We were in Paris last week to continue to develop our television and print platform. Before arriving, I read the news that one of the suspects from the terrorist attack in Paris last November had been captured. Not less than three days later – in what seemed to be an accelerated operation – a major attack was carried out in Brussels, Tuesday March 22, that has left 34 people dead. Belgians are shell-shocked; it has been a long time since Belgium has played a major strategic geopolitical role, so they are wondering why they have been targeted. There is speculation here on the ground that the attack was initially planned for another Paris attack, but changed once one of the major conspirators was arrested.
Paris as well as Europe remain on high alert, with first responders armed with automatic rifles patrolling the streets. In the wake of the attacks, France had decided to boost security, tightening border controls and deploying over 1,600 additional police officers in an effort to protect and access to public areas for train stations and airports to anyone without the appropriate identification and tickets. But people are bewildered nonetheless, feeling a sense of helplessness as to why they are being targeted and what if anything can be done to prevent theses senseless murders.
Terrorism is a complex idea to grasp for many of us living in the West. It is difficult to conceptualize and understandably so. There is a significant gap in intelligence, and conceptual understanding of the threat and who they [radical Islamists] are. These gaps don’t just end there but also corresponds to a gap in the tools, tactics, and techniques that law enforcement, (local, state, and federal) have at their disposal to deal with radical Islamic violence today.
Sunni Islamic terrorism is a symptom of defeat, anger, and fear of annihilation. Terrorists believe that the world as it currently exists is not beneficial to their way of life, values or beliefs. And they believe so with some justification. Muslim populations have been utterly destroyed in the aftermath of the Iraq war – due both to internecine violence between various Muslim sects, and the invading armies of the West. Civilian deaths occur on a scale that is unimaginable to the west. There are multiple Paris attacks every month in Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq. So there is a sense of injustice that is being done at home to their people, and many see the West as supporting the very regimes that foment such violence.
Saudi Arabia has been a major exporter of terrorism – both in terms of its’ financial support for ISIS and serving as a (comfortable) home based for the radical Wahhabist strain of Sunni Islam that has formed the ideological backbone for radical Islam. The fact that the mastermind of the 9/11 sects was also a wealthy Saudi Prince is not of minor significance. And while the government of Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States going back several decades, the U.S. military presence on Saudi soil has not been warmly received by many of the Saudi religious leaders.
And yet, “For every Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, fifty people are joining the Islamic State driven by anger, not ideology,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. And though the ambassador is speaking about orthodox Muslims, specifically Sunnis, it could be applied to any religious group believing that it faces extinction or degradation of its values and beliefs. Let us simply recall the Vietnam War, where monks set themselves on fire — in essence; the two are one in the same.
Sunnis see their recent history as one of uninterrupted humiliation and defeat. One only needs to look at what has occurred and what is currently in process; Palestine, two Russian wars in Chechnya, the 2001 rout of the Taliban, the 2003 Iraq war which impoverished and disenfranchised Iraq’s Sunni minority, the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, the bombings of Syria and Iraq, and the complete destruction of the Iraqi Sunni towns of Tikrit and Ramadi.
For Sunni Muslims, their entire universe has been centered on defeats and catastrophe. Beirut, Baghdad, Sanaa, and Damascus — four historical Sunni capitals, have all fallen to their enemy, the Shia. Coupled with deep corruption, harsh demographic realities of overpopulation, crippling unemployment, specifically for the youth and poor, along with a lack of quality education have all lead to an environment of anger and hostility.
Many have wrangled over the best course to take in defeating the threat to public safety that these radicalized Muslims pose to the world. There is no easy answer. But understanding the threat demands that we become better students’ of these terrorist organizations, their ideological influences, and their ultimate aims.
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