Thirteen years after religious zealots murdered nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, global terrorism not only endures but seems intractable.
The recent shift in the world’s attention from al-Qaida to the militant group that now calls itself the Islamic State may be camouflaging the reality that although those Islamist extremist groups employ somewhat different tactics, each stands squarely against foundational human rights, including freedom of religion, and the rules by which civilized nations have sought to govern themselves.
The radicals who followed the late Osama bin Laden’s perverted version of Islam set the pattern that fanatics in Iraq and Syria have adapted. On Sept. 11, 2001, those bin Laden disciples hijacked airplanes, hoping to make the bizarre point that bin Laden described this way: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” In the process they permanently scarred many families, who continue to grieve over the gruesome deaths of loved ones.
Now the group known as the Islamic State, or sometimes ISIS or ISIL, is using terrorism in a bleak political game. The outrageous result: the beheadings of American journalists as punishment for U.S. bombings to protect people threatened with genocide as the group seeks to revivify a dead “caliphate,” or single Islamic world, with an elite ruler who pays no heed to national boundaries.
The actions of the Islamic State are sickening and barbaric. The question is how to respond without making things worse. NATO, meeting last week in Wales, formed a 10-nation coalition to battle the militants. President Barack Obama in a speech Wednesday night pledged “a steady, relentless effort” to eradicate the Islamic State using air power and “support for partner forces on the ground,” including 475 additional service members in Iraq to help with training and intelligence.
That’s the correct approach. Despite the horrifying acts committed by the Islamic State against two U.S. journalists and thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, there is no credible evidence the group has formed cells in the United States or has the capacity at this time to attack our homeland. Strong intelligence work is the best tool to hold down those threat levels.
To re-engage combat troops in Iraq or Syria, as some are demanding, runs the significant risk of alienating more disenfranchised young Muslims and creating a deeper recruiting pool for the Islamic State or future militant groups. Indeed, aggressive military action may well be exactly what the Islamic State is working to provoke.
Thirteen years ago, it was hard to see that the road would lead to where we are today. Americans naturally were shocked at the unspeakable acts that killed people while destroying the World Trade Center twin towers, blowing a hole in the Pentagon and chewing up a field in Pennsylvania after brave passengers refused to allow terrorists to aim a plane at the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
When it was clear that bin Laden was behind the devastation and was training his religious thugs in Afghanistan, the United States justifiably attacked the terrorist camps there — and years later killed bin Laden. The enemy was never the people of Afghanistan but, rather, the extremists who had found sanctuary under the perfidious Taliban.
In time, however, President George W. Bush and his administration lost focus on al-Qaida and invaded Iraq on the false pretext that its ruling tyrant, Saddam Hussein, was threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction.
The outcome has been ruinous. Obama has brought U.S. troops home from Iraq and is winding down their stay in Afghanistan, but very little in either place has been set to rights.
Now freedom-loving nations must band together anew to undo terrorism. To honor the dead of 9/11, we must recognize and work against the factors that attract people to that deadly path.