The Management of Savagery: The Islamic State, Extreme Violence, and Our Endless War
The Management of Savagery: The Islamic State,
Extreme Violence and Our Endless War
December 1, 2015
Keenan: Okay, we’re going to get started. I’m really pleased to welcome you all here. I’m Tom Keenan. I direct the human rights program here, and had the pleasant opportunity many years ago now, a dozen or more, of being part of the team that hired Mark Danner and brought him to Bard. Today he’s the James Clark Chase Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities, a chair named after our dear mutual friend James Chase, who died 11 years ago now. But Mark came as the first Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism, a position he shared with Ian Buruma.
He’s been a longtime correspondent, writer, analyst, essayist with The New Yorker and with the New York Review of Books, most prominently. He’s the author of a number of books. I’ll just mention my top three: The Massacre at El Mozote, an incredible investigation of a bad couple of days in El Salvador that first was in The New Yorker and then became a book; Torture and Truth, which is his account of the dark side of the war on terror; and Stripping Bare the Body, a really monumental volume that collected much of his writing over the last 20 years, from Haiti through his incredible series of articles in the New York Review on the war in Bosnia and former Yugoslavia all the way to the present. He has a much awaited new book coming out this spring from Simon & Schuster called Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, and I think that maybe we’ll be getting a little advance taste of that this evening.
Among his other honors and accomplishments, Mark won a MacArthur award a number of years ago. And I was rereading the citation today with which the foundation honored him. And that’s a genre which is not usually really worth quoting again, but I was really struck by the precision and the insight of the way the MacArthur described Mark’s work, so let me just read you a couple of lines to conclude this economical introduction.
“Mark Danner is a writer specializing in foreign affairs who offers a new a new perspective on the state of human rights and the role of America in the international community. His incisive reporting on Haiti, El Salvador, the Balkans, Iraq and NATO combine lucid historical reference and serious meditation on contemporary international relations. He is a penetrating analyst whose writings provide new insights into the use of American authority abroad.”
And I imagine that we’ll hear a lot of that tonight, so please join me in welcoming Mark Danner. [Applause.]
Danner: Thank you. Thank you, Tom. And thank you to everyone for being here tonight on a rainy evening. I’m grateful to Tom for that generous introduction and also reading that citation, which I don’t think I ever heard or read. I just cared about the money at the time. Penetrating analyst sounds vaguely risqué somehow. I’m not sure I would want that as my obituary. Or maybe I would, I don’t know.
Anyway, that’s the happy part of my talk this evening. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. We’re here to talk about the management of savagery, the Islamic state, extreme violence and our endless war. I was going to begin by addressing the students in the room and talking about the fact that we have been involved in a generational struggle, which is kind of a cliché term you hear a lot. The Pentagon is particularly proud of it.
But when it comes to students, it truly is a generational study. Most of them, as I’ve found in my classes, essentially have fairly misty and vague memories of 9/11. It was the beginning of their coming to consciousness. And they have lived ever since in an endless war. I mean, to them this war that’s being fought is the accustomed reality. There is no other.
To the rest of us, of course, we’re living in what I’ve called frequently a state of exception, that is, what might be called martial law, state of emergency, state of siege. It was declared on September—or it was put into force on September 18, 2001 by George W. Bush when he signed the authorization for the use of military force which Congress had passed the day before, and it has persisted.
I have the impression that most of us have pretty much forgotten about it most of the time, even though it represents and era of constraints on human rights and civil rights that in our better or more prideful moments we take to be the defining characteristic of our country, defined not by blood, not by nationhood, but by documents, by rights, etc. And in fact since that moment in September 2001, we’ve had, as regular parts of our polity, indefinite detention.
We still have more than 100 prisoners in an offshore prison, Guantanamo, who have neither been tried nor will be released, it seems. We’ve had warrantless wiretapping, which continues. We’ve had torture, which has been widely admitted, that was performed on more than 100 prisoners or detainees during the Bush Administration, and for which no one has been punished. Torture which used to be an anathema and which is illegal is now a policy choice, as we’ve heard in the last few days in the words of Donald Trump. He says absolutely he would bring back torture, absolutely he would bring back waterboarding. Even if it doesn’t work, they deserve it, was one of his more charming quotes.
So torture is now, in fact, a policy choice. We know this not least by the fact that the other day yet another law was passed, the Defense Authorization Act, forbidding torture. So now we have an international treaty and two statutes that forbid torture. And in fact if Republicans get in, certainly if Donald Trump were to become President, torture would probably be reinstituted.
Meanwhile, we have a regime of what is called by human rights people EJKs, extra judicial killing, that goes on pretty much every day, courtesy of our drone program. At last count perhaps 4,000 had died at the hands, as it were, of drones, 4,000 people. It’s quite a large number. We don’t know this for sure. This is according to various estimates that have been put forward by responsible organizations. The drone war continues, the special forces war continues under what’s called by Barack Obama his “light footprint.”
Mostly we forget about this. It kind of grinds on out of earshot. Those who suffer from it are, in fact, the other. We don’t mostly care about them. The political and human rights workers do, but that’s a very tiny percentage of people. Mostly it goes on unseen and pretty much unnoticed until, every once in a while, like lightning illuminating the horizon, illuminating the landscape that we’d forgotten existed, an attack comes, and suddenly we see evil. Suddenly we see evil illuminating us and we have another turn in what I’ve written about a lot as the politics of fear.
We’re experiencing that turn at the moment after the attacks of Paris, although they’re not simply the attacks of Paris, they are, of course, the attacks of Beirut, a couple of suicide bombings there, a bombing of a Russian airliner over the northern Sinai, and then the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13th in which eight commandos, eight terrorists, succeeded in killing, I think the last count was, 132 people and wounding about 300.
And suddenly this drives the world that we have created back into our ken again, and we get another turn of, as I say, the politics of fear. It dominates our headlines, it dominates our political campaigns, and suddenly our politics are in their hands, which I’m going to argue tonight is essentially the story of the war on terror and the story of, for those students in the room, the war that has essentially consumed most of their lifetimes.
What is remarkable about it, it seems to me, is how successful it has been for the other side, for our enemies. The attack, if we had had a map displaying who those enemies were on September 12, 2001, we would have—let’s see, I can hardly see this—but we would have little spots. Is that Afghanistan? Little, little spots in Afghanistan, about 1,000, perhaps, Al Qaeda members. Very small group, elite, dedicated to attacking the United States, but tiny.
And then, if we can go to the next slide—do I have a list of these things? Yes, I do. Let’s go to No. 1. It’s not No. 1. I never do slides because I find that I’m always standing here doing this. Okay, can we do it full screen? This is a map of ISIS’s worldwide strategy. We see here the inner core in Syria and Iraq, where they now hold an area about the size of Great Britain that governs, oh, four to eight million people. And then the middle core, where, let’s see, the strategy is to—sorry, we’re calling that the near abroad, where the strategy is to establish affiliates and institute this order, and then the far abroad ring, where the idea is to attack and polarize.
Now, if you look at those little crosses, those are spots where Al Qaeda has affiliates. And the short answer here is think if Osama bin Laden woke up on September 12, 2001 and a lieutenant of his gave him this future and said in 14 years there will be an Islamic state covering a large part of Iraq and Syria, it will have affiliates throughout the Middle East and South Asia, it will be conducting a major terrorist attack in Europe, and parts of it, at least, will be growing.
Now, it’s my contention here that we have, from the beginning, done exactly what our adversaries have wanted. And I want to try to illuminate this dynamic and also to prove it to you. I’m going to quote a couple of documents tonight and show a few videos, hoping that they work. The first document is called “Al Qaeda Strategy to the Year 2020.” This was produced by the right-hand man, Saif al-Adel, of Osama bin Laden. He is a former colonel in the special forces of the Egyptian army. He wrote this in 1999, a couple of years before the 9/11 attacks. What were the key points of the Al Qaeda strategy for the year 2020?
“No. 1, provoke the United States and the West into invading a Muslim country by staging a massive attack or string of attacks on U.S. soil that results in massive civilian casualties. No. 2, incite local resistance to occupying forces. No. 3, expand the conflict to neighboring countries and engage the United States and its allies in a long war of attrition. No. 4, convert Al Qaeda into an ideology and set of operating principles that can be loosely franchised in other countries without requiring direct command and control, and via these franchises incite attacks against the United States and countries allied with the United States until they withdraw from the conflict. No. 5, the U.S. economy will finally collapse by the year 2020 under the stream of multiple engagements in numerous places, making the worldwide economic system, which is dependent on the United States, also collapse, leading to global political instability, which will in turn make possible a global jihad.”
That’s 1999. And I would suggest to you that the major points contained in that strategy have in fact occurred. In fact, if you want to talk about the U.S. economy collapsing, it did that in 2008, and at the moment, if you looked back at that map, you would see, the map that we started with, thinking about 2001, you would see Egypt ruled with an iron hand by Hosni Mubarak, Yemen ruled by Saleh, dictators in Tunisia, a strong dictator in Syria, a strong dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, in Libya.
And now let’s look at what we have at the moment. In Libya—again, I can’t see very well. I hope I’m pointing to the vicinity of Libya. No? Sorry about that. This podium is not situated very well. In any event, Libya is now, as faithful readers of the New York Times will know, is a jihadi battleground with a major constituent of the Islamic State installed, 2,000 fighters. Major leaders of the Islamic State are arriving every day.
Yemen is split by civil war between Shia and Sunni. Also a major constituent of Al Qaeda is a key force there, Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and there is a major also influence of the Islamic State. Syria is, of course, a dramatic mess, and the Islamic State occupies more than a third of the country. Iraq is a disaster. It’s divided into three. The Islamic State occupies close to a third of the country, depending on how you figure it. And we could go on.
Now what are these? These are zones of savagery, administrations of savagery. I’ve taken my title tonight from a major Islamic jihadi text called “The Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji. That’s a pseudonym. We’re not absolutely certain who that is. Probably a member of Al Qaeda. And I’m going to tell you a little bit about his theories. This was produced in 2004 by Abu Bakr Naji.
He calls for vexation strikes, strikes of extreme violence—burning, beheading, all of these things that we’ve seen repeatedly at the hands of the Islamic State. He calls for “the diversification”—I’m quoting now—“and widening of vexation strikes against the crusader Zionist enemy and everyplace in the Islamic world and even outside, if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.”
He calls for eliminating the gray zone, that is, increased polarization, as the attacks in Paris have done. He calls for attacks on tourist sites, which we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia. He points out, and I’m quoting again, “if a tourist resort that the crusaders patronize is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.”
He talks about the United States military and says “the overwhelming military power, weapons, technology, fighters, has no value without the cohesion of the societies, institutions and sectors. The loss of America’s media reputation by losing wars will remove the aura of invincibility which this power projects and reveal that nothing at all stands in front of it.” This is 2004, just as the Iraq war was getting underway.
He calls for “increasing vexation attacks to motivate crowds drawn from the masses to fly to the regions which we manage, particularly the youth, for the youth of the nation are closer to the innate nature of humanity on account of the rebelliousness within them.” He’s talking about the idealism of youth. And in fact at last count, or last reliable estimate, the Islamic State had 30,000 foreign fighters, and many thousands from the West. Finally, he calls for “working to expose”—again, I’m quoting—“the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and war by proxy until it fights directly.” Until it fights directly.
So when you hear Donald Trump calling for us to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS—I’m quoting him directly—in fact he’s asking the United States to do exactly what the theorists of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda itself have been calling for from the beginning. We’re looking here at what I’ve written about frequently as the strategy of provocation, the strategy of provocation. What is that exactly?
My thoughts go back now to a kind of vivid memory I have of standing on an overpass, a cloverleaf outside of Fallujah, Iraq in 2003. I was standing next to a truck, a large truck, a cab that had been shot up sitting on the overpass above the entryway to Fallujah. The cab was completely destroyed with heavy machine gun fire, all askew, leaning sideways on its wheels. Inside was the driver, who had been pretty much eviscerated. He was in pieces.
After I looked at him and had taken some notes, I came to the edge of the road and looked down and I saw along the road beneath me some blown up garbage cans by the side of the road and a long black mark with a kind of rust colored slash across it. A couple hours before an American patrol had gone by. As it passed the garbage cans, an improvised explosive device, an IED, had been exploded. Somebody in the houses next door had pointed their little garage door or cell phone or whatever it was, very simple mechanism, at it, blew it up, killed one of the soldiers in the HUMVEE, wounded two others.
The rest of the soldiers got out of their vehicles, took their M16s and M4s and heavy machine guns in the HUMVEEs and the Bradleys and they, as they called it, hosed the buildings, which is to say they just unleashed thousands of rounds of ammunition at the buildings next to the road, 20 or so buildings. Who knows how many civilians they killed. We’ll never know that, as we often didn’t in Iraq. But they killed many. Did they kill the man with the garage door opener? Probably not. The truck happened to be going over the overpass at the time, so they shot at it and they killed the driver, who obviously had nothing to do with what was going on below.
Now, the reason I bring this up is because it strikes me as the local form of the strategy of provocation. When you do what the Americans did, every one of those dead civilians and wounded civilians in those houses had cousins, brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, daughters who became—and this is 2003—who would become members of the insurgency, who had to become members of the insurgency, who had to, in a sense, wipe the shame out, the shame that had come upon them by having one of their relatives die or be wounded at the hands of the Americans. So essentially the American army, at this point in 2003, served as an insurgent production mechanism. In fact in that era, 2003, 2004, the United States constructed the insurgency in Iraq. That is the first layer.
The second layer is the televised images of what was going on in Iraq was a message, a present tied up in a bow for Al Qaeda. It essentially was demonstrating the heart of Al Qaeda’s ideology, which is that the United States is an oppressor of Muslims. It’s an example of what theorists in the 19th century called “le politique du pire,” the politics of the worst. You stage attacks—the 9/11 attacks were one such—in which you get your enemy to reveal himself in his true guise.
You take the United States, which is standing behind the autocracy of Mubarak, standing behind the autocracy of the Saud family in Saudi Arabia, and you provoke it to come to the region itself and show its true character, which is as a suppressor, repressor, oppressor of Muslims. This story was built in 2003, 2004, 2005 in Iraq as Iraq descended into anarchy.
And the organization we know of as the Islamic State emerged very early in this process, in August 2003 in a series of horrific suicide bombings—the bombing of the Jordanian embassy, the bombing of the UN compound, the Canal Hotel, which killed Sergio de Mello, the UN delegate representative, and finally the bombing of the mosque in Najaf, which killed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the man who probably would have become the president of Iraq.
We didn’t know that this was Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time. It emerged a little bit later. But its technique was notable. It used savagery. It used a degree of savagery that had not been seen before in the jihad, including explosions of absolutely unprecedented magnitude. In the text, “The Management of Savagery,” which I’ve been talking about—it’s this very fascinating book which I commend to all of you—it says don’t just blow up a building, use enough explosives so that the building will disappear into the earth. Use fire. Burn people. Use extreme violence. Show your power.
And the suicide bombings that we saw in Iraq had never been attempted before. The magnitude of them had never been attempted before. A hundred people were killed, 150 people were killed. At that bombing in August, 105 people were killed outside of the mosque. Absolutely unprecedented. And the scenes of horror, I can tell you, having visited a number of them, were absolutely spectacular.
One of the things that stays with me is that a few minutes after the bombings would happen, when they would resonate throughout the city—and I remember this from a Red Cross bombing in 2003 that I got to right after the bombing—you would star to hear cell phones ringing, and those cells phones would be on the corpses of those who had just been killed, because everybody around the city who had heard the bomb was starting to call every family member who wasn’t in the house at the time to make sure that they were all right. And I will never forget the ringing of those cell phones, which would, at a certain point, become almost unbearable. Families calling, the phones still in the pants, the torsos, whatever part of the bodies.
So we had a series of suicide bombings which eventually started a civil war in Iraq. And that civil war, we’re talking about layers of provocation here, was another layer in the strategy of provocation, because Iraq—the United States was singularly unfortunate, and singularly stupid in choosing to invade Iraq. Let’s bring up the Shia-Sunni slide.
This is a map of the distribution of Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. And you will see that the major dividing line…let’s see. Again forgive me if I’m not pointing to the right place. Right there is in Iraq. It is a sectarian dividing line. It’s like—to some people Iraq is like Bosnia in this regard, or like the former Yugoslavia in this regard, that it, on the one hand, is one country, but on the other hand it has, dividing it, a civilizational, sectarian dividing line that relates to other states. So it’s essentially the front line of a much larger conflict. You also see another dividing line, not accidentally, is in Syria. There are Shia, Alawi—they’re a particular sect of Shia—and there are Sunnis. And the Islamic State right now is right here.
So it is in Sunni Iraq, essentially with the help of the United States, the Islamic State played on the dividing line by Sunni and Shia. How did it do that? It started to stage extraordinarily bloody attacks on the Shia. What was the point of that? Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State are Sunni groups. They are Sunnis. But they are a group. At the time they were a handful of people, 1,500, 2,000, not very many. How do you increase your numbers? How do you recruit? How do you awaken the sleeping Sunni around you and make them gravitate toward you? How do you make people who have nothing to do with, want to have nothing to do with violence, want to have nothing to do with fighting, how do you make them feel that they must choose sides? How do you do that?
Well, if you’re a ruthless Sunni group, you attack the Shia and you provoke the Shia eventually to start killing Sunnis. So what you’re trying to do is get your enemy, the Shia, to start killing Sunnis, and by so doing, get the Sunnis to start coming to your side. It’s a particularly ruthless strategy, a strategy of polarization. We’re seeing it in Paris right now. We’re seeing it in Paris right now.
How do you get Muslims in France and Muslims in Europe to join you? You provoke the larger society into repressing Muslims. You invigorate right wing politics and make more and more Muslims feel like they’re not wanted and come to your side. So attacks by the Sunnis on Shia, ruthless attacks killing hundreds, bicycle suicide bombers, car suicide bombers, truck suicide bombers, walking suicide bombers, in weddings, in mosques, I mean, incredible.
At a certain point in 2005 and 2006, nearly 4,000 Iraqis were dying every month. Now think about that number for a second. These are civilians we’re talking about. And probably ten times that were being wounded. Four thousand. Iraq is perhaps a tenth or an eleventh the size of the United States, so if the number was extrapolated to the U.S. population, we’d be talking about 30,000 Americans dying every month, 30,000. So it was a vast, incredible bloodbath.
And it caused, among other things, a major apocalyptic trend in the politics of Iraq, an apocalyptic trend that the Islamic State has benefited from and has followed. It’s an apocalyptic group which sees the end of time coming. And many Iraqis joined it possibly because of the apocalyptic violence that was going on during these years.
In any event, a vast amount of killing and essentially starting a sectarian civil war along that dividing line which now is the dividing line between the Islamic State and the rump state of Iraq, which is Shia run, and which has now become, in effect, a province of Iran. That’s probably overstating things a bit, but the Iranian influence in Shia Iraq is very strong. Sunni Iraq has now become the front line of the Sunni states, which is one of the reasons why, when we talk about a coalition in which our Sunni friends will destroy the Islamic State, we’re kind of talking out of our asses a little bit. But you hear this all the time. This is the theory.
Okay, so the Islamic State is born in the vast apocalyptic violence of the Iraq war, a violence that I have found, in talking to Americans about it, most people were not very conscious of. The amount of terrorism in the Iraqi state during 2004 and 2005, 2006, 2007 was absolutely unprecedented and extraordinary, and you can’t understand the politics of today without it.
Another key point to make is that the leadership of the Islamic State is formed not only of true believers, people like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, who has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies, etc., very much a true believer, a major cadre of the Islamic State is Baathists. That is, in essence, the key members of Saddam Hussein’s security services—and he had many security services. The national security state essentially was made up of various intelligence services belonging to various parts of the military, civilian intelligence services. I mean, it was like Nazi Germany in that regard, with many intersecting intelligence services.
Many of these cadres, who were Sunni nationalists, have moved over to the Islamic State. So in a funny way you can almost think of the Islamic State as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having moved a couple of hundred miles, several hundred miles west, and the dividing line between Iran and Iraq having moved several hundred miles west. That’s kind of an extreme way to put it, but it’s essentially what happened.
So one of the great things, from the Islamic State’s point of view, about their use of Shia-Sunni sectarian politics and their violent exacerbation of a Sunni-Shia civil war is that it is regional-wide. You now have a Sunni-Shia conflict that’s going on particularly in Iraq, in Syria. Let’s put up the Syria-Iraq map if we could.
This is, again, Shia Iraq, this is the Islamic State, which is Sunni Iraq and Sunni Syria. This is the rump state of Assad. This is the Kurds, I believe. This is various other levels, some of which we’re supposedly supporting. Let’s perhaps put up the Syria slide. You have it? Sorry, the Syria map, yeah. Okay. It’s okay. Actually, leave up the map of the Middle East. That’s fine. Let’s go back to the ISIS strategy map. Why don’t we do that.
Essentially, the United States brilliantly—I’m be sarcastic here—chose its enemy when it invaded Iraq because it invaded essentially the state that sits on the major fault line in sectarian Middle East politics, and those fault lines are echoed across the region. They’re echoed in Yemen, they’re echoed in Syria, they’re echoed to some degree in Saudi Arabia, which has a significant Shia population, and they’re echoed in various other places.
And when you see these bombings in Kuwait, for example, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia that the Islamic State claims responsibility for, they are usually along these fault lines. It’s almost like looking at a geographical map which shows you both volcanoes and tectonic plates, and the volcanoes go right along where two tectonic plates meet. This is what the map of the explosions look like because they are playing on that fault line.
What do they want to accomplish? Let us put up the map of the five year plan for the caliphate, No. 5. There we go. There is the caliphate’s five year plan. That’s Andalus, otherwise known as Spain, once part of the caliphate. This is essentially the echo of 14th or 13th century expanse of the caliphate. It seems absurd. How could this happen? It could never happen, etc. It probably won’t happen. But this is what they want to happen. This is their ambition.
Let’s put up the other expanded, let’s see, ISIS expanded caliphate. That would be No. 4. No. 4? Sorry, no five year plan, No. 5? This is the five year plan. Whoops, sorry. Okay, there’s the five year plan. See the circle? Right there. So this is what they are aiming for.
Now, it seems absurd. How can they do this? When it comes to the overwhelming military power of the West, it’s impossible. They have no air force. As an air force, they have terrorism. That’s what they use as their strategic weapon, the equivalent of the air force that the United States has and the navy that the United States has. They use terrorism to reach out and strike at a distance.
But how could they achieve this? Well, of course they couldn’t. They absolutely couldn’t. On the other hand, what they have achieved in the last 14 years strikes me as absolutely incredible. And the only reason that they’ve been able to achieve this is because of errors that the United States has made repeatedly. Why is that?
I talked about the strategy of provocation and the strategy of “la politique du pire.” “La politique du pire,” as I said, was a term that comes out of 19th century leftist politics, Marxist politics, revolutionaries of the 19th century. It is the way you use terrorism to build an insurrection and the way you use terrorism to build an insurgency, and the way you transform an insurgency into true war. And if you look at the progress of the Islamic State over the last totally 12 years or so, you see an almost textbook example of that.
How does this work? The first terrorist attack provokes counterattack and repression, which in turn provokes recruits to the terrorist cause, or revolutionary cause, better put, who undertake more terrorist attacks, provoking harsher repression and so on. By so doing, Al Qaeda’s theoreticians believe they can “turn the United States and its Arab puppet states into recruiting sergeants for our cause.” I’m going to quote Michael Ignatieff on the strategy of provocation.
“Success”—he’s talking about terrorism—“depends less on the initial attack than on instigating an escalatory spiral controlled not by the forces of order, but by the terrorists themselves. If terrorists can successfully draw democracies into the spiral and control its upward acceleration, they will begin to dictate the terms of the encounter. Success becomes a matter of inflicting losses, enduring harms, and gambling that the enemy has less endurance than they do. Since a state will always be too strong for a cell of individuals to defeat in open battle, it must defeat itself. A state must defeat itself. If terrorists can provoke the state into atrocity, this will begin to erode the willingness of the democratic public to continue the fight.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Initiating such an escalatory spiral, it’s important to point out, particularly in this age of Trump—and I ask you to think now of Republican politics in particular at the moment—it puts our politics into their hands. Why? Because fear is the most lucrative political emotion. And when fear is abroad in the land, politicians seize on it like gold. It motivates people. It motivates people to rise up, it motivates people to vote. And it’s why you see the politics of national security starting to dominate politics on the Republican side.
Now think for a moment how many successful terrorist attacks on American soil are we from a Donald Trump Presidency? I’m not, not here predicting a Donald Trump Presidency. I am not. I am saying that to some degree, given the inflammability of our politics around the issue of national security and terrorism in particular, that during the election season especially, our politics are particularly vulnerable to their attacks. And as we stand here today, we are seeing this happen, seeing this play out in front of us. We are seeing it especially on the Republican side, but it’ll affect those on the Democratic side as well, don’t be fooled.
One could talk a little bit about Obama’s politics of national security, drone attacks, killing bin Laden and so on, about his own protection from attacks from the right on national security in 2012. It’s an interesting issue. But we will see what the politics are and how they unfold on this.
Let us talk for a minute about recruiting. And I want to show a couple of videos, which I hope will work. I’ve been putting it off. The ISIS propaganda message. This is in the wake of the Paris attacks. Recruitment spiked, as it did after the beginning of the American bombing, when they started recruiting thousands every month.
Actually, you know what? This is their monthly magazine. I’ll tell you what, why don’t we look at this for a second. Let’s scroll down, if you can. That is the cover of the current Dabiq. It’s called “Just Terror.” You see the images from the Paris attacks of the EMTs in Paris. “Just Terror,” meaning not only terror, but terror of justice. Let’s go down a little bit to the editorial. It’s a very good magazine, extremely professionally produced, a lot of interesting stuff in it. Dabiq is the town in Syria, now occupied the Islamic State, in which it’s in essence the equivalent of Armageddon in Islamic apocalyptic thinking. Sorry, let’s go to the forward, the first words, right here. Okay, this is the forward of the current issue.
“The divided crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Khilafah.” Then the quote from the Koran, “‘They will not fight you all except within fortified cities or from behind walls.’ But Allah decreed that punishment befall the warring crusaders from where they had not expected it. Thus the blessed attacks against the Russians and the French were successfully executed despite the international intelligence war against the Islamic State.
On 30 September, 2015, after years of supporting the Nusayri taught in the war against the Muslims of Sham, Russia decided to participate directly with its own air force in the war”—meaning the war in Syria. “It was a rash decision of arrogance from Russia, as if it held that the wars against the Muslims of al-Qawqaz”—that’s the Caucus—“were not enough offence.
And so after having discovered a way to compromise the security at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport and resolving to bring down a plane belonging to a nation in the American led Western coalition against the Islamic State, the target was changed to a Russian plane. A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane, leading to the deaths of 219 Russians and five other Crusaders only months after Russia’s thoughtless decision.
A year earlier, on 19 September 2014, France haughtily began executing air strikes against the Khilafah. Like Russia, it was blinded by hubris, thinking that its geographical distance from the lands of the Khilafah would protect it from the justice of the mujahidin. It also did not grasp that its mockery of the Messenger would not be left unavenged. Thus, the Islamic State dispatched its brave knights to wage war in the homelands of the wicked crusaders, leaving Paris and its residents ‘shocked and awed’—that quote from Rumsfeld and elsewhere is intentional—“and so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits of their jets.”
And then a quote from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph, “By Allah we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the Ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator. Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off. Let the world know that we are living today in a new era.”
Okay, let’s play that No. 7, in the wake of the Paris attacks. Start at the beginning. These things dominate the Internet.
Male Voice: This is our Khilafah in all its glory, remaining and expanding. It was established in the year 1435 hijri, its leader from the tribe of Quraish, Shayh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its territory is already greater than Britain, eight times the size of Belgium, and 30 times the size of Qatar. It’s a state built on the prophetic methodology, striving to follow the Quran and Sunnah, not a secular state built on manmade laws whose soldiers fight for the interests of legislators, liars, fornicators, corporations and for the freedoms of Sodomites.
We are men honored with Islam who climb its peaks to perform jihad, answering the call to unite under one flag. This is the source of our glory, our obedience to our Lord. We are uncompromising in our call to tawhid. We only bow to Allah, unlike the countless deviant factions raising their false banners and changing with the winds of [jehin] and politics. Yes, we are the soldiers who stop the idols of nationalism, demolish the shaky symbols of [palmira] and [minowa] and destroy the [Sykes Pico] borders, for there is no honor to be found in the remnants of [shirk] and nationalism, and the difference between an Arab and a non-Arab or a black man and a white man except through piety.
This is the glory of faith that unites us. Justice is served with the establishment of the Islamic courts. And there are thousands of [musa jahid] schools for our cubs and pearls where they prepare themselves to share in the great rewards of expanding this Khilafah. America, you claim to have the greatest army history has known. You may have the numbers and weapons, but your soldiers lack the will and resolve. Still scarred from their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, they return dead or suicidal, with over 6,500 of them killing themselves each year.
So while you go around cooking the facts on the results of your military air strikes, we continue to haunt the minds of your soldiers and sow fear into their hearts, with 18 of your soldiers committing suicide each day before you’ve even advanced. And in addition to the $6 trillion price tag on your war against the Muslims, you’re now too weak to put boots on the ground. You opt instead to attack us from the air with missiles, each worth $250,000, while we send your proxies to hell with 50 cent bullets.
Then there’s a new coalition of devils with Iran, Turkey and Russia joining the fray. That’s because the Mullah of [Kufr] will always unite you together to fight the truth. So bring it on, all of you. Your numbers only increase us in faith, and we’re counting your banners, which our prophet said would reach 80 in number, and then the flames of war will finally burn you on the hills of death. Bring it on, for we echo the mighty call of our prophets. Gather your allies, plot against us and show us no respite. Our ally is the greatest. He is Allah, and all glory belongs to him. [Singing.]
Danner: You notice the “bring it on” is a quote from our former President, of course. And the imagery in many of these tapes, for example, let’s do the Foley. Oh, sorry, that would be No. 13. The imagery in many of these tapes is taken from various actions of the United States, which Americans often don’t recognize, but Middle Eastern people invariably do. I found it’s an odd thing in the world that the United States is often less aware of itself and what it does in the world than most of the rest of the world is. We don’t have to know about them, but they apparently have to know about us. Can you click that full screen?
Male Voice: I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers. I wish I had more time.
Danner: My real killers.
Male Voice: I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed.
Male Voice This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and go far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims.
You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, an aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life that have accepted the Islamic caliphate as their leadership. So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.
Danner: You see the orange jumpsuit that has become famous. Everybody, I assume, knows where that originally comes from. That’s Guantanamo. And that jumpsuit is used by them invariably for people they’re about to behead. Sometimes 20, 30 people are wearing it. And it’s complete resonance again and again of Guantanamo, Guantanamo, Guantanamo, the response to Guantanamo. And I’ve found it’s an odd thing that most Americans, at least the ones I talk to, aren’t aware of that. They don’t notice it because they don’t think much about Guantanamo, I suppose.
Let’s show the combat footage. Anyway, these are propaganda videos that are messages. They’re also designed very much to draw recruits. There is a huge Twitter industry. There is a huge YouTube film construction industry. There is a huge propaganda department, the Islamic State very professional. Usually they use multiple cameras. Some of these things are professionally lit. Some of them, on the other hand, are simply combat footage that they put up. We’ll show you some of that now, a few minutes of it, of the Islamic State fighting in Syria. Mostly it’s in Syria.
[Video plays.] [Music and sounds of guns, yelling.]
Danner: Note the slowmo. Heartbeat.
Danner: Okay, you get the idea. There is hours and hours and hours of this stuff available. Much of it is fascinating. Some of it is shot by the people on the ground, the actual fighters, but most of it, or a lot of it is professionally filmed by squads of photographers, videographers and others who, as the Washington Post recently reported, form a kind of elite cadre within the Islamic State.
They are paid more than regular soldiers. They’re given better houses. They’re given cars. They’re treated very, very well because what they do is thought to be extremely important. They are, among other things, recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Let’s look a little bit at a young Canadian. Again, this is another genre of films, of which there are hundreds. Let’s look at him. Is this McGuire?
Female Voice: The new ISIS threats are aimed at Canada and delivered by a Canadian, a man calling himself Abu Anwar al-Canadi. It’s six minutes and thirteen seconds of venom.
al-Canadi: So it should not surprise you when operations by the Muslims are executed where it hurts you the most, on your very own soil, in retaliation to your unprovoked acts of aggression towards our people. You have absolutely no right to live in a state of safety and security when your country is carrying out atrocities.
Female Voice: He praises the recent attacks in Ottawa and Quebec and berates Muslims who live in Canada. And he wasn’t always this fierce. His name is John Douglas McGuire from Ottawa. One family member too frightened to be identified sent us this statement. “This young man is definitely John Douglas, but not the John Douglas that we knew, loved and remember. You cannot imagine how badly I feel that I did not realize or understand what was going on at the time.” Could anyone? It appears he was in the sights of authorities before he reportedly left for Syria on a one way ticket in January 2013. Someone who knew him as a fresh convert says the video and the message in it sickens him.
Male Voice: What makes me the most angry is that it’s actually reinforcing things like Islamophobia, xenophobia, and it’s reinforcing paranoia and fear of people who decide to convert to Islam.
Female Voice: So was McGuire radicalized on his own, as so many allegedly are? Not necessarily. CBC has learned that of the circle McGuire moved in—
Danner: Those are the knives that are going to be used to behead those prisoners.
Female Voice: ….to fight with extremist groups too or have social media profiles now dripping in ISIS propaganda. Among them Abdul Baqi Hanif, who was a friend of McGuire’s. That young men, in particular, often move in clusters before joining groups like ISIS isn’t a new phenomenon.
Danner: Okay, that’s enough. As I say, that obviously isn’t the entirety of the tape from John McGuire, but that tape is up on YouTube. This is kind of a genre of conversion tapes that exist in lots of different languages, Canadians, Americans, French, Belgians, you name it, tapes of people burning their passports, various active efforts, hundreds of videos to attract further recruits.
And a lot of what is done by the Islamic State, much of the extreme violence is not only an ideological matter, extreme violence—I’ll quote Naji again from “The Management of Savagery.” He talks about the early caliphs burning people with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need. He says also
“we need to massacre others as Muslims did after the death of Muhammad. Dragging the masses into battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make people enter into the battle willing or unwilling. We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away.”
There is strategy in this book that’s very interesting about staging attacks to clear out zones of savagery. The security forces essentially leave to protect vital areas and you have these zones of savagery that you can administer. But extreme violence is a critical part of the Islamic State’s propaganda.
I’m going to show a video now, at least an excerpt of a video, that is extremely disturbing, and I want to warn you about that first, that if you don’t want to see it, you might want to leave or avert your eyes. But it’s by far their most famous, most viewed video. It’s about 20 minutes long, but we’ll just show a few minutes of it, I think a couple of minutes of it.
It’s a long and kind of masterful video about the Jordanian pilot, 26-year-old Lieutenant Muath Al-Kasasbeh. And this tape is rightly notorious. He was shot down. He was part of a bombing mission over the Islamic State from Jordan. Jordan has since, not coincidentally, withdrawn from the coalition. And this particular video, as I say, it’s very disturbing. I want to say that multiple times. It will give you nightmares. It has given me nightmares. But it is, it seems to me, a kind of critical document.
A lot of the tape we’re not going to see shows the violent result of coalition bombing. There are people being dug out of buildings, and you see their crushed bodies. You see the bodies of children. You see an awful lot of violent imagery that is meant to represent what the pilots have done, what the pilots are doing.
It’s reminiscent, for those of you who know “The Battle of Algiers,” Pontecorvo’s great masterpiece, there’s a scene in that in which the insurgent leader, after he has been captured, is challenged by the press at a press conference, who say how can you send women around with explosives in baskets and blow up civilians, how can you do that. And the response, the very famous response is, you give us your jet planes, we’ll give you our baskets. In other words, these are our jet planes.
Let’s show the excerpt from that. Again, it’s very violent, this imagery. Well, maybe it won’t work. That will save us all a lot of trouble. Okay, well, let’s see if you can get it to work. I’m trying to essentially make a point here, which is that their use of extreme violence is pointed and goes toward a certain goal, which is to demonstrate overwhelming power to show they are absolutely ruthless, and finally to argue that the greater violence now will essentially result in lesser violence later, that is, it’ll shorten the war, which is an augment that Americans use as well.
There was recently a piece by Colonel Ralph Peters, a retired Army colonel, who’s a fairly prominent commentator on the right. The piece was entitled “Level Rakka.” Kill 15,000 now to save a million later. So this kind of reasoning is familiar on both sides. Are we not going to be able to do it? Okay, well, keep working on it, and if we can show it—as I say, I’m kind of slightly ambivalent about this because it is a fairly horrible image, but it is the most famous one that they’ve used.
What do you get out of these things? It shows the pilot being burned alive in a cage, in essence. He was apparently drugged beforehand, he isn’t screaming, but you can definitely see him burning. The burning of the pilot communicates power. It equates. It takes the violence of our air strikes and puts it into personal terms and it shows, in their terms, that they will defend themselves with absolutely ruthless means.
Okay, let me talk a little bit about the Paris attacks and what is going on now, and then I’ll open this up to questions, of which I hope there are many. The attack on Paris is meant to, as we saw in the original Islamic State strategy map, it’s meant to polarize and eliminate the so-called gray zones. Gray zones are areas where people essentially are left indifferent, they’re on neither side of this war.
And the Islamic State violence is intended to reduce that gray zone, to reduce the area in which people can remain indifferent, and in particular when it comes to France, to Belgium, to other countries with large Muslim populations in Europe, part of the point here is to exacerbate right wing politics, exacerbate paranoia against Muslims, exacerbate the pressure on Muslims to make them feel unwanted in these countries, and to thus increase recruitment, to polarize the politics and to increase recruitment to the Islamic State and other jihadi groups.
A statement from the Islamic State in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks a year ago claimed that
“these attacks further brought division into the world, eliminating the gray zone which represents coexistence between religious groups. Muslims living in the West would soon no longer be welcome in their own societies, treated with increasing suspicion, distrust, and hostility by their fellow citizens as a result of this violence. Western Muslims would soon be forced to either apostatize or their would migrate to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”
So eliminate, reduce, destroy the gray zone. That is what these attacks are meant to do. And I expect there will be more of them.
One of the reasons that they’re so hard to guard against is because the Islamic State, in some distinction from Al Qaeda, is willing to attack soft targets. Al Qaeda, particularly when it came to targeting the United States, was focused on spectaculars, on attacking commercial aviation and other hard targets that were guarded, essentially. It wanted spectacular events that were rather complicated. The more complicated it is, the more vulnerable such plots are to penetration and thus foiling.
The reason that the Islamic State, I think, is much more vulnerable when it comes to long range terrorism is because it is willing to attack soft targets. And indeed, if they want to attack soft targets in the United States, which I think is a natural development, then they will certainly be successful at some point. You can attack restaurants, as they did in Paris. You can attack virtually anywhere where people gather, as long as you are not focused on something like the World Trade Center attacks.
So I expect—it seems to me the interesting thing in the run-up to the election is will they try to alter the dynamic of the American elections and try to elect somebody, presumably somebody on the Republican side, who will give them the harsh response that they are after. I think that is a key question in the run-up to the elections. So we can’t see it? Okay, well, sorry about that. As I say, I’m kind of ambivalent about it, so we won’t show it.
So they’re trying to draw us in. They’re trying to eliminate the gray zones. Now, the first question is going to be, well, what should we do about all this? And I want to say I don’t know. Don’t ask me that. But I want to put in your mind a couple things. One is Rumsfeld’s question. You remember Donald Rumsfeld, don’t you?
Well, Rumsfeld, in 2004, asked, in one of his famous memos, called snowflakes, he asked the Defense Department are we killing, capturing or deterring more terrorists than imams and madrasahs are producing. That’s a paraphrase. But he was essentially saying we have no metrics to decide whether we are successful in the war on terror, and the key question has to be are we, by our actions, deterring and capturing more terrorists or are we creating more of them.
And it seems to me that we have now, very definitively, the answer to Rumsfeld’s question, which is that the United States, in its action, has become a terrorist producing machine. We have created a self-perpetuating perpetual motion machine when it comes to the production of terrorists. Any study you’d like to consult shows the number of jihadi groups is skyrocketing. After 9/11 we had one multinational network with a thousand or so people, as I mentioned at the beginning, Al Qaeda. Today we have two, including the Islamic State, which is much, much larger and holds a great deal of territory.
So another little statistic I’ll give you is that the number of terrorist attacks, as measured by the United States Department of State in 2002, was 725 attacks. Anybody want to guess what it was last year, also by the Department of State? Anyone? Close to 33,000. So that number has increased by 4,000%. Now, the methodology of this you can question. I’m not sure that tells us an awful lot, those numbers, but it does tell us something, which is that the actions we have taken, at least in some way, have increased, have taken a very small organization and made it into a large jihadi wave that is growing all the time.
We’re now essentially embarked on a strategy of containment of the Islamic State, which I think is probably the right strategy. Air strikes that are carefully planned to minimize the killing of civilians, although many civilians are dying. There are calls right now to relax the rules of engagement, is the term, which is to say to kill more civilians. As I mentioned before, there are advocates who insist that we should level Rakka and carpet bomb various cities in the Islamic State, which would be a catastrophic error.
But I want you to look at our politics and see the fact that we are caught in kind of a vice, a political vice, which is essentially after an attack we have a spasm of fear and the political opportunism, especially on the right, although it’ll probably reverse itself, depending on who is in office—that’s an argument that we could have as well—which demands harsher and harsher responses. And the harsher responses is exactly what our adversaries want.
So that’s a rather pessimistic view on which to end this discussion. I would like to have an answer beyond saying that we have made catastrophic mistakes over the last 14 years and have thus created a very large enemy where we had, at the beginning, a relatively small one. But that, I think, has been the case.
And the politics of fear is, at the end of the day, the true danger. It’s what we’re looking at every day. Because in essence the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, none of these organizations represented an existential threat to the United States. They were compared by George W. Bush, in a famous speech after 9/11, to the Nazis and to the Soviet Union, the communists of the Soviet Union, an existential threat. This was never the case. But we have, indeed, by our own actions dramatically increased the threat, both to the United States and to Europe, and we see, as our politics develop, that we seem to be continuing to do that.
I want to say that Rumsfeld’s question—I hate to be quoting Rumsfeld, but this is where I’m left, he actually said the smartest thing about the metric of terrorism—that we need to find a different answer to Rumsfeld’s question. Imagine for a second a target, the image of a target with a bull’s-eye, a yellow bull’s-eye, and think of, in that bull’s-eye, the militants of the Islamic State, the suicide bombers, the committed militants, the insurgents.
The circle around the bull’s-eye, imagine the people who are helping them, who are giving them money, who are actively supporting them. The next circle imagine people who are sympathetic to them, who are doing various things to help them. The next circle a little less support, but still supporting, and the next circle people who are indifferent, who don’t support them at all. And the dynamic of this war for the Islamic State and other jihadi groups is to bring those people closer to the center, to gradually, through their actions, through their propaganda, to bring all of those people closer to the center.
And it stands to reason that the strategy on the U.S. side should be the opposite, that is, to be pushing those people to the outside, reducing the number of jihadists, reducing the number of active jihadists, reducing the number of sympathizers to push them in the other way. But we have failed repeatedly to do this. We have essentially danced to their tune and we have been played repeatedly, as we are right now, if you look at speeches of Donald Trump and others.
We have repeatedly been playing, like puppets, the politics of fear, and we’ve been ascribing very much, if you read “The Management of Savagery,” it is a very eerie experience because it seems to be, put out in 2004, a map of what the future was. The question is how we can get out of the role that’s been designed for us by our enemies. And I leave that as an open question. I’m very happy to entertain any questions you have and I thank you for your attention. Thank you very much. [Applause.]
Male Voice: Excuse me, I have a question.
Male Voice: In your view, when did this begin?
Danner: When did…?
Male Voice: There’s always been Islam. They’ve always been at odds with parts of Western civilization, [faith by executive], all that kind of stuff. But 50 years ago there wasn’t, you know, the term Islamic terrorist. When did this start? How did it start?
Danner: Well, the first terrorist attacks that are recognizable—I mean, we had an era of terrorism in the ‘70s, mostly courtesy of the PLO and other Palestinian groups. Another era of terrorism in the ‘80s. Many here will remember the attacks in Beirut, Lebanon. So if we’re talking about when did terrorism begin at the hands of Muslims—
Male Voice: No-no-no. It seems to me that it has, for the large part, over the last say 50 years ago, it’s always been an Israeli, fundamentally an Israeli issue. The PLO and the Israelis were at war. We were allies of the Israelis. We were there for an enemy to Arafat. Okay, so that was all that. But now what just seems to me this gigantic war that you have described that we all know exists, Islam against the West, which is, it’s now, you know, Islamic terrorism was not a phrase that you heard 50 years ago.
Male Voice: [Unintelligible].
Danner: You’ve defined—
Male Voice: It wasn’t [inaudible].
Danner: Yeah, I mean, you’re basically answering your own question. If you want to ask when the current phase began, Al Qaeda was unusual among jihadi groups in that it targeted the far enemy, not the near enemies, the far enemy being the United States, the near enemies being Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the apostate rulers in the region themselves. You had various jihadi groups trying to overthrow these local depots.
And Al Qaeda was unusual in that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri decided that the key innovation that they would put forward was attacking the United States directly, the United States being assumed to be the kind of puppet master of these local regimes. In other words, you get the United States to withdraw from the region, Hosni Mubarak will fall. You get the United States to withdraw from the region, the House of Saud would fall. So this is the innovation of Al Qaeda.
And you can begin it, I guess, with the attacks at Khobar Towers in the mid ‘90s, the East African embassy bombings in ’98, the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. These were the run-up attacks to 9/11. Obviously the beginning of the current phase, if you want a dramatic beginning, is the 9/11 attacks.
Male Voice: So basically what you’re saying is that in your view it’s Al Qaeda and bin Laden.
Danner: Well, I’d say that’s—
Male Voice: The beginning of the escalation and the thing that you’re talking about the students here all grow up with this is their war, this is their life.
Danner: Yeah, I would say that…you know, it depends what our definitions are. If you’re talking about terrorism, I would have a different response, but if you’re talking about the current war as I’ve defined it, yes, I’d say this began in the ‘90s, the current phase, with the innovation of Al Qaeda attacking the far enemy directly. And that was its theory. And in fact the Islamic State essentially disagreed with that.
The Islamic State was more preoccupied with the near enemies, like other jihadi groups, and has only recently been attacking the far enemy, in part, one could argue—and I wanted to make this point in my talk—in part because perhaps it’s being pushed back on the ground within Syria and Iraq. That is, it’s lost perhaps 15 to 20% of its territory, depending on how you measure it, and because it has a necessity to continue to be successful, to continue to be a winner in order to recruit people, it has started launching attacks on the far enemy as well as Al Qaeda did.
So this is kind of, over the last few months, it’s an innovation, really, that some would argue is a result of weakness, which is why when President Obama was quoted as saying, just before the attacks, that the Islamic State was contained, and he was much ridiculed, particularly on the right, for having made that statement, but in fact he was right, that there is a containment regime that is gradually pushing back on the borders within Iraq and Syria. That has started to happen. But yeah, if we’re talking about the sort of periodicity, as historians call it, of this, I would date it from the mid ‘90s. Other questions? Yeah.
Male Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: Yeah. The Saudi state has obviously been a close ally of the United States since 1945. It actually began earlier with the American engineers helping to develop the oil fields in the ‘30s. But FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, met with ibn Saud, the Saudi king, in  in a famous meeting in the Great Bitter Lake. FDR was on his way back from Yalta. And they made a deal, and the deal was the Saudis promised to continue to pump oil at relatively low prices and continue to increase production, the Americans promised to protect the regime.
The regime, in turn, was allied with the Wahhabis, as it has been since the 18th century. This is basically the third Saudi state, each of them allied with the Wahhabis, including the first Wahhabi, the man after whom this discipline is named. Basically the Islamic State practices an interpretation of Islam that is, I won’t say, indistinguishable from Wahhabism, but this is what—I mean, I’m getting beyond my qualifications here, I’m not a religious scholar, by any means, of Islam—but it’s very close. The Islamic State uses school books from Saudi Arabia in some of its schools. The actual religious beliefs are very similar. The interpretation of sharia is very similar. And of course the Saudis publicly behead people, a lot of people.
And they are our key ally. They are our key ally in the Middle East. So the United States has been allied with the Saudis since 1945. For a time we had a lot of troops there, in the wake of the first Iraq war. We withdrew those troops after the second Iraq war, so they are mostly gone. But we train the Saudi military. We supply most, if not all, of their major weapon systems, so our relationship is very close. It’s recently been strained by our treaty—or it’s not really a treaty—our agreement with Iran to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons or from weaponizing what material they already have. The Saudis were vehemently against this deal. They’re extremely angry about it. They were also vehemently against the U.S. letting Mubarak fall. They believe the United States could have intervened and saved him.
So the Saudis are not very happy with the United States right now. The relationship with Obama is not a good one. But still that basic deal that Franklin Roosevelt reached with ibn Saud in 1945 remains. They pump the oil, we protect them. It should be, by the way, noted that there was a third point to that deal in 1945, which was the U.S. agreed to do something about the Palestinian issue, so that seems to have fallen by the wayside. But does that answer your question?
Male Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: Absolutely. I’m sorry. I maybe misunderstood you.
Male Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: Yes. In effect there is a deal that goes back to the 18th century by which the religious precepts of the Saudi state, in fact this third Saudi state, are controlled by the Wahhabi clerics, and that power is given to the Wahhabi clerics in exchange for their support of Saudis as the rulers. Absolutely that is true. And this introduces a degree of stress into the politics of Saudi Arabia which is quite dramatic, because the governing elite of Saudi Arabia, depending on who you ask, is quite unpopular. They’re thought to be enormously greedy, rapacious, corrupt, etc. I mean, we know about this.
Male Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: Well, I think it’s true that a lot of the…I mean if we dolly back a little bit from what we’ve been talking about here and say why are there so many jihadists around, one place to look is Saudi Arabia. And the fact that our petro dollars were, many of them, you know, our petro dollars are the money that we give to the Saudis for their oil—and other states, but to the Saudis especially—were essentially sent abroad to expand the Wahhabi particular variant of Islam throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This is a religious evangelicism that has been particularly potent and that has been essentially funded with American dollars. And that’s been happening for decades.
It also was, you know, the Saudis basically exported their activist young—this is the second phase of how the United States has collaborated with the Saudis to produce this problem—the Saudis exported their activist young to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet invasion during the 1980s. And this was a jihad that the United States supported to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
This funding began under Jimmy Carter, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security advisor, said we can—this was before the Soviets actually invaded. We started funding the jihadi opposition. Brzezinski said, in a memo to Carter, we can give the Soviets their own Vietnam. This was his idea. And eventually Reagan increased this funding dramatically, many times over, by several orders of magnitude, and we essentially funded this opposition.
And many of the major figures that we funded are key figures in the generation of Al Qaeda. It’s too much to say that we actually created these people individually because usually that’s not true, but it might as well be true. And I don’t know how we nip it in the bud. This is kind of at the root of the Saudi state, that deal. And I think the U.S. is deeply worried about instability in the Saudi state. Other questions? Yes, Jim.
Male Voice: …the U.S. government, the White House, Pentagon, CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency, [inaudible] research, opinions? Do they read it, [inaudible] and don’t know what to do about it?
Danner: Gosh, that’s an interesting question. The first part I can say no, they don’t call me up. I call them up. And do they know these…? I think it’s safe to say that there are people within the government, a lot of them, who know this stuff. The question is if the people who know this stuff get their opinions taken to the policymakers. And I think that is a much bigger question.
I mean, there are lots of people in the government who knew all about Iraq and knew about the Sunni-Shia divide, and knew all of these things, but the Bush Administration policymakers and decision-makers actively prevented themselves from hearing from these people because they wanted their war for other reasons. They didn’t want to hear details that would dissuade them from what the larger policy was.
And I think that kind of mechanism often happens in government. It’s a very well functioning government in which information is pulled up, gets to policymakers, and then decisions are made and those decisions are transmitted downward. The National Security Council system is supposed to ensure that happens, but it has to work effectively.
And there’s also, what I was trying to emphasize in the talk, the politics of fear, that very often our larger responses are determined by political parameters that tend to get much narrower in the wake of an attack. There’s a great book by Graham Allison called Essence of Decision that is essentially about this, about how narrow the choices for policymakers can become during a crisis.
And I think we’ve seen this repeatedly during the war on terror, that political concerns, notably the need to make a very high profile response after September 11th, though I think the Iraq invasion was not a necessity by any means politically, I think that the administration wanted it. They had their own concerns about national power, about a demonstration of fact.
I mean, there were various romantic ideas about a unipolar world. The U.S. was the single power. We have to demonstrate our dominance. And of course the talk around at the time was about creative destabilization. It’s a wonderful term, creative destabilization. We need creative destabilization in the Middle East. That is, we have to go in and bust them up. We have to go in and start things changing because it’s a swamp there. Rumsfeld did a famous memo back in the ‘80s about the swamp of the Middle East. Sorry, those metaphors don’t mix very well.
But indeed, creative destabilization. We’re living with it, creative destabilization. Mubarak was there. Now there’s a completely different regime and a lot more terrorist activity in Egypt. Gaddafi was there. Now there is—the term of art now that the Pentagon uses is ungoverned spaces. Ungoverned spaces. It’s a beautiful term, I think. There are ungoverned spaces throughout the Middle East. And essentially we have created these ungoverned spaces, or we’ve done much to create them. It’s not true that we completely created them, but we did much to create them by our creative destabilization.
So do they have the information? Certainly it’s in the government. There are a lot of smart people in the DIA and the CIA, and we have just an enormous intelligence bureaucracy. But the question is whether this sort of stuff gets to people who make policy. I mean, even in the decisions now. Obama himself clearly knows well the dangers of doing what they want us to do. I mean, he has spent his entire term avoiding it, or trying to avoid it. The drone war was in part to avoid it, although it didn’t, it’s had its own consequences.
But you see the pressures on him now to escalate. There are strong political pressures on him now to escalate, not least from the Clinton campaign, because if he doesn’t, it will hurt her. And the degree to which terrorism becomes the major issue and Obama is perceived to be weak is the degree to which Hillary is hurt, must separate herself from him. And he very much wants her to succeed him. He’s made that very obvious. So I’m not saying, you know, gee, these are these base political motives, that’s all they care about, no. But there are strong political motives.
When you look at the politics of fear as I’ve tried to describe them, you see that happening right now. I mean, imagine what would happen after—listen for a second. Imagine an attack. We’ll make it really simple, soft targets. Somebody walks into the McDonald’s in Times Square—and we should show that tape, actually. It’s 26 seconds.
Somebody walks into McDonald’s in Times Square and somebody walks into the McDonald’s on [Wiltern] Avenue in L.A., they both have backpacks. It doesn’t even have to be a suicide bombing. They could leave them under a table. Plastic explosive, very easy, or the explosives used in Paris—boom, boom, they go off at the same time. They kill 40 people, let’s say. Can you imagine the political consequences of that? They would be absolutely vast. And to do that would be very easy. It just would not be difficult. Do you have that one? Let’s show that. This came out after the Paris attacks. It’s 26 seconds.
[Video plays.] [Music.]
Danner: Did everybody get that, what that was? Constructing a suicide belt and footage of Times Square, and somebody walking into Times Square. Very simple, very effective. Talk about high concept. That was a really good video, I think, as simple as can be. And could they do that? Absolutely they could do that.
But the broad point I’m trying to make here is what would the political consequences of it be? They would be absolutely devastating, I think. I think you would have an enormous rising scream from the right wing saying that Obama hadn’t protected us, the Democrats hadn’t protected us, we have to strike out, we have to level Rakka, etc., etc., and there would be great pressure on him to respond because he would be politically essentially unprotected, and she would be in big trouble. If he didn’t respond in strong terms, she would have to call for it, I suspect, depending on the circumstances of the attack.
And there are ways to plot the attack to make it particularly damaging politically. And these people are very aware of these things. I think if you did this three weeks before the election… In 2004 Osama bin Laden released an audiotape a week before the election that certainly hurt John Kerry and helped George W. Bush, there’s no question about it. Now that was an extremely close election, very, very close. The popular vote Bush won by a couple million, but Ohio was in the tens of thousands. It was very close.
If Kerry had gotten a few tens of thousands more votes in Ohio, there would have been a President Kerry who lost the popular vote. It would have been two elections in a row in which we would have had the popular vote loser win the White House. And I think it is arguable that without that tape, conceivably, you might have had a President Kerry. I mean, it’s an incredible thing. So I guess, to get back to your question, I don’t think information is a problem, is the problem. I think the politics are the problem. Other questions? Yes.
Female Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: You know, I think that’s a very good question. The U.S. has been trying from the beginning to answer them with propaganda and it’s been fairly pathetic. It’s been fairly pathetic. I started by saying your generation, the generation of students has lived with this from the beginning. Well, the people who are doing the stuff that we’ve been showing are in their late teens, early 20s. I mean, most of the propagandists are young people and they are computer geeks, and they are really talented. They have a lot of very talented people.
But the major problem has been the battle of the story, that you cannot make good propaganda when you are occupying Iraq. You cannot make good propaganda when you are bombing the Islamic State every day, you know what I mean? I mean, the stuff that we’re doing, we have our own propaganda of the deed. I mean, propaganda of the deed is used to describe terrorism, but we have the propaganda of the deed. We’re bombing them. And that bombing is a problem. The drones are a problem.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it. I mean, there’s a real discussion to be had about what should we be doing here. But the fact is that our larger actions have undermined our propaganda because we’ve been acting like an imperialist Western power that represses Muslims. And if you are acting that way, it’s very hard to issue propaganda that’s effective that says no-no-no, we don’t do this.
So I think we’ve gotten better at it. We’re issuing Twitter feeds. I mean, mostly it’s counter propaganda, it’s counter cyber war. These things that I’ve shown, some of them, they come up, they’re immediately taken down. I don’t know if that thing wouldn’t load because it’s been taken down. I don’t know why. But there’s a constant war going on where these people in the CIA and various other intelligence places in the government spend their day taking down Twitter feeds and so on. So there’s this constant war going on.
But our propaganda—the other thing to say is that the Islamic State—I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate how popular it is. We’re talking about a tiny percentage of Muslims who support it, tiny. But out of a population of 1.5 billion, a tiny percentage is a lot of people, even a tiny percentage. And we’re talking mostly about the appeal to a certain segment of young people, notably teenage and early 20-year-old boys. I mean, did you see that combat video? Doesn’t it look fun? Doesn’t it look fun? I mean, if you are saying are you fucking kidding me, then you’re not their target group. But if you’re saying yeah, it sort of looked fun, then, you know.
Because they’re basically saying come here, live in utopia, be equal, fight for Muslim values, change the world. Come here, we’ll give you a salary every month, we’ll give you a place to live, we’ll give you a girlfriend who may or may not be a slave, because they’ve got a lot of slaves now, we’ll find you a wife. So if you’re kind of a geeky boy staying in your room on the Internet all the time, not very popular—that’s a little bit prejudicial the way I described that, but it’s an appealing…it can be, I think, an appealing offer.
And I think that the United States hasn’t found a kind of propaganda line to counter that, because they’re mining a kind of vein of idealism. Did you see that Canadian guy? Isn’t he a recognizable type? I should have played a little more of it. We didn’t really play the interview. But he’s kind of a recognizable—I mean, you know him. You look at him and you know him, you know who this guy is. You’ve met him.
And there are a lot of people like that who think I’m 20 years old, the world is unjust, look at this horrible society. We’re bombing these poor Muslims. I’m a Muslims. I’m going to go fight for them. I’m going to go live there. I’m going to live in truth. I mean, it’s hard to think living in truth is consonant with the kind of violence that we’re talking about, but that is the kind of thinking. And it’s hard to, I think, combat that on the propaganda side. So I think the U.S. has been pretty unsuccessful, in general. Disaster under the Bush Administration, but not that much better now.
Male Voice: Take one more question.
Danner: Oh, okay. How about two, because she had her hand up, too. Right there. And I’ll try to answer more quickly.
Female Voice: You talked about the politics of fear. On the other side of that it seems there’s a politics of humiliation. And forgive me if this is very simplistic, but we’re dealing with human beings with presumably some similarity in emotional makeup, [inaudible]. To combat energy that’s provoked by humiliation by more humiliation and more power seems a no-brainer. You can’t do it. Is there anybody thinking in terms of the emotional foundations for this conflict?
Danner: Well, I have been. I mean, various other people, I think, who write about it have been. But I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that the grander concerns of politics have been taking much more of a front seat, and those grander concerns have to do much more with traditional responses of violence. And those traditional response of violence have, to me, been comprehensible, like I understand them, although I think Iraq was a dramatic mistake that I argued against at the time, and many other people did. I think it was a foreseeable self-inflicted wound. But we’ve made other mistakes as well, basically having to do with the fact that they’ve been using violence against us, so we need to respond with violence. And we have these violent assets that we need to use. And I think the problem was slightly subtler.
But I don’t want to be misunderstood here and seem to be arguing that this was easy to combat. I think we’ve been singularly inept and self-defeating in our response. I think that is absolutely true. You could have imagined a different response that really would have been using intelligence assets, using, to some degree, law enforcement, not raising this to the level of a war, which George W. Bush did immediately. And there were pressures to do it. I mean, I understand why he did it.
But you could see a different means being adopted that other states have adopted. I mean, the British during the Malayan emergency. There were precedents for how to respond that we basically did not follow. We acted like a great state and we responded with iron. But it’s now reached the point that, you know, I think Obama wants to use containment, gradually reduce the footprint of the Islamic State, gradually deplete them. And I think that’s in general probably the right thing to be doing.
But the political pressures are going to be very great, and already are very great, to do something more and to increase the humiliation that you asked about. How about the last question? You had your hand up for a while.
Female Voice: [Inaudible.]
Danner: You’re welcome.
Female Voice: [Inaudible.] My question is do you think that there’s anybody on the international peace [lines], like peace activists, that are other ones in that have a way of thinking about this that could be helpful? Do you see anything on the horizon from the peace movement that could be helpful?
Danner: Not really. Not really. I mean, I think they’re a necessary element of our politics, and I wish they were stronger. The fact is that the strongest political brake that exists right now is the exhaustion of the American public with wars, large-scale wars in which we use, as the awful phrase has it now, boots on the ground. They’re actually soldiers, not boots on the ground. But that exhaustion produced Barack Obama. I mean, we have that to thank for Barack Obama. And the fact that he got out of Iraq and has been trying to get out of Afghanistan, although he’s been unsuccessful, at the end of the day, is a tribute to the exhaustion of the American electorate and the fact that voters don’t believe what politicians tell them about the war on terror.
On the other hand, you see that the responses, just by the poll results, are very volatile. After the beheadings of Foley and a couple of others, the willingness of Americans, you know, that they told pollsters, to respond actively increased by 10 or 15%. So if you’re reading the polls, these polls change. But I think that that general feeling of reluctance, and that inherent skepticism about a war in the Middle East is one of the things that’s kept us out of Syria, for example, an active involvement in which I think would be catastrophic. I think it would have been two years ago and I think it certainly would be now. But there’s increasing pressure from the political level to do that.
So I think the peace movement is important. I wish it was stronger. But I think there’s a more generalized reluctance and exhaustion, and skepticism, that has, up to now, outweighed the more volatile emotions, the more volatile sort of fever chart emotions of fear. And I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful also for your generous comments, and I’m grateful to Tom Keenan and Danielle Riou, and Eliza for—and also to my students, [Ariela Christ] and [Erin Cardeny] for some of these links. And I’m grateful to all of you for coming out on a rainy night to talk about such a grim subject. Thank you very much. [Applause.]
[End of recording.]