The real shock of the terrorist mass murders in Paris and San Bernardino is the lack of seriousness in the responses from America’s ruling class, on both the left and right. They let political correctness get in the way of sensible homeland-security policies, and since they misunderstand the relationship between various branches of Islam, our leaders seem unlikely to mount a realistic campaign against the Islamic State.
Last week, in the wake of the attacks, President Obama tried to reassure the nation, but presented no new strategy other than blaming Republican gun-rights activists for refusing to enact tougher national laws, even though the San Bernardino massacre took place in the state with the most gun regulations. He urged that we not “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam” but asked for those merely under suspicion on the no-fly list to be prohibited from purchasing firearms. Republicans responded with an undefined greater toughness and no additional gun control.
Regarding the Islamic State killing of 130 Parisian innocents, Obama labeled it a “terrible and sickening setback” but then angrily turned the blame to Republicans. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s coming out of here during the course of this debate.” He accused them of “hysteria,” an “exaggeration of risks” and for creating “fear and panic” among Americans. He labeled it offensive and discriminatory that some conservatives suggested accepting Christian refugees over Muslims.
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded with legislation to delay acceptance of the 10,000 Syrian refugees proposed by the president until “certified” by the intelligence agencies as terrorism-free and then—bowing to the president—promised that there would be no “religious discrimination” favoring any group over another. But why did both party leaders think it was improper to notice that in the Middle East, Christians and other minorities (such as Yazidis and Jews) are the ones being beheaded and crucified and have no recent history of jihad?
President Obama blithely insisted that intelligence data and interviews could determine which refugees were safe. But FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last month that “a number of people who were of serious concern” slipped through the screening of Iraq war refugees, including two arrested on terrorism-related charges. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less than excellent vetting,” he admitted.
Comey insisted the process has “improved dramatically” since, but that Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information about the local population. “If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” he said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.” And the one characteristic easiest to use to verify those less likely to bomb Westerners, religion, is disallowed by both political party leaders as improper discrimination rather than common sense.
Nor, as Chris Christie has charged, were Republicans who supported limits on government surveillance activities negligent. France has fewer limitations on domestic spying, and that did not prevent the Paris attacks.
A Refresher Course on the Politics of Islam
Fourteen years after 9/11, U.S. leaders still cannot even identify the enemy. Obama, imitating his supposedly incompetent predecessor, rejects any reference to Islam and only decries “terrorists,” as does most of the media. In his White House address, he correctly said that “ISIL does not speak for Islam” but only identified the attackers as those “embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West,” saying “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” without naming it. Interestingly, he then reversed himself in less than a month and called for “stronger screening” for visas, noting that the “female terrorist” had entered the country through a waiver.
In contrast, the hawkish neoconservatives insist on calling the enemy “Islamic extremists.” Islam, however, is not a unitary religion, no more than is Christianity. All have had divergent sects almost from the very beginning. The New York Times reported last year that the top FBI counterterrorism chief could not distinguish between the two main divisions of Islam, Sunni and Shia. It is not Islam but Sunni Islam, or more particularly Salafi Sunni Arab Islam—or even Wahhabi Sunni Salafi Islam or Deobandi Asian Islam (evolved from Sunni and today Wahhabi) that have been the source of most of the terrorism, almost all of it lately against Americans.
The San Bernardino killings shocked conventional wisdom when it was reported that Tashfeen Malik shot first and was only followed by her more reluctant husband Syed Farook. We learned more not from the FBI or the president but from a single Washington Post reporter who interviewed the female terrorist’s best friend in Pakistan, who said Malik became radicalized while going “nearly every day” to a madrassa school that “belongs to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.” Still the rest of the media remained fixated upon some amorphous notion of “terrorism.”
Who specifically has attacked the U.S.? It was, of course, al-Qaeda that was responsible for the horrendous attack on 9/11 that opened the current phase of attacks. Its founder Osama bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian Sunni Wahhabi. Salafist-derived Wahhabism is a Sunni puritan school that idealizes the early Muhammad and his first associates and rejects any later liberalization or technical or moral modernizing, which it considers as the cause of Islam’s modern decline. Bin Laden, following Salafi Abdallah ‘Azzam’s teaching that every Muslim is obliged to defend Islamic lands against infidels and their teachings, objected violently to U.S. presence on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.
Having accused the Saudis of insufficient zeal against infidels, bin Laden was forced into exile in Sunni Sudan. Expelled from there under U.S. pressure in 1996, he moved to Afghanistan to secure the protection of the Deobandi Sunni Taliban. From his exile, he issued “a declaration of war” and armed struggle against U.S. troops stationed in Arabia and for harming Sunnis in Iraq by sanctioning Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the 1996 explosions in Dhahran, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, saying they were a warning to avenge the collusion between the Saudi regime and the “Zionist-Crusade” alliance.
Al-Qaeda continues in Syria today under the name al-Nusra and is probably still the next most effective force in the region, and of course is still Sunni Salafi. What is now known as the Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS) separated from al-Qaeda by claiming to be the “commander of the faithful,” intending to then claim the Caliphate, including the power to decide what is and is not Sunni. Its Salafi roots have not been mitigated by the fact that former Saddam military officers became a critical part of the its leadership and perhaps to some extent manipulated the true believers. But if there was manipulation, it was in the context of Sunni Wahhabi doctrine.
Sunni and Shia forces have been competing since the seventh century. Their war against each other shapes all events in the region. Because al-Qaeda and ISIL are Sunni, they regard Shi’ites as heretical. But while al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan underplayed the differences between Sunni and Shia, its Iraqi branch—the group that transmuted into ISIL—insisted on war with Shi’ites generally, demanding that all Sunnis in Iraq attack Shi’ite civilians and holy sites. Iraq’s Shia majority struck back with equal ferocity against the Sunni minority. Thus when ISIL, which had gathered strength in Syria, marched back into Iraq in force in 2014, the Sunni population first greeted it as its protector.
Syria’s Sunni majority had rebelled against the Shi’ite-related Alawite dictator Bashar Assad beginning in 2011. Iran, the one and only Shia power, went to Assad’s aid, along with its Lebanese Shia ally, Hezbollah. Together they saved the Assad regime’s hold in Syria. ISIL, however, took control of the Sunni-majority northeast and erased the border with Iraq. Thus, ISIL runs what one might call the Sunni-stan that stretches from Raqqa to Ramadi.
The U.S. government’s response has been to try straddling the Sunni/Shia divide, confusing and infuriating both sides. The U.S. allied with a self-described Sunni, Saddam Hussein, in the Iran-Iraq war. By overthrowing Saddam in the following Iraq war, it allied de facto with Shi’ites. Now the U.S. has allied with Sunnis again in the former Syria (and former Iraq) in the forlorn hope that they will fight ISIL for us. This is unlikely to work with their fellow Sunni Salafi.
At a minimum, we must identify who the enemy is now—not all Islam, although all of it is affected to some degree by its early militaristic orientation. Shi’ites in Iran did take U.S. embassy staff hostage in the 1970s, were involved in the bombing of U.S. troops in Lebanon in 1983, and some militias fought sporadically against Americans in Iraq. The U.S. may still owe them some retribution for these attacks but that is not today’s pressing business. Shi’ites certainly had nothing to do with 9/11 or Paris or Syria or the recent attacks in Europe or America. The current enemy from the West’s perspective cannot be Shi’ites or even all Sunnis but is—and must be clearly labeled—Salafi Jihadism or Wahhabi Jihadism, sects which unfortunately are embedded in the Sunni world, making U.S. alliances with Sunnis difficult.
A Realistic Challenge to the Islamic State
Once the competing forces are identified, one must look carefully at the facts on the ground in Syria. One careful evaluation comes from Senator Rand Paul, who last month argued:
There may be no good guys in this war. You have ISIS on one side and Assad on the other. Really, part of the problem is ourselves [since allies] Saudi Arabia and Qatar poured millions of tons of weapons into that civil war. That pushed Assad back and allowed ISIS to grow. Remember, only a year or two ago, President Obama, Hillary Clinton and many Republicans wanted to bomb Assad. I think had we done that, ISIS may well now be in control of all Syria. We need to think before we act and understand that intervention doesn’t always achieve the intended consequences.
President Obama and even “hawks in our party” supported giving arms indiscriminately to the so-called Syrian moderates, Paul continued. Both groups made Assad the primary enemy and the U.S. almost went to war against him. The U.S.-trained Syrian moderates crumbled at their first engagement, abandoning weapons that were “snapped up by ISIS,” as Paul put it last May. He was criticized then by neoconservative Charles Krauthammer for supposedly not realizing that Assad was in cahoots with ISIS in agreeing not to attack each other—even though ISIS took the city of Palmyra from Assad’s forces the next week.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions in Vienna proposing a Syrian ceasefire at least include Assad supporters Russia and Iran, but the United States is still insisting with Saudi Arabia and Turkey that Assad must be removed immediately, rejecting Russia’s suggestion of even an 18-month transition until the next presidential election in Syria. No Syrians were invited to the discussions of their own fate.
In fact, other than the Syrian Kurds, Assad and his Iranian surrogates are the only troops on the ground fighting effectively against ISIL. Expecting Sunni Turkey or especially Wahhabi Saudi Arabia to send troops against their fellow sectarians is naïve. At best the latter might be convinced to stop arming al-Nusra and the former from attacking the Kurds. All of the participants on both sides are less than perfect and Europe does not have the firepower to be effective. Twenty French bombs as a first response to the attack on their capital city was a pathetic admission of weakness, and even that required U.S. assistance. At least Russia has real air power. But as the deep underground tunnels in liberated Sinjar demonstrated, air is not enough.
Obama allows his ideology to get in the way of recognizing that as “evil” as Senator Paul said Assad was, the Syrian president represents the lesser of two evils in Syria. The Islamic State attacked Paris and set Washington D.C. as the next target. The horrific group is today’s problem. It is even more evil and is directly threatening the U.S. with its own promised attack. While ISIL’s threat was only to Western “crusaders,” they target all Westerners—even the most secular atheists. Assad, on the other hand, tends to protect or at least not persecute Jews and Christians. And Assad and his allies at least have ground troops. By not understanding that such distinctions between evils are the essence of statecraft, Obama proves that he simply is not up to the job. There is no solution without Assad forces.
While the pacifist left might think that all would be fine if America had stayed home (and I did write a column in late 2002 opposing the coming Iraq invasion), the present reality finds the U.S. mired down. President Obama may think that if the West makes nice with Islam the majority of Sunnis “who share our values” will defeat the terrorists and Assad will somehow just go away because he is a bad guy. This is delusional. They certainly do not share our values.
Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists are just as mistaken for calling for U.S. ground forces “for as long as it takes.” Robert Kagan’s plan is to send 30,000 troops to establish a “safe zone” for refugees and 10,000 to 20,000 more to “uproot” Islamic State from Syria and Iraq. Then he would apply pressure to remove Assad and Russia, just as the U.S. has used its muscle to create today’s “liberal world order” these “past 70 years.” Once this is successful, French, Turkish, NATO and Arab forces would replace U.S. forces. Good luck with that given Kagan’s own admission that NATO has no replacement forces and that Arabs will help only when we fully subdue the region. And after fourteen years in the Middle East, Americans are not likely to accept Kagan’s insistence on “keeping a lid on things” indefinitely. This is a dream world.
The U.S. must show some response to the horrific Paris and San Bernardino attacks and especially the ISIL threat to attack Washington D.C. First, Salafi Jihadism and its branches must be identified as the problem, then confronted and properly distinguished from Islam generally.
The only military solution, without years of massive numbers of American boots on the ground, is to continue the limited U.S. role, but with perhaps more air power. We must start cooperating with Russia, and supporting Assad and Kurdish land forces against the Islamic State barbarians. Only then can the U.S. consider becoming a less prominent ingredient in the Middle East cauldron, where ancient vendettas continue to poison the region.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.