Argue about the limits of free speech, the definition of “true” Islam, whether terrorists are lunatics or rational, or the social and political repercussions of terrorism as much as you’d like. The truth is that such debates are irrelevant to the core security problem: There is a growing and energetic movement of radical Muslims dedicated to killing as many people as they can and imposing their will on the rest.
And there is really only one way America can respond to this challenge. We need to kill them first. We need to kill them on a field of battle whose contours are determined not by the terrorists but by us. We need to kill them over there—in the Middle East—before they reach the West.
I realize that for at least the next two years what I propose is wishful thinking. American policy has reverted to a defensive condition in which Islamic terrorists set the terms of conflict. We have been here before. Until 2001, the United States treated Islamic terrorism as a matter of law enforcement. When our embassies were raided or bombed, when our barracks were destroyed, when our soldiers and sailors were murdered, when our World Trade Center was attacked, when our destroyer was damaged, we treated the assailants as members of an Arabic-speaking mafia, as criminals to be apprehended, tried, and punished.
Didn’t work. The jihad grew. It even found a base in Afghanistan, where it could equip and train and plot. In 2001, in a single fall morning, the World Trade Center was destroyed, the Pentagon bludgeoned, and more than 3,000 innocent people were killed.
America rethought its approach to terrorism. No longer were the terrorists considered felons. They were now unlawful combatants. Surveillance, interrogation, and detention policies became more aggressive. We invaded Afghanistan, we toppled the Taliban, and we sent al Qaeda leadership into hiding.
When America invaded Iraq in 2003, al Qaeda and its followers—joining forces with Saddam’s former commanders and marginalized Sunni tribes—designated the Tigris-Euphrates plain the main battleground of the global jihad. Aspiring jihadists, enemies of the West, traveled to Iraq where they encountered, and were killed by, heavily armed and expertly trained U.S. pilots, soldiers, and Marines.
The point of the war on terrorism was not merely to “decimate” the “core of al Qaeda.” The objective was also, in the course of a long struggle, to delegitimize the Qaeda movement and deter its fellow travelers by revealing Islamism as an evolutionary dead end. The unstated message of the strategy was this: If you choose jihad against the West, you will spend your life in Guantanamo or you will die.
Look what happened. By May 2008, plagiarist and emcee Fareed Zakaria could report: “If you set aside” the war in Iraq, “terrorism has in fact gone way down over the past five years.” And soon one did not have to “set aside” Iraq. When the change in strategy and surge of troops Bush ordered in 2007 began to take effect, violence in Iraq went “way down” too.
With the election of President Obama, however, the conflict between Islamism and America entered a third phase. Our troops were removed from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving Special Forces and drone pilots to do most of the fighting. The defense budget was cut. Harsh interrogation was curtailed, and Guantanamo Bay slowly emptied. Surveillance practices were disrupted. The words “Islamic terrorism” would not be uttered, for that somehow legitimized extremists. As for the terrorists themselves, they were once again treated like criminals.
What has resulted is a dramatic uptick in Islamic radicalism. In January 2014 the RAND Corporation found that “the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters increased after 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Attacks including the Ft. Hood massacre; the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; the Boston Marathon bombing whose victims included an 8-year-old boy; and the public beheading of British Fusilier Lee Rigby.
The absence of American troops in Iraq created an opportunity for ISIS, the Islamic army born of the Syrian civil war. Last summer, from its base in Raqqa, Syria, ISIS invaded Iraq. It captured and imposed sharia law on Mosul, a city of more than a million people, beheaded journalists, and threatened Baghdad, the Kurds, and minority sects with extermination.
ISIS “controls more land and has more weapons than any other jihadist organization in history,” according to experts at the American Enterprise Institute. ISIS is said to possess “more than $2 billion in assets” and command an “estimated 40,000 fighters.” ISIS is expert at “propaganda by the deed”: the spectacular use of public violence to provoke fear in your enemies and loyalty in your friends. There is even an ISIS gift shop. A global movement cowering in fear does not sell tchotchkes.
Nor is ISIS the only jihadist group on the offensive. Yemen has collapsed into a civil war between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian-backed Houthi militants. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates freely in Libya and Algeria and Mali. Boko Haram slaughtered thousands while expanding its holdings in Nigeria. Al-Shabaab runs central and southern Somalia. Hamas kills Jews from its Gaza satrapy. The Taliban is ready for its comeback in Afghanistan. This swelling of radical Islam—in territory, in resources, in adherents, in scalps—extends to Muslim communities around the world, and to disturbed and alienated men and women hungry to join a winning fight.
The central front of the war on terror is no longer Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. It is the West, and all lands associated with the West. So the radicals strike Israel, they kill in Sydney, they gun down cartoonists and Jews in Paris, they plan to strike the U.S. Capitol with pipe bombs and rifles.
Such a pattern of destruction ought to force a reevaluation of American strategy. But that has not happened. Instead our response to jihadism has been confusing, contradictory, insipid, self-destructive, and inane.
The administration not only skips a solidarity march in Paris. It won’t call the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks Islamic terrorism. The favorite newspaper of the White House is more concerned with the "fear and resentment" of European populations tired of being killed than it is with terrorism. The error-ridden blog edited by one of the president's favorite pundits says discussions of free speech "often seem more about justifying Islamophobia against everyday Muslims, who are just as overwhelmingly peaceful as every other religious group, than they are about protecting rights that are seriously endangered."
Guantanamo inmates are released to Oman, which borders Yemen, on the same day an American jihadist is arrested for plotting an attack on the nation’s Capitol. The State Department says it’s okay for Iran—a radical theocracy that is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world, that sows upheaval from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen, that originated the idea of assassinating Western authors who blaspheme Mohammed—to build additional nuclear plants.
The means by which the president reluctantly has attempted to take the fight to the terrorists are not succeeding. Micromanagement by White House officials of the air campaign against ISIS has resulted in a stalemate. American advisers to Iraq say it will take a minimum of three years to prepare the Iraqi army to roll back the Caliphate. Meanwhile our soldiers are subjected to mortar rounds launched from ISIS positions. So passive-aggressive is the president’s war on ISIS that Iraqis are beginning to suggest that “ISIS is a U.S. creation.” One Iraqi told the Wall Street Journal: “The international coalition against ISIS is a comedy act. America can destroy ISIS in one day only, but it does not do it.”
What about Yemen, which President Obama has held up as a model of intervention? Michael Crowley of Politico reports, “Since mid-September, the U.S. has conducted just three drone strikes in Yemen, down from 19 last year, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. And that was a fraction of the 2012 peak of 56 drone and air strikes.” Yemen and Syria are the key nodes of a global network of financing, training, and planning for jihadist operations. The United States has allowed this network to persist, indeed to grow in complexity and reach.
Only by extinguishing ISIS can the United States begin to reassert its authority and put the jihadists on the defensive. But increasing the number and pace of drone and air strikes will not be enough. The number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq must be dramatically increased, and America seriously must work to remove the cause of the Syrian civil war: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, who continues to use chemical weapons, has entered into a de facto alliance with our terrorist adversary, and is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
Above all, America must cease pretending that Muslim rage is something the United States can ignore and avoid or is powerless against or cannot fight over there. We must fight it over there, or be resigned to terrorist attacks over here. Again and again and again.