May 10, 2010

Fighting Terrorism, Over There and Over Here

Faisal Shahzad’s attempted Times Square bombing has many people talking about homegrown terrorism—that is, terrorism perpetrated by those living in the United States. Needless to say, such conversations can be extremely unsettling. The thought of jihadists committing terrorism “over there” doesn’t concern most of us. After all, “over there” refers to a bunch of third-world countries halfway around the world. But the thought of it happening “over here” conjures up images of a second, perhaps even deadlier, 9/11.

The good news is that these terrorists have generally shown themselves to be inept. Shahzad, for instance, didn’t know the first thing about bomb-making. As terrorism expert Gary Ackerman writes: “The construction of the device was extremely incompetent. I do not think that this displays any kind of ‘warning’ or ‘demonstration’—jihadists are not known for this type of behavior. Rather it indicates, in my opinion, that either the trainers or their student are grossly incompetent.”[1]

But, of course, there’s no guarantee that we’ll continue being so lucky in the future. In a recent report for the RAND Corporation, Brian Michael Jenkins writes that, although intelligence and law enforcement officials can take certain actions to contain domestic terrorism, “prevention will not always work. More attempts will occur, and there will, on occasion, be bloodshed—as in any armed conflict.”[2]

Given all this, I think it follows that we should shift our focus to the root causes of terrorism. In other words, instead of trying to figure out how to contain terrorists once they’ve become radicalized, we should be asking what we can do to prevent them from becoming radicalized in the first place. Jenkins contends that these individuals have been radicalized by US military intervention in the Muslim world: “It is…important to remember that these individuals believe that the entire Islamic community is the target of aggression by the United States, Israel, and other infidel powers. Armed defense, according to this view, is a necessary and personal duty.”[3]

Many other terrorism experts have reached the same conclusion. For instance, shortly after reports materialized last December that five Muslims from Virginia had traveled to Pakistan to seek jihadist training, Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman attributed the past year’s surge in homegrown terrorism to US military aggression. “The longer we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hoffman stated, “the more some susceptible young men are coming to believe that it’s their duty to take up arms to defend their fellow Muslims.”[4]

After compiling a database of every suicide terrorist attack since 1980, the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape concluded: “What over 95% of suicide terrorist attacks around the world have in common since 1980 is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to Chechnya to the West Bank to Sri Lanka to Kashmir and to Iraq and Afghanistan today, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign military occupation.”[5]

According to Pape’s database, the world’s “five largest Islamic fundamentalist populations without American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists on the order of 1 per 71 million people, while the Persian Gulf countries with American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists at a rate of 1 per million, or 70 times more often.”[6]

Despite all this evidence, some continue denying that terrorism is a response to American military aggression. Writing in Commentary, James Kirchick takes issue with Robert Wright for suggesting that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the number of both foreign and domestic terrorists. Nonsense, responds Kirchick: “terrorism against the United States began long before American boots ever landed in Afghanistan or Iraq; surely Wright is familiar with the chronology of 9/11 in relation to those two wars.”[7]

But as I’ve explained in the past, such arguments fail. While the US has certainly done much to inflame Muslims since 9/11, it also did much to inflame Muslims before 9/11: it stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, imposed sanctions on the Iraqi people, supported Israel in its aggression against the Palestinian and Lebanese people, and propped up various dictatorships throughout the Muslim world.[8]

The bottom line is that most people don’t become terrorists because they hate American democracy or because they hate Christianity. Most people become terrorists to avenge the untold death and destruction being caused by the US military overseas. In other words, people like Faisal Shahzad are attacking us over here because we’re attacking Muslims over there. And until we end this backwards foreign policy, such attacks are sure to continue.


[1] Gary Ackerman, “Times Square bomber suspect Faisal Shahzad,” Washington Post (4 May 2010).

[2] Brian Michael Jenkins, Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001 (RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA, 2010), 13.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Scott Shane, “New Incidents Test Immunity to Terrorism on U.S. Soil,” New York Times (11 December 2009).

[5] “Scott Horton Interviews Robert Pape,” Antiwar Radio (2 October 2008).

[6] Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House: New York, 2005), 242. It’s worth noting that, even after narrowing the definition of Islamic fundamentalism to include only Salafism, the form of Islam practiced by al-Qaeda, foreign military is still a far greater cause of terrorism than religion. “The five countries with the largest Salafi-influenced populations are Pakistan (43 million), Nigeria (37 million), Indonesia (26 million), Egypt (23 million), and Sudan (21 million). Altogether, these countries account for 64 percent of the world’s total Salafi-influenced population (150 million), but only 29 percent of al-Qaeda’s transnational suicide terrorists (seven of twenty-four)” [Ibid., 117].

[7] James Kirchick, “The Homegrown-Terrorist Threat,” Commentary (February 2010, Volume 129, Issue 2), 19.

[8] See “Love Means Never, Ever, Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” (6 February 2009).


Liberty said...

Excellent post. :)

It still amazes me, the utter lack of understanding of this basic principle. People persist in thinking that, despite our actions, we have had nothing to do with the rise in terrorism and terrorists. ^.^

Don Emmerich said...

That's why it's our job to continue presenting these arguments. Through persistence and through love we can change the world.