The Sunday New York Times of 7 October 2012 buried (p.9, split on to p.12) what should have been a front-page story. The (small) headline above the story gave it a human interest spin: “From Fighting a Libyan Dictator to Global Jihad: How Two Paths Diverged.” In fact this is a story of hubris and ignorance in U.S. policy following the attacks of 9/11, a story about a stupid mistake that continues today to poison U.S. relations with the Muslim world.      

Here is the story in brief. Two Libyan brothers dropped out of university to fight against the brutal regime of Colonel Qaddafi as members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The elder brother was captured by Qaddafi’s agents and spent 16 years in prison; he was freed at the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February 2011, joined in the fighting, and is now a member of Libya’s Parliament.  The younger brother was in Pakistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Like many other Islamist militants he was imprisoned without trial at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan; he escaped in 2005 and became Al Qaeda’s top field commander until killed by a drone attack in June 2012.

What happened here? Two brothers join an Islamic militant group to fight Qaddafi, the elder perseveres in fighting Qaddafi, the younger joins al Qaeda to fight Americans. The obvious difference is that the elder suffered in Qaddafi’s prison, the younger suffered in a U.S. prison. In the Times story, the elder says his brother had been drawn into battle with the United States mainly because its military had treated him as an enemy. In short, we turned an anti-Qaddafi Islamist militant into an anti-U.S. Islamist militant by mistaking one kind of militant for another. We treated all Islamist militants as enemies, no matter their politics.

Indeed, the story makes explicit that the elder is speaking out now because he sees the same mistake being made again. U.S. officials and Libyan liberals are trying to associate Libyan Islamist—those who want to bring their Muslim faith into Libyan politics and government—with al Qaeda.  “When they see they are lumped together with Al Qaeda, even those unsympathetic to it will become more sympathetic, and this would be the best gift you could ever give to Al Qaeda.”

A charitable interpretation of the U.S. mistake after 9/11 would be that it was just ignorance. Our military, our state department, and our intelligence officers did not know enough to distinguish one kind of Islamist militant from another. The story quotes several intelligence experts confirming that today we know that lumping all Islamist militants together was a mistake. Yet the mistake continues, and not just in Libya. Many Americans see the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a gathering threat, see Hamas in Gaza as a threat, and see the Taliban in Afghanistan as a threat. These are all Islamist organizations but the threat they pose is not against the U.S. They are nationalists, not international terrorists, and when they take up violence it is local violence not aimed at striking the U.S.  

Why is it so easy for us to see all Islamist militants as a threat? One reason is now history. After 9/11 President George W. Bush chose to frame the terrorist threat this way: “Whoever is not with us is against us.” Islamist militants are not for us, they are not eager to join the fight against Al Qaeda, therefore they must be against us. 

This is crazy. Imagine asking Protestant ministers to begin preaching against Christian Identity militants in the U.S.—or we’ll send the FBI after them. Rather than multiplying our enemies, our frame should be, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In addition to being good politics, this has the advantage of deep roots in Western civilization (see Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 9, Verse 40).

There is another reason we find it easy to see all Islamist militants as a threat: we exaggerate the importance of ideas. If those who attacked us on 9/11 say they are acting in defense of Islam, they must be right, it must be something threatening about Islam. In particular it must be something threatening about fundamentalist Muslims who insist on taking their religion into politics—Islamists. 

Of course the great majority of fundamentalist Muslims, often called Salafi Muslims, are not militants. Many are like Orthodox Jews in wanting to withdraw from the world rather than to change it  It isn’t Salafi belief that creates a threat, it is anti-U.S. politics turned into anti-U.S. violence. Osama bin Laden was not a threat to the U.S. because he was a fundamentalist Muslim but because he led a terrorist organization focused on attacking the U.S.  He attacked the U.S. because he saw no other way to bring down oppressive governments supported by the U.S.

The Arab Spring showed there is another way. Many Islamists, including especially former militant Islamists, are trying democracy instead of violence. Now is not the time to get in their way. We don’t need to lump all Islamists as threatening. We don’t need to keep making the same mistake. We need instead the message a Libyan Islamist wants to send us, and we need it on the front page. 

Kirkpatrick, David D.  (2012). “From Fighting a Libyan Dictator to Global Jihad: How Two Paths Diverged.” New York Times Sunday 7 October.


How radicalization happens to them and us
Clark McCauley Ph.D.

Clark McCauley, Ph.D., is the Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College.

Sophia Moskalenko Ph.D.

Sophia Moskalenko is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START) and a consultant with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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