The Underwear Bomber and the war of ideas

By Bernd Debusmann
December 31, 2009

- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Who is winning the war of ideas between the West and al Qaeda’s hate-driven version of  Islam?

It is a question that merits asking again after a  23-year-old Western-educated Nigerian of privileged background, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to murder almost 300 people by bringing down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with  explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants.

The administration of President Barack Obama, averse to the bellicose language of George W. Bush, has virtually dropped the  phrase “war of ideas.” But that doesn’t mean it has ended. Or that Obama’s plea, in his Cairo speech this summer, for a new  beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world  has swayed the disciples of Osama bin Laden, whose 1998 fatwa  (religious ruling) against “Jews and Crusaders” remains the  extremists’ guiding principle.

“To…kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and  military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it,” the fatwa said. “This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah  (to) fight the pagans all together as they fight you all  together.”

That this exhortation is as appealing today, to a fanatical  minority, as it was 11 years ago underlines that the United States has had scant success in meeting the objective the Bush  administration set out in its 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. “Together with the international community, we will wage a war of ideas to make clear that all acts of terrorism are illegitimate, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in  any nation…”

That aim was spelt out just weeks before the United States  invaded Iraq, an event that provided ample ammunition for the  extremists’ assertion that the West was stepping up an unrelenting war it has waged against the Muslim world for  centuries. Such claims, and al Qaeda itself, should be easy to  discredit, write two political scientists, Peter Krause and Stephen Van Evera in the fall issue of the Middle East Policy  Council Journal.

Instead, they say, “al Qaeda has so far fought the world’s  sole superpower to a stalemate in the worldwide struggle for hearts and minds. As a result, U.S. prospects in the larger war  against al Qaeda are uncertain.”

They make an important point. By many accounts, the U.S. has been making more progress on the military front than in the war of ideas.


In Afghanistan, the number of al Qaeda elements has shrunk  to fewer than 100, according to President Obama’s national  security advisor, James Jones. In Pakistan, missile strikes have  thinned out the ranks of al Qaeda leaders who use the frontier  region as safe havens. In Yemen and Somalia, air attacks and  covert operations have killed “high-value targets.”

But al Qaeda is more than an organization, it is an idea,  and killing ideas is much more difficult than killing people.

Especially when the propagators of mediaeval concepts use 21st century technology – websites, social networks, videos – more nimbly than the country that invented the Internet, in the view of communications experts.

One of the most cutting critiques of America’s shortcomings  on the ideas front came this summer, from the country’s top soldier, Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Writing in the Joint Force Quarterly, a publication of the National Defense University, he complained about “a certain arrogance” in strategic communications and of gaps between what the U.S. says and what it does.

“Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are,” he wrote.

As to al Qaeda and the Taliban, “they intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelines. And they aren’t just out there shooting videos, either. They deliver.  Want to know what happens if somebody violates their view of  Sharia law? You don’t have to look very far or very long. Each  beheading, each bombing and each beating sends a powerful message or, rather, IS a powerful message.”

More powerful, perhaps, than Obama’s promise, after the underwear bomber’s failed operation on the most joyful day in  the Christian calendar, that “we will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable.”

That sounded a lot like George W. Bush, a week after the September 11, 2001, attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, the  greatest mass murder in American history. Talking about the elusive bin Laden, he said: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or alive.’”


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It’s correct, to some degree, to say this is a war of ideas – but it is still a war. Wars are fought with weapons, not holy books. Even if we build schools, hospitals, mosques, and rec centers in the Middle East, we will fail on the same level as we did in Vietnam – the people would rather live under local tyranny than foreign freedom. It will come down to a campaign of fear. People criticize Truman for his use of the atomic bomb – they caused approximately 250,000 deaths. The other option, the proposed invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall, was predicted to cause at least 3 million American deaths and the extermination of nearly the entire Japanese people. The main weapons would have been incendiary bombs and poisonous gas. So it will be in the Islamic world. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, perhaps even Iran will all have to have some sort of retribution fall against them before this is all said and done. Even though the terrorists are called “extranational”, their recruiting base is national indeed. Create a climate of fear such that the word “American military” will be a nightmarish bedtime story and who will join the jihad anymore? This war is no different than Japan – it will come down three options. A nuclear campaign, a campaign of fear like in Japan and Germany, or defeat.

Posted by Crater | Report as abusive

Moslems are reacting to the treatment they have received at the hands of the West. The origin of the problem is the harsh treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. Israel could not exist without American help so the Americans are associated with Israeli oppression. The Moslems are stigmatized in films and the media and this increases their antagonism.

Taking a firm hand with Israeli aggression will do wonders in reducing Moslem terrorism. Talking to the terrorist leaders will achieve far more in the long term than trying to crush them with superior firepower.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive

@ AnOldBrit.

The term “Israeli Aggression” is a loaded term.

It implies that Israel actions in history are unilateral and without cause, as opposed to being logical reactions to hostile military actions by other nations.

The wall is designed to stop suicide bombers. The patrols are for stopping gunmen from killing civilians. The current embargo is to prevent weapons and supplies from reaching Hamas.

Even the recent Lebanon and Gaza wars were a response to military attacks on Israel. Do you really see this as Israeli aggression?

For that matter, if terrorism can be halted simply by the low price of capitulating to terrorist demands, do you really see this as a ‘solution’?

I also note that Israeli superior firepower has pretty much stopped both Hamas and Hezbollah from launching rockets and sending raids Israel, while decades of talking to terrorist leaders did not.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

“Create a climate of fear such that the word “American military” will be a nightmarish bedtime story and who will join the jihad anymore?”

A suicide bomber has no fear of dying, they will queue up in their thousands to die and take you with them if you adopt this Nazi approach.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive


Israeli response to terrorism is harsh and repressive, can you imagine the reaction to Britain if we had bombed Dublin in response to IRA terrorism?

Israel has routinely responded in this way to attacks. She gained her State by terrorism against the British and has continued in this illegal manner ever since.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive

What on earth is everyone, once again, debating the Israeli Palestinian problem for? This has nothing to do with Palestine or Israel. Al Qaeda is a pure Islamic movement that hates everyone that is not them, and wishes to destroy anyone, Jew, Christian, Muslim, whatever, if they do not accept their interpretation of Islam. Did their supporters in the Taliban blow up Pakistanis because of their support for Israel? Pakistan hates Israel. Israel could disappear tomorrow and the Islamic cult of pure Caliphate inspired dominance would continue. Read the book, ‘The Looming Towers’ if you want to understand what al Qaeda really stands for.

Until the leaders of the Free World and moderate Islam unite to rid this cancer from our civilized world, nothing will change. Unfortunately, we have appeasers and PC fanatics in charge of the White House and the EU, so there is little chance of anyone dealing with the problem. As for the UN, it is currently dominated by their supporters.

On a side note, Dresden, which has also mysteriously managed to be inserted into this debate, was designated a ‘fortress’ city by Hitler, which meant that it would have to be defended to the last man, woman and child. If the Allies had not bombed it, the Russians would have flattened it anyway, as they did other cities in their way. So sadly Dresden and its people was doomed whatever decision the Allies took.

Posted by stephenr | Report as abusive


Despite what you think, this outbreak of terrorism was triggered by Israel’s harsh repression of Palestinians. If you can’t accept this then a solution will never be found.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive


“While seeking Allah’s help, we form our reply based on two questions directed at the Americans:

(Q1) Why are we fighting and opposing you?
Q2)What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?

As for the first question: Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple:

(1) Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.

a) You attacked us in Palestine:”

Where did this come from?

Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America”.  /24/theobserver refers.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive

Lets face it the ideas of the US have not been backed up with actual action. While it is easy to promise engagement with societies, it is more difficult to actually reverse years of foreign policy and actually stand by the new promises made.

Israel and Palestine are a debate that is important but isn’t the only point of debate. As someone commented above you cannot make the world suddenly start to love you. What the US can do is try and stick to a moderate carrot and stick policy that at some point might pay dividends.

Acts of terrorism are not likely to end any time soon not with all that has happened over the last decade. However, what the US can hope to do is deter the existence of future recruitment of similar people. How it will is the biggest mystery.

Posted by Rambler | Report as abusive

@ OldBrit

Your analogy is flawed. Gaza is a separate entity which is not part of Israel, nor are the people in Gaza considered civilians of Israel.

Imagine instead that Spain started using its military to launch missiles at London. And making sure that all missile sites and Spanish soldiers were located in Madrid.

For your first question “Would the UK bomb Madrid”, the answer is “you bet”. Civilian areas used for military purposes become legitimate targets.

For your second question “What would the reaction be” the answer is “hypocrisy”. Because while there would undoubtable be outrage at the UK’s actions, the reality is NO nation (let alone a Muslim one) will allow another nation to deliberately fire missiles at their civilians without reply.

The fact you expect Israel to act different to any other nation seems to indicate double standards.

You seem to believe that Israel is not allowed to defend itself, and hence all such actions of defence are “illegal” according to your view.

That standard doesn’t fly with any other nation, so why treat Israel differently?

Posted by defcon86 | Report as abusive

In an article commenting a war of ideas it is wrong to say one side is “hate filled” and ignore the other sides actions.
Hundreds of thousands people have died in the opression of Iraq. The US supports ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. America murders political opponents by missile strikes and calls the victims terrorists. Innocent people are imprisoned and tortured in US run prisons.
The ideas of justice, freedom and equality have not been defeated. They just have been ignored.

Posted by andycomment | Report as abusive


For your information, the Irish Republic, of which Dublin is the capital, is not part of Great Britain any more than Spain is, so the analogy IS a good one. IRA terrorists DID use Eire as a base but at no time did we consider bombing Dublin. We are a civilised nation who are bound by accepted standards of international conduct. Sadly, Israel is not bound by such a code.

“The fact you expect Israel to act different to any other nation seems to indicate double standards.”

Israel DOES act differently to every other nation, no other nation would bomb refugee camps and nuclear reactors.

Israel breaks every standard of accepted conduct. It is a terrorist state.

Posted by AnOldBrit | Report as abusive

Andycomment. Such a short post, and yet so rich in issues worth debating.

1. “Hundreds of thousands people have died in the opression of Iraq.”

We can see here that you imply that Americans are a cause of oppression in Iraq, and that American oppression led to the deaths of all these innocent people.

You ignore the fact that these deaths were caused direct actions of Islamic terrorists against civilians. Their kidnapping, murder and suicide bombs directly killed those people. Actions which some would consider “hate filled” and not justifiable in any manner.

2. “The US supports ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.”

The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a concrete legal term which should not be used lightly.

Unless you are on your way to the International Court to get a ruling that the legal term applies, perhaps you should wonder why the international court has not yet made such a ruling and why this is so.

Unless you are an International Court judge, in which case your opinion is relevent.

3. “America murders political opponents by missile strikes and calls the victims terrorists.”

You seem to mistake policical entities for those actively involved in enemy military activities, and the difference between the two.

And the term ‘terrorist’ is not a subjective term. It is a term which applies to those who make deliberate illegal attacks against civilian targets, for the purpose of killing civilians.

It is the method of a person which determines whether that person is a ‘terrorist’, not their cause. So when these people are called terrorists, it isn’t mere propaganda, but a definitive description.

“Innocent people are imprisoned and tortured in US run prisons.”

This involves a bunch of assumptions.

-Are they, in fact, innocent?
-Regardless of the above, do they need to be guilty of a crime to be lawfully imprisoned?
-If they are treated in a particular manner, is that treatment fitting the definition of torture?
-And if they are tortured, is it systemic or isolated?
-And does such events have any actual bearing on whether we should fight terrorism, or is it merely a secondary issue for those who need to feel moral superiority before they will allow their nation to defend themselves from harm?

Posted by defcon86 | Report as abusive


For your information, the Irish Republic is a separate sovereign nation. The individual terrorist republican groups acting in North Ireland were not.

If the Republic of Ireland’s actual official army (Later known as the Defence Forces) had attacked North Ireland’s Belfast it wouldn’t have been an act of terrorism, but an act of war.

And if Ireland then decided to hide its official military in Dublin, then yes, the city would be bombed.

The terrorist groups in North Ireland were criminals, and the matter in dealing with them was a domestic one. Which is why their actions, separate from the Republic of Ireland, would not lead to Dublin being bombed.

Contrast with Hamas, a terrorist group which has complete political and military control over Gaza. And was elected as Gaza’s government. Making Gaza a separate entity from Israel.

Hence their actions against Israel were an act of war. As surely as if Spain or the Irish Republic had started launching missiles at London.

Regarding your statements regarding standards of conduct? Israel is indeed bound by international standards and complies with them to the letter.

You just don’t understand those standards. You simply assume that if you don’t like what is happening, the standards must have been broken. International law doesn’t work that way.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive


I just noticed that you claimed that “No other nation would ever bomb refugee camps and nuclear reactors”

That statement is ridiculous. Many nations have done both. When civilian sites are used for military purposes, military attacks on those targets are legal.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

Israel “…gained her State by terrorism against the British and has continued in this illegal manner ever since.” – Posted by AnOldBrit
Looks like AnOldBrit is one of the remaining faithful members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union. Back then when all normal Brits were watching the raise of Hitler with horror, these guys painted ‘Perish the Jews’ on the walls.

Shall I remind that it was the Brits that issued the Balfour declaration, when they needed support of Jewish financiers to finance WWI? And then reneged on it to keep happy the Arabs like Husseini who anyway betrayed them by openly joining Hitler? However thousands of refugees trying to get to then-British mandate of Palestine were turned back to certain death in Hitler-occupied Europe.
The “terrorism” mentioned by AnOldBrit began as Jewish resistance to Arab revolt. Some Jewish organizations started targeting the Brits only in response to executions of Jewish resistance fighters. It worked – when 2 British sergeants were hanged and a message was left that it was done in response to hanging Jewish detainees, the hangings stopped on both sides. As for the famous explosion of British offices in King David hotel, the advanced warning was issued giving enough time to evacuate the building – too bad it wasn’t heeded. Somehow I don’t remember Arabs and Muslims ever giving detailed advanced notice on their bombings, that began even before Israel was founded, and continue ever since – the underbomber just the last, but unfortunately by no means final case.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

bad work, top to bottom.

Posted by jimigenius | Report as abusive

As long as America continues doing business with the corrupt dictatorship called Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda will live on. This is not America vs Islam but an Arab family dispute gone horribly wrong.
America has a double standard with which dictatorships it wars with or does business with. It’s hypocrisy at its best. That’s where Bin Laden ideas came from.
End all business relationships with the Saudi’s and Bin Laden and his ideas will die along with it.
Remember Bin Laden is funded by Arab money paid for by Americans.

Lesson to America: Have some bloody standards when choosing international business partners.

Posted by dutch | Report as abusive

The Islamic jihad was not the brainchild of Osama but that of the American Imperialism [with the aid and assistance of the most right-reactionary forces in every country of their occupation] whose only concern is to assist the MNCs and the TNCs in their exploitation of the abundant natural resources the world over.All talk of upholding the values- that too American ones[?]- of freedom, democracy, free choice,etc. is nothing more than a cliche to hoodwink those gullible guys in their own as well as other countries!
After all what business do the Americans have in those countries no matter what their social-economic-political systems are? If the former USSR was wrong in ‘exporting’ revolution to the third world countries how can the USA directly wage wars in the name of their brand of democracy? If America’s political evangelism is right then Osama’s and his ilk’s retaliation is also right! If America has every right NOT ONLY TO DEFEND BUT ALSO SPREAD ITS STYLE OF LIFE AND BELIEFS then how can one find fault with others who also feel that their values are being threatened?.After all it was this very same America which originally recruited and trained them in their ‘jihad’ against the truly humanizing socialist ideology that was sought to be practiced in such countries. IF communism was a taboo for them can the American way of life be sold to them in the name of pseudo-democracy?
AND lastly,no American other than the ones who are genuinely-not for tactical or personal/practical reasons-opposed to the neocolonialist wars of his country has any right to grouse against the backlash of his country’s atrocities elsewhere.Let them not gloat over their system which has driven thousands on to the streets in their own country and is ruining the lives of the millions in other countries.Because that system and its government in their country are not theirs but those of the warlords in the service of the MNCs and the TNCs.
A V Samikkannu, Pappireddippatti, Tamilnadu, India

Posted by avsk7294 | Report as abusive