The Underwear Bomber and the war of ideas
- 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.
THE DIFFICULTY OF KILLING AN IDEA
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.’”