The Long War: The Real Threat of Militant Islamic Extremism

There has been much public criticism concerning European counterterrorism failings in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks. It has been widely reported in the media that the US intelligence community was well aware of clear deficiencies in this regard. In fact, after the Paris bombing, senior US officials publicly promised to provide the French with the same level of information that the US has been providing to the British for years. Such expressions of support raise a question: Why was the US not providing that level of information to the French before the Paris attacks?

It is well and good that the US and European counterterrorism partners intend to re-commit to two-way, broad information sharing on a near real time basis. For without robust information sharing as a foundation for cooperation, there is a strong possibility that threat-related information will not be passed until after the fact. The dangers of inadequate information are aggravated in the case of unprecedented attacks, because the “dots” or indicators of a plot that has never occurred would presumably be harder for analysts to identify and neutralize.

Beyond better information sharing, it is certainly in the US’s interest to do all that can be accomplished under the law to assist Europe in conducting counterterrorism operations and investigations, especially in light of the fact al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attack from Hamburg and Madrid, not out of a cave in Afghanistan. Today, as before 9/11, Europe remains an appealing launch point for attacks against the US.

To complement joint security, new initiatives could further strengthen US-European cooperation. For example, if such work is not already underway, a deeper analytical collaboration could drill down on the root causes of terrorism, i.e., the causes of radicalization, nature of extremist networks, and the DNA threads to terrorism that may be unique to the European theater of operation. Co-location of counterterrorism units on both sides of the Atlantic could potentially add a greater degree of “jointness” to cooperation.

Even assuming everything that can be done under the law will be done, the question is whether all of this activity will serve as a sufficient basis to eliminate the threat posed by ISIS and associated terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda?

In my view, strong counterterrorism measures alone will have little impact on attenuating the growing threat that is posed by terrorists located in Europe or elsewhere, for that matter. That is because on a fundamental level, the root causes that fuel the conflict are not being effectively addressed. The threat is expanding every day, even as the US and its partners are striving to contain it.

A Long War: Who will be the last man standing?

Yesterday, they were al-Qaeda. Today, they are are ISIS. Tomorrow, they will shift to a new shape. They are one enemy under one banner. They fight for a cause. They are not a group, as much as a movement. Terrorism is only a means to their ends. ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other violent Islamic extremists aspire to nothing less than replacing the secular global system with their brand of an Islamic theocracy ruled by Sharia law. They seek to impose their vision of a new global order not only in all Muslim countries, but throughout the world.

It is of no small significance that the vast majority of Muslims do not feel this way and do not support ISIS and their ideology. This is not a war between Islam and the west. That reality, however, does not dissuade our enemy from defining this conflict as an all-out jihad to the death. For our enemies and their supporters, this is a religious war — it is a final battle against the so-called apostate Muslim states and the secular west. Until we hear what our enemy says he represents and listen to what he intends to do to all we hold dear, we cannot defeat him. In its simplest terms, this is a battle between good and evil.

For our enemy, it is an existential struggle. Therefore, it is our existential war.

Militant Islamic extremism is akin to the rising threat of fascism in the 1930s. The world was slow to recognize fascism for the threat it represented to the values of a civilized world. The world has been slow to see militant Islamic extremism for the broader threat it represents to our collective security and common values. Fascism does not have to be an explicit or even conscious choice in its formation — and may be revealed for what it truly is only when we feel its consequences.

In order to defeat ISIS and the movement they represent, global leadership must come together to forge a concrete global anti-terrorism coalition that is endowed with broad authorities and substantial means that are capable of destroying militant Islamists anywhere and everywhere they exist. At present, there is insufficient leadership to pull together such an effort. The US works with its allies. The Russians work with their allies. Other countries freelance, as they perceive their needs dictate.

This sobering reality ignores the fact that acts of terrorism, as deadly as they are, pale in comparison with the unintended consequences of engaging in limited warfare against a strategic adversary.

We are witnessing the consequences of our inattention to the true nature of the enemy we face:

  • According to media reporting, ISIS has recruited members from more than 80 countries and has a reach far beyond just Iraq and Syria.
  • A genocide is occurring in parts of Syria and Iraq. Innocent people are being slaughtered, are being sold into slavery, and are being sexually abused in a barbaric, unholy assault on the sensibilities of people of conscience. Christians, Muslims, and Jews are being persecuted and martyred for their faiths.
  • Millions of people have been displaced. The world is confronting a refugee crisis. European stability has been shaken. Far right parties are exploiting fears about refugees.
  • Increasing numbers of countries have been destabilized as order collapses throughout the Middle East and in all corners of the globe.

All this is happening, while the world watches.

If we do not stand up for our values, they will be lost. That is our real test in this conflict and that is what is at stake in winning this war. 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.