Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment :
The policy of targeted assassinations and drone strikes as the cornerstone of an evolving U.S. counterterrorism policy carries some short-term tactical benefits but little in the way of lasting strategic success. Rather, the recent deaths of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki from an American drone strike and Osama bin Laden from a raid deep inside Pakistan should instead remind us a fundamental fact: the Muslim world is engaged in a broader war of ideas. While the U.S. may have individual victories, if we reduce the thrust of American policy to targeted assassinations, we could well end up stoking the radical flame we are trying to extinguish.
The name of al-Awlaki’s radical Al Qaeda magazine was the source of his power: “Inspire.” And al-Awlaki’s ability to inspire came from waging a holy war for God—where individuals do not matter, only service to the greater cause does. He is now a martyr for that cause.
Over the course of six years, as a former federal prosecutor and investigator, I have interviewed at great length more than a hundred radical Islamic extremists and terrorists. One common theme emerged: they were fighting for their vision of the Islamic faith, where death is simply a means, human dignity a foreign concept, and Heaven the reward. As one Taliban fighter told me: “If I live, I fight against the American infidels for God; if I die I go to Heaven.”
Nearly all the extremists I interviewed were young men between the ages of 18 and 30, with a deep desire to be good Muslims, and highly impressionable to the teachings of al-Awaki and others. But they do not depend on those men.
The ideas of fighting in a holy war for God and their fellow Muslims inspired the Jihadists I interviewed. Not bin Laden or al-Awaki. In fact, of the more than one hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters I interviewed over the course of almost six years, not a single one cited bin Laden as his inspiration to fight.
Other religious Muslims and scholars must counter the ideas of jihad. Indeed, I chronicled many Jihadists leaving the path of violence when exposed to the corruption of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to a different interpretation of Islam. In Iraq, I have documented how Al Qaeda routinely lied and manipulated vulnerable young men into becoming suicide bombers. Indeed, our greatest weapon against bin Laden would have been to continually re-broadcast the impromptu taping of December 2001 where bin Laden laughed when recounting that some of so-called “muscle hijackers” from Asir in the south of Saudi Arabia never were told they had embarked on a suicide mission until the very end. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, I also interviewed many young Taliban fighters who became disillusioned by the theft of oil and other commodities by Taliban leaders, in alliance with the Pakistani Army and its intelligence agency. Al-Awlaki’s three arrests for the solicitation of prostitutes in San Diego and the Washington, D.C., area would have accomplished more to discredit him than a drone strike.
The role of the United States must be to take a back seat to the wider religious, cultural and political debate occurring throughout the Muslim world. We cannot afford to continually place the U.S. front and center by reducing this struggle to the assassinations of individuals. Our ultimate danger lies not in these men, but their message of extremism. Our ultimate hope lies in the courageous Muslims who have led the path away from the hatred of the radicals. By a policy that emphasizes killing alone, in the end, we may simply harden the resolve of the most recalcitrant.
Ken Ballen is the author of
Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals
(Free Press) (Oct 2011).