The World Is the Islamist's Oyster
by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET)
October 10, 2011
Over the past five months, al-Qaeda has suffered the loss of three key leaders. In May, US Navy SEALs conducted a raid in Abbotabad, Pakistan, to take out the organization’s top leader, Osama bin Laden. Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a Libyan national who replaced Ayman al-Zawahiri as the group’s No. 2 when Zawahiri moved up to replace bin Laden, had a short tour. He was killed in the mountains of Pakistan by missiles fired from a CIA drone in August. In September, a top leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Anwar al-Awlaki, became the first US citizen targeted and killed for his terrorist activities, meeting his demise courtesy of a CIA drone missile attack as well.
The question arises as to whether the deaths, in short order, of three senior Islamic extremist leaders will have a positive impact on al-Qaeda’s defeat. A World War II photograph, inscribed with four words, offers some insight as to the answer.
The photograph was of a US Navy destroyer, sailing along at full speed. For two years, the ship and its crew had been fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Initial enemy naval battle successes gradually gave way to a series of defeats. Recognizing America’s fortunes in the war had improved, a sailor had penned at the bottom of his ship’s picture, “Tokyo, here we come!”
As the US Navy advanced, the Japanese were faced with having to defend their homeland. It was estimated an invasion of the country would have resulted in a million US casualties. But US success in developing the atomic bomb spared us those casualties as bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, Japan’s will to fight was broken. Tokyo surrendered.
But there is a big difference between defeating Japan and defeating the Islamic extremist mindset.
Japan was defeated because, in the end, she was unable to mount a homeland defense. As the US took the war to Japan, Tokyo was unable to fend off her attacker.
But the problem we face today in trying to defeat Islamism is finding its “Tokyo equivalent.” The reality is, it does not exist. That is because for the Islamist, “the world is his oyster”—i.e., his battlefield is global. It is global because, unlike the war against Japan, today we do not fight a national army—we fight an ideology.
Tragically, it is an ideology whose rank and file adherents fail to recognize what it really represents. It is an ideology by which a few leaders prey upon their many followers. Such leaders preach to their followers they need not think for themselves. They preach to them not to interpret the Quran, for man is forbidden from giving his own meaning to Allah’s words, thus leaving such interpretations only to the insights of their leaders to make for them.
Their religious leaders are hypocritical. Take, for example, extremist clerics who talk the talk of encouraging followers to become suicide bombers, then fail to walk the walk with them. No imam preaching such self-sacrifice has ever surrendered his own life in this way, or encouraged his own children’s self-sacrifice in the way he encourages his flock and their children to do.
When the Japanese surrendered unconditionally to end World War II, we held victory parades. But when our war against Islamic extremists ends, there will be no such celebration. Should Americans stay the course in this fight until the Islamist is defeated, the irony is we will not know exactly when the war is over; we will not know when his “Tokyo equivalent” has fallen; we will not know when his spirit has been broken. This is because there will be no unconditional surrender by an authority representing all Islamist ideology.
It is estimated of almost seven billion people inhabiting Earth, close to two billion are Muslim. It is also estimated about ten percent of all Muslims are of the extremist ilk. Global demographics are such that the Muslim birthrate is much higher than that of non-Muslims. In the western world, the non-Muslim birthrate falls below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children necessary to maintain current population levels. Today’s world of at least 200 million extremists—one where the Muslim population waxes and the non-Muslim population wanes—means we can count on a future world where these numbers will only become disproportionately weighted in favor of Muslim extremists.
What made al-Awlaki such a threat to the non-Muslim world was his charismatic appeal in recruiting others to join jihad against the West. He was very effective in using the internet for this purpose. Whereas before the internet, jihadist leaders were limited in the number of zealot believers they could access and inflame, today the internet puts no limits on how many of those 200 million they can reach. Additionally, playing to his audience, al-Awlaki would encourage listeners towards leaderless jihadism—acting alone in performing acts of violence rather than joining a team effort seeking to inflict greater violence. It is not too dissimilar to the Chinese concept of torture by inflicting “death by a thousand cuts.” Al-Qaeda recognized al-Awlaki’s recruiting talents and will seek to replace him with a similarly charismatic leader.
Accordingly, we have got to understand that the death knell heard for these three al-Qaeda leaders does not herald the demise of the terrorist organization they embraced or of the Islamic extremist mindset firmly entrenched within Islam by 200 million zealot believers.
A former senior CIA official, Philip Mudd, writing recently on the aftermath of al-Awlaki’s death, perhaps put it best. “We would be wrong,” he wrote, “in confusing the demise of a few leaders…with the death of the ideology they sought to spread…Al-Qaedism isn’t close to dead yet. Ideas live far longer than people, and this idea has proven roots. The adversary we face benefits from a long view, looking at the world through a lens of decades or centuries. In the midst of unmistakable successes, we have to match our adversaries by learning to be as patient as they are. Celebrations, or even premature judgments about our successes, would be a mistake. We are far from finished with al-Qaedism, even if al-Qaeda fades.”
On May 1, 2003, President George Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln a month after the US invasion of Iraq. He arrived to deliver a speech announcing that major combat operations had ceased. Although he did not use them in his speech, the words “Mission Accomplished” appeared on a large banner displayed just behind him. As soon afterward the US death toll began to climb in a lawless Iraq, Bush was criticized for prematurely giving what came to be called his “Mission Accomplished” speech. He later acknowledged giving such a speech was a mistake.
Similarly, it would be a mistake for us, in the aftermath of the deaths of several Islamist leaders, to walk away from this threat with a “mission accomplished” mindset. As we continue to fight a war against this threat, it is unlikely we will ever hear those words in our lifetime. Nor will our children hear them in theirs. We must face the reality the war we are fighting is a multi-generational one that may well extend into the lifetimes of our grandchildren and great grandchildren.
May God give us strength to meet our responsibility during the early years of this multi-generational conflict so that our issue will have the strength to meet theirs.