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“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War
What is required in combatting Islamic fundamentalist ideologies like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban is a deeper understanding of them, their motives and mission, and the method behind their madness. Such knowledge could go much further in defeating these enemies than simply bombing and killing them, which seems to cause them to grow stronger and more adaptively resilient, and adds to the violence rampant in our world.
A vitally important element in understanding these radical and regressive religious movements is to realize that they are all rooted in the same soil – social and political instability and chaos. A recent historical example of this can be traced back to the 1980s when the Mujahideen, a Muslim jihadist group led by a young Sunni warrior named Osama Bin Laden, successfully drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan after it had occupied the country for a decade. Bin Laden and his ragtag army of insurgents defeated the mighty Soviet empire (with the aid of the United States – Ronald Reagan hailed the Mujahideen as Afghan “freedom fighters”) and were emboldened by their victory over the foreign invading “infidels.” Their success, however, resulted in a chaotic void in the nation that became filled during the 1990s by the Taliban, an ultraconservative Islamist movement that controlled much of the country by the end of that decade.
Following the defeat of the Soviets and their retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, Bin Laden and his inspired band of Mujahideen warriors mutated into Al Qaeda, another group of radical Islamic fundamentalists that would eventually declare “holy war” on the United States because of its Middle East foreign policies, including the stationing of troops by George Bush Sr. in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-91 Gulf War, an action perceived by Bin Laden as an invasion of sacred Muslim lands. Al Qaeda’s war on America (formally declared in Fatwas issued by Bin Laden in 1996 and 1998 – ) resulted in a number of terror attacks on overseas targets, including those on U.S. embassies in Africa in the late 1990s and on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000, and culminated in the September 11, 2001 attack on New York and Washington, D.C. which, like the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, will live in infamy in the national collective memory.
Afghanistan was left in chaos after the Soviet-based central government collapsed in the late 1980s, and, as previously mentioned, the social and political void was filled by the Taliban, a Sunni Islam sect (composed primarily of Pashtun tribespeople) that ascended to power in the mid-1990s in its quest to create an ultraconservative Afghan society ruled by the strict dictates of Sharia Law as prescribed in the Koran. The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban, in control of the country where they sought to restore civil order after the Soviet-Afghan War, had provided sanctuary during the 1990s for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who were responsible for the 9/11 attack. That war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, continues to be waged today with no clear end in sight. It is one component of the seemingly perpetual global “war on terror” originally declared by George Bush Jr. in 2001.
As a result of the Al Qaeda attack on America, and at the urging of a powerful neoconservative cabal in Washington who wanted Saddam Hussein overthrown, George Bush Jr. mounted an invasion of Iraq in 2003, this one based on false pretense – egregious lies spewed by the Bush-Cheney administration (and spread widely by the pro-war “liberal” media) about Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, being involved in the 9/11 attack, and posing an imminent threat to the United States. As it turned out, Iraq possessed no WMDs and Hussein was not involved in the September 11 attack (in fact, the secular Hussein and fundamentalist Bin Laden despised one another, and, what’s more, 15 of the 19 terrorists responsible for hijacking planes and plunging them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon were citizens of Saudi Arabia – not one was an Iraqi or Afghan). The Iraq War, championed strongly by the Bush-Cheney administration, supported by the mainstream American media, and authorized by leaders in both political parties, led to the toppling of Hussein’s secular government and resulted in years of social, political and religious strife revolving around renewed conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, the two major denominations of Islam, that stretch back over a thousand years. The chaos unleashed by the U.S. invasion, including Iraq becoming a powerful magnet for anti-American jihadists throughout the Middle East, continues to this day. (NOTE: Al Qaeda did not operate in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion; the terrorist insurgency problem in the country occurred after the invasion when members of Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups flooded into Iraq to wage battle against the American invading “infidels”)
ISIS, the Sunni Islamic cult of true believing fanatics that now controls chunks of Iraq, Syria and Libya (the recent failure of Libya is a story unto itself having to do with the U.S. cruise bombing of the nation in 2011 and the toppling of its leader Gaddafi, which caused that nation to disintegrate into chaos), mutated out of Al Qaeda in Iraq as a result of years of civil discord following the 2003 invasion of the country and subsequent dismantling of its government. The ISIS cult, inspired by an ‘End of Days’ apocalyptic vision, is a virulent and dangerous memetic strain of Al Qaeda that is seeking to establish a caliphate (a government led by a caliph, a political and spiritual successor to the prophet Muhammad) in the Middle East. In essence, the small group of religious fundamentalists (numbering only in the tens of thousands) is working to create a “purer” form of Islamic theocratic society by reverting back to seventh-century civilization – the time of Muhammad. In their quest to fulfill this visionary mission, ISIS warrior-zealots have succeeded in rapidly gaining control of territory throughout the region in nations embroiled in the social and political chaos in which they flourish).
ISIS, which was responsible for the recent terror bombing attacks in Paris (arguably blowback as a result of France’s bombing of ISIS in Syria, just as the 9/11 attacks were blowback for American policies in the Middle East), has been described by one prominent Western leader, the U.S. Secretary of State, as a ‘psychopathic monster.’ If so, it is a monster that evolved at least in part due to misguided interventionist policies (George Bush’s invasion of Iraq is arguably the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam) that have sown the seeds of tumult in the Middle East and given birth to the unimaginable, including media-hyped videotaped beheadings and suicide bombings perpetrated by narrow minded religious fundamentalists in the name of God.
The story remains the same, whether the players are Al Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS. Western (primarily U.S.) military intervention in countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria…) in the oil-rich Middle East has created its share of death, destruction and chaos, which serves to fuel the flames of anti-Western and anti-American hatred, which helps to recruit more Muslim extremists to join groups like ISIS, which causes the West to drop more bombs and kill more terrorists (and innocent civilians), which further enrages radical Islamic ideologues, whose ranks grow in size and strength and who engage in more heinous acts of violence, which get amplified by the media and stoke greater fear and hysteria in the West, which leads to more bombings and deaths in the Middle East, which… an unending cycle of destructive madness.
Violence begets violence…terror begets terror… and the hope for a more peaceful world begins to fade from our consciousness like the colors of a setting sun.
A seemingly perpetual war – one that has continued into the Obama administration with its recent escalations of military force in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – is being waged with no end in sight for our children and their children. The only true beneficiary of this unending war is the corporate defense establishment once described by President (Gen.) Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during WWII, as the military-industrial complex, whose unchecked power and influence he soberly warned the American people about in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. It is the same arms establishment responsible for “…building all the guns, the death planes, and the bombs…” that a young folk artist railed passionately against in his classic 1963 Cold War anthem, “Masters of War.”
One of the most important lessons to be learned from recent history is that foreign military intervention in the Middle East by the United States and other nations often has unforeseen and tragic consequences. That seems especially true when the intervention involves taking sides in a civil war and/or toppling a national leader, however despotic and brutal they may seem, as in the case of Hussein in Iraq or Gaddafi in Libya. The events of the last few decades make it clear that such actions help to sow the seeds of social and political instability and chaos, richly fertile ground in which Islamic fundamentalist groups like ISIS can firmly root themselves, grow and thrive.
In a frequently cited biblical passage from Galatians it is stated that, “A man reaps what he sows.” That same wisdom applies to nations as well as individuals. In other words, the United States reaps what it sows with respect to its foreign policy, especially its militaristic interventions in the Middle East.
A deeper understanding of the causes of the violent madness that has cast its dark and ominous shadow on the modern world, including the painful acknowledgement that the policies of our own government have helped to create and nurture the madness, can hopefully shine a light that will lead us out of the darkness and toward a more sane and enlightened world for future generations.
Know thy self… know thy enemy.
“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” – Noam Chomsky
Osama Bin Laden – Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites (1996)
Boston Globe – The U.S. Ruined Libya (2014)
The Atlantic – What ISIS Really Wants (2015)