The Endless Cycle Of Terrorism – OpEd


In the wake of the heinous attacks on civilians in Paris, the French are now prone to repeating the same mistakes the United States made after the even more barbaric 9/11 attacks. The natural reaction of politicians—whether they be Democratic, Republican, or Socialist as in the case of President Francois Hollande in France—is to show their publics that they are macho and tough. France’s escalation of air strikes in Syria in retaliation for the Paris terrorist attacks is a good example. Unfortunately, that strutting and flexing doesn’t solve the problem of terrorism and usually makes things worse. What is needed is more honesty about what causes radical Islamists’ sporadic terrorist attacks on Western nations, which would lead to a more measured and effective response.

The French air strikes are in retaliation for the terror attacks, with little regard for why the terrorists attacked France in the first place. The attackers did not attack Luxembourg. As the terrorists were shooting people in Paris, they reportedly yelled that they were retaliating for French bombing in Syria. France, like the British and United States, is a former imperial power and still acts with that mentality by using force excessively abroad. The French still police their former colonies using military force and regularly are eager participants of U.S. coalitions to attack countries outside that category. For example, France recently sent troops into the African nation of Mali to beat back radical Islamists, who had obtained fighters and large quantities of weapons from the mayhem in neighboring Libya (not a former French colony), which had been caused by the French pressuring the United States to lead a coalition to overthrow Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Nobody likes to be attacked or occupied, but Muslims have a particular aversion to being ruled by non-Muslims, as the British, French, and Americans have found out in the post-World War II era. Up until World War I, the Middle East was fairly quiet when the Muslim Ottoman Turks ruled fellow Islamic peoples. After that war, the British and French decided to destroy—instead of the smarter course of preserving—the losing Ottoman Empire and divide its vast territory between them. They chopped the caliphate up into Western-style countries with secular governments, both nonviable for Muslim populations. The boundaries those Western powers drew were for their convenience, crossing ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines. The turmoil in Iraq and Syria today has arisen because of these arbitrary and artificial boundaries. Also, the Islamic religion sees no separation of church and state, so creating secular governments is very foreign to the Muslim world. The root of the problem is that Western imposition of such governmental structures hasn’t worked and the region is struggling to find a suitable replacement. The brutal and radical Islamist groups al Qaeda and its spin-off ISIS want to restore the Islamic empire or caliphate, which would be ruled by a traditional caliph who is both the political and religious leader of the entire Muslim community.

To be successful in war, the great general Napoleon believed that a commander needed to get inside the head of the enemy. Unfortunately, the United States, France, and Britain are in denial and have made no attempt to even consider the aforementioned root causes of Islamist terrorism. Radical strains of Islam have been around for centuries, and have occasionally attacked Europe. Of course, during the crusades, Christians attacked the Muslim world. In modern times, the attacking mostly has gone one way—the wealthy West attacking much poorer Muslim nations. Thus, Muslim countries resent Western interference in their affairs, which they regard as continuation of the long period of Western colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Western military attacks and occupations have killed far more Muslims than the sporadic small-scale terrorist attacks (including 9/11) have killed Westerners. There is natural Western revulsion and anger when one of these terrorist attacks occurs, but they are usually in retaliation for Western military actions in Muslim countries. Terrorism is the poor man’s (and occasionally woman’s) retaliatory weapon. Yet most residents of the three former imperial nations do not know (or don’t care) that their governments have a long record of killing more Muslim innocents on a much grander scale. Let’s briefly review the U.S. government’s record and how turbocharged Islamic terror groups have come about.

In 1982, in support of the non-Muslim Israeli invasion of majority-Muslim Lebanon, the non-Muslim United States, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, sent U.S. “peacekeepers” to Lebanon, who then proceeded to effectively fight on the side of the Christian minority in the ensuing civil war. When radical Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines, Reagan ignominiously withdrew U.S. forces (he should have never sent them in the first place). Osama bin Laden wrote that he first realized that Western countries could be displaced from Muslim soil through such attacks. He was reinforced in this belief when he and other Islamist fighters in Afghanistan—financed, armed, and trained by the United States—forced the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.

Bin Laden then went home to Saudi Arabia after this war and found U.S. forces stationed on the holiest lands in Islam after the first Persian Gulf War. This needless residual U.S. force—Saddam Hussein had been beaten down and was no longer a threat to his neighbors—motivated bin Laden to start attacking U.S. forces and embassies overseas to first bait the United States further into the region, decisively defeat it, and thus kick it out of the region for good. Attacking a superpower also garnered the group publicity, more volunteers, and greater monetary contributions. However, President Bill Clinton just wouldn’t take the bait. Bin Laden helped Muhammed Aideed, a Somali warlord, drive a small U.S. force from Somalia in 1993, attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Clinton wisely limited his retaliatory strikes to surgical responses, but failed get to the heart of bin Laden’s network. Then came George W. Bush, who swallowed bin Laden’s bait beyond the terrorist’s wildest dreams.

Bush not only was drawn into the same Afghan quagmire that the Soviets and British had been unsuccessfully mired in, but also attacked another Muslim country—Iraq—which had no role in the 9/11 attacks. This war created many new Islamic radicals, both within Iraq and from the outside rushing in to fight against the foreign occupier there. Al Qaeda in Iraq was born, an affiliate that was even more savage than the main group in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus, the needless and counterproductive invasion of Iraq caused terrorism within that country and around the world to spike. The war also made Islamist terrorist groups more apocalyptic, which made them less risk averse and thus more dangerous. It couldn’t get any worse could it? Yes.

In U.S. prisons in Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq then morphed into the even more brutal ISIS, which took over parts of Iraq and Syria and is now baiting the West by attacks on other countries, including bombings in Lebanon, destruction of the Russian airliner over Egypt, and the attacks in France. And the West will continue taking ISIS’s bait by using high profile military retaliation on Muslim lands, which in turn only creates ever more radical Islamist terror groups. What’s next, a super ISIS?

After the attacks in Paris, President Obama dragged out the “war of civilizations” rhetoric, which was first used after 9/11. Yet this is not a war of the Western civilization versus the Muslim civilization. It has always been a heinous Islamist reaction and retaliation to continued Western neo-colonial meddling in Muslim lands. It is not siding with the immoral terrorists to analyze why they are attacking. In fact, being honest with ourselves about why they are attacking us might make our response more effective and save many lives both in the West and in the Middle East. Then what should the West’s response be? It is naïve to believe that after the 9/11 or Paris attacks that understandable demands for revenge won’t occur. But instead of over-the-top responses by weak leaders, such as George W. Bush or Francois Hollande, we need strong and effective leaders to withstand the pressure for excessive and thus counterproductive responses—exactly what the terrorists want. If retaliation is to occur, leaders should tell their publics that it will be done clandestinely using secretive Special Forces or intelligence services, such as the CIA. And in the long-run, the West should quietly withdraw from meddling in non-strategic nations of the Middle East and Islamic world. It is naïve to believe that these terrorists are attacking the West simply because they are “evil” or because they don’t like Western political or economic freedoms or multiculturalism. They are attacking the Western world powers to stop them from meddling in their lives, which is unnecessary anyway.

After 9/11, the United States has needlessly attacked or invaded at least seven Muslim countries and only made the terrorism problem worse. Presidents Bush and Obama have told the world that these military actions are not a “war on Islam”; unfortunately, to those at the other end of the gun barrel, it doesn’t look that way. If there is any doubt that anti-American and anti-Western terrorism will be reduced by a lighter Western footprint in Islamic countries, remember that Hezbollah’s anti-U.S. terrorism attenuated after the United States abandoned its intervention in Lebanon.

Also, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Syria would force Muslim Turkey to step up and send its large and capable army into both countries to clean out ISIS, thus avoiding the anti-Western backlash of ineffective and counterproductive Western bombing there. And if the Western powers wanted to make one final intervention before leaving the region, they should help destroy some of the artificial boundaries that they created after World War I. Iraq and Syria have never been viable countries and should be allowed to eventually partition themselves into ethnic or sectarian enclaves, much as Yugoslavia was after the Cold War ended. Then Sunni Arabs, promised eventual autonomy, would no longer fear the Shi’ite central governments of Iraq and Syria more than the brutal Sunnis in ISIS and thus instead might help fight the group.

This article appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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