Islamist terrorism and Middle Eastern states

I just read a really different perspective on this issue that I have not seen before.  Michael Totten recently interviewed Lee Smith (not the former Cubs reliever) about his new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.  Smith argues that terrorist groups in the Middle East are inextricably tied with Middle Eastern states, who use them to fight other states.  While they cannot ultimately control these groups, they believe that they can use them to deter or harm their enemies.

Here’s how he explains 9/11 in that context:

There’s no doubt that the region is rife with anti-Americanism and an attack on the US, even as it kills thousands of civilians, is apt to win acclaim in too many corners of the Middle East. Bin Laden and the 19 hijackers certainly understood this, but I am not sure the dynamic I am describing is as clear-cut with regard to 9/11. Instead I tend to see 9/11 like this: Middle Eastern regimes, almost all of them, but most notably Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia use various so-called non-state actors to advance their regional interests and deter each other. For instance, Syria’s relationship with Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, and Jordan’s friendliness toward the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, means that these two states effectively deter each other—if you use Islamists against me, I will unleash Islamists on you. Al Qaeda, as a transnational outfit, seems to be a group that has been supported, manipulated and penetrated by a whole number of Middle Eastern security services, including but not exclusive of the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians, Libya, Pakistan, and Iraq before Saddam’s downfall. This is not to say that any of these regimes have Al Qaeda or any of these terror organizations under their thumb; when you have a group of people with weapons, money and a deadly ideology it is difficult to manage them very closely. I think this is what happened on 9/11—one of these outfits had the wherewithal to carry its war elsewhere and they did, to the United States.

He doesn’t seem to know exactly what the driving force was, but it’s quite different from other explanations.  His main point is this: we have to start connecting the dots between these groups and their state supporters.  Terrorist groups use states for things like military training and forging documents, and state intelligence services keep in close contact with these groups to protect their states and use them against enemies.  He even argues that the Bush Administration had a good understanding of the situation before the Iraq War:

You see what I’m driving at? Al Qaeda, Islamist terrorism, is a function of states. Yes, it is an ideological movement with its own history and sources and political ambitions that run counter to the current nation-state system of the Arabic-speaking Middle East; but it is a movement that is sustained by Middle Eastern regimes and their intelligence services who use terror organizations to advance their own strategic interests and deter other states from using terror organizations against them.

I can’t repeat this enough because the President needs to understand this. All of us need to understand it. The Bush administration understood it but the lesson seems to have evaporated into thin air with all the confusion and miscommunication that left some Americans with the belief that the White House was claiming Saddam was directly responsible for 9/11. But this is not what the administration said, and we know for a fact that Saddam did work with Al Qaeda and with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman Zawahiri’s outfit that constitutes the core of the Bin Laden group. But we’re moving away from this understanding and it spells real danger for core American interests and citizens.

Here is his critique of current policy, which is critical of both the current trend of counterinsurgency (COIN) and the idea of engaging enemies:

If you want to fight Islamist terror you have to go to the heart of the matter and that is Middle Eastern regimes, but this is not what we’re doing now. In fact, we are doing the opposite, counterinsurgency is the opposite of going to the source of the problem. COIN is a losing hand for us. No matter how good the US military gets at counterinsurgency it is never going to have the same sort of success as Arab regimes do. The Arabs can’t win wars, but Arab regimes have never lost to an insurgency, ever. Thank God that the Americans will never emulate the tactics of these regimes—the collective punishment, rape, torture and murder that Arab states typically employ to put down insurgencies, but if you don’t do it you will not defeat an Arab insurgency. Everyone says the Surge was successful, but maybe we should ask the family and friends of the almost 500 Iraqis killed in mega-terror attacks in Baghdad since August. Relative to Iraq’s population, that’s close to two 9/11s. Maybe someone can explain to me how the blood and mangled flesh of almost 500 people is the harvest of a successful counterinsurgency. Prime Minister Maliki—whose political future is obviously jeopardized by the violence, and this is of course the point of the operations—and his security officials are pointing fingers at their neighbors, especially Syria and Saudi, and the Americans are hushing them up. Why? Because we want to ignore the role of states in terrorism, and the President still seeks to engage the Syrians on our way out of Iraq, as the sage men who authored the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report counseled. That is, explain to Iraq’s neighbors who have been working so hard over the last 6 years to destabilize the country that a stable Iraq is in their best interest, a subtle point that they are obviously too foolish to understand without American policymakers explaining it to them. American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning, largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.

Ask people in the Obama administration about Syrian involvement in the Baghdad attacks and they tell you this is why we haven’t sent an ambassador back to Damascus yet. That’s how we punish states that kill our men and women in uniform and target the Arab civilians whose lives are under our protection as an occupying force—we withhold diplomats. Pretty stern stuff, no? Bashar al-Assad must be shaking in his boots.

His parting advice:

So how do we carry ourselves in the Middle East? My advice comes from the book’s title: the strong horse not only punishes his enemies, he also rewards and protects his friends, sometimes by punishing their enemies. This is a precept derived from the most basic principle of human relations—to protect those whom you love from harm and to be prepared to do harm to those who would injure them. Bizarrely, these principles are frequently neglected by our policymaking establishment, on both sides of the aisle, a culture that among others has counseled rapprochement, engagement and even comity with those that have made their enmity toward us and our friends and allies clear. Policies that go against the natural course of affairs—warming to enemies and freezing out allies—are destined to fail. Socrates reminds us that a dog knows well enough to distinguish friends from enemies. So should our policymakers. So should the President of the United States.

I’ve certainly heard about the connections between, say, the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban and other similar things.  But I would say that this is the most dramatic connection that I have seen drawn between terrorist groups and states since the debates over what al-Qaeda’s connection was with Saddam’s regime.  Smith’s explanation of Islamism is very different from James Gelvin’s explanation that I posted a few weeks ago.

I can’t say how complete Smith’s understanding is, or how wise his policy suggestions are.  It’s an interesting entry into the conversation.  I’d recommend reading the whole interview if this is a topic that you are interested in.

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