Advancing U.S. National Interests Through Effective Counterterrorism
by Daniel Pipes
Opening Remarks and Introduction
Thank you, Mr. Lang, for the kind introduction. It is a particular delight for me to be here at the State Department, partly because, as you heard, I once worked here. One place I served was the Policy Planning Staff, where the Open Forum is housed, and I watched with admiration as speaker after speaker came through. I'm delighted now to be one of those speakers. And there's another reason why I enjoy coming back to State. I was working here in September 1982 when the first personal computers were introduced. We had brand-new, state-of-the-art Wang computers with floppy disks that held all of 50K bytes and no hard drives. I've been highly amused over the subsequent nearly two decades to come back and look around and see, to my no-little surprise, that those trusty Wangs are still in offices and still being used. I have to say with some disappointment on this visit that I found no Wangs in the building. An era has passed.
My topic concerns effective counterterrorism and United States interests. With your permission, I will interpret the term "counterterrorism" liberally, understanding it to mean the steps necessary to win the war on terror. I'll ask how this can be achieved. Specifically, I will pose and reply to three questions: Who is the enemy? What are American goals? How do we attain those goals?
To begin with - who is the enemy? Our president and the secretaries of Defense, State, and other leaders have been very careful when talking about this. The president, for example, has defined the enemy with many terms, all of them very vague. Here is a sampling: "terrorists," "terrorists in this world who can't stand the thought of peace," "terrorism with a global reach," "evildoers," "a dangerous group of people," "a bunch of cold-blooded killers," and "people without a country." There's a certain consistency in that none of these terms name names. This ambiguity has the advantage of permitting any one party, for example Syria, to be considered inside our coalition or not. Also, not naming names means insulting no one. While I understand and appreciate these gains, I also think it is important for us, for our potential allies, and for our potential opponents to note who really the enemy is.
The message of September 11th was loud and clear and we all heard it. We should acknowledge what we know, namely that the strategic enemy of the United States is militant Islam. It's certainly not the only problem. Iraq and North Korea, as the president mentioned last night, are also major problems for the United States but they're relatively simple problems, being tyrannical regimes that with some ease we could and should take care of. They do not represent ideas and do not have the allegiance of sizeable populations.
The strategic enemy, militant Islam, does represent a body of ideas and does have a substantial support base. I propose to see our problem this way: Just as the strategic enemy in World War II was fascism, with its German, Italian and Japanese manifestations, and the strategic enemy in the Cold War was Marxism-Leninism, with its Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, and other manifestations, so today the enemy is militant to Islam, with its Sudanese, Iranian, Afghan and other manifestations. Militant Islam may not deploy weapons but it is the body of ideas that lies behind our greatest problem today.
Now it's important for me to stress that by militant Islam I mean something quite different from Islam, the religion. I mean the turning of Islam, the religion, the faith, into a political creed that aims at taking over states to mobilize populations, to rule, and to sculpt society. In this sense it is like an ideology and it is unlike a religion, which is a more private affair. I'm not saying that militant Islam has nothing to do with Islam, because it is an ideological version of Islam, but I am saying it is distinct from Islam the traditional faith. The proof of this lies in the fact that the first perhaps the largest number of victims of militant Islam are themselves Muslims. Ask an Algerian about militant Islam and he will tell you about the 100,000 or so deaths that occurred as a result of the militant Islamic insurgency in his country during the last decade.
Militant Islam can be summed up as saying, "Islam is the solution to whatever problem you have." It emphasizes strict application of Islamic law by the state and thus turns what was a private faith into public coercion.
Militant Islam's history goes back to the 1920's, not coincidentally the time when the other totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Leninism took shape. It first came to power in 1979 in Iran. Mind you, there are different strains of militant Islam. In the 1980's, it was the Khomeni version that predominated, a Shiite version and Iranian version, while today it's a Sunni version. Within the Sunni tradition, there are the Wahhabi and the Muslim Brethren variants. While they have important differences among them, it is nonetheless useful to see them as a unit and stress what they have in common. They constitute a single ideological phenomenon.
This is a radical utopian ideology, perhaps the only live one around today. It is totalitarian in its compass. I estimate that some 10 to 15% Muslims globally support militant Islam. There being something like a billion Muslims in the world, we are speaking of 100, 150 million people. Some of its supporters are violence-prone and others are not; but all of them are dangerous because they all seek to implement a vision of society that is dangerous both to those living under it and to those living outside of it.
The causes of militant Islam are many and complex; they cannot be reduced to any one specific reason, such as poverty. The roots go much deeper and have to do with a sense of identity and a sense of rage. Militant Islam expresses what I like to call civilizational frustration.
The enmity to the United States is an old story. It's important to remember that the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 on a platform proclaiming "Death to America." And the assault on the United States began soon after. Many of you here will remember the seizure of the American embassy that lasted from 1979 until 1981. But the first real assault by militant Islam on the United States was in April 1983, with the bombing of the United States embassy in Beirut. A steady drumbeat of militant Islam attacks on the United States on embassies, ships, airplanes, barracks, and other installations has continued since that time.
Most of those attacks have been abroad but some have been within the United States itself. The first of these came not far from here, in the outskirts of Washington in 1980, though most of them date from the 1990s. I count nine such attacks in all, six in the New York area, two in the Washington area, and one in Arizona. In all, before September 11th, some six hundred Americans lost their lives at the hands of militant Islam. In other words September 11th was a larger version of a long assault, not an initial attack.
We were poorly prepared in September 2001 because, for all their renown, the many previous attacks and the 600 deaths neither spurred changes in policy nor efforts to close down the terrorist infrastructure. These were not obscure events but at the same time they were not taken all that seriously.
Will September 11th change that nonchalance? The enormity of that day's events -- the number of deaths, the president in hiding, the national airspace closed, and the entire country distracted from its routines -- gives reason to hope that a lesson has been learned. That said, the continued reluctance to finger militant Islam gives me pause. I worry that more violence needs to be visited on us before we truly learn to understand how deadly this strategic enemy truly is.
My second question is, what do we do about militant Islam? Our goal, in a nutshell, must be to defeat it and then strengthen moderate versions of Islam. I reach this view from three premises. One is that there has never been so radical a moment in Islamic history than there is today. Militant Islam is stronger now than it ever has been in 14 centuries of Muslim life. In other words, this is a particularly bad time. If you think back, say, three decades, militant Islam was barely visible and not an issue. Had I come here to speak about it back then, I suspect that most of you would have found something better to do with your time than listen to me. There's good news in this observation, for it implies that there's no reason to think that 30 years from now militant Islam will still be our national priority. Militant Islam can be far less important than it is today.
And we can do something about that because militant Islam thrives on success and we can weaken it. This movement gained great esteem and won much enthusiasm among Muslims because of its successes on 9/11. Then, on 11/9, or the 9th of November, came the fall of Mazar-i Sharif, the first major town in Taliban hands to fall to the U.S. and allied forces, the beginning of the end of the Taliban. September 11 showed the strength and November 9 the weakness of militant Islam. The latter dramatically diminished the popularity of militant Islam. Posters in Pakistan of bin Laden against the background of the World Trade Center were selling like hot cakes and now they can't be gotten rid of. There's an important lesson here.
My final premise is that we are witnessing not a clash of civilizations, not us-versus-militant Islam, but an intra-Muslim battle for the soul of Islam. Will Islam look like the version found today in Iran, or that found in Turkey? This may seem like an exotic question of little direct interest to Americans, but in fact it is a vital part of the war on terrorism. We who are non-Muslims are not direct parties to the conflict but we can have a great impact on the way it turns out, by helping the moderate model vs. the extremist one.
My third question is, how do we achieve the goal of weakening militant Islam and strengthening moderate Islam? By looking around the world and bringing to bear our strengths against militant Islam. We've done it in Afghanistan, where a militant Islamic regime held sway. There, we broke it and replaced it with a more moderate configuration. That's the model for other places and times: Weaken or ideally break the militant Islamic hold and replace it with something better.
Afghanistan entailed a large military operation. Smaller U.S. military efforts are underway in several other countries, with 600 troops in the Philippines, 400 in Yemen, several hundred in Uzbekistan, and 200 likely to arrive in the Republic of Georgia, all of them fighting militant Islam. In Pakistan, we pressured the leader of Pakistan to crack down on his militant Islamic groups and he's promised and indeed he's begun to do that. We must be there to make sure that the moderates fill the gap. In a place like Hong Kong it's a matter of money laundering. In Europe it's getting the Europeans to coordinate anti-terrorism policy and make it more effective.
Although I realize I'm in the State Department and our topic is foreign, I must mention there is a domestic American dimension to this war. Militant Islam is present in the United States and has even acquired a certain power. The loudest voices of those claiming to speak for the American Muslim community are almost invariably the militant Islamic ones. Some steps have been already taken to confront this situation -- for example, the president closed down the so-called charitable organizations last month that funded militant Islamic groups abroad -- but there is much more to do. We must take a new look at immigration laws and worry that visitors and potential immigrants are not supporters of this totalitarian ideology. (I might note that this inquiry has nothing to do with race, geography, ethnicity, or even religion; although only Muslims will be militant Islamic supporters, the key is not targeting Muslims but finding people who support this ideology.) The same applies to much else, such as the need to profile travelers as they board airplanes. Airport security must focus on those who might support militant Islam and not fly with its eyes closed, looking at everyone indiscriminately, as it does now.
Now, in reality, to the United States Government the actions clearly signal what we all know – that militant Islam is the key problem. If one looks at the individuals and groups that have been proscribed, if one looks at the detainees, if one looks at the alien absconders who've been focused on, if one looks at all that the United States Government has done in the last 5 months, one sees an implicit recognition of this. I am saying that it's important to make that implicit recognition explicit. It's vital to name names. I realize the difficulties of it and I realize there'll be reasons not to do so, but the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. By naming names we have a sense of what our goals are, goals that can be made clear to the agencies in the United States Government domestically and abroad, goals that can be given to generals, to the American people, and to potential allies, especially moderate Muslims.
But if the government does not make clear that militant Islam is the strategic enemy, there is a real danger of drift, of having the war on terrorism lose focus and lose support. We're in danger of allowing future suicide bombers on our planes and of misunderstanding what victory constitutes. We're in danger in ignoring the all-important moderate Muslim allies.
To sum up, I believe that an effective counterterrorism strategy requires knowing who one's enemy is, naming that enemy, finding allies, and going after that enemy. We have the models of fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War. We've done this before and had great victories before. We can do so again.
Question and Answer Session:
Alan Lang: On behalf of the Open Forum, I'd like to thank you for that very thoughtful presentation. At this time I'd like to open the floor to your comments and questions
Question: I'm with the State Department, Office of International Religious Freedom. I want to press you to think further about what in your eyes a moderate Islam looks like or will look like. You've emphasized what we need to do about radical Islam but in order to be convincing, one has to fill the gap with something that will be persuasive to all the people who are either on the border between those two things. What would that moderate Islam look like?
Mr. Pipes: Thank you for that question, an important one. To put it in American terms, the kind of Islam that I'd call moderate is that which is compatible with American ways. Muslims don't have to agree with everything that goes on in this country -- no one else does -- but they must seek to practice an Islam that is compatible with being American. They are free to disagree with specifics, such as the details of foreign policy or the offerings of our consumer economy, but they do need to develop an Islam that is compatible with our Constitution.
Question: I'm with American Muslims for Jerusalem. Mr. Pipes, you talk about militant Islam. It's seems to be a code word for those who are critical of the State of Israel. For example, American Muslims for Jerusalem is an American organization; we are based here, we were created here. We have supported peace and justice in the Middle East. We do not advocate the destruction of the State of Israel. We call, however, for ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. We call for ending the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. You wrote about us that we are a militant Muslim organization. However you had the disclaimer. You said we sound like we are moderate but we are really are militant. So this sleuth definition of yours of militant Muslims, it seems to me that it is a pretext for a racist idea of what Muslims are and what Arabs are and honing in on protecting Israel from any criticism, right or wrong?
Mr. Pipes: I admire your audacity in raising my article about the American Muslim for Jerusalem which came out on September 20, 2001 and which is available on my website, www.DanielPipes.org. In it, I revealed the discrepancy between your mild public statements and what actually goes on behind closed doors, such as when you had your first annual dinner in November 1999. I won't go into details here, for they're in the article but the key point is that your moderate public tone is a clearly calculated effort to make yourselves acceptable to the American public whereas as your real message is the one of extremism and vicious conspiracy theories. To address your specific point about Israel: I find it curious that you think I am designing an entire theory about the war on terrorism in order to exclude those who are critical of Israel. First, I did not so much as mention Israel in my opening remarks, nor even allude to it. Second, I'm more than a little surprised that you would reduce a global problem facing the United States to the city of Jerusalem. We are already fighting militant Islam in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere; what has this to do with Jerusalem? Third, I made it clear in answer to the previous question that disagreement over the details of U.S. foreign policy is not a problem. It is militant Islam's deep hostility toward the nature of the United States that is a problem.
Question: I'm from the Law Office of Joseph Freedman. I want to take one quick exception to your historical comment. This is not the first time in Arab history and in militant Islamic history. The Almohads was a very virulent group of fundamental militant Islamic group that basically said Islam are death (sic) and expelled all the Jews and Christians from Morocco into Spain and it lasted about 80 years. So, this is not the first time that it has reared its head. Second point I want to make is, and I don't think the American public had gotten this. This is a religious conflict between the different religions. There's a saying in Arabic, "First we want to eliminate Saturday and then we want to eliminate Sunday." That's a reference to the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sabbath and basically that's the fundamental problem here is that militant Islamic does not recognize the infidel and therefore it's a religious conflict. The moderates are sort of suppressed from a religious point of view to come forward and dominate. You don't have a Peace Now movement in the Arabic community and that's because they're suppressed.
Mr. Pipes: On your first point, of course there have been radical movements in the past and the Almohads are a good example of that. I'm saying is that this is the most radical moment, not the only one. The Almohads were a small part of the Muslim world; one did not see simultaneously radical movements as one sees today. On your second point. you're saying we are in a religious conflict. I say it is an ideological conflict. The United States has a vision and militant Islam has a vision. You can pick one or the other, but not both. Most Muslims, in fact, reject the militant Islamic outlook. Where are they, you ask? Good question. Militant Islamic elements are better organized, more capable, more energetic, louder, and have come to dominate the debate. That is not to say, however, that they represent the majority of Muslims. Let me also note this important point: If one accepts your premise that this is a religious conflict, then there is nothing to offer by way of policy. There's nothing the U.S. Government can do. There is no way it can win. I can offer a way to defeat an ideology but not a religion.
Question: I'm a member of the National Press Club and I have two questions. One, on a current item of news about Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, who was recently kidnapped and evidently someone who was supposed to be meeting with some terrorists, one of whom I believe was said to have four wives, two of whom are African American Muslims. He's supposed to have trained a lot of African American Muslims to fight; the thought is that this might be the tip of the iceberg as to a link he (Daniel Pearl) was on the verge of discovering and that this triggered his being kidnapped. Any comments on that? Second question has to do with the president last night talking about Islamic Jihad being very dangerous terrorist organization. Does that mean the United States is treating it similarly to Al Qaeda?
Mr. Pipes: On the first: Daniel Pearl was suppose to meet with Sheikh Gilani, Pakistani militant Islamic leader who some 20 years ago organized a group known in this country as Al-Fuqra, which literally means "the poor." It was made up primarily of African-Americans converts who live mostly in self-contained rural communities with their own schools and militias. They have a history of violence, for example murdering an Egyptian immigrant in Arizona in 1990 and recently a member of the California branch was arrested for killing a policeman. This is an extremely dangerous group, but I have no idea if Daniel Pearl was on the track of discovering something new about it . On your second point: I think that the anti-Israel, militant Islamic groups' four attacks on December 1st and 2nd, followed by the discovery of the Karine-A on January 3rd, caused the Bush administration to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict as something akin to our own war on terrorism. The same thing also happened, by the way, with respect to the Pakistan-India confrontation, caused by the attack on December 13th on the Indian parliament building. I think it's a fundamental reassessment. What that would mean in policy terms is not entirely clear, but there has been a transformed American policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Prior to December 1st, every time the Israelis used force, a condemnation followed this department; such condemnations have not been forthcoming lately.
Question: My question concerns the mobilization of allies in the war against terrorism. In that context I was a little surprised to hear you say that you did not believe that the battle against terrorism was a clash of civilizations. I'm not any kind of expert on admiralty law, but my understanding is that back in the 17th and 18th centuries an international consensus was reached that pirates were enemies of civilization as a whole, and that it was not only the right but the obligation of all civilized nations to chase down pirates, capture them, and punish them. Do you feel that there's an analogy to be drawn between the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries who although they may have had some religious affiliation for the most part were not operating out of religious conviction and the terrorist of today? If so, do you think that by portraying them as enemies of civilization we can get other countries and other peoples who may not think that they have a dog in this fight to participate in the war against terrorism?
Mr. Pipes: You're presenting a third idea. I argue against the clash of civilizations and instead pointed to a intra-Muslim conflict. You are suggesting civilization-versus-barbarism. On the level of law enforcement, I have no disagreement with you. Yes, we want to have all points bulletined and we want everyone to participate. I specifically mentioned Hong Kong and Europe in that context. I am focusing, however, not on law enforcement but on policy. Who is the enemy? What are our goals? Here I prefer my formulation to yours. The people who hijacked the planes in September were not pirates but ideologues sacrificing their lives in the pursuit of their political goals. I think one has to approach their ideas seriously. When the Arab states get together to figure out a common strategy against militant Islam, it is the ministers of the interior who gather - that is, the policemen. That's a mistake. Ideas need ultimately to be fought with better ideas. The United States Government cannot provide those ideas but it can create an opening for those who will.
Question: Good afternoon. There is without doubt a war going on right now. If we look at the trails of events and the funding for the organizations fighting us, it would seem a large portion of that funding comes from Saudi Arabia, which has a large lobby in the United States. It would almost seem that we don't want to upset the Saudi Arabians or deal with them as a sort of enemy. How would you address the funding that's coming out of Saudi Arabia?
Mr. Pipes: Let's put the funding from Saudi Arabia in a larger context. The unpleasant fact is that the United States has working relationships with several tyrannies in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco -- and fears the coming to power of the voice of the street. We get along better with the rulers who happen to be autocrats than we do with popular opinion. Algeria, where there was for a moment 10 years ago the chance of democratic expression, offers a good example. A U.S. intelligence survey recently found that 95% of the Saudi population is against us. More than that, the Saudis fund our enemies, as you pointed out. Latin America is a transformed and newly democratic continent because of American pressure. East Asia, eastern Europe, and Africa have also seen a similar evolution. The Middle East stands out as the region where there is little democracy and we're complicit in this. I think the constructive approach is to not to seek a rapid transfer from autocracy to democracy (as happened in Algeria) but in a slow gradual one (as has happened in much of East Asia). This change has become a U.S. national priority and now is the time to start the process. Now is the time to look hard at our relationships, especially with the Saudis. It's time to look at this again and look to see what we can do to make constructive change take place there. Such change would be good for us and even more so for the Saudis.
Mr. Lang: Mr. Pipes it gives me great pleasure to present to you the Open Forum Certificate of Appreciation. I'd like to thank you for your very thoughtful presentation. I'd like to commend all of you for the very respectful and courteous way in which you posed questions.
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes