THE PROBLEM WE FACE is not complicated. A movement is spreading all over the world that interprets religious texts in the most literal way. This movement encourages young men and women to believe that violence against unbelievers is not merely legitimate but praiseworthy. Its moral code is so warped that it praises as a “soldier” a man who straps a bomb to his own body and detonates it in a concert hall, killing 22 defenseless people, among them an eight-year-old girl.
Every year this movement kills tens of thousands of people. In 2015, four groups were responsible for three-quarters of 29,000 deaths from terrorism: the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. What these groups have in common is that they justify their actions with explicit reference to the Koran and the hadith. Violence in the name of religion is not historically unique to Islam, of course, but there has been nothing like this in the Christian world since the 17th century.
To be sure, it is Muslim-majority countries that suffer the most from this movement. But the West is increasingly at risk. There were 64 ISIS-affiliated attacks in Western countries in 2015, including the massacre in Paris (130 killed) in November of that year. Only the vigilance of the security services has stopped many more people from being killed. A British bomber was bound to get through eventually. England is not that different from France.
The pattern is now so familiar that one reads the reports — “What We Know about the Bomber”— with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abediwas yet another homegrown Western terrorist: born in Manchester, the son of two Libyans who claimed and were granted asylum in Britain because of their opposition to the Khadafy regime.
Back then, Abedi’s father, Ramadan, had been member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. After Moammar Khadafy was overthrown, he returned to Libya, where he became a supporter of Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria. “My message to the world,” he declared last week, before his arrest, “is [that] there are hidden hands that want to tarnish the image of Muslims who live in the West.” He also said: “We don’t believe in killing innocents. This is not us.”
But who does Ramadan believe in killing? That would be “the infidels,” according to his Facebook page, which recently featured a photograph of Abedi’s younger brother holding a large gun, with the caption: “The lion Hashem . . . is training.” No hidden hands there.
As usual, wise-after-the-event pundits ask: How could the security services possibly have missed this and other red flags? But do you have any idea how many young men like Salman and Hashem Abedi there now are in Western Europe? And what are we supposed to do about them, when we cannot even agree on what to call their movement and when we ridicule the one leader who pledges to “eradicate . . . radical Islamic terrorism . . . completely from the face of the earth”?
Last week, the man who made that pledge went on his first foreign trip as president of the United States. Stop number one for Donald Trump was Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holy places, Mecca and Medina. Stop number two was Jerusalem. The liberal media’s response was, as usual, ridicule. How the press corps all laughed at the sight of Trump and the Saudi king laying hands on a glowing white orb.
But what was that orb? The answer: a globe that served as the official launch button for a new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. Not a single commentator considered for one second that this might be rather an important departure for the Saudi regime, and potentially a real contribution to the campaign of “ideological warfare” that Trump proposed last year.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump is not afraid to call this problem by its real name. Departing from his script, he called for “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.” Tut-tut, grumbled The New York Times, he wasn’t supposed to say “Islamic” but “Islamist.” Oh yes he was.
“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists,” Trump told his audience of leaders from Muslim-majority countries. “Drive. Them. Out.” For all his flaws, he has this right. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the principal source of funding for the export of Sunni fundamentalism. Leaning on the Saudis is therefore an essential first step. Obviously, there has to be some quid pro quo if the House of Saud really is going to turn off the cash. But that, as Trump’s speech made clear, is going to be US-led action to check Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions. For hostility to Iran is the one thing that unites the Sunni states represented in Riyadh with Trump’s Jewish hosts in Jerusalem.
This strategy will not be easy to execute. It will not bring back the 22 people Salman Abedi killed last Monday. But at least it is a strategy. And the fact that the president of the United States no longer spouts politically correct newspeak about “countering violent extremism” gives me a glimmer of hope.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.