What is required in combating Islamic fundamentalist movements like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban is a deeper understanding of them, their motives and missions, and the methods behind their madness. Such knowledge could go much further in defeating these enemies than simply bombing and killing them, which paradoxically causes them to grow stronger and more adaptively resilient, and morph into even more sinister forms.
An important element in understanding these regressive religious ideologies, which represent the antithesis of classical Western liberal values, is to realize that they are all rooted in the same soil – social and political instability and chaos. A recent historical example of this can be traced back to the 1980s when the Mujahideen, a Muslim jihadist group whose foreign contingent was organized and led by a young Sunni warrior from Saudi Arabia named Osama Bin Laden, successfully drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan after it had occupied the country for a decade. Bin Laden, Afghan warlords and a ragtag army of insurgents defeated the mighty Soviet empire (with the aid of the United States – Ronald Reagan praised the Mujahideen as “freedom fighters”) and were emboldened by their victory over the foreign invading "infidels." Their success, however, resulted in a bloody tribal war waged afterward by competing warlords, and the chaotic void created in the nation eventually became filled during the 1990s by the Taliban, an ultraconservative Islamist movement that controlled much of Afghanistan by the end of that decade.
In the wake of the defeat of the Soviets and their retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, Bin Laden and fellow Mujahideen fighters mutated into Al Qaeda, another group of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists that would eventually declare “holy war” on the United States. This war was inspired by American Middle East foreign policies, including the stationing of troops by George Bush Sr. in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-91 Gulf War, an action perceived by Bin Laden as an invasion of sacred Muslim lands, and America’s strong unabashed support for the state of Israel. Al Qaeda’s “holy war” (formally declared in Fatwas issued in 1996 and 1998) resulted in a number of terror attacks on overseas American targets, including those on U.S. embassies in Africa in the late 1990s and on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000, and culminated in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Afghanistan was left in war-torn chaos after the Soviet-based central government collapsed in the late 1980s, and the resultant social and political void was filled by the previously mentioned Taliban, a Sunni Islam sect composed primarily of Pashtun tribespeople that ascended to power in the mid-1990s in its quest to establish an ultraconservative Afghan society ruled by Sharia (God’s) Law as prescribed in the Koran. The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban had provided sanctuary during the 1990s for Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack. That war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, continues to be waged today with no clear end in sight. It is one component of the seemingly perpetual global "war on terror" originally declared by George Bush Jr. in 2001.
As a result of the Al Qaeda attack on America, and at the strong urging of a neoconservative think tank in Washington that advocated US global military domination in the 21st century and the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, George Bush Jr. mounted an invasion of Iraq in 2003. That war was based on false pretense – egregious lies spewed by the Bush-Cheney administration about Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, being involved in the 9/11 attack, and posing an imminent threat to the United States. As it turned out, Iraq possessed no WMDs and Hussein was not involved in the September 11 attack (in fact, the secular Hussein and fundamentalist Bin Laden despised one another, and 15 of the 19 responsible for hijacking planes and plunging them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon were citizens of Saudi Arabia, a so-called ally in the "war on terror;" not one was from Iraq or Afghanistan).
The Iraq War, championed zealously by the Bush-Cheney administration, supported by the “liberal” mainstream media, and authorized by congressional leaders in both political parties, led to the dismantling of Hussein’s Baathist secular government (and replaced by a corrupt pro-Iranian Shiite one that persecuted Sunni Muslims) and army, and resulted in years of social, political and religious strife revolving around renewed conflicts between the two major denominations of Islam – Sunnis and Shiites – that stretch back over a thousand years. The dumb war cost American taxpayers over 1 trillion dollars and resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the chaos unleashed by the US invasion, including Iraq becoming a powerful magnet for anti-American jihadists throughout the Middle East, continues to this day. (NOTE: Al Qaeda did not operate in Iraq prior to the US invasion; the terrorist insurgency problem in the country occurred afterward, when members of Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups flooded into Iraq to wage battle against the American "infidels"). In sum, the American invasion of Iraq spearheaded by Bush and Cheney helped to transform it into a Jihadi state.
ISIS, the Sunni Islamic cult of true believing fanatics that now controls large chunks of Iraq and Syria (as well as territory in war-ravaged Libya, a recently failed state that lapsed into chaos after the US/NATO bombing of the nation in 2011 that toppled its leader, Gaddafi – a so-called "humanitarian" intervention that turned into a humanitarian nightmare), evolved in response to the US invasion, and has recently split off from Al Qaeda in Iraq to forge its own radical identity. The ISIS cult, inspired by an ‘End of Days’ apocalyptic vision, is a virulent and dangerous memetic* strain of Al Qaeda that is seeking to establish a caliphate – a government led by a caliph, a political and spiritual successor to the prophet Muhammad – in the Middle East. In essence, the small group (numbering only in the tens of thousands) of religious fundamentalists is working to create a “purer” form of Islamic theocratic society by reverting back (regressing) to seventh-century civilization – the time of Muhammad. In their quest to fulfill this visionary mission, ISIS warriors have succeeded in rapidly gaining control of territory throughout the region in nations like Iraq, Syria and Libya embroiled in the social and political chaos in which extremist groups like these flourish.
ISIS, which is believed responsible for the recent terror bombing attacks in Paris (arguably blowback as a result of France’s waging of war against ISIS in Syria, just as the 9/11 attacks were blowback for American policies in the Middle East), has been described by one prominent Western leader as a ‘psychopathic monster.’ If so, it is a monster that evolved at least in part due to misguided interventionist policies (George Bush’s invasion of Iraq is arguably the greatest US foreign policy blunder since Vietnam) that have sown the seeds of tumult in the Middle East and helped to give birth to the unimaginable, including media-hyped beheadings, suicide bombings and other forms of savage brutality perpetrated by narrow minded religious zealots in the name of God.
The story remains the same, whether the players are Al Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS. Western (primarily US) military intervention in countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… – in the oil-rich Middle East has created its share of death, destruction and chaos, which serves to fuel the flames of anti-Western and anti-American hatred and inspires Muslim extremists to join groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which causes the West to drop more bombs, conduct more drone attacks, and kill more terrorists (and innocent civilians), which further enrages radical Islamists, whose ranks increase in size and strength and who commit more heinous acts of terror, which get sensationalized in the media and create more fear, hysteria and outrage in the West, which leads to more bombings and deaths in the Middle East, which… – an unending cycle of violent madness.
Violence begets violence…terror begets terror… and the hope for a more peaceful and loving world begins to fade from our consciousness like the colors of a setting sun.
A seemingly perpetual “war on terror” – one that has continued into the Obama administration with its expanded drone warfare program and recent military escalations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere – is being waged against a hydra-like enemy with no end in sight for our children and their children. One of the only true beneficiaries of this unending war is the US corporate defense establishment once described by President (Gen.) Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during WWII, as the military-industrial complex, whose unchecked power and influence he warned the American people about in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. It is the same arms establishment responsible for building "…all the guns, …the death planes, The bombs…” that a young poet-songwriter railed passionately against when he spoke truth to power in his classic early ’60s Cold War anthem, "Masters of War."
Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard, in a recent article compared the “war on terror” to the “war on drugs” conducted in America over the last few decades, a costly and counterproductive effort that has failed miserably to accomplish its goals. The same can be said for the former, and the time is long overdue for what Walt and others have described as a fundamental rethinking of American Middle East policy that is necessary to help change the pattern of repeated blunders in the region that have contributed to making the United States less safe as a nation.
One of the most important lessons to be learned from recent history is that foreign military intervention by the United States and other nations often has unforeseen and tragic long-term consequences. That seems especially true when the intervention involves taking sides in a civil war and/or deposing a national leader, however despotic and brutal they may seem, as in the case of Hussein in Iraq or Gaddafi in Libya. The events of the last few decades make it clear that such actions help to sow the seeds of social and political instability and chaos, richly fertile ground in which Islamic fundamentalist groups like ISIS can root themselves, grow and thrive.
In a frequently cited biblical passage from Galatians it is stated that, "A man reaps what he sows." That same wisdom applies to nations as well as individuals, and in many ways the United States and its allies are now reaping what they have sown with respect to their bellicose “war on terror” policies in the Middle East.
A deeper understanding of the underlying factors contributing to the violent madness that is casting its dark shadow on the modern world, including the painful acknowledgment that the aggressive actions of America and other governments have helped to create and nurture that madness, can hopefully shine a light that will lead us out of the darkness and toward a more sane and enlightened world for future generations.
Know thy self… know thy enemy.
*Mimetic – That which pertains to memes, the cultural analogue of genes. Whereas genes, comprised of DNA, are the basic units of heredity, memes, in the form of ideas, values, beliefs, etc., are the basic units of cultural transmission shared between persons and across generations.
"Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it." ~ Noam Chomsky
- Osama Bin Laden – Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites (1996)
- Sourcewatch – The Center for Media and Democracy – Project for the New American Century
- History News Network – Did the Bush Invasion of Iraq Create ISIS? (2015)
- Common Dreams – Obama Destroyed Libya (2015)
- The Atlantic – What ISIS Really Wants (2015)
- Vox – ISIS, A History: How the World’s Worst Terror Group Came to be (2015)
- NPR – Ike’s Warning of Military Expansion, 50 Years Later (2011)
- Foreign Policy – Just Say No: Why the United States Can’t Kick the Bad Habit of Repeating Failed Campaigns in its War Against Terror (2015)
William Rowe is a retired college professor who taught courses in psychology, human development and brain science for 30 years in Florida. His interests lie primarily in the areas of evolutionary psychology, psychobiology, cognition and consciousness, with a particular interest in the psychology of terror, war and peace. He has recently completed a manuscript, Mind in the Mirror: Reflections on the Nature of Consciousness, the Brain, Culture and Human Evolution that will be published in the near future, and has written articles for local and national publications on topics in the fields of psychology, education and global affairs.