What better time to raise the flag of tolerance and moderation in the so-called confrontation between Islam and the west than in the aftermath of yet another mindless terrorist attack against an Israeli yeshiva.
David Ignatius wrote a compelling Washington Post story about the new book, Leaderless Jihad, by former CIA analyst Marc Sageman. Here are some of its significant findings:
The heart of Sageman’s message is that we have been…exaggerating the terrorism threat — and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain’s Web site puts it, the United States is facing “a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists” spawned by al-Qaeda.
The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a “clash of civilizations.”
It’s the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman’s account, it’s a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls “terrorist wannabes”…The new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.
“It’s more about hero worship than about religion,” Sageman said…Many of this third wave don’t speak Arabic or read the Koran. Very few…have attended radical madrassas. Nearly all join the movement because they know or are related to someone who’s already in it…They are disaffected, homicidal kids — closer to urban gang members than to motivated Muslim fanatics.
Sageman’s harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. “Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide”…he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.
The third wave of terrorism is inherently self-limiting, Sageman continues. As soon as the amorphous groups gather and train, they make themselves vulnerable to arrest. “As the threat from al-Qaeda is self-limiting, so is its appeal, and global Islamist terrorism will probably disappear for internal reasons — if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away.”
The political winds are changing in Washington. If a Democrat is elected president then we will have an opportunity to change the tune played for the past seven years of the Bush Administration. We wil have a chance to adopt a more nuanced and forward-thinking response to Islamism. One that takes the wind out of its sails rather than roils up a hurricaine of hatred.
Sageman’s advice holds true regarding Palestinian militancy as well (though Hamas is quite different than Al Qaeda). Nothing would take the winds out of the extremists more than a calibrated, pragmatic approach to Hamas and Fatah. Just as the U.S. has cast gasoline on the fires of jihadism with our invasion and occupation of Iraq so Israel has helped stoke Palestinian militancy by refusing final status talks on ending the conflict and by refusing to talk to Hamas. One doesn’t have to support Hamas (and Israeli pragmatists like former Mossad chief Ephraim Levy and General Shlomo Brom certainly don’t) to see that it holds some of the main cards blocking progress in resolving the I-P conflict.
Israel and the U.S. see themselves as innocent victims of Arab and Islamic extremism. When the actual truth is that by our actions we play a not insignificant role in making things worse. And it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way.