Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
Peter Bergen: Recent terrorist attacks have claimed lives in France, Iraq, Bangladesh and the U.S., among other countries
He says the problems that give rise to terrorism are deep and will likely persist even after an eventual defeat for ISIS
Mass casualty terrorist attacks in Orlando, at the Istanbul airport, at a café in Bangladesh, a market in Baghdad, the Bastille Day celebration in Nice, and on Tuesday the murder of an elderly priest in Normandy, all carried out by ISIS or in the name of ISIS. And that’s just in the past several weeks.
After each one of these attacks the first question is: Why? Why would anyone kill complete strangers who are dancing at a nightclub, or eating at a restaurant, or folks attending a holiday fireworks display, or an 86-year-old priest?
There are five deep historical currents that are influencing these events. At the macro level, ISIS is not itself the problem — though it certainly amplifies existing problems — but rather it’s the symptom of five major problems that are driving jihadist terrorism around the globe and will continue to do so even when ISIS is contained and largely defeated.
1. The first major problem is the regional civil war in the Middle East between the Sunni and the Shia that engulfed first Iraq, then Syria and now Yemen. That regional civil war is being driven by a variety of factors including the failure of the largely Shia Iraqi government to give Sunnis a real place at the table and the brutal civil war that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is waging on his largely Sunni population. Also in the mix is the role that Iran and the Gulf states have played in fighting each other in Syria through proxy forces such as the Sunni militant groups that are supported by the Gulf states and the Shia militias that are supported by Iran.
This regional sectarian war was amplified by Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen in the spring of 2015 to fight what they believe to be Iranian-backed Houthis who had recently seized control of the Yemeni capital.
The civil war across the Middle East between the Shia and the Sunni empowers groups like ISIS and al Qaeda who claim to be the defenders of Sunni rights against Shia attack.
Until there is real political accommodation between the Sunnis and the Shia in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen and some kind of rapprochement between the mortal enemies of Iran and Saudi Arabia, these sectarian wars will grind on.
Don’t, however, expect such an accommodation in the short- or medium-term. The Syrian civil war is already in its fifth year and the principal players in the conflict both inside Syria and outside of the country show absolutely no sign of making even the first tiny steps toward setting up a real peace process. And, as we have seen, the West does not have much of an ability to make this happen either.
2. A major problem is the collapse of Arab governance around the region. Think of ISIS as a pathogen that preys on weak hosts in the Muslim world. In fact, there is something of a political law: The weaker a Muslim state, the stronger will be the presence of ISIS or like-minded groups. So, in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – countries that are completely failed states or are largely failing states – the presence of these groups is strong. In Muslim countries with somewhat competent governments such as Indonesia, the presence of these groups is relatively small.
3. As result of the first two problems, there are unprecedented waves of immigration from the Muslim world flooding into the West, in particular to Europe.
Germany alone has taken a million refugees. European countries simply do not have the ideological framework the United States has in the shape of the “American dream” that has helped to absorb successfully wave after wave of immigration to the States, including Muslim Americans who are well integrated into American society. There is no analogous French dream or German dream.
4. Massive immigration from the Muslim world into Europe has amplified a fourth problem, which is the rise of European ultranationalist and protofascist parties.
These parties define themselves as deeply opposed to immigrants and are ultranationalist in flavor. These parties once played a very marginal role in European politics but are now doing well in Austria, France, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland. The rise of these parties is reflective of the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in many European societies that in turn amplifies the feelings of alienation that many Muslims feel in Europe.
5. Muslims in Europe live largely separate and unequal lives. An indication of how marginalized European Muslims are is provided by the following bleak statistics: The proportion of the French prison population that is Muslim is estimated to be around 60%, yet Muslims only account for about 8% of France’s total population. In Belgian prisons there is a similar story: 35% of the prison population is Muslim, yet Muslims only make up 6% of the overall population.
Muslim citizens in France are 2½ times less likely to be called for a job interview than a similar Christian candidate, according to a researcher at Stanford University.
Many French Muslims live in grim banlieues, the suburbs of large French cities (similar to housing projects in the United States), where they find themselves largely divorced from mainstream French society. According to the Renseignements Généraux, a police agency that monitors militants in France, half the neighborhoods with a high Muslim population are isolated from French social and political life. The French term for these neighborhoods is equivalent to “sensitive urban zones,” where youth unemployment can be as high as 45%.
None of these five problems is easily solved.
All these feed into ISIS’ narrative that Muslims are under attack by the West and also by the Shia as well as by any Muslim who doesn’t share their extremist ideology.
Case study: The Orlando killer
This simplistic ideology is appealing for men like Omar Mateen, who carried out the Orlando nightclub attack that killed 49 last month.
While Mateen pledged himself to ISIS during his attacks, a more complex stew of personal traits and resentments also propelled him toward violence. As a child Mateen was angry and disruptive in class and was disciplined more than 30 times in elementary and middle school. Age 14 he was expelled from high school for fighting. On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Mateen told classmates Osama bin Laden was his uncle.
As an adult, co-workers remember that he claimed to have connections to both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, terrorists groups that are at war with each other. His first wife says he was abusive and couldn’t control his temper.
World reacts to Orlando attack
Mateen had a dream that had faded. He desperately wanted to be a cop and took selfies of himself wearing New York Police Department shirts, but he was dismissed from a Florida police-training academy in 2007 because he threatened to bring a gun to campus and was falling asleep in class.
Eight years later in 2015, Mateen tried once again to become a police officer, applying to the police academy at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, but he was turned down because he admitted that he had used marijuana in the past and also for what the college termed were “discrepancies” in some of the information he included on his application form.
Mateen’s grievances festered. By carrying out a terrorist attack as a self-styled “Islamic fighter” pledging allegiance to ISIS, Mateen was finally the heroic figure he believed himself to be, rather than the going-nowhere security guard at a golf resort community that he was at the time he opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Jihadist terrorists in the West such as Mateen are generally motivated by a mix of factors, including the militant Islamist ideology promulgated by ISIS; dislike of Western foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gives them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often is precipitated by some kind of personal disappointment, like the death of a parent, a recent divorce, or some kind of failure in the workplace.
For many terrorists, carrying out an attack allowed them to become the heroes of their own story.
With ISIS likely headed toward defeat on the battlefield in the next year or so, it’s helpful to think about the constellation of deep historical currents that produced the would-be caliphate – because if we don’t start thinking seriously about how to fix those problems we will find that after ISIS there will arise a similar terrorist organization that feeds off the toxic problems bedeviling both the Middle East and Europe.