by Mark Safranski
It’s not Your Father’s War on Terror Any More
Americans were justifiably horrified and outraged by the terror attack on a popular gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando Florida by Islamist extremist Omar Mateen, who swore “bayat” (allegiance) to ISIS before shooting a hundred and killing at least fifty club goers in a bloody rampage, dying in a gun battle with SWAT before he could detonate his suicide vest. According to terrorism expert Will McCants, official ISIS sites swiftly proclaimed Mateen to be “a fighter” and claimed responsibility for the Orlando massacre, promising future attacks against U.S. targets, including several hundred people in Florida threatened by name. The Orlando attack was the deadliest act of terror on U.S. soil since 9/11 and the largest mass shooting on record.
While Americans quickly became politically divided on partisan lines over how to characterize Mateen’s terrorism as a problem of gun control, homophobia or Islamic radicalization, the security threat Americans now face with terrorism is different and potentially more socially disruptive that the kinds of state-sponsored terrorism of the 20th century or even that of non-state actors like al Qaida, whose September 11 attack launched the United States into fifteen years of war. The strategic targeting, the terrorist tactics, the ideological motivations and the kinds of people who become terrorists have shifted away from the model of Abu Nidal or Osama bin Laden to that of Omar Mateen or Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. It’s not your father’s war on terror any more.
Previous iterations of terrorists have significant differences with the acts of Islamist terrorism seen in Orlando, San Bernardino or at Fort Hood in that some constraints on violence were imposed by the secretive nature and disciplined organizational structure of modern terrorist organizations and their often grandiose political aspirations. The 1970’s era terror groups such as the PLO, IRA or the Red Brigades enjoyed covert intelligence, training and funding from the Soviet bloc and radical states like Gaddafi’s Libya; while this gave these groups greater security and resources, it also gave their patrons a “veto” over any and all terror operations. Or more than a veto. Reputedly master Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal met his end at the hands of Iraqi state security when he defied his chief supporter Saddam Hussein’s “requests” once too often. In short, it was not in the interest of terrorism sponsoring states to let terrorist groups off their short leash during the Cold War, lest they spark WWIII.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the evolution of terrorists from being nationalist pawns of superpower politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward terrorist groups as effective non-state actors in their own right that boasted an increasingly religious, Islamist, identity. The forerunner for this change was the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah (”the Party of God”) which was created from the Shia Amal Militia by agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Inspired by the Iranian Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah was something wholly new that initially confounded American intelligence; an organization that blended terrorism, insurgency, intelligence, crime, overt political activity, economic development and religious social welfare work and one the operated with far greater autonomy from state sponsors than 70’s terror groups.
The Hezbollah model was quickly imitated by Sunni Islamist groups like HAMAS and the later al Qaida that emerged from the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. These new terror groups while more independent were also tightly knit, difficult to penetrate and professional in their tradecraft. Highly selective in their personnel, both Hezbollah and al Qaida had a difficult vetting and indoctrination process that emphasize quality and training that ensured their people would be exceptionally capable and reliable operatives, hence the attraction to failed states like Lebanon and Afghanistan where training camps and headquarters organizations could be built and flourish free from government control or American attacks. These groups were the first terror organizations capable of planning and executing genuinely strategic attacks in the military sense of the term.
Ironically, this very capability was their undoing, as even prominent al Qaida aligned jihadi strategists like Abu Walid al-Masri and Abu al-Suri recognized and for which they harshly criticized al Qaida leadership in their writings. The 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon unleashed an unprecedented reaction from the United States against al Qaida and the Taliban, but also from NATO and a dozen other countries as disparate as Russia, Syria, China and Iran that had their own scores to settle with homegrown radical Sunni Islamists. International jihadi groups were hit simultaneously by military, intelligence and police services and previously Islamist terror-friendly states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan suddenly began seizing financial assets and turning over mid-ranking jihadi leaders to the Americans (or often, simply imprisoning or killing jihadis outright if they knew too much), something that ended the terror careers of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the aforementioned Abu al-Suri.
Unfortunately, just as international jihadi terrorist groups had been thrown into disarray, with their ability to control and discipline their followers significantly damaged, the Bush administration invaded Iraq to topple the decaying totalitarian regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, shattering the old postwar order of the Middle-East. The invasion of Iraq coincided with and accelerated existing religious trends in the jihadi underworld away from Salafi Islamic fundamentalism toward more radical theological expressions of apocalyptic Islamism and intra-Islamic Sunni-Shia civil war. Initially, many terrorism experts and critics of the Bush administration believed the invasion of Iraq threw jihadi terrorist groups like al Qaida a lifeline; but what the occupation of Iraq and the collapse of Iraqi society really did was breed a monstrous new rival to the old-style jihadis in the form of ISIS, which embraced a level of genocidal barbarism that even al Qaida rejected.
The genocidal barbarism is now here on our shores.
Unlike the exquisite control-freak micromanagement that Osama bin Laden exercised over terrorist operations associated with the al Qaida “brand”, the leaders of ISIS prefer to inspire initiative from any radical Muslim willing to offer bayat to the ISIS Caliphate and engage in “lone wolf” attacks without prior need for permission. Unlike al Qaida’s preference for complex and spectacular acts of mass or symbolic terror attacks on strategic targets, ISIS prefers the wanton murder of social targets that represent evil or apostasy in their religious ideology – Shia Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christian clergy, religious minorities, Westernized women, Homosexuals – over significant military or political targets. Unlike al Qaida, which worried about the negative impact on Muslim opinion of beheadings and other videotaped cruelty, ISIS embraces extreme violence as a message strategy in itself to intimidate enemies and attract foreign fighter volunteers. It has brought ISIS thousands of foot soldiers from dozens of nations.
No longer do would-be Islamist terrorists require extensive military training or religious instruction. Many of Europe’s ISIS recruits are “hip-hop” or “rap” jihadis with criminal records and only vague notions of Islamic religious rules. The “Afghan Arabs” who fought the USSR could quote the Quran and debate suras while an ISIS fighter from France is just as likely to quote Tupac or debate the merits of YouTube videos. It is a come as you are, kill as many infidels as long as you can, jihad being promoted by ISIS. Decentralized, devolved and socially destructive to western societies that prize individual freedom in a way not seen since the terrorism of 19th century, bomb-throwing anarchists. They will target our shopping malls, movie theaters, elementary schools, our churches, synagogues, mosques and sidewalk cafes with car bombs and AK-47’s while tweeting and instagramming their kills.
The psychopaths attracted to this carnage are few. We are many. The real damage to our Republic will occur if we choose to respond to this threat in fear, sacrificing ever more liberty to gain ever less security. We are better than that. This challenge isn’t WWII; it isn’t even the Battle of Britain. It’s a small, squalid murder-cult taunting us to betray our civic values so they can portray themselves on history’s stage as far larger than they are or can ever be.
Mark Safranski –
My friend Mark publishes one of the most insightful blogs of the internet. His knowledge and grasp of the geopolitical world is second to none. Visit his site and feed your head.