Islamic Terror: Decentralized, Franchised, Global
French security officials arrested three Chechen Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda this spring. The three were believed to be "days away" from carrying out attacks in France, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, prosecutor François Molins said. He called it a "worrying trend."
In Canada, a Tunisian immigrant was charged with plotting to derail a passenger train near the US-Canadian border. This after Canadians were shocked a few months earlier when Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan immigrant, killed his three teenage daughters for behaving too much like Western girls. The youngest girl was thirteen. A Canadian court sentenced Shafia to life in prison. Not long after, police said they arrested two foreigners who were working with al-Qaeda operatives in Iran on a plan to attack and derail a passenger train traveling between Toronto and New York.
In the United States and most other Western nations, people and politicians tend to focus their attention on the state of the nation's economy and other domestic issues—gun control, immigration, tax reform. If they lift their eyes to look abroad, most people worry about Iran, North Korea, or China. But in truth, as the Boston Marathon bombing reminds us, the rise of Islamic extremism is the issue of our age. Its pernicious effects are felt not just in the Middle East but around the world, spread by people who violently oppose any religion but Islam, not to mention democratic elections, equality for women, and so many features of the modern world.
There's no single counterterrorism solution, but recent studies of more than a decade of attacks in the US and the UK might reveal patterns that will aid law enforcement going forward.
While the brothers charged with responsibility for the Boston Marathon bombing did not appear to be part of any jihadist organization, they brought Islamic terrorism home to America again. They were Chechen-American Islamists. The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed during the initial manhunt, had visited Dagestan during a trip to Russia last year. Back in Boston, he had been thrown out of his mosque for hostile, threatening behavior.
A Pew Research Center survey published days after the attack found high levels of concern among Americans about religious extremism among Muslims in the North Caucasus area of Russia and the neighboring Central Asian countries. And recent national public opinion surveys show that most Americans remain deeply concerned about terrorism in general.
Many other countries also draw significant concern.
Kazakhstan's National Security Commission said it was surprised to find twenty-four Salafist cells nationwide earlier this year with nearly five hundred members. Salafism is a fundamentalist Islamic sect blamed for terrorist activities worldwide.
In the Philippines, after decades of bloody conflict that has left more than a hundred thousand people dead, officials say they are close to striking a peace deal with a Muslim separatist group that has a militant guerrilla force of eleven thousand. The Philippine government said recent developments in the region have prompted serious concerns over the possibility that al-Qaeda would use the Muslim-controlled areas of the country as safe havens.
The same is happening in Thailand, where a government official signed a peace agreement with a violent Muslim separatist movement that has been operating for decades in the country's southern peninsula. But Thai journalist Don Pathan told me he considers the agreement "a big leap of faith" because the Thai don't know if the Muslim separatist who signed the agreement actually speaks for the leadership. Months later, the daily attacks continued.
In Tanzania, where one-third of the population is Muslim, extremists beheaded a Christian pastor early this year because Christians had entered the butcher trade, which Islamists asserted was theirs alone.
And in Austria, complaints about neo-Nazi activities have diminished to insignificance now because "people are more worried about Salafist extremist teenagers," the newspaper Austria Today reported. Germany just banned three ultraconservative Islamic sects, including Salafism, complaining that they oppose and actively fight against rights to freedom of religion. And in Bangladesh, throngs of protestors have been calling for the government to ban the state's largest Islamic political party.
Jihadist atrocities in Arab countries and adjacent states are viewed as business as usual in that part of the world. Islamic fundamentalists take over northern Mali, countered by the French military. Coptic Christians are slaughtered in Egypt, while President Mohamed Morsi, with his strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, stands idly by. An annual kite-flying festival in Pakistan is cancelled this spring because Taliban extremists threaten to kill the participants.
All this is now presumed to be normal—a status quo to be lived with. But the truth is that al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other Islamic terror groups are also posing lethal threats all over the world.
Late last year, while he was still the Defense Department's general counsel, Jeh Johnson observed that the US might soon reach what he called a "tipping point" in the so-called War on Terror, begun after the 9/11 attacks. During a speech at Oxford University, he said the tipping point will come when "so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured," by drone strikes and other means, that "the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States." At that point, Johnson said, responsibility should be turned over to police departments and intelligence agencies—not the military.
Then, in a classified report in early spring, a panel of senior officials warned President Obama that intelligence agencies were paying too little attention to China, the Middle East, and other major national-security issues because of the preoccupation with counterterrorism operations, the Washington Post reported. (The CIA's counterterrorism office had three hundred employees before 9/11. Since then it has maintained a staff of about two thousand—ten percent of the agency's staff.)
But Johnson also warned that, right now, "there is still danger" because al-Qaeda has become "more decentralized," with "most terrorist activity now conducted by local franchises"—a clear fact.
Nonetheless, in May President Obama announced he was going to de-emphasize the War on Terror. "This war, like all wars, must end," he said. "That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands." He said the Authorization for Use of Military Force enacted after the 2001 attacks should be revised and eventually repealed because al-Qaeda is already on the path to defeat. A week later, the State Department issued its annual country reports on terrorism and proclaimed that al-Qaeda "has been significantly degraded as a result of worldwide efforts against the organization."
Still, in the spring the Pentagon announced plans to begin stationing Marine Corps special operations teams aboard Navy ships patrolling the Middle East and North Africa. That decision was primarily a reaction to the jihadist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last fall, which killed the US ambassador and three other Americans. The Pentagon said it would also open a new drone base in Niger, which borders Libya and Nigeria, two countries facing serious struggles with Islamic extremists.
The State Department report did acknowledge that local al-Qaeda affiliates "seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base." Libya offers strong evidence of that. The weak Libyan government does not control most of the country, and Salafist militias roam the state without restraint, destroying historical shrines and threatening unveiled women, among other malignant activities. Nigeria, meanwhile, is locked in seemingly unending deadly warfare with a jihadist group named Boko Haram, which in English means "western education is sinful." It's believed to be an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and has no known central leadership to target. It blows up churches and other sites that it views as heretical, kills people celebrating Christian holidays, and is said to be responsible for as many as ten thousand deaths over the last decade.
Boko Haram is blamed for kidnapping a French family of seven in Cameroon early this year and taking them across the border to Nigeria, then demanding a ransom. In response, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: "We must do the maximum" to free the hostages "but . . . we will not yield to terrorist groups." After two months of negotiations, the family was finally released in late April. France says no ransom was paid. A short time after that, one hundred and eighty-five villagers were killed in a gun battle between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military.
For the US, al-Qaeda and its new affiliates are not the only problem. Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to wreak havoc in the West. That's why Congress passed the "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012," which President Obama signed into law in late December.
"According to the Department of State," the law says, Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world" with "thousands of supporters, several thousand members, and a few hundred terrorist operatives," and officials from the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been working in concert with Hezbollah for many years.
The law continues: "Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies with a presence in Latin America have raised revenues through illicit activities, including drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, money laundering, forging travel documents, pirating software and music, and providing haven and assistance to other terrorists transiting the region." And the law notes that Hezbollah was behind the attempt to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington in 2011.
"We know they are in Mexico, we know they are in Canada, we know they are in Central and South America," Michael Braun, former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an interview. "Who's better poised to carry out operations on the homeland than they are?"
Last year, Representative Peter King, the New York Republican who chaired the Homeland Security Committee, told Congress: "Most disturbingly, we learned [that] there are hundreds of Hezbollah operatives already inside this country," including some who were apprehended "with military training and combat experience
"The security challenges facing our nation by this threat are not being appropriately and adequately addressed," Braun told Congress. "There are going to have to be some tough policy measures made, possibly at very high levels," Braun added in the interview. "We're very much behind the curve. It's just a mess."
In an essay published by the US Army Combined Arms Center under the title "What Are the Persians Doing Over Here?," Norman Bailey of the University of Miami says that "this interest in the hemisphere represents the first time in the five-thousand-year history of Persia" that "such interest has been demonstrated." The primary motivation, he added, "is to retaliate against the US if attacked."
Representative Jeff Duncan, the South Carolina Republican who co-sponsored the Countering Iran bill, said, "We need to focus our State Department on this. Iran has no historical ties to this region, so it really makes you raise your
The bill passed by large margins (a 386–6 vote in the House), but it merely requires the State Department to present an annual report to Congress on any Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere and propose a strategy to counter its presence. The law allocates $1 million for that work. The first State Department report is due in June 2013. It will be classified.
Right now a debate is under way in the European Union about designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group, as the US already does. This issue became urgent after an admitted Hezbollah member, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a duel Swedish-Lebanese citizen, was found guilty of participating in a plot to murder Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last summer. The matter of a terrorist designation is still under debate because some European governments want to keep lines of communication with the group open, as it's also an important player in Lebanese politics.
Americans may have grown accustomed to hearing about Islamic-extremist atrocities in the Middle East and now regard such events as part of the white noise of international news. But much of what is happening there on a daily basis could have a direct and profound effect on the United States and its allies, like the merging of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria. That virtually guarantees a civil war between al-Qaeda terrorists and Syrian rebels if and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls from power. That would be bad news for Israel, for example, and for Syria's other neighbors: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Israel and Syria maintained a cold peace for decades. But al-Nusra has repeatedly fired at Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the 1967 war. Israel has shot back with heavy artillery, and the cross-border fights have been escalating. Jerusalem certainly would not be able to maintain such stability with an al-Qaeda–
controlled state to its north.
And al-Nusra already has an international support system. In April, Belgian authorities raided scores of homes nationwide and arrested six people whom prosecutors described as jihadist recruiters for the organization.
At the same time, extremists in many states are not only taking up arms but waging a culture war as well, in which they make a point of aggressively rejecting all things American as they disparage modernity and Western culture. Banning the kite-flying festival in Pakistan is just one example. Salafists in Tunisia attacked students at the Tunis Institute for Humanitarian Sciences because they were passing out leaflets for a rally to celebrate International Women's Day. And a Salafist Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Yassir al-Burhami, issued a fatwa forbidding any observance of
Many of the extremists who make their presence felt on the international scene are connected to Pakistan, a state riven with almost daily violence including Taliban and other jihadist attacks on schools, government offices and officers, foreign officials, and others. And yet the US relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the Afghan war.
Even though Washington has provided $23 billion in aid since 2002, the government permits "all these jihadi groups" to wander freely "and they think that makes Pakistan more secure against India and all," Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said in an interview.
He advocates a divorce. The US should stop giving aid to Pakistan. "In Pakistan, there is always the assumption that the United States is not going to restrict us too much," Haqqani said. But "there should be a price to pay for having jihadists in the country." By continuing to provide aid nonetheless, "the US is reinforcing the presumption that they can do whatever they want—they can have their cake and eat it, too."
Egypt, meanwhile, has remained a close American ally for many decades. But it's now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic organization. Egypt's Salafists also hold a strong presence in government and society. The Salafist party won twenty-five percent of the vote in the last election.
President Morsi has already proved himself to be the new best friend of Hamas, the unrepentant Islamic terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. And he's quickly alienating Washington—and, more broadly, Americans in general. Already, a Zogby poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute in the spring asked Americans: What's the first thought that comes to mind when the Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned? Almost half the respondents said "terrorists."
Morsi made headlines worldwide in April when he ordered the arrest of television comedian Bassem Youssef, often compared to America's Jon Stewart. Youssef had made satirical jokes about Morsi on air. The arrest brought a sharp rebuke from Washington. And much of the commentary since then has made the point that the Egyptian president seems to be more passionate about controlling public criticism than righting the state's badly wounded economy. At about the same time, the government issued arrest warrants for five bloggers and microbloggers, accusing them, too, of mocking Morsi online.
Also drawing the world's eyes is his government's tacit approval of recurring attacks on Coptic Christians. In April, several photos went viral showing the attack on St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo in which four Christians were killed. In one grainy shot of the attack in progress, you can just make out the caps and helmets of several police officers, standing by and watching. A few days later, more Muslim youth attacked the funeral services for the dead Christians, and another Copt was killed during that assault.
Morsi's government didn't say a word about this or any of the other atrocities committed against Christians in recent months. Morsi even struck back at criticism from Washington over his arrest of Youssef, the TV satirist, and other negative foreign comment. Egypt, he warned, will deal "firmly" and "decisively" with any foreign attempts to interfere in his country's affairs. Already some members of the US House are talking about cutting off aid to Egypt. In that Zogby poll, only twenty-two percent of the respondents said US aid to Egypt—$1.5 billion last year—should continue as long as the Muslim Brotherhood remains in power.
The trajectory of future relations is heading rapidly downhill. On Al-Hafez, an Egyptian Islamic TV station, a Salafist cleric insisted in March that the United States must be treated with contempt, its economic aid regarded as "jizya," a term which refers historically to money that non-Muslims paid in tribute to their Muslim conquerors or overlords.
Raymond Ibrahim is an Egyptian-American Coptic writer who often blogs about Egyptian Islamist affairs, frequently basing his reports on translated Arabic television, print, and online material. Recently he cited another Islamic cleric whose sermon was posted online. Ibrahim told me the cleric was not named, but speaking to his followers this man boldly "swears to Allah several times" that the black Islamic flag will one day "fly over the White House."
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.