BERLIN – Even as the scourge of Islamist terrorism spreads, the global war on terror stands derailed. The recent grisly jihadist attacks in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere are a reminder of the imperative to bring the war on terror back on track and focus attention on draining the terrorism-breeding swamps reared or tolerated by some states.
Blaming virtually all of the recent terror strikes on the Islamic State (IS) organization, even when the evidence of its involvement in some attacks is thin, as in the terrorist storming of a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, creates a simplistic narrative that helps obscure the factors behind the upsurge of jihadi violence.
For years since the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes in the United States, most acts of international terror were pinned on al-Qaida. Now, IS has taken the place of al-Qaida, with the narrative being that because IS is losing territory in the Syria-Iraq belt, it has sought to relieve pressure by staging attacks in multiple countries. While IS recently lost control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, it still presides over large tracts of territory, and last month routed one of the last remaining CIA-backed rebel bands in Syria, the New Syrian Army, in a battle for control of the eastern town of Abu Kamal.
The war on terror will be better served by focusing attention on the cases where the scourge of jihadism is largely self-inflicted. This will help to highlight the dangers of playing with fire, given the inexorable cycle of jihadism.
Take the growing Islamist attacks in Bangladesh on writers, bloggers, publishers, gay rights activists, Hindu priests and foreign workers: The country’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) — like Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — reared jihadi groups for domestic and foreign policy purposes. During the periods when Bangladesh was under direct or de facto military rule, DGFI was the key instrument for establishing control over civil and political affairs. It carried out operations against political activists and journalists and partnered with the National Security Intelligence agency in the sponsorship and patronage of jihadi outfits.
A top U.S. counterterrorism official, Cofer Black, expressed concern way back in 2004 while visiting Dhaka over “the potential utilization of Bangladesh as a platform for international terrorism.”
The cozy ties that security agencies developed over years with jihadis promoting Islamic revolution in Bangladesh has made it difficult for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government — elected in 2008 — to effectively clamp down on Islamists, some with continuing links to state elements and to the largest opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The spreading radicalization among Bangladesh’s predominantly Muslim population was highlighted by the attack on the cafe in Dhaka’s diplomatic district by five young men, three of them with elite backgrounds. Despite a purported claim of responsibility by IS, the attack did not bear the hallmarks of an IS operation, with the lightly armed killers lacking assault rifles.
The attackers — described by local authorities as members of Jamaat ul-Mujahdeen, which has pledged allegiance to IS — singled out foreign patrons, torturing and killing 18 of them, while sparing local Muslims who could recite verses from the Quran. Among those butchered were Japanese goodwill ambassadors — seven aid workers, including an 80-year-old man lending his expertise on railroads to Bangladeshi authorities.
Now consider Turkey’s Pakistanization under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership: Having actively aided and abetted jihadism in neighboring Syria, including serving as a rear base and transit hub for IS fighters, terrorism has come to haunt Turkey’s own security, with the Istanbul airport attack just the latest reminder.
Indeed, Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party earlier this year of trapping the country in “a process of Pakistanization” by proactively “aiding and abetting terrorist organizations” and helping to turn Syria into a new Afghanistan.
Turkey’s increasingly difficult security predicament today reflects the maxim: “If you light a fire in your neighborhood, it will engulf you.”
Take another case, Saudi Arabia, racked by three separate terrorist explosions on July 4. For more than four decades, Saudi Arabia has exported an obscurantist version of Islam known as Wahhabism, which has helped instill the spirit of martyrdom and made many a suicide killer believe that he would be handsomely rewarded for laying down his life, including getting 72 virgins in heaven. Wahhabi fanaticism is actually the root from which the world’s leading Islamist terrorist groups, including IS and al-Qaida, draw their ideological sustenance.
The monsters that Saudi Arabia helped create have undermined the security of a number of countries. Now those very monsters are beginning to haunt Saudi Arabia’s own security, as the latest attacks indicate. This underscores the law of karma: What you give is what you get returned.
According to CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, Saudi Arabia “most lavishly and successfully exported its ideology” to Pakistan, where “Saudi-funded ‘madrassas’ and mosques preach” Wahhabism. Such has been the extent of the Saudi success in “Wahhabizing” Pakistan that the blowback is now reaching the Saudi kingdom. For example, the suicide bomber that killed four security guards on July 4 outside the mosque where Prophet Mohammad is buried in Medina was a Pakistani.
The Prophet’s Mosque, as it is known, is considered to be Islam’s second holiest site after the Sacred Mosque, or Masjid-al-Haram, which surrounds the Kaaba in the city of Mecca. The House of Saud considers itself the protector of Islam’s holiest sites at Mecca and Medina, and a terrorist attack on Medina is unprecedented.
In truth, the Saudi royals are reaping what they sowed: Having aided the rise of IS, they now confront an existential threat from that terrorist organization, which believes its caliphate project cannot succeed without gaining control of Mecca and Medina. IS thus is using Wahhabism to topple the Wahhabism-exporting House of Saud, which it sees as decadent.
Against this background, it will require a sustained campaign to control the forces of jihad that pursue violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. The challenge is also broad: The entire expanse from North Africa and the Middle East to South, Central and Southeast Asia is home to militant groups and troubled by terrorist violence, posing a serious challenge to international security. Moreover, radicalization has spread among many Muslims living in the West.
Let’s be clear: Islamist terrorism cannot be stemmed if attempts are made to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten their security and those who threaten ours. As illustrated by the Turkish, Saudi and Pakistani cases in particular, the viper reared against one state is a viper against another nation or against oneself.
It is past time to build an international consensus on attacking the ideology driving terror. Unless concerted efforts are made to fight the ideology of jihad and drain the terrorism-breeding swamps, liberal, pluralistic states could come under siege. After all, Islamist terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. Never before has there been a greater need for close international cooperation on counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist, author and longtime contributor to The Japan Times. He won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award by the New York-based Asia Society for his pioneering work, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.” His latest book is “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”
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