A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.
World powers have often been known to intervene, overtly and covertly, to overthrow other countries’ governments, install pliant regimes, and then prop up those regimes, even with military action. But, more often than not, what seems like a good idea in the short term often brings about disastrous unintended consequences, with intervention causing countries to dissolve into conflict, and intervening powers emerging as targets of violence. That sequence is starkly apparent today, as countries that have meddled in the Middle East face a surge in terrorist attacks.
Last month, Salman Ramadan Abedi – a 22-year-old British-born son of Libyan immigrants – carried out a suicide bombing at the concert of the American pop star Ariana Grande in Manchester, England. The bombing – the worst terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in more than a decade – can be described only as blowback from the activities of the UK and its allies in Libya, where external intervention has given rise to a battle-worn terrorist haven.
The UK has not just actively aided jihadists in Libya; it encouraged foreign fighters, including British Libyans, to get involved in the NATO-led operation that toppled Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Among those fighters was Abedi’s father, a longtime member of the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose functionaries were imprisoned or forced into exile during Qaddafi’s rule. The elder Abedi returned to Libya six years ago to fight alongside a new Western-backed Islamist militia known as the Tripoli Brigade. His son had recently returned from a visit to Libya when he carried out the Manchester Arena attack.
This was not the first time a former “Islamic holy warrior” passed jihadism to his Western-born son. Omar Saddiqui Mateen, who carried out last June’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida – the deadliest single-day mass shooting in US history – also drew inspiration from his father, who fought with the US-backed mujahedeen forces that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In fact, the United States’ activities in Afghanistan at that time may be the single biggest source of blowback terrorism today. With the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and Saudi Arabia’s money, the CIA staged what remains the largest covert operation in its history, training and arming thousands of anti-Soviet insurgents. The US also spent $50 million on a “jihad literacy” project to inspire Afghans to fight the Soviet “infidels” and to portray the CIA-trained guerrillas as “holy warriors.”
After the Soviets left, however, many of those holy warriors ended up forming al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups. Some, such as Osama bin Laden, remained in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, turning it into a base for organizing international terrorism, like the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. Others returned to their home countries – from Egypt to the Philippines – to wage terror campaigns against what they viewed as Western-tainted governments. “We helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in 2010.
Yet the US – indeed, the entire West – seems not to have learned its lesson. Clinton herself was instrumental in coaxing a hesitant President Barack Obama to back military action to depose Qaddafi in Libya. As a result, just as President George W. Bush will be remembered for the unraveling of Iraq, one of Obama’s central legacies is the mayhem in Libya.
In Syria, the CIA is again supporting supposedly “moderate” jihadist rebel factions, many of which have links to groups like al-Qaeda. Russia, for its part, has been propping up its client, President Bashar al-Assad – and experiencing blowback of its own, exemplified by the 2015 downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. Russia has also been seeking to use the Taliban to tie down the US militarily in Afghanistan.
As for Europe, two jihadist citadels – Syria and Libya – now sit on its doorstep, and the blowback from its past interventions, exemplified by terrorist attacks in France, Germany, and the UK, is intensifying. Meanwhile, Bin Laden’s favorite son, Hamza bin Laden, is seeking to revive al-Qaeda’s global network.
Of course, regional powers, too, have had plenty to do with perpetuating the cycle of chaos and conflict in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia may have fallen out with a fellow jihad-bankrolling state, Qatar, but it continues to engage in a brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen, which has brought that country, like Iraq and Libya, to the brink of state failure.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been the chief exporter of intolerant and extremist Wahhabi Islam since the second half of the Cold War. Western powers, which viewed Wahhabism as an antidote to communism and the 1979 Shia “revolution” in Iran, tacitly encouraged it.
Ultimately, Wahhabi fanaticism became the basis of modern Sunni Islamist terror, and Saudi Arabia itself is now threatened by its own creation. Pakistan – another major state sponsor of terrorism – is also seeing its chickens coming home to roost, with a spate of terrorist attacks.
It is high time for a new approach. Recognizing that arming or supporting Islamist radicals anywhere ultimately fuels international terrorism, such alliances of convenience should be avoided. In general, Western powers should resist the temptation to intervene at all. Instead, they should work systematically to discredit what British Prime Minister Theresa May has called “the evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”
On this front, US President Donald Trump has already sent the wrong message. On his first foreign trip, he visited Saudi Arabia, a decadent theocracy where, ironically, he opened the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. As the US and its allies continue to face terrorist blowback, one hopes that Trump comes to his senses, and helps to turn the seemingly interminable War on Terror that Bush launched in 2001 into a battle that can actually be won.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.