (nee Soviet) Studies, ACS Intelligence, HQ USAF.