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To Win against Terrorism, Admit how Poorly it’s Going for our Side

A few months ago Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat.”
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One of us had the privilege of addressing a visiting parliamentary delegation from the UK on Sunday evening. Few people come to Israel, and especially Jerusalem, without pre-existing notions. It’s probably jarring for them to hear speakers like us say, as we often do, that it’s a mistake to believe the forces of civilization are prevailing over the terrorists, and that what look like signs of success are sometimes illusory.

Our sense, living in a place where terror attacks in the name of Islamism and of related national causes have already exacted a huge toll in damaged and lost lives for generations and continue to do so, is that terror is growing in scope and intensity. The protective measures that visitors see here, and that frequently attract ill-conceived criticism, help. They are essential. But only because they are part of a larger and (mostly) less visible scheme, and even then no well informed observer says they amount to a solution. Solutions are not yet here.

Without going into the whole case, we think (and say) the war against the terrorists is not going well, is certainly not over or even approaching an end; quite the opposite. Many of the lessons about how to do it remain unlearned.

Right after we got home last night, a friend pointed us to an editorial piece ["The new face of terror: The West thought it was winning the battle against jihadist terrorism. It should think again"] in the current edition of The Economist. It makes strongly some points we would have wanted to share with the British visitors, starting with its title. We don’t share their focus on the “al-Qaeda” factor, and its conclusion leaves us with mixed feelings, but nevertheless.

It starts with this:

A few months ago Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat.” Its surviving members, he said, were more concerned for their own safety than with plotting attacks on the West. Terrorist attacks of the future, he claimed, would resemble those of the 1990s—local rather than transnational and focused on “soft targets”. His overall message was that it was time to start winding down George Bush’s war against global terrorism.

Mr Obama might argue that the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi by al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, the Shabab, was just the kind of thing he was talking about: lethal, shocking, but a long way from the United States. Yet the inconvenient truth is that, in the past 18 months, despite the relentless pummelling it has received and the defeats it has suffered, al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history. Mr Obama must reconsider.

The editorial writers then focus for a bit on the Somalians and Al-Qaeda, on what they call “the poisoning of the Arab spring” and the “unprecedented opening” this has provided to Islamists in other theatres of this ongoing war, and then criticizes the severe shortcomings of American – meaning, largely, the Obama administration’s – strategy, and then deals with some larger matters.

The recently popular notion that, give or take the odd home-grown “lone wolf”, today’s violent jihadists are really interested only in fighting local battles now looks mistaken. Some of the foreign fighters in Syria will be killed. Others will be happy to return to a quieter life in Europe or America. But a significant proportion will take their training, experience and contacts home, keen to use all three when the call comes, as it surely will. There is little doubt too that Westerners working or living in regions where jihadism is strong will be doing so at greater risk than ever.

Perhaps because readers turn to The Economist for how-to-do-it advice, the editorial veers into some practical suggestions about dealing with “weak (and sometimes unsavoury) governments” as if the challenges thrown up by the terrorists mostly happen in the third world, which is only partly true and misleading. And then the conclusion:

The most dismaying aspect of al-Qaeda’s revival is the extent to which its pernicious ideology, now aided by the failures of the Arab spring, continues to spread through madrassas and mosques and jihadist websites and television channels. Money still flows from rich Gulf Arabs, supposedly the West’s friends, to finance these activities and worse. More pressure should be brought to bear on their governments to stop this. For all the West’s supposedly huge soft power, it has been feeble in its efforts to win over moderate Muslims in the most important battle of all, that of ideas.

Had The Economist’s brief analysis then gone on to extend the logic into how life can and ought to be lived in London, the UK, Europe and other familiar places (Westgates can be found in places closer to home than Nairobi), and encouraged its readers to think more constructively and urgently about the tensions and frictions that this ongoing war obliges us to confront, we would have felt better about their message. Still, we see it as a valuable contribution to the process at a time when safe old ideological concepts need shaking up.

Visit This Ongoing War.

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About the Author: Frimet and Arnold Roth began writing and speaking publicly soon after the murder of their fifteen year-old daughter Malki Z"L in the Jerusalem Sbarro massacre, August 9, 2001 (Chaf Av, 5761). They have both been, and are, frequently interviewed for radio, television and the print media, including CNN, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and others. Their blog This Ongoing War deals with the under-appreciated price of living in a society afflicted by terrorism which, they contend, means the entire world. Frimet is a native of Queens, NY while her husband was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. They brought their family to settle in Jerusalem in 1988. They co-founded the Malki Foundation in 2001 and are deeply involved in its work as volunteers. They can be reached at thisoingoingwar@gmail.com .


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