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Sunni and Shi’a Terror: A Difference That Matters

Regardless of what we find about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s stay in Dagestan, the Boston Marathon case illustrates that we will not soon be done with terrorism inspired by Sunni Salafist doctrines. The Tsarnaevs had no understandable grievances, were not avenging the deaths of  relatives, were fighting for no territory. They were apparently young men having trouble finding a place of psychic belonging in the world, and they had access to the internet and found the doctrine of Salafist jihad. Under such circumstances, there may always be some takers. Police work will help, and so will limiting immigration.  But unlike that large portion of  terrorism connected to concrete and plausible political goals, from the Stern Gang to the IRA, the FLN to the Tamil Tigers to the Kurds to various Palestinian groups, this phenomenon seems truly mindless.

Andrew Sullivan wrote last week about the Tsarnaevs:

A little lost in modernity; finding meaning in the most extreme forms of religion; in many ways assimilated by the West but finding new ways to feel deeply, internally alienated by it: this is a classic profile of an Internet Jihadist. And there is nothing traditional about this religion. It’s hyper-modern, spread online and combustible with any other personal dramas.

We will probably have no choice but to  live with it, just as the United States seems prepared  to live with  homegrown mentally ill loner gunman having access to automatic weapons.

The same week the Tsarnaevs took over the news cycle, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved  the so-called “back door to war” resolution, described by Paul Pillar as “an open invitation to Israel to start a war with Iran and to drag the United States into that war.”

Whatever such a war might do to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, it is likely to spur the other kind of Islamic terror, that connected to Shi’ite Islam. This is a quite different animal from Sunni terror. In a lengthy essay written while he was a fellow at the Saban Center at Brookings, Colonel Thomas Lynch parses the distinctions.  While Sunni terrorists “tend to operate in a continuous, mid to high intensity manner,  seeing war against infidels and apostates as a perennial condition,” Shi’a terror, carried out by groups or agents close to the Iranian government featured “discrete terror campaigns tethered to state and organizational objectives.” Lynch provides a detailed summary of Shi’a terrorist operations from the early eighties to the present.  Shi’a terror, he concludes, is linked  to Iranian-state aims, including most of all—which he mentions several times—“regime survival.”  This is not the work of alienated loners trying to commit mass murder  for essentially  incomprehensible religious/mystical/reasons.  It can be understood—and dealt with—as easily as one understands and deals with the Provisional IRA—a comparison Lynch does not make but one which flows logically  from his analysis.

Col. Lynch was writing in the context of trying to prepare the United States for a war with Iran, one which he believed the US was not well-prepared for.   American counterterror capacities seemed designed to deal with Sunni al-Qaeda, and Lynch was concerned that the U.S. would be caught short in dealing with sophisticated state-sponsored terror against American businessmen, diplomats, economically and psychologically important overseas targets.

But his  distinction is important for another reason.  Those trying to generate hysteria in the United States about Iran’s nuclear program regularly play the crazy Muslim card. Iran, they imply, will become the Tsarnaev brothers with nuclear weapons. As Netanyahu put it in his UN address last year,

Iran’s apocalyptic leaders believe that a medieval holy man will reappear in the wake of a devastating Holy War, thereby ensuring that their brand of radical Islam will rule the earth.

This is a lie, a lie which has legs to the extent that Iran can be conflated and confused with the more serious  problem of Salafist jihadism—whether carried out by unhappy Saudis or stoner immigrants. Our peril is much less Iran than it is that the neoconservatives can generate enough hysteria to maneuver the United States into a two front war against Sunni extremism and Shi’a Islam—America’s economy, civil liberties, and ultimate standing in the world be damned. Were there to be a winner in such a confrontation, it could only be China.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of TAC

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