The specter of terrorism has again presented itself on the streets of the United Kingdom. Coming so quickly after the attack on Westminster Bridge outside the Houses of Commons, it is of particular concern. Such are the levels of anxiety in the British government that within 24 hours of the attack, the Prime Minister had announced the threat level had been raised to critical; a level not seen in the UK in 10 years. Finally, the problems caused by the “triangle of vulnerability” had become reality.
The combination of smarter terrorists, public complacency and the inevitability of intelligence failures was always going to have a deadly outcome. Sadly, for 22 people, nearly 60 others and their relatives and friends, that warning – which I’ve written about in numerous Homeland Security Today reports – became real; sickeningly so, given that some of those killed were children below the age of ten.
In targeting the Manchester Arena during a concert by a singer with the second largest following on Instagram, ISIS showed – if it indeed is possible – a new level of depravity. Burning Jordanian pilots alive and posting a video of that event are one thing, but throwing people from buildings because they are accused of being gay is another.
But the slaughter of innocents is a new low. How is it possible for any religion to justify such a dreadful act? ISIS, it appears, believes such attacks are acceptable because the children are regarded as collateral damage. Playing to a well-established narrative that Western political leaders authorize strikes, sometimes using drones, which kill women and children, ISIS appears to be unhindered by any moral dimension to their atrocities.
Today, those of us with an ounce of kindness in our souls mourn their loss and the fractured lives of those who have survived. Too often headline writers ignore the “silent victims” — those who either survive the ordeal with live-changing injuries, or have to pick up the pieces of their lives having lost a loved-one.
For those ideologically hardened Islamist extremist with hatred in their hearts, it is a time to celebrate. To mock the inadequacies of the security apparatus in the West, ISIS appears to be joyfully proclaiming this is not the last time such scenes will appear in the media. For ISIS, given their set-backs in Iraq and Syria, this is a rallying cry. They are able to survive and to continue the fight. While the West may have the military clout to overwhelm ISIS, they are still able to motivate individuals to commit acts of mass murder.
This is a new status-quo, one that everyone in the West had better start to getting used to — and very quickly. Despite President Trump’s obvious sincerity when it comes to destroying the last vestiges of ISIS and Al Qaeda – the other major operational jihadi group we must not forget – the reality is that this cancer has grabbed a foothold in the Islamic World and beyond. It will take many years before this dangerous religious ideology can be stamped out.
In the aftermath of such an attack, many, of course, ask simple questions. What can be done to stop these attacks? Who is to blame? Finger-pointing inevitably results. All too little effect in all honesty. What is required is more than pieces of sticking plaster being used to patch up fault lines, like failures to get accurate and the availability of timely intelligence. What is required is a global strategy to defeat the idea behind terrorism that justifies mass murder of innocents.
To his massive credit, and to President Obama’s lasting weakness and inability to act, President Trump has sought in his speech in Saudi Arabia to mobilize those in Islam who preach it as a religion of peace to act. Those who sought to try and manipulate Trump’s use of the words “Islamic Extremism” should be ashamed. Anyone with an ounce of understanding of the current problems facing the world would not be nit-picking at the margins of what was an honest attempt to create a new momentum in what has been a dormant political campaign against terrorism over the last presidency.
Trump’s broad coalition of the willing who lined up behind him in the photoshoot in the Saudi capital of Riyadh now must turn rhetoric into deeds. And that does not simply mean military action. It also means tackling at its heart the inconsistences and manipulation of the Islamic faith that ISIS and Al Qaeda routinely carry out – emasculating its central tenants and ruthlessly bastardising key verses in the Holy Book.
Central to that is the notion of obligation; the idea that to perform jihad is an obligation of every Muslim; unless it is performed, they will be doomed to live in purgatory for eternity. Yet, for those familiar with Islamic texts, it is well known that there are two forms of jihad (struggle). These are called the lesser and greater jihad. Differences in what they mean and how they should be observed by genuinely pious Muslims are the center of the issue.
Until Islamic scholars finally agree on their views on this progress in the battle to rid the world of Islamic extremism, progress will be slow; almost moribund, because fighting an idea is difficult. It has to be fought using logic – a concept tainted with Greek philosophy, tying the Western world‘s security approaches behind its back. Logic is never a great asset when it comes to religious arguments, as many distinguished philosophers have discovered, such as Professor Dawkins, author of best-selling book, The God Delusion.
What the President needs is not just a grand coalition of those willing to act militarily – which, of course, would be beneficial – but rather he needs a grand coalition of Islamic religious leaders to definitively agree on the interpretation of these texts which goes through 14 centuries of Islamic Jurisprudence; charting a course of reason that undermines, once and for all, false and messianic interpretations of the Quran.
This process has to occur in four stages. First, the messages must be routinely discredited by authoritative figures. Those reluctant to stand up and voice their concerns fearing their own safety need to start to act responsibility. When children are slaughtered, every adult, irrespective of their ideological foundations, needs to think carefully about their actions.
Using “inshallah” (God wills it) as an excuse is not acceptable. That has to be said out loud.
If the actions of discrediting the interpretations of the religious texts are done by those with genuine standing in the worldwide Islamic community, then there is a chance a foundation can be built upon.
The second aim must be to marginalize those who continue to advocate such interpretations as being outside mainstream thinking and subject to suffering their own form of purgatory if they continue to conduct acts of terrorism.
The third stage in this process is to see these people becoming marginalized from Islamic society. The aim is to make their voices irrelevant. This is the way in which Islamic extremism can be defeated. Complementing these actions, taken proportionately by the kind of wide-ranging Arab-Western military coalition at the heart of President Trump’s imaginative thinking, is how to deal with ISIS.
As he sought election, Trump said repeatedly he had an “idea” of how to address Islamic extremism. In Riyadh, we saw that “idea” in the form of reality. It should be hoped for the sake of others who will inevitably be caught up in the murderous aftermath of yet more acts of terrorism conducted in the name of Islam that this wider coalition will decide that enough-is-enough.
Islamic scholars who will not condemn such acts of barbarity do need, to use the words of the American Ambassador to the United Nations – Nikki Haley – “need to be called out.”
Whoever they have has friends, funders and protectors, President Trump rightly argued that the threat posed by Islamic extremists is the most important issue facing the world today. On that point, he has common ground with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both are all too painfully aware of the nature of threat and the more extreme forms it might take.
They, and those religious leaders who outwardly profess Islam to be a peaceful religion, need to reflect long and hard about their tactic support for terrorism. A failure to condemn it and turning a blind eye are no longer options. As President George W Bush once famously said, “you are either with us or against us.”
For those who are against us, who are able to justify the murder of hordes of children and teenagers enjoying themselves seeing a pop-star, a time of reckoning has to come.
And it cannot come too soon.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.