What's Behind Islamic Terror?

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What's Behind Islamic Terror?

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Nearly nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, it’s painfully obvious that the threat of Islamic terrorism isn’t going away. Just this past year, there were 12 known terrorist incidents and plots in the United States.

In December 2009, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up himself and everyone else on board a transatlantic airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit.

In November, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan gunned down 33, killing 13, in his one-man attack on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas.

Before that, in September, Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan-born American and an al-Qaeda recruit, was arrested just days before he apparently planned to carry out a “martyrdom operation” to blow up New York City subway trains.

Last May, four Muslim Americans were caught planning to bomb two Bronx synagogues and shoot down airliners.

Increasing radicalization, increasing threat

These are just some of the plots to launch attacks on American soil in 2009. From December 2001 to December 2008, 20 other terror plots were uncovered in the United States. Except for the Fort Hood massacre, all of these were averted.

But despite the good record of apprehending terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are still very concerned. They see an accelerated radicalization among American Muslims, which they believe is leading to an increase in terrorist incidents in the United States. That’s amid regular rumblings from al-Qaeda’s leadership threatening to attack the American homeland, U.S. interests around the world and other Western nations.

“The terrorism threat eased up for a couple of years after 9/11, and then the last couple years it has gotten much worse,” says Daniel Byman, a former intelligence officer and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Like many terrorism experts, Byman is concerned about the growing number of American Muslims becoming involved in terrorist activity. Almost all of the domestic plots since December 2001 were carried out by people who were born or lived in the United States. Many of them were affiliated with al-Qaeda and trained at one of their terror camps in Pakistan or Yemen.

Byman also believes that, while most all of the planned attacks over the last nine years were foiled, al-Qaeda is proving to be “a very resilient, unwavering, persistent and determined enemy—rising to every challenge the West throws at them.”

A case in point is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al-Qaeda operative who tried to blow up the plane to Detroit in December. He may have failed in the end, but he did manage to evade nearly every security hurdle the United States put in place after the 9/11 attacks—which shows al-Qaeda is always testing the aviation system to see what works and what doesn’t.

While Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders hide out in the Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, regional al-Qaeda groups have been forming, primarily in weak and failing states, which can be safe havens for terrorists.

Presently al-Qaeda has regional operations in Yemen, Somalia, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Intelligence officials are concerned al-Qaeda-linked extremists are now migrating to the vast Saharan territories of Mali, Mauritania and Niger—remote areas without any real state control, which will allow them to build new havens where they can gather recruits and train.

“When the Taliban was in power and protecting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, things were pretty clear cut. The U.S. knew who to attack and where they were,” observes Emilio Viano, a terrorism expert and a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “Al-Qaeda is a much more serious threat today because they’re not just in one central location anymore. They’re on the loose, and they’re very difficult to identify and find.”

The changing face of terrorism

In one sense, terrorism—planned and organized violence against civilians to generate fear and panic in society—is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, rebels, revolutionaries and rogue governments have used terror tactics to push political or societal change. However, the Islamic terrorism we’re seeing now is considerably different from what was seen throughout history, or even compared to the Middle Eastern ter-rorism that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s.

Middle Eastern terrorism got its start with movements like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). These groups used small-scale bombings, assassinations, airline hijackings, hostage taking and embassy takeovers to call attention to their cause.

They had definite political goals (the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the elimination of Israel), just like others did in modern history, such as the Irish rebels, Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, Basque separatists in northern Spain and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Middle Eastern terrorism started changing. By the time of al-Qaeda’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it had morphed into something the world had never seen before.

“Militant Islam replaced secular Palestinian nationalists as the ideology of terror,” explains political violence and terrorism expert Mark Ensalaco of the University of Dayton. “Jihad against apostates and infidels replaced the liberation of Palestine as the cause. Militant Islam was sworn to the destruction of the State of Israel, but now destruction of apostate Arab regimes and expulsion of Americans from Muslim lands became new strategic objectives of terror.

“Militant Islam proclaimed the murder of Americans, who had rarely been targeted by Palestinian terrorists, to be a religious duty. Terror became far more lethal with the advent of mass casualty suicide attacks” ( Middle Eastern Terrorism: From Black September to September 11, 2008, p. 6).

“The terrorist groups we are now facing are much more interested in conducting mass casualty attacks than the groups in the 1970s,” says terrorism expert Brian Nichi-poruk, a political scientist with the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, California. “In their attacks they obviously want to kill—and kill a lot more people, as opposed to just targeting specific people for assassinations, or holding a few key people hostage until their demands are met.”

Suicide bombings were unheard of before the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah introduced them in the early 1980s, he states.

Mass terror as a political tool

Adds Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.: “The assumption through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s was that terrorist groups would not carry out mass casualty attacks because terrorism was about fear. That is, these groups wanted to accomplish a fundamentally political objective, and part of what they needed to do was to win people over to the ‘justness’ of their cause.

“If they were to kill too many people, then they would end up losing the public. What happened on 9/11 and the evidence that al-Qaeda has searched out weapons of mass destruction puts that assumption to rest.”

One other distinction worth clarifying is that “while the Palestinian terror groups back in the 1970s and ’80s were primarily politically motivated and held left-wing ideologies such as Marxism and nationalism, some, like the PLO and PFLP, had a bit of religious ideology mixed in with their goals,” Gartenstein-Ross notes.

Similarly, while the Islamic extremists today operate under a “religious” banner, there are still political aspects to their objectives. Their ultimate goal is to establish a worldwide caliphate (Islamic empire) and to unite all Muslims.

To do this, in al-Qaeda’s view, they must drive Westerners and non-Muslims out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia (as it is the birthplace of Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines), destroy Israel and overthrow governments it deems to be “non-Islamic” or democratic. Even Muslim governments must be destroyed, from al-Qaeda’s perspective, if they have become “too Western.”

The last objective, in particular, requires a lot of “political maneuvering” on the part of the Islamic extremists. Nichiporuk says what the radicals try to do is “create mass unrest and mayhem in the pro-Western Muslim countries that exist—places like Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan—and see if they can create an uprising against the government where they can bring it down, gain control, and impose a fundamentalist Islamic regime.”

Origins of modern Islamic terrorism

Exactly what happened during the last two decades of the 20th century to bring about the change from Palestinian nationalism to militant Islam? Several factors were at play. But all extremist movement threads ultimately lead back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In Middle Eastern Terrorism: From Black September to September 11, Mark Ensalaco writes: “The Iranian revolution gave the struggle against oppression a religious intensity that surpassed anything secular Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalism could ever generate. Although Iranians are Persian not Arab, and Shi’a [Shiite] not Sunni, the potency of the Ayatollah’s message was tremendous: Because Muslims had strayed from the one true path, Muslims chaffed under the yoke of Western imperialism.

“Muslim holy places in Jerusalem were desecrated by Zionism; Muslim states were mired in political corruption; only the revival of Islam could lead to the restoration of the Muslim land, including Palestine, to the Dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam. Islam demanded more than the liberation of Palestine, it demanded the establishment of Islamic governments faithful to the Qur’an [or Koran] and the Sharia, or Islamic law, throughout the Muslim world.

“And for this Muslims must be prepared to sacrifice themselves in jihad, holy war. Islamist thought was far more radical than the pan-Arab nationalism that competed with it for decades” (p. 123). 

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s oratory alone was enough to get many Muslims fired up—Shiite and Sunni alike. Adding fuel to the fire were America’s early run-ins with Iran’s new government and Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist organization Iran helped establish in 1982 and continues to support.

Three events in particular made the United States look weak in the eyes of the Islamic radicals: the United States’ failed attempt at rescuing American hostages in Iran in 1979, U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 after Hezbollah’s devastating attack on Marine barracks, and the U.S. military pullout of Somalia in 1993-94 without completing the mission.

In his 2009 book Inside the Revolution, Middle East specialist Joel Rosenberg explained that these defeats “emboldened the extremists,” gave them “fodder for their propaganda” and “allowed them credibility to bring more young Radicals into the cause” (p. 9).

The birth of al-Qaeda

One such radical was a wealthy Saudi national by the name of Osama bin Laden. Throughout the 10-year war in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, Bin Laden recruited, trained and financed the thousands of foreign mujahadeen, or holy warriors.

Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue the “holy war” beyond Afghanistan, so in September 1988 he formed al-Qaeda (“the Base”). By 1990, just a year after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had established cells, recruiters and fund-raising operations in 50 countries and by 1993 had trained more than 6,000 Arabs to export jihad throughout the world.

The Soviet withdrawal quickly accelerated al-Qaeda’s growth: “In nine years, more than fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers and airmen were killed in Afghanistan, and another thirty thousand or so were injured. Hundreds of Soviet jets and helicopters were shot down. And all the while bin Laden passionately argued that the mujahadeen’s victories against the Soviet infidels were proof that Allah was on their side” (Rosenberg, p. 112).

In the last decade, not only has the al-Qaeda franchise spread throughout the Middle East and around the world, but so has its jihadist ideology. That ideology, says Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, “is really what’s driving this rise in violence. We haven’t seen such a violent ideology mixed with religion in a long time.”

And truly, it’s a lot easier for violent ideology to spread these days. Today, Gartenstein-Ross observes, “the Internet is one of the main ways al-Qaeda is able to broadcast its ideology and remain so potent. A couple decades ago, that wasn’t a factor, so it was more difficult for ideas to spread and networks to form.”

Terrorist groups use e-mail, chat rooms, e-groups, Web sites, blogs, forums, virtual message boards and resources like Facebook, Twitter, Paltalk and YouTube to communicate with fellow jihadists, make contact with like-minded individuals and promote their jihadist ideology. Usually they do so with little risk of identification by authorities.

Finally, one other factor that has facilitated the growth of terrorism has been the changing structure of world power. “The U.S. is losing its preeminence in the world, economically and consequently also politically,” declares Viano.

He continues: “The U.S. has increasingly less financial resources to be able to devote to fighting terrorism, and the extremist groups know that. And really, the U.S. is a lot less popular than it used to be, and there are fewer nations that will cooperate with it in fighting international terrorism. A lot of terrorist groups may even figure they’ll actually gain some favor with the home audiences if they attack America, which wouldn’t have been the case 30 years ago. It’s all made the U.S. an easier target for terrorism.”

What the West is really up against

Of the 50-plus terrorist organizations in the world today, the two that are the biggest threat to the West are al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Many of the others are relatively small movements and are focused on political issues in their region. But both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah see themselves in a holy war against the United States, Israel and the entire Western world.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda has become synonymous with terror in the United States. “They’re the ones who have demonstrated the willingness to use mass casualty attacks and stop at nothing to achieve their objectives,” says Nichiporuk.

In 1998 Bin Laden made his organization’s objectives very clear when he issued his infamous fatwa (religious ruling) urging fellow Muslims to “kill Americans and their allies, civilians and military.” In the summer of 2002, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti-born spokesman for al-Qaeda, posted the following statement on the Internet: “Al Qaeda has the right to kill four million Americans … and injure and cripple hundreds of thousands.”

Experts break up the al-Qaeda threat into three distinct entities. The first is the core organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks, comprising Bin Laden and his small circle of close, trusted associates.

The second layer of the network is composed of al-Qaeda’s affiliate groups across the globe—regional franchises that have recently formed or extremist groups that have taken on the “al-Qaeda” label. There are cells in at least 100 countries that operate in conjunction with the various regional organizations. Also included in this second layer are terror organizations that maintain their independence for various reasons, but still espouse al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology and cooperate with the core group.

The third layer of the network is what was mentioned in the introduction—the so-called “homegrown” terrorism. Gartenstein-Ross defines it as “terrorism that is carried out by people who are born, raised and/or radicalized within a Western milieu.”

The threat of homegrown terrorism

Gartenstein-Ross says homegrown terrorists “are very valuable to al-Qaeda, since they are Westerners (from America or Europe), fit in with Western society better than Middle Easterners do, have the right travel documents, have the command of the English language or the relevant European language, and know how to not raise suspicions.”

Typically, homegrown extremists are indoctrinated inside the United States (or another Western nation), with help from extremist Web sites or jihadist clerics. Then many, but not all, travel to an al-Qaeda training camp in the Middle East or Pakistan for terror training and logistical support. Some are then assigned to go on a suicide assignment. This is how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab almost blew up the airliner bound for Detroit last December.

Counterterrorism officials believe the accelerated radicalization among American Muslims has been driven by a wave of English-language online propaganda and the spread of radical ideology in American mosques. There are a growing number of mosques in the United States, totaling 1,200 today, reported Joel Rosenberg in Inside the Revolution (p. 141). Between 50 and 80 percent are believed to be under control of extremists or dominated by their theology.

Rosenberg also quotes findings from a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center on the attitudes of Muslims in America. The study found that 5 percent of them had a “favorable” view of al-Qaeda. “Moreover, nearly three in 10 (27 percent) said they either didn’t know or refused to answer the question about their view of al Qaeda. Out of 2,350,000 Muslims, this means there are at least 117,500 Muslims inside the U.S. who like what Osama bin Laden and his colleagues are doing and have a favorable view of their terrorist network.”

Further, “if those who refused to answer the question were disguising their own support for al Qaeda, there could be another 600,000 or more Radical Muslims or Radical-leaning Muslims or sympathizers inside the country” (p. 144). Clearly, America has a large “pool” for potential homegrown terrorists.

Hezbollah, another major threat

That’s the al-Qaeda side of the equation (extremist Sunnis). The Shiite side is Hezbollah. Founded in part in response to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and supported by Iran, many counterterrorism officials, like Nichiporuk, believe Hezbollah is “primarily a problem for Israel” and would probably only attack American interests if the United States got into a conflict with Iran.

Still, he acknowledges that “Hezbollah is a very dangerous, very capable terrorist organization” with a worldwide network of cells throughout Europe, Africa, South America and North America.

Others, like Joel Rosenberg, believe Hezbollah is not only dangerous but all too ready to attack the U.S. homeland. In Inside the Revolution, he cites a long list of statements by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, threatening to destroy America and Israel. He also lists Hezbollah’s many attacks against U.S. interests in the 1980s and 1990s.

The fact that Iran is close to having a nuclear bomb and is directly tied to Hezbollah adds to the severity of the situation. “Yet, inexplicably,” Rosenberg writes, “despite Hezbollah’s history of killing Americans, Israelis, and Iraqis—and their clear plans to kill many more—the U.S. has done precious little to crush Hezbollah as it has sought to crush al Qaeda. Nor has it done much to bring Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah or his forces to justice. This has served to embolden Nasrallah, who is convinced that Allah is with him” (p. 95).

Some people speculate about whether Hezbollah and al-Qaeda might ever pull off a U.S. attack together. In spite of their theological differences and conflicting political strategies, both are intent on destroying the West, and there has been some cooperation between the two organizations in the past. For instance, in the early 1990s, Hezbollah trained al-Qaeda operatives in truck bombing techniques. Unquestionably, though, they are both highly formidable threats on their own.

The WMD threat

The ultimate concern, of course, is that extremists would obtain a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)—in particular, a nuclear bomb. In a December 2008 report titled World at Risk, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism concluded that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by 2013.”

Former CIA Director George Tenet stated in his 2007 book At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA that he is convinced al-Qaeda is trying to obtain nuclear capabilities: “They understand that bombings by cars, trucks, trains, and planes will get them some headlines, to be sure. But if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history. Such an event would place al-Qa’ida on a par with the superpowers and make good bin Laden’s threat to destroy our economy and bring death into every American household” (p. 279).

Al-Qaeda’s nuclear intentions have been well documented. In 1998 Osama bin Laden said he felt a “religious duty” to acquire nuclear weapons. In 2003 al-Qaeda sought and received a fatwa from a radical Saudi cleric authorizing the use of nuclear weapons against American civilians. Since the early 1990s, al-Qaeda has been trying to buy or steal the nuclear material needed to assemble a bomb and to recruit nuclear scientists to help the group with its aims. It’s becoming more doable all the time.

Just how doable? Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear theft and terrorism, explains: “At sites in dozens of countries around the world, the security measures in place for plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU)—the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons—are dangerously inadequate, amounting in some cases to no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence…

“If a technically sophisticated terrorist group could get the HEU or plutonium they need, they might well be able to make at least a crude nuclear bomb. Making one does not take a Manhattan project: more than 90 percent of that 1940s-era effort was devoted to making the nuclear material, not making the bomb; and that was before the basic principles of nuclear bombs were widely known, as they are today” (“Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft and Terrorism,” Daedalus, Oct. 1, 2009).

Sooner or later, terrorists may well succeed in their bomb-making efforts. Or they may simply acquire one already assembled.

National Review reported the consensus of some of the world’s leading terrorism experts at a December 2009 Heritage Foundation meeting: “If Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, is not prevented from acquiring nukes, the result will be a nuclear proliferation ‘cascade.’ Before long, so many countries would have so many nuclear devices that the chances of terrorist groups getting their hands on at least a few would increase exponentially” (Clifford May, “Apocalypse When?” Nov. 26, 2009).

In January Gen. James Jones, White House national security adviser, told a USA Today reporter that his “biggest nightmare scenario” was “the acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction by a terrorist organization. The difference between a nation-state doing so and a rogue group of a terrorist organization is that nation-states can be controlled. They know if they’re going to use one what’s going to happen. But terrorist groups will have no such limitation” (What’s the Next U.S. Terror Threat?” Jan. 25, 2009).

What’s the answer?

If you are familiar with Bible prophecy, you may not be shocked by all this. The Bible foretells a time of unparalleled fear and terror in the days leading up to the return of Jesus Christ to the earth to establish the Kingdom of God.  

Jesus Christ told His disciples that before His second coming “there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21 Matthew 24:21For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
American King James Version×
, New International Version, emphasis added throughout). He spoke of “wars and rumors of wars” and peoples and nations rising up against each other (verses 6-7).

There’s also a prophetic reference to terrorism in the Bible, specifically for America and other English-speaking peoples.

Regular readers of this magazine understand that the lineage of Americans and other English-speaking peoples can be traced back to the Old Testament nation of Israel. In Leviticus 26:16-17 Leviticus 26:16-17 16 I also will do this to you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 And I will set my face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursues you.
American King James Version×
, God tells the Israelites that “sudden terror” and military defeat will be the result of their sin, with Americans and those of other Israelite nations “flee[ing] even when no one is pursuing you” (NIV).

That’s not to say terrorism is an out-of-control problem at present. It isn’t. The United States has spent billions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on intelligence and surveillance operations, and in beefing up airport and port security—all to combat terror threats. U.S. efforts have been successful. Al-Qaeda’s core has had to go into hiding, hindering the group’s operations. Dozens of attacks on the U.S. homeland since 9/11 have been prevented. But there is only so much human governments can do.

“Terrorism is a problem we can only manage. We can try to reduce both the frequency of it and the consequences of it, but we’re not going to be able to eradicate it,” O’Hanlon says. The threat of new and more serious attacks is always looming, he says, and realistically it’s not possible to prevent 100 percent of the plots. Terrorism is bound to get worse before Jesus Christ returns.

The good news, though, is that when Jesus Christ does return, terrorism at last will become a thing of the past. God’s new government will not only control it, but address the root causes and truly stop it.

Of that time we’re told: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:3-4 Micah 4:3-4 3 And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 4 But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it.
American King James Version×
). God speed that day!  GN

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