What motivates 'terrorist thugs'?

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What is the ultimate goal of those terrorist thugs in Iraq and Syria with their random, if organized, attacks on innocent westerners?

Until we figure that out, our responses run a serious risk of making us less, rather than more safe.

Here’s a possible explanation.

In their minds, this is not a battle against the West — as an ultimate goal. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, designed to bring them into the thugs’ ambit. To achieve this they need two things. They need evidence the West is, in fact, waging a war on Islam that puts all Muslims in danger. And they need to plausibly argue they offer Muslims protection from hostile westerners. Where? In a state of their own, their Islamic Caliphate (Arabic for “successor;” in this case successor to the Prophet Muhammad).

To do this they want and need war with the West. Like a bully looking for a fight, terrorist acts that provoke our response of war serve their cause. What better evidence of a war than our organizing coalitions, bombing their territory, and sending in troops? When our leaders oblige, and then call this a “war” or “clash of cultures,” they just help the terrorists’ cause.

When our governors refuse to accept suffering Syrian refugees, or say we should admit Christian but not Syrian Muslims, it further confirms the thugs’ case. When Muslims needing our protection are rejected by us, we leave them no option but to look to these thugs for protection.

We further aid their cause when we buy into the assertion that they do, in fact, control a state — using the reference they prefer: “Islamic State” (in the acronyms ISIS and ISIL).

That is why the name used here is “terrorist thugs” rather than any mention of their “state.”

Do they enjoy killing westerners, by whatever means? Yes. They probably even get a chuckle from our seeming inability to find them with our global, industrial-grade surveillance — and then, when we do, our failures to use and share the results.

But it’s highly unlikely they share Hitler’s vision of taking over the territory of Europe and the United Sates, or killing us all. Their goal does not require, nor do they have, such resources. That’s why they welcome our providing the video images of a war waged inside their state. Meanwhile, their public relations media experts are tasked with the global distribution of recruiting material, along with claims of credit for events like the downed Russian airliner and the coordinated Paris killings.

We calmly accept 30,000 gun deaths every year as our constitutional right, but panic at the prospect of up to 1/10th of one percent more killings from terrorist acts. We erect buildings’ physical barriers, increase military and police presence, search fans at college football stadiums, and perform a theater of ineffective “security” in airports. Since the thugs’ provocations involve terrorism rather than war, every time we appear terrorized more points are put up on their scoreboard.

Suppose a traditional war could be fought there, with a uniformed enemy, and front lines on battlefields (rather than killing innocents in urban warfare). Even if we won, what then? Why would it be any different from the last time, when we imposed a Shiite government on the formerly ruling Sunnis, chaos reigned, and the opportunist Sunni tribal leaders looked to the thugs for stability?

Some of these tribes have hundreds, even thousands, of years of history. The last time they helped us, we turned our backs and left them to struggle. Why should they trust us now?

But they may be our only hope. Fighting terrorism is like a game of whack-a-mole. The more we kill the more recruits they get. New thugs-in-chief replace the old. Tribal leaders are our only long term hope. In Iraq, all wars as well as politics are local.

• Nicholas Johnson, as U.S. Maritime Administrator, managed sealift to Vietnam, and maintains the blog FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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