Motivation for Jihad

Last week, five Americans – Ahmed Abdullah Minni, Umar Farooq, Aman Hassan Yemer, Waqar Hussain Khan, and Ramy Zamzam (all from the Northern Virginia area just outside of Washington, DC) – were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks.  The five were allegedly in touch with a Taliban recruiter for several months and went to Pakistan just after Thanksgiving to try and join up with al-Qaeda.  According to Mustafa Abu Maryam, youth coordinator of the mosque they attended in Alexandria, VA, "I have always known these kids as fun-loving, career-focused children that had a bright future for themselves.  As far as I know they were wholesome kids.  Very goofy.  You know, talked about girls.  Very wholesome."  Farooq was an accounting student at George Mason University.  Zamzam (thought to be the leader of the group) was a dental student at Howard Univeristy.  By all accounts they all seemed pretty normal – or at least they didn’t exhibit any outward signs of being would-be terrorists.  So there is understandably much hand-wringing over how and why these five young men could – if proven to be true – have been converted to the cause of al-Qaeda and radical Islam.

During the Bush administration we were constantly told that they, i.e., the terrorists, attacked us on 9/11 because they hate us for who we are.  In other words, because they hate freedom and democracy, our way of life, our culture, our values.  There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Minni, Farooq, Yemer, Khan, and Zamzam hated America.  If they really hated America, why would they go to Pakistan to wage jihad rather than trying to blow something up here?

In a speech at Cairo University in Egypt in June, President Obama talked about seven sources of tension between Islam and America:

  • Violent extremism in all of its forms,
  • The situation between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world,
  • Rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons (i.e., Iran),
  • Democracy (ironic given that the speech was in Egypt which is a democracy in name only),
  • Religious freedom,
  • Women’s rights, and
  • Economic development and opportunity.

Again, there isn’t much evidence that any or all of the above were motivating factors for the five young men now being held in Pakistan.

The answer – which is a microcosm for larger U.S. foreign policy – is staring us straight in the face.  And, like we do with foreign policy, we want to ignore it.

Reportedly, the group made what is described as a farewell video (but not necessarily a martyrdom suicide terrorism video) with reference the ongoing conflicts in the world (presumably Iraq and Afghanistan) and that young Muslims had to do something to defend Muslims.  According to Pakistani authorities, the young men men "were of the opinion that a jihad must be waged against the infidels for the atrocities committed by them against Muslims around the world."

In other words, Minni, Farooq, Yemer, Khan, and Zamzam appear to have been motivated by what we do.  In simple terms, because our policies result in actions that kill Muslims.  Harvard professor Steven Walt did a back-of-the-envelope (and conservative, i.e., low end) calculation and came up with the number 288,000 for how many Muslims the United States has killed in the last 30 years (in contrast, Walt calculates that Muslims have killed about 10,000 Americans over the same time period – 2,800 of which were the result of the 9/11 attacks). He provides plenty of caveats:

  • The United States is not solely responsible for some of those fatalities, most notably in the case of "excess deaths" attributable to the U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
  • The United States is not solely to blame for the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
  • The fact that people died as a result of certain U.S. actions does not by itself mean that those policy decisions were wrong.

Even with the caveats, the numbers can’t be ignored.  So why is it so hard for us to understand that Muslims – perhaps including the five young men from Northern Virginia – would be motivated to become terrorists?

Because it’s hard to acknowledge to ourselves that terrorism is a consequence of U.S. policy choices and actions.  No one wants to be accused of hating America, claiming that America is at fault, or saying that America deserves to be attacked – all of which are not true.  But confusing fault and blame with cause and effect only results in continuing to come up with the wrong answers.

For example, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman claims that the problem is what he calls "the Narrative" of anti-American jihad. According to Friedman:

The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda, and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11.  Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books – and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes – this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand "American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy" to keep Muslims down.

In other words, in Friedman’s view the problem is Muslims.  So the solution would have to lie with changing Muslims and the Muslim world (no surprise coming from someone who was a cheerleader for invading Iraq).

But what Friedman conveniently ignores are two undeniable facts (not half-truths, propaganda, and outright lies) about the Narrative:

  • The United States is an occupier in Muslim countries (this was true even before the decision to invade Iraq and one of the primary grievances cited by Osama bin Laden in his calls to Muslims to make America a target for terrorism).
  • The United States supports authoritarian and oppressive regimes in Muslim countries (another grievance cited by bin Laden).

Throw in the undeniable fact that U.S. military action has resulted (and continues to result) in killing Muslims (even if sometimes justified) and you have a pretty potent cocktail for recruiting terrorists.

There is one thing Friedman gets right: "Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves."  But if Friedman truly understood The Narrative, he would understand that the only way for Muslims to look honestly at themselves (and not give their ruling governments an easy way to, in his words, "deflect onto America all of their people’s grievances") is to remove the United States from the equation.  In other words, we need to stop trying to be part of the solution and understand that we are part of the problem.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.