Despite two decades of Islamist* murders of U.S. diplomats and soldiers serving overseas, only the 11 September 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center roused the United States to declare war on global terrorism. Though other nations seemingly enlisted in that struggle, and NATO has sent a few troops to Afghanistan, most countries limited their efforts to freezing terrorists assets, exchanging intelligence, and calling upon police and courts to find and bring to justice those linked to terrorist organizations. Will the August bombing of the United Nation’s headquarters in Baghdad — following similar attacks on a nightclub in Bali, a hotel in Jakarta, and a busy street in Bombay — awaken the international community in the way that 9/11 roused the United States? Will the world now help us carry the battle to Iraq’s terrorists? It should.1
To be sure, not all those who have killed Americans — and Iraqi security personnel — since the end of major hostilities draw their inspiration from their religious beliefs. Former members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist government use terror tactics in their efforts to thwart the growing U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, reinvigorate its economy, and help it create a decent and representative government. Other Iraqis — its infamous Ali Babas (thieves) or groups hoping to settle a score with Americans or local opponents — also resort to the hit-and-run murders typical of terrorist tactics. Islamism does not, however, inspire their resistance. Their grievances are of a more limited, personal, or nationalist nature. With determination and patience, the coalition should overcome them with the help of augmented Iraqi police, militia, and military forces.
The larger struggle, and the one with the wider meaning, concerns the infiltration (or re-infiltration) into Iraq of Islamist terrorists associated with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and al Qaeda. They are in Iraq not simply to drive the coalition out or to create the chaotic conditions that would permit the formation of an Islamist government. They are in Iraq to advance their global war on the United States, the West, and nations led by men they consider apostate Muslims. They aim to establish a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic caliphate based in Baghdad, one that adheres to their extreme form of Islam.
Short-sighted national leaders, especially those in Europe, who opposed the “unilateral” U.S.-UK push to enforce UN resolutions and bring down the government of Saddam Hussein, may now be tempted to let the United States and the UK suffer all the casualties and costs of rebuilding Iraq. Yielding to that urge would not serve the long-term interests of the nations they lead. For they as well as the United States are on the Islamist enemies’ list.
The principal targets of the Islamist terrorists are not military forces or well-protected national leaders. Seeking to inspire fear and gain a psychological victory, they target world opinion by ruthlessly killing poorly protected civilians, even those with only a remote connection to their enemies. Falsely promised a place in paradise, they are also prepared to kill themselves (a major Islamic sin) in the act of murdering others.
The terrorists’ goals are global in scope and do not readily permit of compromise. As they see it, the United States—leader of what Usama bin Ladin describes as the “Lands of the Unbelievers”—can only save itself by abandoning its degenerate and oppressive ways and adopting the religious deviation that Islamists consider the true faith. The United States must also end its support for the allegedly corrupt leaders of Muslim nations and stop assisting states resisting Islamist terrorist movements. In the judgment of Bernard Lewis, whose expertise in Mideast history has won him international recognition, Islamists such as bin Ladin must be perceived as having resumed the Islamic “struggle for religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century.”2 No nation opposing that struggle is safe, including European powers made vulnerable by their large Muslim populations.
All who value freedom should, therefore, support coalition efforts to bring prosperity and good government to Iraq and thereby take the first step toward achieving political and social reform in the Mideast and among the fifty-six member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference that have yet to move from autocracy to stable democracy. If the situation in Iraq presently offers Islamist terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran a chance to inflict a costly set back on the United States, it also offers the West and other democratic nations an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against both the terrorists and the Mideast roots of their extreme form of Islam.
The United States and the United Kingdom may have taken the lead, but they are fighting the world’s battle and should not be doing so alone. The recent attack on the United Nations in Baghdad, which killed one of its most promising leaders, could be the West’s wake up call. Will the West listen, or roll-over and turn off the alarm?
*”Islamist” and “Islamism” refer to adherents of radical and violent perversions of traditional Islam, deviations such as are found amongst Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, Iran’s ruling ayatollahs, Afghanistan’s former Taliban, and terrorist groups linked to Usama bin Ladin’s al Qaeda.
1. Though all errors are entirely my own, reading the ninth chapter, “The Rise of Terrorism,” of Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Modern Library, 2003) has inspired much of the argument of this essay.
The author, a retired U. S. army colonel, is a member of the American Diplomacy Board of Directors. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he earned a master’s degree at the University of Geneva and a Ph.D. at Stanford University. He frequently contributes commentary to American Diplomacy.