On March 18, international counterterror authorities celebrated the capture of Salah Abdeslam, the ISIS-linked Belgium national heavily responsible for last year’s Islamic terror attacks in Paris. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel awoke Tuesday morning to find ISIS had rocked Brussels again. Two explosions at the Brussels airport and a third at the city’s train station killed 34 people and injured hundreds.
The escalating acts of Islamic terrorism in the last six months—with multiple attacks on Paris, attacks in Brussels, and even the far-reaching relatively unprecedented domestic attack in San Bernardino, California—show the deep-rooted hold of the greatest generational challenge of our time: radical Islam. ISIS has already devastated a Muslim population in the Middle East. Now, the most grotesque manifestation of radical Islam to date has its eyes deadlocked on the West.
In the two and a half years since the Obama administration began countering ISIS, details on how to counter the bloodthirsty group are still vague at best, and further complicated by the mass exodus of Muslim refugees pouring into Europe. In this country, Obama’s foreign policy has excelled in pressing our government and media elites to deflect a real conversation about jihadist violence to emphasize a fictional narrative full of politically correct shibboleths, from non-existent “Islamophobic” backlashes to a context-less understanding of the Crusades.
Meanwhile, European leaders try their best to ignore the consequences of decades of apologetic politics, including the backlash from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent open-door policy that accepted 1 million refugees, no questions asked. In a twenty-first-century world softened through pseudo-intellectualism, the most devastating enemy since Nazi Germany has left global leadership confused and overwhelmed.
Yet ours is not an impossible task. We can rely on the past as a guide through this defining moment in history. Although it was aimed at domestic policy, when President Franklin Roosevelt outlined his four freedoms in January 1941, he was making an equally strong case against the totalitarianisms that were on the march across the world—totalitarian regimes the United States would be facing before the bloody conclusion of that year. He outlined freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear as symbolic aims that would come to chart America’s course through World War II.
America knew what it stood for then; the same can’t be said in today’s muddled “War on Terror.” But rather than caricaturizing everyone we don’t agree with as a Nazi, the default social stigma of the hour, we can see how Allied powers worked with language, ideology, alliances, and geography to counter Axis powers, and we can weaponize these tools to defeat an enemy more dangerous than Nazi Germany.
Reclaim the Power of Clear Language
World War II gave us clear definitions that distinguished Allied forces from the nations that fell under Axis powers. Americans understood the harsh judgments embedded in shorthand of Vichy France and Norway under Quisling. Today, we lack clear boundaries. We’re confounded by multiple extremist groups, Islamist organizations, crumbling nation-states in the Middle East, Arab lobbies, and a host of other players who are not easily recognized. America is also grappling with a politically correct environment stemming from a desire to elevate dialogue in pursuit of higher ideals.
Yet the highest ideal today is no different from the highest ideal over 70 years ago: freedom. Securing that freedom requires every man, woman, child, and elected leader once again unite against a common enemy. To do this, we absolutely must be comfortable with naming the enemy: radical Islam.
Naming a thing is an incredibly powerful act that grants dominion. Whether it’s the naming of animals in the biblical book of Genesis, the power that comes with knowledge of a name in the Old Testament, or even awareness of a thing through knowing its name, identification is instrumental to understanding. Naming the problem is the single most important step in psychological power over radical Islam. It’s also key to driving policy-based solutions.
Being able to say “Islamic extremism” or “radical Islam” or “jihad” without fear of backlash is what it’s going to take to get America on the same page. Being on the same page means recognizing that Islam birthed this “radical” interpretation of faith more than 1,400 years ago, and stands today as the ultimate threat to a free world—greater than any threat posed by a fleeting moment in time that gave rise to Adolf Hitler. We didn’t hesitate to call a thing by its name 70 years ago, and we cannot hesitate now.
As a society, this is going to require a hard psychological reset that wipes out political correctness. A crippling PC culture devastates a civilization’s ability to move forward. If we’re going to move forward in this war on terror, then we also need to fall into ranks and recognize we’re dealing with more than just terror.
Combat the Ideology Head-On
While the Third Reich was a politically driven machine that relied on belief in National Socialism, it’s well known that Adolf Hitler was also heavily influenced by the occult. Whether the war is seen through Hitler’s occultist motivations or in the more common thread of a totalitarian ideology, the fact is that Allied forces fully accepted they were battling an ideology that believed in a greater force.
Yet very few people today can engage in a conversation about the ideological motivations of jihadis, choosing instead to pin the blame on “extreme interpretations of scripture,” economic devastation, or retaliation against Western foreign policy. While any of these three are factors, the driver today is no different than it was over two generations ago. As before, it comes down to belief systems.
But twenty-first-century societies have a hard time accepting religious ideology as a driver in a larger war due to a growing displacement from faith and religion. In the West, there’s a sense of estrangement that lingers in the air; purpose and meaning are lost when everything is secured through the push of a button. Our relationships are transactional, and the only god most of us worship is at the other end of a selfie stick. So it becomes difficult to understand how jihadis and Islamists could have enough belief in an ideology to the point of self-sacrifice.
Meanwhile, the label “Nazi” is freely pressed upon conservative viewpoints, while failing to see how real extremism in the form of radical Islam desires to completely obliterate any oppositional view. So while we’re squabbling over who is the most unfair, radical Islam is looking to destroy us all equally.
This is still a stretch of the imagination for those who cannot see how modern history’s most notorious villain, Adolf Hitler, is anything like the self-appointed caliphate of ISIS. William L. Shirer in “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” shows us how: “[Hitler] was twenty-four and to everyone except himself he must have seemed a total failure. He had not become a painter, nor an architect. He had become nothing, so far as anyone could see, but a vagabond – an eccentric, bookish one, to be sure. He had no friends, no family, no job, no home. He had, however, one thing: an unquenchable confidence in himself and a deep, burning sense of mission.”
This is the same conviction found in the innumerable thousands of Muslim extremists who hold the same deep, burning sense of mission, and among Islamists who are aligned in radical philosophy with their jihadi counterparts. At the center of our generational struggle, we have a faith-driven ideology surfacing from the darkest hour in Islam, one that has branded its followers with a sense of infallible destiny. The only real and permanent solution is rising to meet an ideology with an even more powerful ideology, within and outside of Islam.
Make Alliances with Moderate Islam
In recent months, France and Belgium were united in their common cause to apprehend terrorists behind the Paris attacks. Belgium is also part of an international coalition against the Islamic State. In fact, in response to every attack against a Western state, the whole free world comes together in a show of empathy.
Leaders promise action, national monuments light up, Facebook default pictures change to flags and peace signs, and hashtags and drawings fill social media. And nothing changes beyond having pacified a momentary sense of duty. Nothing changes because we haven’t named the problem; we still deny an ideological war; and we haven’t formed strategic and necessary alliances.
In WWII, a collection of nations came together committed to thwarting the spread of Nazism. Today, we have countries that are banding together, even working together to thwart terrorism—but there is no central alliance created to tackling the root cause of this ideological problem. Quite ironically, some of us are sitting across the table from the enemy.
The War on Terror launched on October 7, 2001, directing its first strike against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nearly 16 years later, the United States is now negotiating with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is the lesser evil compared to the new strain of religious extremism in ISIS. Alliances are clearly blurred, but we’re losing the war because we’re engaged in the wrong kind of alliances.
The right kind of alliances look to history first. Islamic fanaticism was kept at bay when Islam’s rational thinkers, the Mu’tazilites, had total political support. Sufi Muslims, Islam’s mystical branch, are also historically powerful players in moderating the field. Newer alliances include modern-day outliers including Muslim reformists and futurists.
This is where we take a page from history and look to see who holds the same views as us, building from it a hybrid new allied force that goes beyond traditional powers. A problem born of faith needs first and foremost people of the faith. Secondly, it needs individuals who can understand that there won’t be a heroic landing on the coast of Normandy. Our D-Day is at least a generation away.
Recognize a Scattered Geographic Playing Field
Wars in the last century were geographically recognizable. Today, no such clarity exists. Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam is a Belgian-born French citizen of Moroccan ancestry. At least one of the terrorists killed in the Paris attacks was suspected to be a refugee of unknown origin; it would be near-impossible and highly-resource intensive to verify passport documents. The San Bernardino shooters were self-radicalized Pakistanis. Last week, a New York pizzeria owner and a naturalized U.S. citizen from Yemen was sentenced for recruiting for the Islamic State.
Today’s enemies don’t wear a uniform. They don’t have distinguishable accents or a unified language. They don’t have the same country of origin. In fact, there is nothing that unifies them beyond radical Islamic ideology.
This means the battle isn’t just an issue with ISIS, which has become the predominant focus of most leaders and public opinion. Radical Islamic terrorism isn’t going to end with taking the fight over there; there is no “over there,” or playing whack-a-mole, a fact that Brussels has already conceded to, admitting it is being challenged in tracking radicals. The war is taking place multiple fronts and in several forms. It is ultimately a war of ideas and the battlefield is the mind.
Winning this war is going to take leadership that can recognize and advocate for the four frames: language, ideology, alliances, and geography. We’re going to need leaders who can bring together a team of outliers who are unafraid of being disliked, because the choices that need to be made are going to be unfavorable—and we need the same caliber of character with iron resolve as in generations past. Nothing less will suffice if we want to win this.