Paris attacks reflect failure to learn
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, two things are obvious: First, we do not know our enemy—neither the youth being recruited, nor the higher-ups, nor the organizations, nor, most importantly of all, the process that produces them all. Second, many of the voices being raised the loudest want us to become even more ignorant of ourselves. On one hand, forgetting the best of ourselves—our values, our principles, our civilization and humanity. And on the other hand, ignoring and denying our mistakes of the past, which we must know in order to stop repeating them and start correcting them.
Since 9/11, ignorance of our enemies and of ourselves has only made matters much worse. To reverse that process, here is a brief overview of what we need to know:
Let’s begin with the process that’s generating terrorism. In an article in The Nation magazine, policy analyst Yousef Munayyer suggested “the best way to think about comprehensive counter-terror strategy is the boiling-pot analogy. Imagine that you’re presented with a large pot of scalding water and your task is to prevent any bubbles from reaching the surface. You could attack each bubble on its way up.” Or you could “turn down, or off, the flame beneath the pot; to address the conditions that help generate terrorism.”
To date, we’ve focused on the bubbles, not the flame of terrorism, ignoring the underlying conditions, if not making them worse. “In the case of ISIS, no event did more to create the conditions for its emergence than the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi state,” Munayyer wrote. One of the key big lies used to sell the Iraq War put forth the claim that Saddam Hussein was collaborating with al Qaeda, which he actually despised. Only after the invasion and several years of insurgent resistance did a core group of former Baathist leaders join key elements of al Qaeda in Iraq to form what became ISIS.
Given those conditions, ISIS and its allies intend to make things worse. As anthropologist Scott Atran explained in The Guardian, “The greater the reaction against Muslims in Europe and the deeper the west becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the happier ISIS leaders will be. Because this is about the organisation’s key strategy: finding, creating and managing chaos.”
Atran went on to note that “There is a recruitment framework. The Grey Zone, a 10-page editorial in ISIS’ online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the caliphate and the infidel, which the ‘blessed operations of Sept. 11 ‘brought into relief.’” Their aim is to do everything possible to eliminate that grey zone, to force Muslims to choose sides. Although the vast majority of Muslims have chosen sides against terror, rejecting the notion that it has anything to do with Islam, responding to terror in kind can erode the position of moderate Muslims, especially the young.
Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford, interviewed ISIS prisoners in Iraq. In The Nation, she wrote about what she learned. They were not the textbook religious fanatics you might expect:
These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence.
This is not to say that all ISIS recruits are like these. Conditions in Iraq then, and in Syria today, are much more brutal than in Europe, for example. But it does underscore how much the growth of terrorism comes out of the breakdown of a healthy social order. It reinforces the importance of nourishing a positive environment—not imposing our own version of what that means, but supporting what different people choose for themselves.
At our best, this is what we do, what we stand for. It’s why America has the most diverse population on Earth, especially in cities like Los Angeles, where becoming an American doesn’t mean abandoning your cultural heritage, but sharing it with others. If anything, our collective experience makes us ideally able to support others around the world in finding similar ways of living together in peace.
But there’s another side to our history as well—and not ours alone.
In an excerpt from his book, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, published in Salon, Abdel Bari Atwan noted that “for centuries Western countries have sought to harness the power of radical Islam to serve the interests of their own foreign policy.” It began with the British, long before us. Wrote Atwan, “From the sixteenth century onwards, Britain not only championed the Ottoman Empire but also supported and endorsed the institution of the caliphate and the Sultan’s claim to be the caliph and leader of the ummah (the Muslim world).”
Throughout this long era there was no “tradition” of religious terrorism, or violent jihad. It was changing geopolitics, nothing spiritual or religious, which brought that about. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At that point, the British decided it was time for an Arab caliphate, instead, someone they could trust—Hussein bin Ali Hussein, the sherif of Mecca, who Atwan noted was claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “It is a strange thought that, just 100 years ago, the prosecutors of today’s War on Terror were promising to restore the Islamic caliphate to the Arab world and defend it militarily,” he noted.
What happened next was popularized in the 1960s movie, Lawrence of Arabia. A good deal more happened in the shadows—including the carving up of Arab lands into spheres of French and British influence. A unified Arab replacement for the Ottoman Empire had never been part of the plan. To the contrary, British policy everywhere was “divide and rule,” keep naturally unified cultures divided locally by warring political powers, in order to secure what Britain really cared about in the grand scheme of things.
Manipulating religious identity was merely a means to this end—and it has persisted in different variations ever since, particularly when oil entered the equation, but there was another major concern Atwan noted:
“The United States, UK, and European powers were also deeply troubled by the cohesive potential of Arab Nationalism, a hugely popular movement led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his (at that time) mighty allies in Iraq and Syria. The idea of these three huge, left-leaning regional powers becoming politically and militarily united was unacceptable in the Cold War context and remained so after the fall of the Soviet Empire because of the regional threat to Israel. To counteract the rise of pan-Arabism, the West began to support Islamist tendencies within each country—mostly branches of the Muslim Brotherhood—and also worked hard in the diplomatic field to create strong and binding relationships with Islamic, pro-Western monarchies in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Jordan.”
This was the geopolitical context which eventually hatched, the brilliant idea to give the Soviet Union “its own Vietnam” in Afghanistan. After decades of nurturing Islamic extremists to undermine leftist secular governments throughout the Arab world, it was a virtual no-brainer. And so we partnered up with bin Laden, and the rest, as they say is history.
It’s up to us to stop repeating it.
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” That’s in The Art of War, as well.