What the Obama Administration Must Learn from Brussels
President Obama need look no further than his own advisers for guidance on how to defeat the Islamic State.
The terrorist attacks in Brussels are just the latest report from the front in the ongoing war between Islamic extremists and the rest of the world. Belgian and French counterterrorism authorities are to be commended for striking a blow against the terrorist network with their apprehension of the Paris terrorist plotter Salah Abdeslam last week, but the attacks yesterday were the predictable counterattack as this war of attrition continues. Indeed, the Belgians saw it coming — Prime Minister Charles Michel said, “We were fearing terrorist attacks, and that has now happened.” It was unfortunate that Abdeslam was quickly reported to be cooperating with Belgian authorities, who otherwise might have had enough time to gather sufficient intelligence to thwart the subway and airport bombings. The coordinated attack indicates that planning had been underway for some time, however, suggesting that Belgian authorities still have a long way to go in the fight to prevent terror in Europe. The attacks also exacerbate the tensions already bedeviling a continent — and a struggling European Union — still trying to resolve the balance between allowing unlimited and unfettered migration and maintaining secure borders.
But are there lessons to be drawn from this latest depredation for the United States and the Obama administration? The attacks come as Obama is busy celebrating his opening to Cuba, an achievement that looks at best modest when compared to the manifest challenges to peace and security epitomized by this latest assault. The Brussels attacks are horrible in their own right, but should be viewed in the context of an ongoing struggle. Like the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Brussels is one in a series of attacks against civilization and liberty — Mumbai, London, Madrid, Paris, now Brussels — the list goes on. What, then, does the Obama administration make of this relentless struggle? The answer perhaps can be found in comments from his own officials.
In a speech in Brussels just a day before the attack, former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith spoke about millennial Muslims dealing with a “crisis of identity,” which made them easy prey for extremist ideology. However: given that there are, as she said, “one billion Muslims in the world under the age of 30,” it would appear that most young Muslims — including the millions desperately fleeing the Islamic State — do not see murdering people as the best solution to this identity crisis. Pandith went on to say that the tools are available to combat the ideological pull of IS and other ideologues; what is different, she said, is that the extremists have “determination and will.” The challenge is to reach peers within this Muslim youth community who will push back against the death culture represented by IS and others. The question, she said, was “why haven’t we scaled up proportionally to fight against the ideology?” She added that we know so much more since 9/11 about the so-called “conveyor belt” from someone being “normal” to becoming violent. But in the end, it still raises the hard question, “why have we not done more?”
Later on the same stage, the current Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, described two types of terrorist. The first is someone sent to far-flung places to carry out organized terror attacks and the second is the lone wolf inspired by extremist ideology “to maim, to kill, to shoot, to stab.” The tools to deal with the first type include law enforcement, military, and intelligence; the tools for the second, he says, must be community-based. This emphasis on the need for attention and action by the communities that produce the young millennials who turn to violence is critical; the danger is at the center of such communities — they must treat the disease of radicalism before it spreads. Rasmussen added, in conclusion, that the necessary work of countering terrorism does not require the false dichotomy of values versus security. No one leaves their values at the door when they go into work each day to combat terrorism.
So, thanks to these appointed advisers, we can draw at least two lessons for the president. First, he must show greater will and determination. Obama has come a long way since the naive promises of his 2009 speech in Cairo, contrasted now with a seeming indifference to events in the Middle East. Combating terrorism that emanates from IS cannot be left to his secretary of defense. Challenging terrorism on the ground cannot be subcontracted to his vice president. There is time left, time that should be well spent. Second, winning the war against terrorism does not require suspending our values. But the corollary to this is equally true, though it is sometimes obscured by Obama’s lofty rhetoric: embracing our values does not prevent us from winning the war against terrorism. As Farah Pandith asked, why have we not done more?
A third lesson is obvious: there’s more on the way. Rasmussen stated clearly that the first type of terrorism must be met with law enforcement, military measures, and solid intelligence. Despite our best efforts, however, extremist terrorists will remain resourceful and remorseless. The apprehension of Salah Abdeslam, followed by the gruesome follow-on attack yesterday, remind us that good may not be good enough. Mr. Obama needs to listen to his own team.
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