A terror attack by a married, Pakistan-origin couple in California has shaken up American politics and the presidential contest, setting in motion stricter restrictions on grant of some U.S. visas and prompting candidate Donald Trump to propose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. But the attack and the reactions also raise a larger question: Has the U.S. evolved a clear and credible counterterrorism strategy after spearheading the global war on terror since 2001?
President Barack Obama’s first Oval Office address in five years, while aimed at calming a jittery American public after the California attack, has only widened the gap between U.S. rhetoric and the challenge of effectively combating the international spread of Islamist extremism and terrorism.
Obama admitted that, in recent years, “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase” and sought to reassure Americans that “we will overcome it.” Yet, as if to underscore his incoherent and ineffectual approach, his Dec. 6 speech was conspicuous by its omission of any reference on how to combat increasing Muslim radicalization, which is spawning violent jihadists.
The radicalization is linked to the role of some Gulf sheikhdoms in spreading Wahhabism, the source of modern Islamic fundamentalism. By exporting this fringe form of Islam, these petrodollar-laden states have gradually snuffed out more liberal Muslim traditions in regions extending from Asia and Africa to the Americas.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two officially Wahhabi states, and the United Arab Emirates still continue to fund madrassas (Islamic schools), mercenaries and militants in other places.
In his speech, Obama said the U.S. is “at war” with the Islamic State (IS) and vowed to “destroy” that terrorist organization. How does he plan to do that? He said by sticking, in essence, to his present, 1½-old strategy that has allowed IS to thrive.
Despite the U.S. military carrying out more than 8,000 airstrikes thus far, it has failed, in the absence of ground forces, to score major gains.
To America’s embarrassment, its Arab allies have gradually sneaked out from the air war, leaving the campaign as a largely American effort — now supplemented by French and Britain bombing raids and Obama’s dispatch of special operations troops in support of CIA-trained Syrian rebels.
Some 10 million people are currently living under IS rule in Syria and Iraq in an area the size of Britain. By strategically capturing oil fields and towns along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — the region’s lifelines — IS has sought to control oil and water resources. Yet Obama’s speech did little more than repackage a foundering strategy with tougher rhetoric.
Indeed, Obama’s missteps contributed to IS’ dramatic rise. Even as IS rapidly gained sway from 2013, Obama’s strategy remained focused on overthrowing Syria’s secular ruler, Bashar Assad. Obama’s glib dismissal of IS in early 2014 as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaida but without the capacity to directly threaten America allowed the group to become a monster. In fact, just a day before the recent Paris attacks, Obama claimed IS had been “contained.”
How can IS be contained when the Obama administration has failed to make Turkey seal its frontier to deny IS oil-export revenue and new foreign fighters and weapons? Russia has accused Turkey’s pro-Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his family of profiting from the illicit oil trade with IS. Obama himself has acknowledged that a 98-km open stretch of the Turkey-Syria border permits IS to flourish.
Consider another element: Repeated U.S. failures to organize and arm a rebel force in Syria have been compounded by the defection of the vast majority of CIA-trained rebels to IS.
Obama said the couple involved in the California mass shooting “had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.” But his speech shied away from identifying the main international imperative today — to get the sheikhdoms to stop financing the overseas spread of their fundamentalist, jihad-extolling strain of Islam.
It is the U.S.-backed Wahhabist monarchs that have funded the international spread of the “perverted interpretation of Islam.” The House of Saud in particular has used its custodianship of Islam’s holy places as a license to export the Wahhabi ideology.
The killer-couple in California — Syed Rizwan Farook, the U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik — had been radicalized by Wahhabi ideology before IS gained prominence. Malik attended a Saudi-funded madrassa in Multan, the main city in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region. Multan is a historical center of Sufism, a liberal, mystical form of Islam that has come under open assault from the rapid spread of petrodollar-funded Wahhabism.
On the day Obama made his speech, it was the second-ranking official of one power that isn’t bombing Syria — Germany — that identified the key issue in the global war on terror. In a newspaper interview, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the era of the West ignoring the Saudi sponsorship of radical Islam must come to an end.
“From Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi mosques are financed throughout the world,” Gabriel said, adding: “We must make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking the other way is over.”
The reality is that the proliferating, petrodollar-financed Wahhabi mosques and madrassas in several countries have become incubators for terrorist and other militant groups. IS is just the symptom of a disease spawned by Wahhabism.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia shares a lot in common with IS, its ideological offspring. Wahhabism serves as the “complete ideology” of IS and “contributes in other countries to radicalization of moderate Muslims,” as the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party parliamentary group, Thomas Oppermann, recently put it.
Like IS, Saudi Arabia is on a beheading spree. This year, under the new king Salman, Saudi executioners have been unusually busy as the number of public decapitations, according to Amnesty International, has reached the highest in two decades, with at least 151 executions having taken place as of November. While Saudi Arabia leads the world in barbaric execution practices, IS flaunts the lopped-off heads of its victims as trophies.
Against this background, how can the U.S. positively influence the ideological war now raging in Islam between moderates and extremists without bringing the jihad-exporting states to heel?
It must stop being in thrall to Gulf money and reconsider its long-standing alliance with tyrannical Arab monarchs wedded to jihadism. By backing the 2011 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain, which crushed the pro-democracy movement of the majority Shiite community, and by now aiding the Saudi-led bombing campaign in conflict-torn Yemen, the U.S. has allowed short-term calculations to trump long-term interests.
More fundamentally, without the U.S. embracing a holistic, long-term strategy, the global war on terror — already in its 15th year — has little chance of containing the growing threat from violent jihadism.
Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”