Published April 1, 1993

While terrorism has been a major problem in Latin America and a serious problem in western Europe, analysts of terrorism and counterterrorism strategists have tended to focus their attention on the Middle East. This is a somewhat distorting prism through which to view our own problems. For, since the collapse of radical fringe groups like the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and the Symbionese Liberation Army, there has been virtually no domestic terrorism in the United States. Nor is this country in a protracted struggle for national survival, in which aggressive neighbors use terrorism as one component in an overall strategy of annihilation.

And yet while Latin American narco-terrorism will remain a problem, the chief terrorist threat to the United States in the foreseeable future will indeed come from the Levant, as an expression of certain passions in certain sectors of the Arab Islamic world: the sectors usually labeled “fundamentalist,” and more accurately styled “radical” or “extremist.” Not every activist or even radical Muslim is given to terrorism; the vast majority are not. But many of those who do engage in terrorism justify their activities in explicitly (if perversely) Islamic terms. Thus it is instructive to note the ways in which Islamic activism or extremism and the ensuing threat (or fact) of terrorism have been handled in their own neighborhood.


Option #1: Annihilate the Extremists.


The Syrian artillery and infantry assault on Hama in 1982 has already been mentioned; once the Sunni areas of Hama were destroyed they were paved over, creating a necropolis masquerading as a parking lot. But Hafez al-Assad was not satisfied with that Carthaginian “solution”; his agents fanned out to France, Spain, and Germany, as well as throughout the Middle East, assassinating exiled or émigré members of radical Sunni organizations.

Saddam Hussein adopted a similar strategy in Iraq, executing scores of activists in the Shiite movement “Al Da’wa,” including its leader, Sheikh Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr.

The Ayatollah Khomeini slaughtered his foes (some of whom had resorted to terrorism) after coming to power in Iran, and in a fashion that made the Shah’s once-dreaded SAVAK look rather restrained in comparison. As Walter Laqueur puts it, “The [new] Shiite [leaders] could safely ignore Western public opinion. They had no compunction whatsoever about the number of people executed nor the choice of the victims, nor the bestiality of the torturers. Bodies were mutilated, teachers were shot in front of their pupils, some of those executed were thirteen-year-old girls, and the standing order was to deny medical help to the terrorists who had been wounded.” Amnesty International estimated the death toll at almost 3,000 in one year (1981-82); the victims’ allies counted over 7,500 deaths in two years (1981-83). Khomeini’s draconian style of counterterrorism drove tens of thousands of his political opponents into exile, and Iranian agents could be found “executing” these “enemies of God” as far away as France.

Annihilation works. There is no terrorism in Iran or Syria today, and there was virtually none in Iraq before Saddam Hussein’s power was diminished in Desert Storm. But annihilation is no option for a civilized society.


Option #2: Coopt the Extremists.


Jordan and Algeria tried what might be called “full cooptation,” encouraging Muslim activists and revivalists to organize political parties and engage nonviolently in the political process. Jordan had more than a few difficulties with this approach. Eleven Muslim parties ran in the 1989 elections, and activist candidates won thirty of eighty parliamentary seats, including the office of Speaker. Then it became known that two of the parties involved had also been engaged in clandestine armed insurrection, assisted by Iran. Their leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, but were subsequently pardoned by King Hussein. Algeria had an even worse experience: when the radical “Front of Islamic Salvation” (US) won 180 of 231 seats in the first round of elections in December 1991, the army called off the second round and took over the government. A struggle between FIS terrorists and the government continues to this day.

Tunisia and Egypt—countries that proscribe political activity by religious parties—tried a form of “partial cooptation,” “dialoguing” with opposition Islamic radicals while encouraging their participation in politics through other parties or as independents. In 1987, with the approval of the Tunisian government, activist Muslim candidates ran as independents; but then it was discovered that some of these same activists were plotting an armed takeover of the government. End of dialogue. Egypt’s travail has been noted previously, and the Mubarak government is now in an open struggle against its extremist Islamic opposition, as well as confronting the opponents’ patrons, Iran and Sudan. So far, Egypt’s diplomatic efforts to secure pan-Arab cooperation against Islamic activist terrorism have failed.

The strategy of cooptation has no direct bearing on U.S. policy options regarding Islamic extremism and its terrorist expressions, since what threat exists here is largely an external one; where an internal support system for the external threat has taken root (as it may have in Jersey City), the antidote is effective policing and much more rigorously enforced immigration laws. But the failures of cooptation are worth noting for what they illustrate about the cast of mind of those Islamic radicals who are drawn to the use of terrorism as an instrument of their politics.


Option #3: Buy Them Off and Buy Time.


This is what the Saudis have done, and it seems to have worked—so far. To be sure, catering to the extremists and professing a mutuality of religious interests involves the Saudi regime in a variety of unsavory activities, including massive funding of terrorism by groups (like Hamas) whose long-term designs the House of Saud may not find altogether agreeable. Formal adherence to the notion of an “Islamic society” also involves the extensive Saudi ruling family and ruling class in a rich menu of lifestyle hypocrisies, which further irritates the extremists. But Saudi Arabia is a distinctive case, and while the Saudi strategy did survive the supreme test of collaboration with “the infidels” in the Gulf War, it is very doubtful indeed whether the model is exportable—or even whether it is sustainable over the long haul.


Option #4: Play One Extremist Group Off Against Another.


According to Egyptian military historian Abd al-Azim Ramadan and other specialists, this modern Machiavellianism was Anwar al-Sadat’s strategy of choice in Egypt after he succeeded Nasser, who had jailed Islamic activists in the 1960s. Sadat freed them, hoping they would then fight his battle against the religious and secular left for him while drastically weakening themselves in the process. But it didn’t work. Like his predecessor, Sadat finally turned against the activists; they, in turn, murdered him.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today