Two hundred ninety Christians in Sri Lanka were slaughtered with an additional 500 being wounded while peacefully celebrating the resurrection of their Lord and Savior on Easter Sunday. Since neither former President Barack Obama nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem able (or willing) to articulate the cause of their deaths, let me state it explicitly: those 290 children, women, and men who were killed in Sri Lanka this past Easter Sunday were murdered by Islamic extremists, simply because they were Christians.
And, before you pull out your maps to identify which part of the Middle East Sri Lanka is in, it’s not in the Middle East. After all, Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country in southern Asia (it makes up 70 percent of the population, Hinduism makes up 16 percent, with Islam and Christianity each making up 8 percent of the population). This is yet another sign of how ineffective the United States’ nearly-30 year-long war against Islamic radicalism has been. We’ve not won anything in the laughably titled “Global War on Terror.”
Spreading the Cancer
Instead, our endless military engagements with the forces of jihad has merely scattered them farther afield. Today, jihadists have expanded their interminable holy war into lands beyond Mecca and Medina to what was once considered the periphery of the Islamic world: Africa and parts of Asia.
How often have U.S. leaders prematurely declared victory in our War on Terror? Too many times to count. Despite more than $1 trillion having been spent on the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, Islamic terrorism has not subsided. How can we possibly be defeating jihad if it is arising in Africa’s Sahel region and in places ranging from the Philippines to Sri Lanka?
Since 2018, groups swearing fealty to either the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) or al Qaeda have engaged in mass terror attacks in Libya, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Somalia, and Mali. In 2015, Boko Haram in Nigeria, killed tens of thousands of people according to some estimates. Today, despite the intensive efforts to destroy Boko Haram by the governments of Nigeria, the United States, the British, and several other allied states, Boko Haram has migrated to the ungoverned space of the Lake Chad region, where it is destabilizing Nigeria, Niger, and Chad.
Meanwhile, there are waves of migrants fleeing the war-torn Middle East, boarding rickety boats in Oman and other Mideast port cities, and heading across the Pacific Ocean to countries like Indonesia (the largest Muslim state in the world), Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, etc. At the same time, other groups move from war-torn Afghanistan or Pakistan into places like Bengal, bringing radical notions of Islamism with them.
We’re Not Winning Anything
Wherever these groups move, jihadist terrorism increases greatly. So, while Washington may applaud the fact that it has done significant damage to al Qaeda Prime in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or, that it recently defeated the physical “caliphate” of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, few understand that the ideas which drove these terrorist groups continue to inspire masses of dispossessed people around the world.
ISIS has had significant influence since 2015 in inspiring jihadists in the Philippines and Malaysia. In 2016, ISIS elements took over the isolated Philippine city of Marawi and held it for several months. The Philippine government laid siege to the city and ultimately rescued it — but the death toll was massive, as much of the city was leveled in the fighting. Numerous reports indicate that, despite the loss of Marawi to the Philippine government in 2017, ISIS in southeast Asia remains strong. More dangerously, the ungoverned spaces throughout southeast Asia may be a feeding ground for ISIS members who were lucky (or smart) enough to flee their doomed “caliphate” before the American war machine could destroy it.
Where I’m from, when an adversary spreads to more places and conducts deadlier attacks than before, that usually means you’re losing. The one commonality among all of these terror groups is that they move to ungoverned spaces, in places like Africa’s Sahel region or isolated cities, like Marawi, and proliferate their ideology to the local population (most of whom are co-religionists). What we’ve seen is that the ideology of jihad is more dangerous than the physical attacks undertaken by Islamic terrorists. Despite this, though, few leaders in the West — either civilian or military — are willing to address the problem from an ideological point of view.
This is why, after 9/11, the so-called “cowboy” President George W. Bush tearfully took the cameras to proclaim his respect for Islam. It’s also why former President Obama couldn’t even call them “Islamic extremists.” Further, this unwillingness to address ideology explains why neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton could call the Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka an act of Islamic extremism, let alone properly identify the victims of the attack as Christians. Obama and Hillary referred to them as “Easter worshippers.”
Very often, Washingtonian think tank-types tell audiences that “you can’t kill your way” out of the War on Terror. They’re right. The jihadist threat the United States is fighting today has its roots deeply entwined in Islamic jurisprudence, history, and culture. While there are by no means a majority of Muslims who march beneath the black banner of jihad, there are enough of them around the world who sympathize with the cause to make it deadly — and attractive for new recruits. What’s more, clearly, there are many who will not take up arms in support of jihad, but they will most assuredly spread the ideas of it.
We’re not going to defeat such a force with bullets and bombs—and if that’s our strategy, the only chance we’ll have at winning will be if we play to annihilate everything in our path. This is something that no Western government or people will ever support. A less caustic way is needed.
A Better Way: Containment, Sanctions, and Perception Management
The good news is that these jihadist movements have isolated themselves in ungoverned spaces. While these areas are large, such as the Sahel, they can be contained with a concerted effort from a coalition of nations — backstopped by the United States. It will be less about bombing and raiding the jihadists and more about simply keeping them isolated. We can then employ (more so than we have) other tools of statecraft, ranging from public diplomacy to influence the minds of Muslims living in ungoverned spaces to turn against the jihadists. We can also employ economic warfare to strangle the jihadists’ money supply. What was the most effective weapon against al Qaeda in the days following 9/11? It was the Treasury Department locating Bin Laden’s money sources and freezing those assets. More tactics like this are desperately needed in the War on Terror.
The Trump Administration will need to start looking beyond the Pentagon for ways to keep Islamic extremists under control. What’s more, jihadists have been in an off-again-on-again war against all unbelievers for the better part of 1,400 years. This is unlikely to change. Jihadist violence never really ends. It simply ebbs and flows. No one should get used to their violence. We must, however, find better strategies for mitigating the violence.
It remains to be seen whether or not the West has the temerity to stand up for itself against these lunatics. Thus far, our record has been unimpressive, as evidenced in the way the Islamist ideology has proliferated to Africa and Asia. America’s current strategy is one that will surely lead to defeat. Significant changes must be made — and they will likely be very painful for the conventional thinkers who dominate U.S. foreign policy.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.