CANBEERA – Terrorism attracts disproportionate public attention and policy focus. As of December 2015, the death toll from jihadist terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11 was 45, and from white supremacist and other right-wing extremists 48, compared to more than 200,000 people killed in “conventional murders.” U.S. President Barack Obama frequently reminded his staff that “terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than falls in bathtubs.”
There are two key questions about the Manchester attack. First, what motivated the bomber specifically, and what intelligence evidence was missed or the dots not connected to prevent it? Second, why does the pattern keep repeating across the world, why are wannabe terrorists attracted to the cause, and what can be done to demotivate them to defeat terrorism?
Unfortunately, long-term strategy is held hostage to denialism as the default policy setting. Left and right politicians and public intellectuals alike are reluctant to speak truth to evil. Testimony by terrorists and scholarly research are brushed aside as inconvenient facts.
Conservative governments have been in denial with respect to their foreign policies contributing to terrorism in two crucial respects. First, they have tended to point the finger of criminality on anti-Western regimes, rather than countries that are the headquarters of fundamentalist ideology for worldwide export.
When was the last conscience-shocking terrorist attack on a Western target by a Shiite Iranian instead of an Arab Sunni? Is there any country that has been a greater enabler of export-only Islamic fundamentalism than Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of Wahhabism? Yet bizarrely, at the very time that Iran was engaged in a genuinely democratic presidential election, U.S. President Donald Trump attacked Iran for state sponsorship of terrorism while inaugurating a new Global Center for Combating Extremism based in Saudi Arabia.
Second, the protracted Western military presence in the Islamic countries in and around the Middle East, meant to fight terrorism, has instead fomented increasingly widespread and vicious international terrorism. In marked contrast to the kid glove treatment of the autocratic Sunni regimes that have financed and exported militant Islamism, Western powers have attacked, toppled and harassed the region’s three secular dictators who had been brutally effective in keeping a lid on sectarian killings and a check on radical Islam: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Bashar Assad in Syria.
The resulting destabilization of the entire region and its descent into bloodbaths has produced the biggest mass population displacement, including into Western countries in Europe and afar. The instinct for intervention seems deeply embedded in Western governments’ DNA and as long as that lasts, anti-Western rage will be maintained. They hate us more for what we do to them there than what we stand for here.
Solid scholarship has shown the primary motivation for suicide terrorists is resisting foreign military forces and expelling occupying powers from their homelands. After the Iraq War, U.S. President George W. Bush was described as al-Qaida’s “best recruiting sergeant.” On the evidence to date, Trump might best even Bush in his star recruitment quality.
On Friday, U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn unequivocally condemned the Manchester suicide bombing, said nothing could justify it, but drew a link between British involvement in overseas wars and terrorist attacks on home soil. Predictably but depressingly, he has been mischaracterized as blaming Britain for the bombing. Anyone who tries to explain the motives of terrorists — without which it ill be impossible to defeat terrorism — risks being demonized as an apologist for terrorism.
Another major questionable practice in the U.S. global war on terror is drone strikes that were greatly expanded by Obama, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. An efficient machine to kill terrorists, armed drones have proven to be equally proficient at making and multiplying enemies. They are a potent tool of terrorist recruitment because they anger entire communities, particularly in tribal societies with a payback ethos. Western diplomats who know the region, experienced U.S. military officers and some terrorists themselves have pointed to the indiscriminate brutality of the drone strikes as their inspiration for radicalization. Maybe if we stopped butchering their families, stealing their wealth and toppling their leaders to install our stooges there, they just might stop coming here?
But meanwhile they are also in the West in large numbers as immigrants, and Western politicians and intellectuals seem terrified of conducting an honest debate on migrants’ links to Islamism. This is the third denial. Politicians appear more terrified of being called a bigot than concerned to protect people from being slaughtered by jihadists. Even when the perverted jihadists film their hooded captives and invoke the name of Allah as they behead them and post the video on the internet, and Western audiences can view these images, our leaders insist there is absolutely no link between terrorism and Islam. Or with Muslim immigrants.
Of course Islamic terrorists are no more representative of Islam than the Irish terrorists were of Christianity, or the murderous Tamil Tigers of Hinduism.
Not all Muslims are terrorists. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding peaceful citizens in whichever country they reside and Islam as a religion has many powerful taboos against the killing of innocents, women and children. But the overwhelming majority of terrorist acts today are committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. However, the overwhelming majority of victims of Islamist terrorism are also Muslims (from Africa to the Mideast, to Afghanistan and Pakistan) because, contrary to coverage by the Western media, most terrorist attacks take place in non-Western countries. Not one Western country is in the top 10 of terrorist deaths in the world.
Global polling shows strong support for Shariah law in many countries from which large numbers of immigrants have come to the West. We now accept that democracy cannot be exported overnight to Middle Eastern countries. Why do we expect large numbers of migrants from these countries can be socialized into liberal democratic values, from homosexuality to women’s rights to anti-Semitism, after settling in the West?
As for the one hint of racism, horrific terrorist attacks in major Western cities bring saturation media coverage and spontaneous shows of solidarity, with public landmarks being bathed in the national colors of the victim countries. But bombings in Baghdad, Lahore and Mumbai do not.
Those who raise uncomfortable questions about how our own foreign, migration and timid policies of accommodation of alien social values and cultural policies may elevate the threat do not deserve being tarred as traitors, terrorist sympathizers or Islamophobes.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University