Why jihadists target the West

Experts differ over whether recent terror is driven by 'who we are' or 'what we do.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A recent global upsurge in Islamist terrorism is rekindling a debate over the extremists' motivations that first spiked after the 9/11 attacks: Is the violence aimed at who we (the West) are - or at what we do?

For some experts, the attacks - whether in London or Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt - are aimed at the West for what it is doing: in other words for its policies, like the war in Iraq. Others insist that the perpetrators are more at odds with the ideals of the West and "who we are."

For the latter group, this is a war of civilizations or ideologies that the West has no choice but to fight aggressively, because anything else would entail appeasement and imply a retreat from identity and principles.

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Yet for those who believe the violence is a result of what the West - primarily the United States - is doing in Muslim lands, one answer is to avoid actions that alienate and evoke the fears of peaceful Muslims while providing a windfall for the violent few. To some observers, the appeal of that argument is one reason talk is growing among policymakers in Washington of a drawdown of US troops in Iraq.

In Baghdad Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seconded the desire expressed by Iraqi officials to see Iraqi forces take over more security responsibilities and allow US forces to begin leaving over the coming months. Mr. Rumsfeld said in a press conference that he "confirmed" the wishes expressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, and added that while there is no timetable, "we desire speed in that regard."

Of course, some experts maintain that the truth of the terrorists' motivation carries elements of both arguments, and that prolonging an academic debate risks putting off the best response. "It's not a question of either/or. There are certain elements of either strand of thought that have merit, and it can hinder finding the right response to dwell on the differences," says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

'The size of the sea'

But others say the debate is important because it can determine whether actions are taken that help stem the violence - or make matters worse. "The question is how you reduce the number of bases [the terrorists have] and the size of the sea in which they swim," says Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. "What something like the Iraq war does is increase the number of bases you have to deal with and the sea they have to swim in."

The recent bombings in London could seem to fit neatly in this line of thinking: Britain was targeted because of its close association with the US effort in Iraq and because of its participation in the American occupation there. At the same time, however, the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, appear to bolster the civilizational argument - that this Mecca for Westernized Egyptian and European tourists was targeted for the sin of being a beachhead of a globalized, tolerant culture in Arab Muslim territory.

Another way to look at what is happening is "two camps working in parallel," Mr. Ranstorp says, "one confronting the 'near enemy,' as we saw in Egypt," where operations are carried out in core Muslim countries that are key to the struggle, "and another confronting the 'far enemy,' led by the US, and primarily because of its support for the godless Arab and other Muslim regimes."

The "what-we-do vs. who-we-are" debate over the extremists' motivations pits scholars like the Frenchman Olivier Roy, author of "Globalized Islam," against experts like Mr. Cole; former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s; and the University of Chicago's Robert Pape. The principal petri dish in which their views have formed is the war in Iraq.

For Mr. Roy, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, it is a vision of a dominant global Islam at war with a democratic and globalizing West that drives Islamist extremists. In that context, he says, Iraq is a convenient propaganda tool for recruiting young Muslims, including their Westernized and disaffected brethren, but it is not central to the Islamist ideology.

The presence of US forces

On the other hand, Mr. Pape says in his new book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," that it is not so much religion but US policy that drives Islamist violence. He concludes that the presence of US forces in Muslim countries, as in Iraq, increases the likelihood of another 9/11.

One problem with faulting policies is that it doesn't explain why stances that have long been unpopular in the Muslim world did not result in violence before now. "For a long time, some of our policies have angered people in the region - such as decades of support of Israel - and that didn't spark the kind of violence we're seeing today," says Martha Crenshaw, a terror expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Like Ranstorp, Professor Crenshaw sees something closer to a combination of the two explanations for the violence. "This is not a spontaneous attraction of anti-American values, but a continuity that in some eyes, for example those of some young Muslim men, is being verified," she says. "In effect they are seeing an ideology that seems more and more right because of events - such as the US going in to Iraq."

Michigan's Professor Cole says he agrees that the Iraq war is "irrelevant" to the leaders who formulate and profess the Islamist ideology, but he says it is not at all irrelevant to the local constituencies that would act as the leaders' foot soldiers.

"The ideology is a kind of software that can be installed in certain people's minds," he says. "The question is whether we are helping or hurting the recruitment drive."

It may be that the young Muslim men who are willing to carry bombs for a cause are not so much full of hatred of Western values, but disappointed that they have been drawn to them - only to find, whether they are in Cairo or Leeds, England, that the door is shut. In any case, says Cole, the war in Iraq is "poor" counterterrorism. In his view, it is creating more foot soldiers for global Jihad rather than fewer.

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