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The Global War on Terrorism Has Failed. Here’s How to Win.
Targeting terrorists and their networks brings only temporary success—but the long-term strategy needs to focus on discrediting the ideologies that attract attackers.
The jihadi bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are the latest reminder that terrorism is not driven by deprivation or ignorance. As with the 2016 cafe attack on foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the slaughter of churchgoers and hotel guests in Sri Lanka was carried out by educated Islamists from wealthy families. Two of the eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers were sons of one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Several of the attackers had the means to study abroad.
One reason why these attacks keep taking place is that the U.S.-led global war on terrorism has failed—and that is because it has focused on eliminating terrorists and their networks, not on defeating the jihadi ideology that inspires suicide attacks around the world. The bombings in a place as unlikely as Sri Lanka—a country with no history of radical Islamist terrorism—underscore how far militaristic theology can spread and why the world needs to tackle it at its roots.
When it comes to radical Islamist terrorism, the ideological roots can most often be traced back to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.” According to the Saudi Muslim scholar Ali al-Ahmed, it advocates that nonbelievers are “to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed.” Such is the power of this insidious ideology that the two sons of a Sri Lankan spice tycoon, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, chose martyrdom over a continued life of comfort and luxury, including living in a palatial villa and traveling in expensive chauffeured cars.
Make no mistake: Wahhabism’s phony idea of a paradise full of sensual delights for martyrs foments suicide killings. The so-called benefits it espouses make a would-be attacker believe that he will be delivered 72 virgins in heaven. (This claim finds no mention in the Quran but is found in a supposed ninth-century hadith—a record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.)
Founded in the 18th century by the cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism remained a fringe form of Islam until the dawn of the oil price boom in the 1970s. Flush with funds, Saudi Arabia has since spent $200 billion funding Wahhabi madrassas (religious seminaries), mosques, clerics, and books to promote its form of Islam and gain geopolitical influence. But the oil price boom was not the only factor contributing to Wahhabism’s rapid spread. The export of this jihad-fostering ideology was also promoted by the United States and its allies to stem, for example, the threat from Soviet communism: The CIA, according to the author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy), “nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon.”
Gradually, Wahhabism has been snuffing out the diverse, more liberal Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries with large Muslim communities and created a toxic environment in which extremism can thrive. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam are being stifled so that this hard-line strain makes inroads. By promoting militant Islamic fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia and its ideological partners have in effect promoted modern Islamist terrorism. The sponsorship of extremism has fostered hatred, misogyny, and violence, and it has deepened differences between Sunnis and Shiites. And that divide, in turn, has roiled regional geopolitics and incited anti-Shiite attacks in predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Against this background, it is past time for the global war on terrorism to be reoriented. U.S. counterterrorism policy should focus not merely on foes like the Islamic State and al Qaeda but also on Arab monarch friends pushing a jihadi agenda by, among other means, turning a blind eye to charities in their countries that fund Islamist militancy around the world. Despite steps taken by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to disrupt terrorist financing, Persian Gulf-based charities—as the U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism acknowledge—continue to play a role in the sponsorship of terrorist groups.
Saudi Arabia—perhaps the largest sponsor of radical Islam and one of the world’s most repressive states—has faced little international pressure even on human rights. In fact, the total ban on Iranian oil exports ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from May 3 will financially reward Saudi Arabia and the other jihad-financing countries. Iran, to be sure, is a destabilizing regional force. But it is certainly not “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” as the Trump administration calls it. The largest acts of international terrorism—including the recent Sri Lanka bombings, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the 2008 Mumbai siege—were carried out by brutal Sunni organizations with connections to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism but none to Iran. Indeed, all major Islamist terrorist organizations, despite their differing jihadi philosophies and goals, draw their ideological sustenance from Wahhabism, the source of modern Sunni jihad.
The United States lists Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea as state sponsors of terrorism but not Saudi Arabia, despite Trump calling the country “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” Recently, the Trump administration added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. But still missing from that list is a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cozy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as Trump has acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
The politicization of the global war on terrorism must end so that a concerted and sustained international onslaught on the perverted ideology of radical Islam can begin. Such an offensive is essential because, as long as violent jihadism is perceived as a credible ideology, suicide bombers will be motivated to carry out horrific attacks.
In fact, the only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology. The West won the Cold War not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of freedom and capitalism that helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s international appeal, thereby making it incapable of meeting the widespread popular yearning for a better, more open life.
Today, jihadi theology helps link diverse Islamist groups around the world. Because the cross-border linkages of these outfits are often based not on structured coordination but simply on a shared ideology, the global jihadi movement is essentially self-organizing. The movement’s strength remains unaffected even if any individuals or bands are eliminated in government counterterrorism actions. Another ominous fact is that when individuals embrace the ideology of violent jihadism, their leap to actual terrorism can be swift and sudden.
The focus of the global war on terrorism must shift to crushing this ideological movement. One way to do this is to deploy a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam. For example, it would not be difficult to mock and run down the jihadi notion that a martyr in heaven will enjoy the company of 72 virgins. And the concept of jihad itself can be attacked as antithetical to the fundamental principles of contemporary civilization, while the Islamist drive to impose sharia, or Islamic law, should be exposed as an assault on science and modernity, as fostering gender inequality and discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and as legitimizing child rape through the marriage of young girls to adult men.
While working to systematically bring into disrepute the jihadi ideology, punitive sanctions should be slapped on Saudi and other Persian Gulf terrorist financiers as well as charities still funding overseas Islamist seminaries, clerics, and groups. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force should develop more effective ways to stop nonstate terrorist financiers from exploiting informal financial systems.
Only a robust response—from governments and civil societies—to the mounting threats from Islamist ideology can help contain the spread of terrorism. In combating that dangerous ideology, the United States must take the lead and help bring the global war on terrorism back on track.