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The War on Terror needs a new strategy

| Monday, November 11, 2019

Just two weeks ago, the U.S. celebrated its biggest victory in the battle against ISIS since the organization’s loss of a territorial caliphate this March. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal and barbaric caliph of the supposed Islamic State, committed suicide during a raid by U.S. special forces.  

This comes on the heels of one of Trump’s worst blunders in the Middle East yet. Abandoning our Kurdish allies, the President greenlit Erdogan’s march into Syria and assault on our former ally, enabling 800 imprisoned ISIS fighters to escape from Kurdish custody. So much for the President’s “strategically brilliant” plan.  

One step forward, two steps back.

America’s never-ending War on Terror seems like a game of Whac-A-Mole more than anything else. You think you’ve defeated x group? There’s y over there! X group’s back again!  Z’s now where Y was! It goes on and on and only gets worse because the “moles” to “whack” only increase in number and reach. And since 9/11, we’ve spent nearly $6 trillion on a conflict that has claimed the lives of 244,000 civilians and nearly 7,000 U.S. troops in the carnage and the crossfire. When are we going to wake up?

The kneejerk, even morally satisfying response is disengagement, but just look at what happened in Iraq and Syria over the past years to see how that’s worked out. More chaos, more instability, and we’re back again. The U.S. military is vital in the fight against terrorism; to effectively fight groups like ISIS, local powers rely on our teamwork and our military and technical dominance to combat those who seek to further destabilize the Middle Eastern powder keg. But our strategy of “muddling through” will no longer do. In approaching this region, it’s time we understood that military power can destroy groups, but never the ideology that fuels them. It’s folly to think that the War on Terror can defeat radical Islamism with bullets and bombs alone. America can only succeed when we finally see it the way the terrorists do: as a war of ideologies and a battle for hearts and minds.  

Of course, this will mean nothing unless we develop close cooperation and coordination with our allies in the Muslim world and establish an international front to systematically challenge, disprove and completely invalidate the very core of radical Islamist teaching. But we can’t even take our first step into this long ideological campaign because our allies aren’t on the same page.  The ugly truth is that, among other nations, Saudi Arabia in particular has long internalized and exported its own ultraconservative Islamic theology, one that has served as the bedrock of terrorist ideologies and bolstered their numbers and clout — all while the U.S. has looked the other way. 

The past decades have witnessed an explosion in the reach and impact of Saudi Arabia’s unique brand of Islam, with Riyadh dumping $100 billion into its proselytizing campaign.  Known as Wahhabism or Salafism, it teaches a rigid orthodoxy to what they see as “true Islam.”  In accordance with the radical doctrine takfir, even other Muslims who don’t accept their teachings, from Shias to Muslims “seen crying at gravesites,” can be labeled apostates.  Shunning and even waging violence, “militant jihad” is encouraged against those who refuse to believe the “true religion.”

And Riyadh is actively spreading this worldview through the thousands of schools, mosques and Islamic centers it has constructed over the years from Kosovo, Chad and Afghanistan to China, Indonesia and the United States. Saudi Arabia’s textbooks teach eighth-graders that “the mujahideen . . . are doing good deeds for the sake of Allah,” and seventh-graders are taught “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” is one of the best things a true Muslim can do. They attack Christians, Hindus, Shias and many others, but the texts save their most hateful rhetoric for Jews, who continue to be systemically “demonized, dehumanized and targeted for violence.” Youth around the world are warned of a supposed Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination by spreading “drugs and . . . diseases” to Muslim communities and a plan “to destroy al-Aqsa Mosque.” It’s not surprising to find the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion taught ashistorical facteither. This “ideological steamroller,” as one journalist put it, of hate and violence can easily translate to the radicalization of future bin Ladens and al-Bagdadhis. Should we be surprised ISIS used Saudi textbooks until it could print their own? Alongside this, more moderate Muslim nations like Kosovo, Mali and Indonesia have already seen the devastating effects as their once welcoming climates are slowly becoming ever-intolerant and radical thanks to Saudi Arabia’s proselytizing. This is an issue not just of human rights but national security. If we are serious about defeating radical Islamism, it’s imperative to invest our utmost to curtailing the spread of Wahhabism.  

Every now and then, Saudi Arabia will assure the West that it’s working to remove remaining intolerant references from its curriculum, but Riyadh’s done this routine for 13 years, flagrantly lying about its progress and delaying any substantial changes. Without U.S. pressure, Saudi Arabia will never or be tremendously slow to alter its curriculum and thus continue to instill in youth “[t]his poisonous ideology [that] has provided the groundwork for generations of extremism.”  

Change is possible. Trump’s steadfast and aggressive opposition to Iran and weak response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has delighted the House of Saud and further stresses to it the importance of having the President, a lover of transactionalism, continue to feel like “he is getting a good deal,” not to mention that Riyadh has recently been “unusually responsive to” claims of inciting radical Islamism.  We may never get another chance like this for a long time.  

For too long Washington has stood on the sidelines and, according to one expert, even worked to cover up [Riyadh’s] toxic content. If we want to move ahead with the War on Terror and promote reform in Saudi Arabia, it’s imperative that we use our present leverage to work with the Saudis in scaling back their exportation of Wahhabism and to promote greater tolerance within the Kingdom and throughout the Muslim world. This will not be a short endeavor and will require great diligence and attention, and it’s certainly not a panacea to the problems we face.  But it’s a step in the right direction. The only way we’re going to win this war of ideas is with methodical, cohesive and long-term approaches like these.  

One step forward, no steps back.

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science.  Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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