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Jihad Made In Europe

From the July 25, 2005 issue: There may be more to fear from a mosque in Leeds than a madrassa in the Middle East.

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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This view understandably receives a poor reception in Europe. Most intellectuals and politicians would prefer to see Islamic terrorism in Europe as a by-product of accumulated foreign grievances. There are the aftershocks of the second Algerian civil war--the guerre à outrance that started in 1991 between the Islamists and the election-aborting military regime--and especially the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, which most in the European intelligentsia have viewed as the spur to Islamic radicalism and the cause of the bad blood between the Arabs and the West. The American war against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 exacerbated the division between Islamic militants in Europe, who for the most part opposed an infidel "invasion" of Iraq, and European governments, which (often tepidly) backed the American-led ejection of Saddam from Kuwait. This view reappeared in Western Europe with the Second Gulf war against Saddam in 2003. European domestic peace was thus increasingly held hostage by American foreign policy, especially America's wars and its unwillingness to force Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Talk to European counterterrorist officials and they go apoplectic enumerating the ways America, notably the Bush administration, has made their work more difficult.

Although some of the reasons put forth by Europeans to explain their Muslim problems are undoubtedly valid, a wise U.S. counterterrorist policy would downplay the external causes of Islamic activism in Europe. We should prepare for the worst-case scenario and assume that European society itself will continue to generate the most lethal holy warriors. In doing so, American officials should be skeptical of their own ability to identify through profiling which Muslim Europeans might engage in terrorism against the United States. Stamps in passports indicating travel to Middle Eastern countries can't tell you much, since holy-warrior pilgrimages are not required to fortify jihadist spirits and networks. Living in London, Leeds, or Manchester can be more than enough.

This means, of course, that the Bush administration ought to preempt fate and suspend the visa-waiver program established in 1986 for Western Europeans. It is true that consular officers were a poor frontline defense before 9/11 against Muslim extremists trying to enter the United States. But the United States would be safer with some screening mechanism, however imperfect, before Europeans arrive at our borders. The transatlantic crowd in Washington--the bedrock of America's foreign-policy establishment--might rise in high dudgeon at the damage this could do to U.S.-European relations. The State Department's European and consular-affairs bureaus might add that they no longer have the staff to handle the enormous number of applicants. Ignore them. American-European relations were just fine when we required all Europeans to obtain visas before crossing our borders. Consular officers are among the most overworked personnel in the U.S. government. So draft poorly utilized personnel from the Department of Homeland Security until the consular corps at the State Department can grow sufficiently. Issuing visas to Europeans would be an annoying inconvenience for all; it would not, however, be an insult. Given the damage one small cell of suicidally inclined radical Muslim Europeans could do in the New York City or Washington metro or on Amtrak's wide-open trains, it's not too much to ask.

THERE IS GOOD NEWS from Europe, however. By now, Great Britain and the United States should have been struck repeatedly by cells of Europeanized Muslims. The training and education required for such attacks is minimal. It is difficult not to conclude that we have avoided this calamity because al Qaeda and its allied extremist groups have so far been somewhat lame in recruiting militants in Europe, even though the pool of possible recruits, given the enormous social and economic problems within its Muslim communities, ought to be fairly large. One catastrophic hit (the London attacks don't qualify) is certainly enough to skewer our entire perspective on what constitutes successful recruitment operations. Nevertheless it is astonishing how poorly al Qaeda and its friends have done in Europe. We have the war in Iraq, which according to most terrorist experts, Republican realists, Democratic senators, and just about every European expert on Islam has been a boon to jihadist recruitment worldwide. We also have the supposed boon to the Islamists from our ignominy at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, plus the very evident friendship between President Bush and the villain of all villains, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. And yet the attack on London's transportation system is the best that the holy warriors can do to punish the Anglo-American infidels for their sins in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere?

And what isn't happening in Europe isn't happening either in Iraq. If the Bush administration weren't so rhetorically maladroit, it might point out that the Islamist holy war against us in Iraq is going rather poorly. Jihadist suicide bombers have inflicted significant losses upon us and especially upon the Iraqi people, but again what is striking about the Iraq campaign, as about jihadist recruitment efforts in Western Europe, is how few holy warriors have come calling. Historically, Afghanistan was a sideshow, while Mesopotamia is at the center of both Arab and Muslim history. In the fundamentalist imagination, the former Soviet Union was a distinctly smaller devil than insidious America, which has been central to Islamist ideology since the collapse of Britain as a world power. Diehard "Arab Afghans" in the Soviet-Afghan war could regularly complain about how weak support was for the mujahedeen in Muslim, and especially Arab, lands.

Yet if one compares the number of Muslim volunteers who went to fight the Soviets (and let us assume that no more than 10,000 went, most of them after 1984, even though many analysts think the number of "Arab Afghans" was much higher) with the highest figures one hears for foreign holy warriors in Iraq (one to two hundred entering Iraq each month), the result is astonishing, and for would-be jihadists depressing. Traveling to Iraq from anywhere in the Arab world is easy. Language isn't a problem. Iraqi Sunni Arab fundamentalist groups are much better plugged into the larger Arab Sunni world than were their Afghan Islamist counterparts in the 1980s. The Syrian government, and probably others in the region, would love to help all comers. We should have seen by now thousands of holy warriors coming to Iraq. Suicide bombers have clouded our accounting by magnifying the individual commitment of each jihadist and the damage he can do.

We can only guess why Iraq has been so much less of a draw than Afghanistan. A reasonable guess, however, is that the Muslim, and especially Arab, world doesn't have its heart in this fight. Although Sunni Arabs rarely rose to denounce Saddam Hussein's slaughtering of Arab Shiites and Kurds, they knew full well the horrors of his rule. Although many are loath to say so publicly, they know the American invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush's rhetoric in favor of democracy have shaken the established order in the Arab world, and they are content to see it so. This is probably as true for Arab Sunni fundamentalists as it is for Arab liberals. Both, in their own ways, want to overturn the status quo. Emotions about Iraq, and the rise of democracy within its borders and beyond, are too complicated and conflicted to produce any broadly popular and effective global jihad against the Americans.

There is no satisfying, expeditious answer to Europe's Muslim problems. If Olivier Roy is right--European Islam, for better and for worse, is now independent of the Middle East--then democracy could come to Muslims' ancestral homelands even as a virulent form of Islamic militancy persisted for years in Western Europe. But the intellectual and family ties with the Middle East are probably still sufficient to ensure that if the Middle East changes for the better, the ripples will quickly reach Europe. The democratic discussion in the Middle East, which is often broadcast through media headquartered in Europe, is becoming ever more vibrant and powerful. If Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt begins to give way to democracy, it's a very good bet that the discussion in every single mosque in Western Europe will be about the popular triumph and the democratic experiment beginning in the Arab world's most important country.

Amid all the ensuing political and religious debates and arguments, in the expectant hope that other dictators would fall, al Qaeda and its allied groups might find it even harder to attract recruits who would incinerate themselves for a revolutionary ideal increasingly at odds with reality. If the Bush administration wants to help Europe, it should back as forcefully as possible the rapid expansion of democracy in the Middle East. It would be a delightful irony if the more progressive political and religious debates among the Middle East's Muslims saved their brethren in the intellectually backward lands of the European Union.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.