Last week, President Donald Trump banned the entry of 212 million Muslims from seven countries, with the objective of saving the “Homeland” from “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump invokes this expression with a sneer, attacking the courage of those who argue for a more nuanced approach to the terrorist threats facing the United States. Sadly, Trump channels both Goebbels and Lenin, who knew that a good slogan almost always beats a hard truth, and that in politics nuance almost always loses. The ban will make America less safe, not more, for jihadists do not disguise themselves for years as helpless refugee families fleeing the Islamic State’s murder and rapine. It directly substantiates the jihadist narrative that the United States is engaged in a war against Islam, will anger countless millions of Muslims hitherto well-disposed to the U.S. and will incite more extremists into jihadist to blow us up or slit our throats. Trump is, characteristically, merely a crude, late and frankly stupid arrival to an argument that has raged among counterterrorism experts for decades concerning the nature of jihadist terrorism, and how to counter and destroy it.
None too soon, the eminent terrorism scholar Peter R. Neumann explains in a nuanced assessment the nature of Islamic terrorism, the novel strengths and weaknesses of the “Islamic State” in Syria, and the likely threat from Islamic-inspired terrorism in the years — decades — to come. I confess the slightly sensationalistic back-cover synopsis of "Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West" inclined me at first to apprehend yet another alarmist book about jihadist terrorism: “Thousands of young people from the West . . . are planning a new series of brutal attacks . . . .”
Yet Neumann himself is a careful and objective scholar. He explains the background of jihadism, and dispassionately measures the scope of the threat today and going forward. There is cause for concern. Neumann seems to confirm the fears that have so shaped U.S. counterterrorism and foreign policies and domestic debates for the past 15 years: “Europe in particular now stands at the beginning of a new wave of terrorism that will occupy us for a generation.” One can almost hear the engines revving for yet more Special Forces operations, and see the distrustful gazes at all those Muslims among us . . .
But Neumann makes broader, more subtle points that some of us in the counterterrorism community have held for years: The West, or more accurately the modern world, faces a long-term series of hard-to-counter attacks. This is a problem primarily for intelligence, law enforcement and special forces to address; but the West does not face an existential threat to our civilization that need continue to shape and define our counterterrorism policies in overwhelmingly military, operational and reactive terms.
Neumann clearly makes an important distinction about the nature of “radical Islam”: “I would not argue that the new jihadists have nothing at all to do with Islam, but it would be just as false to present their extreme interpretation as the sole, true version of the faith." The terrorists are “among the Salafists — not among the ‘mainstream Muslims.’”
Neumann succinctly describes the background to the terrorist threats facing the West using, like most terrorism experts, the seminal “four waves” schema developed a generation ago by David Rapoport. We are now living in the fourth wave of terrorism: the religious wave.
Neumann breaks down the Islamic State and the future of jihadism. He describes the genesis of the Islamic State from the frustrations in the Sunni population of Iraq in the wake of the American invasion; the upending and destruction of all traditional and existing institutions and distributions of power among the various groups that formed Iraq; the lasting reflexive resentments about the artificial imperial and foreign-imposed state borders of the Sykes-Picot agreement; and the tragically successful efforts of local jihadists — notably the sociopathic Jordanian killer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — to foment a Sunni-Shia religious war.
Notably, despite the conventional view in the U.S., al-Qa’ida had nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq or Saddam Hussein, was a late arrival to the insurgency, never had much presence, never controlled Zarqawi in the least, and never accomplished much of anything, except to beg Zarqawi for money, because U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida had almost completely neutered it by 2004-5. According to Neumann, Zarqawi’s “plan was to unleash a civil war so chaotic and so barbarous that the Americans would leave Iraq and the Sunni parts of the country would break away from the rest.”
Was Zarqawi the sociopath my colleagues and I assessed him to be? Neumann thinks otherwise, and he makes a strong point in his description of the background and motivations of, he thinks Zarqawi, and clearly of the Islamic State. An Egyptian thinker — yet another theorist of jihad from the 1960s and 1970s — named Abu Bakr Naji wrote an influential booklet entitled “The Management of Savagery,” which may have been used nearly as a guidebook by Zarqawi, and certainly has shaped the Islamic State’s actions. In it, Naji wrote:
Revolutionaries must provoke an overreaction from the state in order to unleash chaos and then present themselves as a force for order… extreme violence was not only acceptable, it was also positive and desirable because it accelerated the shift from chaos to stability.
This well describes the course of events over the past dozen years, and in particular since 2014, in the areas of Syria and Iraq now, for the moment, called the Islamic State.
Neumann’s explanation of the nature of the Islamic State cuts it down to its human, and deeply flawed, dimensions. At its center is Sunni grievance in Iraq and Syria, which has come to be dominated by a radical jihadist leadership. Neumann quotes a Syrian opponent of the Islamic State: Most of the Islamic State’s fighters “have no ideological agenda. They go along with it because they get a salary… .” The ringing calls by Baghdadi for global jihad are powerful, and clearly have drawn thousands from around the world to become jihadists in the Islamic State, but there is as much bombast and propaganda in the statements as substance.
And what of the “foreign fighters” — the jihadists from Europe and elsewhere of whom so much is made? There have been upwards of 21,000, with upwards of 4,000 from Europe, more than all previous jihads of the past 30 years. Two points bear noting:
First, Neumann fears that perhaps 300 of them may seek to commit acts of terror like the attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015, which killed 130 and 39 people respectively. But Neumann quotes other experts, too, some of whom are former colleagues of mine, with whom Neumann takes issue. Their research has found that none of the foreign fighters -- zero -- who have returned home from their jihads have sought to commit acts of jihad. Neumann is surely right to state that the return of foreign fighters from the Syrian war will call for the close attention of every country’s law enforcement and intelligence authorities for years to come. I personally find zero an unlikely number, and would evaluate the number of individuals of real concern for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to be in the hundreds in the West. This does not mean that hundreds will commit terrorist acts in the coming years, but that hundreds merit attention.
Second, Neumann points out that “what unites [jihadists] is not some demographic or socio-economic marker, but their lack of identification with the Western societies they (or most of them) were born and grew up in.” In my own counterterrorism work, counterterrorism officials I met with in numerous countries described the jihadists we were pursuing in almost identical terms. We knew the profiles of many of the individuals. In my discussions I often called them “little losers.” In other countries my counterparts referred to them with some variation of the expression popularized by terrorist scholar Marc Sageman: as a “Bunch of Guys” or “the BOG.” In every case this meant that they were singularly unimpressive guys. These men could still kill — and some have. But the phenomenon remains one of marginal men. Neumann gets it right:
[The] “Salafists’ pitch is aimed squarely at the stranded, the directionless and the left behind… young people with an immigrant background who don’t know where they belong, children from broken homes, petty criminals, drug addicts and outsiders.
It is clear from reading Neumann that what we face at home is not that “Islam is the problem,” and thus those Muslims among us are not “the problem” (just as Islam is not the “solution”), although there are small numbers of Muslims who are and will be inspired by the Islamic State and will act as “inspired” jihadists. This is a distinction and description of the nature of the threats facing us that the would-be Crusader for Western purification and world terrorism expert Donald Trump would do well to learn. (Perhaps Neumann should put it in a tweet, and thus increase the chance of educating the new commander-in-chief.) Neumann is as clear as one can be about what will happen if our leaders continue to seek bogeymen and to misunderstand how to fight the Islamic State and jihadism in general.
So what is to be done? The most important thing is to realize that there is no simple, quick solution — and certainly no purely military one. Instead of solving the political, sectarian and social problems in Iraq and Syria, it would further exacerbate those tensions. The result: more chaos, not less — and an even more successful Islamic State.
Trump needs to understand — as unlikely as it is that he will — that the miserable and desperate Muslim refugees now condemned to purgatory or death are not the ones trying to kill us and impose a perverted version of Sharia Law on infidels and believers alike. Treating them as a bacillus and locking them out confirms the jihadists' view of the United States, even among the nearly 1.6 billion Muslims who are hostile to “radical Islam,” and makes terrorist attacks far more likely. It is as though Trump were taking his orders from the jihadists, so as to strengthen them, rather than taking steps to weaken and defeat them.
The crisis we confront is found among those Muslims dislocated psychologically by modernism, globalization, secularism — the inevitable trends of social and economic development. These men need to be watched, and stopped. But they are less a coherent movement than they are a potentially lethal sociological phenomenon of anger, perverted idealism and anomie. What we face with the Islamic State is not a primarily religious phenomenon of jihad — “radical Islam” — breaking out in global strength. It is, as Neumann notes, the marriage “between chaos and desire for order” among the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq, exploited by absolutely ruthless jihadists, many of whom are sincere believers and many of whom are opportunists.
So, ISIS and jihadists pose a big problem to address; but not the makings of a religious war, no matter what the jihadists believe and say, despite the existence of a strain of radical Islamists, and no matter what the Islamic State proclaims and does. Unless our fears make them larger than they are.