The conversation at Davos is often dominated by economics, and this year it’s no different. But the shock of the Paris terror attacks lingers, and discussions at the World Economic Forum here often turn to radical Islam. I posited in my previous column that the solution does not lie in more American military interventions in the Middle East. What, then, is the answer?
The problem is deep and structural (as I wrote a few weeks after 9/11 in Newsweek, in an essay titled “Why They Hate Us”). The Arab world has been ruled for decades by repressive (mostly secular) dictatorships that, in turn, spawned extreme (mostly religious) opposition movements. The more repressive the regime, the more extreme the opposition. Islam became the language of opposition because it was a language that could not be shut down or censored. Now, the old Arab order is crumbling, but it has led to instability and opportunities for jihadi groups to thrive in new badlands.
Over the past few decades, this radical Islamist ideology has been globalized. Initially fueled by Saudi money and Arab dissenters, imams and intellectuals, it has taken on a life of its own. Today it is the default ideology of anger, discontent and violent opposition for a small number of alienated young Muslim men around the world. Only Muslims, and particularly Arabs, can cure this cancer.
That does not leave the United States and the West helpless. Washington and its allies can support Muslim moderates, help their societies modernize and integrate those that do. But that’s for the long haul. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies must adopt a strategy that has four elements: intelligence, counterterrorism, integration and resilience (ICIR).
Intelligence is obviously the first line of defense, but it’s also essential to the attack. We have to know where jihadis and potential jihadis are and what they are planning. That means using sophisticated technology to search through various kinds of communications, but it also — and crucially — means developing good relations with communities. Most law enforcement professionals will argue that the key is to develop trust with, and ties to, local Muslim communities to identify early on those who might pose a threat. As the sheriff of Los Angeles County put it in congressional testimony in 2010, “Information that is relationship-derived is more reliable than information that is twice or more removed from the original source. ”
Counterterrorism is the natural follow-up to intelligence. When you know where the bad guys are, capture or kill them. It’s easier said than done, but the United States and other Western nations have had considerable success with this tactic — not only in war zones like Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in intercepting plots on their way to cities like Paris and London. All counterterrorism efforts have downsides. While drone attacks look seamless from the skies, they inevitably produce civilian casualties. Special forces operations are more surgical, although they risk American (or other Western) casualties.
In a revealing interview published in 2013 in Foreign Affairs, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal said about counterterrorism, “Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly — I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will — then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.”
Integration is something that America does well and with which Europe struggles. One of the chief reasons that the United States has not had as many problems as many predicted after 9/11 is that its Muslim community is well integrated and loyal, and it largely believes in American values. Europe still faces huge challenges in integrating those who are new or different into societies that have long been defined by blood and soil.
Finally, resilience. Terrorism is an unusual tactic. It doesn’t work if we are not terrorized. Bouncing back and returning to normalcy are ways of ensuring that terrorism does not have its desired effect. We have not always managed to do this. In recent months, we have massively overreacted to the Islamic State execution videos, which was why they were produced in the first place.
The Paris attacks were barbaric, as were those in Ottawa, Sydney, London, Madrid and Fort Hood. But one way to gain perspective might be to keep in mind the numbers. According to the Global Terrorism Database, in the 12 years between Sept. 12, 2001, and the end of 2013, the number of Americans who died on U.S. soil due to terrorism was 42. (And six of those were from the gruesome attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.) Meanwhile, in one year alone, 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 32,351 Americans died because of firearms. The number who died in traffic accidents was 33,783. So “keep calm and carry on” is more than a slogan to wear on a T-shirt.