There is much irony, confusion and incompetence in U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration in his speech at West Point earlier this week that, “For the foreseeable future the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” especially from “decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists” who might attack American targets at home or abroad.
He particularly mentioned Syria as a dangerous new arena where militants are gathering for training, indoctrination and fighting.
I say this reflects irony, confusion and incompetence on the part of the United States, the U.K. and other Western governments because the continued growth of these militant Islamists, especially the most virulent Salafist-takfiris among them, can be traced directly and in large part to recent Anglo-American policies in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. Obama may fear these people, but he should recognize them as his country’s own prodigy that were, and continue to be, midwifed by the consequences of his own policies.
If President Obama is really concerned about this, he should convene an honest, dispassionate commission of enquiry into the full consequences of the 2013 war on Iraq that was energetically led by President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. That war, by removing the government and armed forces of the Iraqi state, created a total security vacuum in large swaths of the country; this in turn provided the most fertile and welcoming environment in Iraq for Al-Qaeda militants like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to move in, set up shop, and carry out their murderous, sectarian-based warfare against Shiites and fellow Sunnis who they considered as apostates.
Only when Bush-Blair provided al-Qaeda with this golden opportunity to establish a strong base of operations in the heart of the Arab world did the threat from Salafist-takfiri militants become operationally indigenized in a territorial base under their control. They then spread rapidly to Syria and other parts of the region.
Lebanon-Syria-Iraq region is a single operating unit for them. Experts who study this phenomenon say at least 15,000 armed and active fighters operate in this area today, and some put the total at closer to 30,000.
The larger dilemma for the Western powers that now see these radicals as their biggest national security threat is that the Iraq war experience is only one of several measurable ways in which Western policies in recent years have stoked the birth and growth of these dangerous movements. The initial birth and expansion of al-Qaeda occurred in the 1980-92 period as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American military presence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia following the 1991 war to liberate Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
Al-Qaeda has also always capitalized on widespread Arab-Islamic resentment of two other factors that directly involve American policy: support for corrupt, incompetent, and often brutal Arab regimes, and chronic and extreme pro-Israeli policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finally, Obama’s drone-based assassinations across the African-Asian region create hundreds of fresh recruits to the militants’ cause every week, from many countries.
The Arab states and governments themselves, though, bear the major and central blame for allowing this situation to prevail, because their own brutality, mismanagement, criminality and abuse of power have pushed their citizens into open rebellion. Popular peaceful and armed revolts today seek to overthrow Arab regimes, and al-Qaeda and similar movements, especially non-violent Salafists, have become one of the fastest growing ideological trends in the region. The direct and sustained role of American, British and other Western states’ foreign policies in creating conditions that have promoted this trend is too obvious to miss.
Now these countries, like my own Lebanon, also face this new threat of radicalized religious fanatics who kill and create chaos — because chaos and ungoverned zones are the vital foundational element they require to operate, as has happened in parts of Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Mali.
An estimated 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria come from Western and Muslim-majority countries. Western governments have stepped up their efforts to stem this flow, including Great Britain that has stripped at least 20 men of their citizenship and convicted one Islamist who returned to the U.K. from Syria of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts.
Many militants have said that American, British and other Western states’ foreign policy actions motive their desire to respond by attacking targets in those Western countries. One such militant was quoted as saying that, “Attacks are occurring on the soil of Middle Eastern countries. We can only expect a response. Americans are still in Afghanistan.”
So yes, Western leaders should be concerned. The best way for them to reduce this threat is to stop engaging in foreign policy actions that have contributed to creating and nurturing the danger in the first place.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global