A disturbing exchange occurred during the Jamestown Foundation’s 11th annual conference on terrorism at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. last month. Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, was asked if he thought Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s newly announced domestic reforms would include an effort to rein in the Wahhabi clerics who have been fanning the flames of Islamist radicalism for years.

Hoffman, an expert on the subject, replied that it really didn’t matter much anymore because Wahhabi teachings had taken on a life of their own throughout vast stretches of the globe, and Saudi action or inaction probably wouldn’t affect the course of that movement.

This could strike many as all the more disturbing given that the European Parliament in Strasbourg identified Wahhabism in 2013 as the “main source of global terrorism.” Based on Hoffman’s observation, it isn’t likely to be subdued any time soon.

Gen. H.R. McMasters, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, told the conference that the president’s anti-terrorism efforts consisted mainly of denying safe havens to terrorist organizations, cutting off funding and rooting out, or responding directly to, terrorist ideology. He said—without elaboration—that Iran continues to foment sectarian violence and directly strengthens jihadist networks “across the Arab world.” 

The conference opened a window on recent developments in thinking about the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Much of it ran counter to views expounded by TAC writers and editors, who have attempted to get attention focused on America’s role in agitating Mideast Islam through military actions there and regime change activities. The conference didn’t touch on the possibility of addressing terrorism through the kinds of containment approaches advocated by TAC’s military strategist, William S. Lind. Nor did the discussion linger over Patrick Buchanan’s oft-expressed observation that “they’re over here because we’re over there.”

Further, the idea of denying Islamists “safe havens” is precisely what has kept America stuck in Afghanistan for more than 17 years. Scott Horton, author and radio host, took to the pages of TAC’s January/February issue in an effort to explode the “myth” that America is safer because we are trying to deny al Qaeda an Afghan safe haven.

One panel at the conference focused on 2018 Trend Lines in Militant Movements. Jacob Zenn, Jamestown Fellow and expert on Africa and Boko Haram, the ISIS group in Nigeria, spoke about different Islamist militant groups and the relationships between them. He argued that a main motive of the terrorists is to promote radicalization and conflict between Muslims and Christians. He expressed skepticism about any negotiations with intransigent and elusive terrorist groups and suggested a better concept would be to wear them down militarily and ideologically.

Dario Cristiani, professor of conflict studies at Vesalius College in Belgium, reported on the current state of terrorism in Tunisia and Libya. He stated that the European and American military actions in Libya directly catalyzed the spread of ISIS. All terrorist groups need safe havens, he said, and they enjoyed two prominent ones in Africa, in Northern Mali, and Southern Libya. He described the activities of al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. Pavel Felgenhauer, Jamestown Fellow and defense analyst for Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper often critical of the government, spoke on Russia’s return to the Middle East. He said that Russia has a coherent strategy in the Middle East but is severely limited by its lack of resources. Felgenhauer noted that Moscow declared itself the victor in defeating ISIS, while accusing the U.S. of supporting the Syrian opposition and of initially supplying ISIS elements with military arms. He argued that Russia looked upon NATO as a menace on its borders, and saw its own activities in Syria as countering the U.S. in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. 

Mitat Celikpalas, professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, spoke on Turkey’s approach to regional security. He said that Syria is the top security issue for Turkish foreign policy because of its affect on Russian-American relations, its own Kurdish independence movement, and terrorism. Turks feel that they need Russian support to make America change its attitude towards the YPG (Kurds) in Syria. He has written an interesting Jamestown report on Turkish-Russian relations to that end.

Fernando Reinares of the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain spoke on the Islamist threat to his country, describing several different Jihadist groups. As for Afghanistan, Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe, argued that no military solution was possible there now. He said al Qaeda was still looked upon as a father figure even by terrorists in other groups. He described the main Taliban characteristics:

–belief in a happy afterlife, a key reason for its strengths;
–just denying victory to their enemy (us) was a sufficient objective;
–patience and discipline;
–decentralized authority;
–successful use of information technology;
–low costs;
–rural control and tax assessments on peasantry;
–focus on key assassinations and undermining police and military forces;
–limited but significant objectives,  such as the mere destabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan, either of which would have widespread consequences.

General Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA and a member of the Jamestown board of directors, said there was “not a whole lot more to be done” in terms of protecting the American homeland from terrorism in America without major changes in our whole way of life. He said that bringing the threat down to zero would exact too high a cost.

Hayden said that the fight with radical Islam is not a clash of civilizations but rather a fight within Islam, similar to the European religious wars of the 17th century, when nearly a third of the population was killed. He said that Western civilization’s eventual tolerance of different religions was a “child of necessity,” that the West fostered tolerant societies because it had no choice but to curb out-of-control sectarian violence. He argued strongly against those who would try to make the war on terror into a war between Islam and the West.

Hayden also took a swipe at Donald Trump when he suggested that the president’s slogan, “America First,” would be better understood as “America Alone.”

For this observer, one point of interest was how little of America’s vast defense budget goes to supporting the so-called war on terrorism. Most of it now seems more designed for war with China and/or Russia, while Congress seems to use the terrorism threat as a way to pad and expand Washington’s military budgets. But it could be argued that Washington itself created much of the terrorist threat. For example, the Boko Haram threat increased greatly by the weapons it got after the U.S. contributed to the overthrow of Libya’s Qaddafi regime. America’s destruction of Iraq brought about ISIS (and Iran’s growing regional influence). In Syria, ISIS got many of its weapons from CIA deliveries of advanced weaponry to supposedly “moderate” forces, particularly anti-tank weapons to neutralize the Syrian Army’s forces and so prolong the civil war. Unending war is Washington’s rationale for unending multi-hundreds of billions of dollars.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.