Casting the Wrong Blame

Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2005

The July 7 terrorist attacks in London should have focused Europe’s attention on the small band of extremist jihadists committed to the elimination of western civilization by all possible means. Instead, some people in Britain and elsewhere are blaming U.S. policy — and Britain’s support for the U.S. — for the attack.

It is not necessary for everyone in Europe or the Muslim world to agree with all aspects of U.S. policy. Disagreements over security issues must not, however, shift responsibility for Islamist terrorism from its ideology of hate to specific U.S. policy decisions, past or present. Those who consider Islamist terrorism as a response to the “occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine,” as British activist Tariq Ali claimed recently, must explain how terrorists attacking a night club in Bali, Indonesia can be described as fighting occupation.

A booklet by the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), believed to be linked to the recent London bombings, declares the U.S., Israel and India as existential enemies of Islam and lists eight reasons for global jihad. These include the restoration of Islamic sovereignty to all lands where Muslims were once ascendant, including Spain, “Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan. . . Even parts of France reaching 90 kilometers outside Paris.” Blaming the U.S. for the delusions of these admittedly small groups confers a degree of legitimacy on Islamist extremists and undermines moderate Muslim struggling for the soul of their faith.

Some of the post-July 7 rhetoric against the U.S. is based on factually incorrect assertions, such as claims that the current global jihadist movement was somehow created by the U.S. or that America created radical religious seminaries (madrassas) in the Muslim world. These arguments would only encourage the terrorist minority within the Muslim world, which does not want America or Europe to understand its nihilistic beliefs.

The deliberate ignorance of blame-the-U.S. commentators is pervasive. Left-wing activist Mr. Ali wrote in the Guardian the day after the London bombings that “the principal cause of this violence is the violence inflicted on the people of the Muslim world.” He suggested, and other critics of the U.S. agree, that “it is safe to assume that the cause of these bombs is the unstinting support given by New Labor and its prime minister to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Reporting on the links of three of the four London bombers to a madrassa, a BBC reporter said: “Madrassas mushroomed in the 1980s funded by religious radicals in Saudi Arabia and the United States as training and arming centers for thousands of mujahedeen fighting soviet forces in Afghanistan.”

The truth is that some Muslims have interpreted Islamic teachings to include hatred of nonbelievers and, especially since the decline of Muslim power, advocated unconventional warfare against the disproportionately more powerful West. In the 19th century, the first antimodernity jihadist group called Tehrik-e-Mujahedeen (Movement of Holy warriors) emerged in India and operated in the country’s northwest frontier, including parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. This puritanical militant movement first fought the region’s Sikh rulers and later targeted the British.

The movement’s founder, Sayyid Ahmed of Bareili, who died in 1831, organized cells throughout India to supply the frontier movement with men and money. Calling themselves mujahedeen, the movement’s followers interpreted the Islamic concept of jihad in its literal sense of “holy war.” India’s jihadists killed British officials and civilians with swords and knives and their campaign of terror lasted for several decades. That 19th century movement spawned the contemporary ideology of jihad and serves as the prototype for subsequent the subsequent jihad network of al Qaeda and its associated groups in the region.

Sayyid Ahmed of Bareili himself was influenced by the ideas of Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahab, founder of the Wahabi movement in present-day Saudi Arabia. Islamic revivalist movements calling for a return to early Islamic purity and the re-establishment of Muslim political power were active through much of the Muslim world long before America’s engagement with the greater Middle East. If the Islamists’ ideology precedes U.S. involvement in the region by more than a century, how can Britain’s support for U.S. security policy alone be the instigator of Islamist violence in London?

Similarly, U.S. support for the guerilla campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan cannot be described as American endorsement of jihadist ideology. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in an effort to bolster a weak client regime, which was fighting a mass resistance supported initially by Pakistan.

From the U.S. point of view, it made strategic sense to bleed the Soviets and force them out of Afghanistan. The U.S. channeled its support for the Afghan resistance through its ally, Pakistan, and encouraged another ally, Saudi Arabia, to support the Afghans as well. The Afghan resistance included secular nationalists as well as Islamist jihadists. It was the Saudis and Pakistan’s military ruler General Ziaul Haq who decided to allow Islamists from all over the world to congregate in Pakistan to train for war across the border.

The decision to radicalize madrassas that had previously shunned Western values without fighting against them was also taken by the Saudis and Pakistan’s rulers. Saudi Arabia sought to assert itself as the leader of the Sunni Islamic world in competition with Shia revolutionary Iran. Pakistan planned on using the jihadists as a tool for establishing a client regime in Afghanistan and to wrest disputed Kashmir from India.

Although Pakistani madrassas have been blamed for producing the bulk of global jihad foot soldiers, several recent studies point out that terrorists involved in attacks against Western targets are as likely to have been educated in ordinary schools as in madrassas. The ideology of hate in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries is not limited to religious seminaries, though the madrassas have been making their own negative contribution.

The U.S. did not train, fund or equip the global jihadists during the Afghan war, nor did it directly fund the establishment of even a single madrassa. Approximately $2 billion in covert assistance was channeled to the mujahedeen through Pakistan’s intelligence service. The U.S. erred in trusting its allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, during the anti-Soviet Afghan war and failed to recognize their ideological or strategic agendas.

America’s intelligence apparatus and intellectual community, focused on fighting communism, did not identify the potential of radical Islamists to emerge as a major global security threat. That error is now being rectified. To minimize the significance of the radical Islamists’ ideology, and blame America for attacks against the west, is as likely to swell the ranks of terrorists as are real or perceived grievances within the Muslim world.