PARIS | We arrived in Paris last weekend to continue to develop our television and print platform. Before we got here, a suspect in November’s terrorist attack in Paris was captured. Not less than three days later — in what seemed to be an accelerated operation — a major attack was carried out in Brussels, leaving more than 30 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
Belgians are shell-shocked; it has been a long time since Belgium has played a major strategic geopolitical role, so they are wondering why they have been targeted. There is speculation here on the ground that the attack was initially planned for Paris, but changed once one of the major conspirators was arrested.
All of Europe is on high alert, with first responders armed with automatic rifles patrolling the streets. In the wake of the attacks, France boosted security, tightening border controls and deploying over 1,600 additional police officers in an effort to keep anyone without the appropriate identification and tickets from getting access to public areas at train stations and airports.
But people are bewildered nonetheless, feeling a sense of helplessness on why they are being targeted and what, if anything, can be done to prevent these senseless murders.
Terrorism is a complex idea to grasp for many of us living in the West — difficult to conceptualize, and understandably so. There is a significant gap in intelligence and conceptual understanding of the threat and of who they, the radical Islamists, are. These gaps don’t just end there but also correspond to a gap in the tools, tactics and techniques that law enforcement have at their disposal to deal with Islamist violence.
Sunni Muslim terrorism is a symptom of defeat, anger and fear of annihilation. Terrorists believe that the world as it exists is not beneficial to their way of life or values or religion, a belief not without some justification. Muslim populations have been utterly destroyed in the aftermath of the Iraq War — due both to internecine violence between various Muslim sects and the invading armies of the West. Civilian deaths occur on a scale that is unimaginable to the West. There are multiple Paris-style attacks every month in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. So there is a sense of an injustice being done at home to their people, and many see the West as supporting the regimes that foment such violence.
Saudi Arabia has been a major exporter of terrorism — both in terms of providing financial support for ISIS and a comfortable home for the Wahhabist strain of Sunni Islam that has formed the ideological backbone for Islamism. That 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden came from a wealthy Saudi family is not of minor significance. And while the government of Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the U.S. for several decades, the U.S. military presence on Saudi soil has not been warmly received by many of the nation’s religious leaders.
And yet, “for every Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, 50 people are joining the Islamic State driven by anger, not ideology,” said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Though the ambassador spoke of orthodox Sunni Muslims, his logic could apply to any religious group believing it faces extinction or degradation of its values and beliefs. Let us recall Buddhist monks set themselves on fire during the Vietnam War.
Sunnis see their recent history as one of uninterrupted humiliation and defeat. One only needs to look at what has occurred and what is currently in process: Palestine, two Russian wars in Chechnya, the 2001 rout of the Taliban, the 2003 Iraq War that impoverished and disenfranchised Iraq’s Sunni minority, the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, the bombings of Syria and Iraq, and the complete destruction of the Iraqi Sunni towns of Tikrit and Ramadi.
For Sunni Muslims, their entire universe has been centered on defeats and catastrophe. Beirut, Baghdad, Sanaa and Damascus — four historical Sunni capitals, have all fallen to their Shiite enemy. Deep corruption, harsh demographic realities of overpopulation, crippling unemployment — specifically for the youth and poor — along with a lack of quality education are all factors that have led to an environment of anger and hostility.
Many have wrangled over the best course to take in defeating the threat to public safety that these radicalized Muslims pose to the world. There is no easy answer. But understanding the threat demands that we become better students of these terrorist organizations, their ideological influences and their ultimate aims.
• Armstrong Williams is on the ground in Paris with his HSH TV and social media crew.