Thursday, January 7, 2010

'Turning' Islamists

During the Cold War, Westerners consoled themselves in the belief that most people behind the Iron Curtain did not believe in Communism; they were simply entrapped by a morally bankrupt system driven by a moribund ideology.

It was not so much the allure of capitalism that ultimately won over the people of Eastern Europe; it was the failure of Communism.

What will it take to "turn" vast numbers of Muslims now enthralled with extremist Islam, and convince those uncommitted, not to follow the path of the Islamists?

Much depends on the outcome of the ongoing battle within Islamic civilization between those promoting jihad against the West and those who say Islam does not need to tear down the West in order to thrive.

Yesterday, this newspaper carried a Washington Post dispatch, "Jordan emerges as key CIA counterterrorism ally." The story by that paper's national security reporter revealed that a Jordanian agent working in tandem with American intelligence had been killed by the Islamist suicide bomber who struck a CIA base near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border last week.

It now transpires that the suicide bomber was a 36-year-old Jordanian physician named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. He had been "turned" - or so it was thought - during a stint in a Jordanian prison for jihadi activities.

According to Al Jazeera, the medical-man-turned-suicide-bomber was in Afghanistan to trap another physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of al-Qaida's two top leaders. Balawi had provided so much reliable information that he was trusted to enter the CIA post without being thoroughly searched.

The dead agent, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was Balawi's handler. King Abdullah II participated in Zeid's funeral, raising the ire of Islamists within his kingdom.

This murky story of spycraft and betrayal serves as a metaphor for how the still-nameless war between freedom, moderation and enlightenment against the benighted forces of coercion, fanaticism and medievalism needs to be waged - by pushing Muslims to choose: the way of Balawi or the way of Zeid.

The most practical way to overcome the Islamists is for them to be defeated from within. After all, non-Islamists have a profound stake in the outcome.

YESTERDAY, President Barack Obama met with his top domestic and foreign national security advisers in the White House situation room. The agenda was two-fold: to unravel what went wrong, both on the systemic and personnel level, that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board Northwest Flight 253; and to take stock of the damage caused by what Balawi did at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

Along with Zeid, seven brave CIA agents, with a combined 100 years' of expertise, were lost. This betrayal, like previous acts of perfidy in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, underscored how dependent the West is on human intelligence provided by those who swim in a sea of anti-Western fanaticism.

Other lessons emerge. The Islamists must not be underestimated. They are getting good at counter-intelligence and disinformation. Israelis have seen this with Hizbullah.

Now Peter Baker of The New York Times has revealed that US intelligence was nearly fooled into thinking that Islamists from Somalia had infiltrated into the US in order to detonate bombs during Obama's inaugural address.

Fortunately, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, deduced that a "poison pen" operation was afoot. One terror group was trying to get the US to take out its rivals. Pretty sophisticated stuff and illustrative of what the West is up against.

Another lesson is not to belittle suicide bombers as "sad guys with no self esteem," or risk being surprised by those like Balawi, who are harder to pigeonhole.

The doctor had once told an Islamist magazine: "I have had a predisposition for... jihad and martyrdom since I was little. If love of jihad enters a man's heart, it will not leave him, even if he wants to do so."

CLEARLY, some Islamists are irredeemable. But others are not. If the West recognizes the scale of the challenge and confronts it effectively, and if there are enough courageous men the caliber of Sharif Ali bin Zeid working to preserve Islam from within, we can be reasonably hopeful that the jihadis will one day find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history.



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