Islamist Terrorism: As You Sow So Shall You Reap

Are the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Sharm el-Sheikh, Amman, Islamabad, Djakarta, Sanaa, Boston, Ottawa, Peshawar, Paris, Benghazi, Copenhagen, Tunis, Chattanooga, Ohio, Orlando, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, Barcelona.. not to mention the terrorist Palestinian attacks in Tel Aviv and the numerous terrorist bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq, committed by Muslims, young delinquents, thugs, petty criminals, or mentally disturbed minds as we are told?

“Terrorists are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators, and—that’s right—losers,” according to the president of the United States, Donald Trump [1].

Orare they the by-products of the inconsistencies and brutalities of the belligerent Middle East policy practiced by the U.S., the U.K., France, Israel and NATO, the abject retaliations against innocent random passers-by for the thousands of deaths of innocents Muslims whose lives and names are almost never known to us?

Is the growing trend of terrorist attacks expected to be reduced by the continued military operations in Muslims lands that the U.S. president is eager to expand with his NATO partners, deepening the United States’s involvement in Afghanistan, where the 17 year-long war has already lasted longer than any other in American history, and in Yemen, one of the poorest countries where, according to the United Nations, half the population of 28 million faces starvation?

The use of military action as the core of a security strategy has led to radicalization in Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Pakistan…) and in European Muslim communities. Security derives first and foremost from negotiation, mediation, and cooperation; a military response is not appropriate because it ultimately only generates more violence. The military interventions overseas increase the likelihood of transnational terrorist attacks against the people of the deploying state. Troops maintained in foreign countries to prevent or to repress terrorism actually increase the probability that those troops’ home countries will experience terrorism.

Three hundred and fifteen suicide attacks were recorded in the Middle East from 1980 to 2003; since 2003 they number in the thousands: documented figures put the number of suicide bombings from 2000 through 2015 at 4,787 in more than forty countries, resulting in 47,274 deaths [2].

In April 2017, the U.S. dropped the 21,600-pound (9,798-kg) “Mother of all Bombs”, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the world, on Nangarhar, Afghanistan. In September 2018 they deployed the most expensive weapons system in the history of the U.S. military, the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter. From 2002 to 2018, the United States has spent more than 70 billion dollars financing Afghan security forces, including the Afghan military and police. But the Taliban now control 43 percent of the country: seventeen years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan the Taliban are gaining momentum. But an Islamic State affiliate that first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 is becoming increasingly deadly and their attacks on the country’s minority Shiites have grown bolder and blooder. In one event, on March 8, 2017, Islamists militants disguised as medical personnel attacked a hospital in Kabul, killing 50 and injuring 91. An estimated 10,000 members of ISIL are now present in Afghanistan, and their numbers are growing due to the relocation of ISIL fighters after their defeats in Syria and Iraq. But the return to power of the Taliban, the only viable force to bring stability to the country, would be a major blow to U.S. “prestige”, so Washington would resort to anything to prevent that outcome, even the destruction of Afghanistan with the backing of NATO, U.K., and French authorities.

Between 2010 and 2016, despite more than 300 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, which have killed approximately 1,000 people, AQAP, linked to Al Qaeda, has grown from “several hundred” militants to “up to four thousand”, according to the State Department’s annual terrorism report. In December 2017, the Pentagon (CENTCOM) acknowledged that ISIL has “doubled in size over the past year”[3] in Yemen.

Al-Shabaab, initially with only weak links to al-Qaeda, was a small player in Somalia politics. In the aftermath of Ethiopia’s December 2006 brutal and illegal invasion of Somalia, undertaken with the tacit support of the United States, it became one of the most devastating terror groups in the region despite being outgunned and outnumbered against twenty thousand AMISOM troops (the regional force, funded by the U.N. and the E.U., is comprised of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone).On October 14, 2017, in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, a massive blast caused by a truck bomb widely attributed to al-Shabaab killed at least 587 people and injured 316.

Young Muslims (from the U.K., Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Canada…) join the jihad in Somalia, Libya, and Syria. They metamorphose into terrorists in the name of a cause that will continue to motivate followers as long as it continues to appear legitimate in their eyes. This cause is amplified by a growing Islamophobia, discrimination and marginalization of the Muslim community, especially the youth, and the persistence of the Palestinian drama. It is also fueled by repeated military operations on Islamic soil, particularly drone strikes, the indiscriminate deaths of innocents, leaving a wake of injustice and humiliation. The former head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (2012-2014), now admits that drones generate more terrorists than they kill. In early April 2018 a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko, calculated that President Trump had approved an average of one drone attack per day—a fivefold increase from the rate under the Obama administration.In the first three months of 2018 U.K. drones fired as many weapons in Syria as they have done over the previous 18 months [4].

The extreme violence by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their activists may seem less incomprehensible if we put it in the context of some hard, revealing data: 500,000 children died between 1991 and 1998 as a result of sanctions imposed against the regime of Saddam Hussein; an estimated 600,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed following the invasion and occupation of Iraq; in Afghanistan since 2003 Afghan sources say that the number of war dead is near the million mark. Data from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) paint a dismal picture: more than 130,000 people disabled, mainly because of landmines, including 40,000 amputees among the civilian population according to Afghan governmental sources, and these figures are considered to be significantly underestimated.The British Red Cross reports that 770 hospitals have been closed because of damage. The Global Burden of Disease Study shows that the maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births in Afghanistan increased from 732.3 in 1990 to 788.9 in 2015. The WHO reports that infant and under-five mortality rates are estimated at 165 and 257 per 1,000 live births per year, respectively. These figures remain among the highest rates in the world.

In 2017, more than 20,000 Afghans were killed, a new record. Up to 6,000 civilians were the victims U.S.-led strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017, more civilians than in any previous year, according to the watchdog group AirWars, raising concerns that the coalition failed to take necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties.With thousands of air attacks in Syria between September 2014 and August 20, 2015, the only civilian deaths publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon on May 21, 2015 were those of two 5-year-old girls. France doesn’t even care to communicate on this issue despite of its 6,000 bombing raids since September 2014 in Iraq and Syria. The RAFhas conducted over 1,600 strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria as part of a U.S.-led coalition, but the U.K. Defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, told parliament that only one civilian was killed.

The U.S.-led campaign to retake Mosul from late 2016 to mid-2017, in which the U.K. was a major participant, claimed the lives of up to 10,000 civilians [5]. The coalition, using almost exclusively U.S. planes, dropped 20,000 bombs on Raqqa. By the end of the five-month campaign, coalition forces had destroyed around 90 percent of the city, including thousands of homes, eight hospitals, 40 schools, and 30 mosques.Amnesty International released a report titled “‘War of Annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa — Syria” detailing what the human rights group calls “potential war crimes,” including “disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks” committed by U.S.-led forces that “killed and injured thousands of civilians” during the 2017 battle to capture Raqqa from ISIL militants. The report’s title is a reference to an announcement in May 2017 by Defense Secretary James Mattis that the U.S. was escalating from a war of “attrition” to one of “annihilation.” As a result, there were more U.S. strikes on Yemen in 2017 than in the four previous years combined, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

There are an estimated 5 million orphans in Iraq; 2 million in Afghanistan where 20% of the children will not live to see their fifth birthday according to a report by the World Bank. On April 30, 2015, in the Syrian village of Bir Mahli in the Aleppo Governorate, on the east bank of the Euphrates – a village I found peaceful and hospitable in 1972 when I participated in an archaeological dig at the Citadel of Aleppo – more than 50 civilians were killed by “coalition” bombs, including 31 children and 19 women.Human Rights Watch investigated several “coalition” airstrikes in towns near Raqqa, including one on a school housing displaced persons in Mansourah on March 20,2018 and a market and a bakery in Tabqa on March 22 that killed at least 84 civilians, including 30 children[6].

The number of Palestinian child fatalities in the first half of 2018 was nearly three times that of the same period last year. Eighteen of those killings took place in the context of the Great March of Return protests along Gaza’s eastern perimeter beginning in late March 2018.More than 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since then, 115 of them during protests. Another 4,200 Palestinians in Gaza were wounded by live ammunition during that period.The youngest among those killed was Yasir Abu al-Naja, 11, who died after being shot by an Israeli sniper in the head during protests east of Khan Younis on 29 June, 2018. Over the space of 50 days in 2014 (July 8–August 26), 2,251 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Air Force, including 1,462 civilians, among them 551 children, and 11,231 were injured, including 7,000 women and children.

The stabbings by young Palestinians are an outgrowth of endless brutality from Israeli settlers and security forces combined with discrimination, marginalization, constant humiliation, and injustices.

Nobody knows how many people have died in Yemen as a result of the fighting, although the independent group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that almost 50,000 people were killed from January 2016 to July 2018. Implying a much higher total, Save the Children, estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, or about 130 per day. The charity NGO further estimated that almost 400,000 children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition [7]. On August 9, 2018, in the town of Dahyan, the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition dropped a bomb on a school bus packed with children. Of the 54 people killed, 44 were children between the ages of 6 and 11. The pictures of the dead and injured children, some of whom can be seen wearing their blue UNICEF backpacks, are distressing. CNN reported that the weapon used was a 227-kg laser-guided bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of many thousands sold to Saudi Arabia as part of billions of dollars in weapons exports. On August 23, a  mere two weeks after the school bus attack, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed yet another 26 children and four women fleeing the fighting in the western province of Hudaydah. But French president Emmanuel Macron dismissed as “demagoguery” the calls by several European countries to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a news conference on October 26, 2018 [8].

What can we expect when children, the most precious part of our life, are killed or abused, except more grief, hatred, and violence? What can we hope to reap from fields sown with so much sorrow and despair? What alternative means of redress is offered to Gaza resident Tawfik Abu Jama, the only survivor of an Israeli bombing raid on July 20, 2014 that killed 26 members of his family, including his wife and his eight children?

What goes through the mind of a young Western Muslim hearing about these atrocities on social media?

Since 2014, millions of people have been forced into refugee status, and these appalling figures only continue to grow (more than 4 million Syrian refugees). The 71 decomposing Syrian bodies found in a smuggler’s abandoned truck in Austria and the drowned body of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach have shocked the West and should weigh heavily on its conscience, given its fundamental role in their misfortune. But the media consistently cloak the responsibility of the West and its proxies for initiating and expanding wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The refugees are in fact fleeing the horrors of the American and NATO war zones. According to a report from the United Nations Children’s Fund, some 170,000 unaccompanied and separated children, mostly Muslims, applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 and 2016 [9]. Some 2.6 million Syrian children are living as refugees or on the run in search of safety, helping to fuel a global migrant crisis. Syria is now the world’s biggest producer of both internally displaced people and refugees. Instead of signing an agreement with Turkey (three billion euros to prevent the refugees from reaching the E.U.), the E.U. should have asked NATO and the U.S. to bear the cost—both the domestic political cost and the financial cost—of the endless flow of refugees that their pursuit of hegemonic dominance have created.

The brutal violence exhibited now in Barcelona, Manchester, London, Paris, Nice, Beirut, Aleppo, Damas, Tel-Aviv and elsewhere by combatants in the jihadi movement has grown out of this heritage. Terrorism feeds off this violence. The French, the Israeli, as well as the American explanation for terrorism, a multi-purpose term covering armed insurrections, rebellions, and resistance movements against occupational forces, is not convincing. Investigations of the issue, such as that by Michael Bond, who studied 500 suicide attacks and published his findings in the British journal New Scientist, underscore the absence of fanaticism, religious extremism or poverty in the great majority of cases. What is highlighted instead are motives driven by dramas in the perpetrators’ personal lives or by injustice and humiliation they have suffered, engendering a desire for vengeance and an openness to indoctrination within the tight-knit community of a brotherhood and in contact with incendiary preachers.

Islamophobia will arouse increasingly violent reactions in the Muslim world. Beyond the issues that have nourished the debate on Islam in Western societies there is a real increase in anti-Muslim discrimination and Islamophobic acts that fueled extreme reactions from the “beurs”, the youth Muslims with a French passport. For a number of them hatred of Western societies has become a badge of honor.

Just as the killings at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were a chronicle foretold, given the insults and obscenities circulated by this satirical magazine against a religion that constitutes, in many countries and in the disinherited suburbs of the major French and British cities, the only moral support, the only source of dignity, for marginalized and humiliated communities, the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Manchester, London, Nice, and Paris are also a chronicle foretold, an expected blowback of Western militarism and adventurism in the Middle East and their overly prolonged inability to redeem their past and integrate the growing population of young Islamic people.

Since it is illegal in France to collect statistics on ethnicity or religion, official statistics are impossible to come by, but according to Azouz Begag, former Minister in the Villepin government (2005-2007), a son of Algerian parents, less that 15% of France’s population are Muslim but 70% of French detainees are Muslim. Unemployment among young French of Algerian origin runs well over five times the national average. According to the former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, 1,573 young French Muslims went to fight in Syria: how many returned to France? A report from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague from April 2016, showed that there were between 700-760 Islamist foreign fighters from the United Kingdom thereand around 100 women and 50  children. Over 400 of them have returned to the U.K.; most are imprisoned, or disappeared.With no fundamental changes in the complex causes driving their engagement, one might fear the resilience of jihadi ideals among many of them. Considered criminals and judged accordingly in France, with the exception of their children, whom the French state has seemed willing to treat with a certain lenience, when these jihadis are released from prison, somehow with vengeance, will they still follow the tragic path of their mentors and models issuing from the sinister Camp Bucca? Or, taken in, guided, and reeducated as in Denmark, will they choose to reintegrate into society and shed their tragic past and atone for their failings?

With such appalling figures and the concentration of jobless young Muslims on welfare in forgotten neighborhoods ruled by the drug economy and delinquency such as Birmingham, where more than one in five residents declare Islam as their religion, or Trappes, where seventy percent are Muslims, not to mention the dramatic inheritance of the colonial war conducted by France in Algeria (a quarter million Algerians killed) and the fiasco in Libya initiated by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, we would have expected a much more cautious British and French foreign policy on Muslim lands. But Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, decided in August 2014 to join the American forces in bombing Iraq and Syria, which has had everything to do with the emergence of ISIL and resurgence of Al-Qaeda in those lands. And the young newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, has appointed Hollande’s minister of defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, as France’s chief diplomat.

Prior to the French, U.K., and U.S.–led bombing campaign in 2011, Libya had the highest Human Development Index, the lowest infant mortality, and the highest life expectancy in all Africa. When I visited the country in 1994 with Pierre Cardin it was a model for public health and education, and boasted the highest per capita income in Africa. It was clearly the most advanced of all Arab countries in terms of the legal status of women and families in Libyan society (half of the students at the university of Tripoli were women). Libya is now a wrecked country. Britain, France, and the United States effectively destroyed Libya as a modern state. Libya has become a hub for illegal trafficking, particularly of African emigrants under conditions reminiscent of the slave trade. Under Gaddafi, Islamic terrorism was virtually non-existent. The destruction of the country had led to the rise of Islamic State in North Africa. Advanced weaponry from Libya has found its way to Mali, where an ethnic insurgency twinned with extremist al-Qaeda-linked militias has shattered one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Rachid Redouane, one of the three London Bridge terrorists, was a British citizen from Libya.The U.K. government actually encouraged the Libyan exiles to go back to Libya to participate in the overthrow of Gaddafi. Many of the foreign fighters in the Libyan civil war came from Manchester, among them the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, the 22-year-old British Muslim Salman Abedi (on May 22, 2017, twenty-three adults and children were killed and 250 were injured).

Concerns about such tactics have been amplified since Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. The U.S. president has dramatically increased drone strikes and special operations raids, while simultaneously loosening battlefield rules and seeking to scrap constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths in such attacks, confirmed in his August 21, 2017 address: “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.” [10]

In this address, Trump declared that the United States would be maintaining and expanding its military presence in Afghanistan with a very clear goal: “Not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Looking at the U.S., French, and British responses to the horrific terrorists attacks in Barcelona, Madrid, London, New York, Paris, Manchester, Nice, and London, and listening to president Trump’s new strategy (“We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own” [11]),one must be forgiven for wondering what such a response seeks to and can accomplish.

U.S. and NATO military intervention in the Middle East has done more to provoke extremism than to stanch it. Widespread and profound resentment is growing among young Western Muslims towards the occupying or invading powers, who are held responsible for the distress of the populations facing growing insecurity and compelled to emigrate in humiliating conditions.

Muslims populations have been relegated to the backdrop of the conflicts, in desperate need of nation building (social infrastructure, education, security, healthcare, housing). Ramadi, Kobani, Fallujah, Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city—, and Raqqa have been reduced to rubble after months of merciless bombardment by the U.S.-led war coalition. Mosul, once Iraq’s cultural jewel and model of religious co-existence, is now a “city of corpses”, as described by English news correspondent at RT International, Murad Gazdiev, who walked through the ruins: “You’ve probably heard of thousands killed, the civilian suffering. What you likely haven’t heard of is the smell. It’s nauseating, repulsive, and it’s everywhere—the smell of rotting bodies—hundreds of corpses still buried under the rubble, mostly women and children.” [12] More than 40,000 civilians were killed in the devastating battle to retake Mosul from ISIL, according to intelligence reports [13]. The notorious remark of a U.S. officer about the town of Ben Tre in Vietnam 50 years ago—that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it” [14]could equally be applied to Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, Raqqa and to so many towns and villages in Yemen and in Gaza.

How can the major Western military powers and Israel, who have caused the humiliation and grief of millions of refugees and emigrants, principally Muslims – including thousands of traumatized, orphaned children and adolescents –  prevent terrorist attacks fomented on their own soil by their own Muslim nationals led astray by a suicidal but solidary radicalism, if they continue in their denial of blowback from their military adventurism and arms exports?


[1] President Donald Trump’s address on Afghanistan, August 21, 2017.

[2] Global Terrorism Index, Institute for Economics and Peace <> (November 2015); Suicide Attacks Data Base, Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism <> (April 2016).

[3] U.S. State Department (2016), Country Reports on Terrorism, “Chapter 6. Foreign Terrorist Organizations”. and U.S. Central Command (2017), “Update on Recent Counterterrorism Strikes in Yemen”, release no: 17–446, December 20, 2017.

[4] Chris Cole, Drone Wars UK (, May 2018.

[5] Chris Woods, director of AirWars (

[6] Human Rights Watch, World Report, 2018.

[7] Associated Press, November 16, 2017.

[8] Reuters, World News, October 26, 2018.

[9] UNICEF Report, “A Child is a Child”, May 2017.

[10] President Donald Trump’s address on Afghanistan, August 21, 2017.

[11] President Donald Trump’s address on Afghanistan, August 21, 2017.

[12] RT International, August 26, 2017.

[13] “The massacre of Mosul: 40,000 feared dead in battle to take back city from Isil as scale of civilian casualties revealed”, Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, July 19, 2017.

[14] On February 7, 1968, American bombs and napalm obliterated much of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre, killing hundreds of civilians who lived there. Later that day, an unidentified American officer gave Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett a memorable explanation for the destruction.


Patrick Howlett-Martin is a career diplomat living in Paris. His new book is La Mémoire Profanée. Les Spoliations Nazies. Le vol du Patrimoine culturel et la question de sa restitution (The Profaned Memory. Nazis Spoliations. The Theft of Cultural Heritage and the Issue of its Restitution), L’Harmattan, Paris, October 2023.