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The War on Terror:  A Perspective Eleven Years After 9/11

December 2012

  • A global conflict is underway.  It has been called the “War on Terrorism,” but terrorism is not the core of the problem. Terrorism is merely the weapon of choice for some of the regimes, movements, and ideologies that are waging a war against the U.S. and other democratic societies.

  • This conflict did not begin in 2001. While America was happily cashing in the post-Cold War "peace dividend," terrorists were bombing the World Trade Center (1993), slaughtering American troops at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (1996), bombing two American embassies in Africa (1998), and driving an explosive-laden boat into the USS Cole (2000).

  • The ground for this conflict was prepared even prior to Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.  In the years preceding the revolution, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini changed traditional Shiite interpretations of Islam to make them revolutionary rather than quietist, to support “oppressed masses” (mostazafin) instead of the “meek.” This marriage of Third Worldism with Islam was a potent mixture that still guides the Iranian leadership today.

  • The Mullahs who took over Iran in 1979 established the first modern state dedicated to Jihad — holy war against Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims. This inspired the rise of jihadism – not least among the more numerous Sunni Muslims of the broader Middle East. 

  • The best-known product of this inspiration: Al-Qaeda

  • It is not true that Sunni jihadis and Shia jihadis are enemies.  It is more accurate to describe them as rivals. They often cooperate and collaborate against common enemies.  Joint attacks against America in Iraq and Afghanistan are evidence of this. 

  • What is the goal of this interpretation of jihad? It was articulated concisely by the scholar Ibn Khaldun: "In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and the [obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. . . . Islam is under obligation to gain power over nations."

  • Was Ibn Khaldun speaking out of anger, considering the continuing incarceration of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the sufferings of the Palestinians? Probably not — Ibn Khaldun died in the 15th century.

  • Most Muslims do not embrace this interpretation of Islam. But a supremacist reading of the Koran caters to the pride and vanity of a significant minority of the world's more than 1.5 billion Muslims.

  • Unfortunately, in most Muslim-majority countries today, traditionalists, modernizers and reformers do not control the lion's share of the money (most of it derived from oil sales) and power.

  • All jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are jihadists. In other words, not all Islamists are committed to violence, including terrorism, as the preferred means to achieve their goals. Can we trust Islamists who forgo violence to participate in good faith within a pluralistic, democratic system? The evidence suggests we cannot. 

  • Some scholars differentiate between “Hard Jihad” and “Soft Jihad.”  Hard Jihad is fought with violence. Soft Jihad is an effort to destroy liberal democracies from within, to use Western values and institutions to undermine Western values and institutions. One weapon of Soft Jihad is "lawfare,” which embraces efforts to spread Shari’a, Islamic law as well as to use Western law against Western institutions and values.

  • The most important Islamist organization, one which mostly utilizes Soft Jihad, is the Muslim Brotherhood and its many affiliates.

  • Twenty years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. issued an internal memorandum acknowledging that it was engaged in a "grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within" by "sabotage." The Muslim Brotherhood has branches and affiliates in dozens of countries around the world.

  • While this war is an unconventional and asymmetrical war, different from previous wars, it is not simply a "law-enforcement" problem as many people believe.

  • Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — these are not separate wars but rather fronts in a single global conflict.

  • It is vitally important that free nations understand this conflict and that the U.S. and other Western political leaders have a strategy for winning it.