John Burns Q. and A. on Islamic Radicalization
By John F. Burns
January 21, 2010
This week, John Burns, the chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is responding to readers’ comments and questions about Islamic radicalization.
Since the 9/11 attackers flew passenger jets into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania on that halcyon day in 2001, it is a question few in America, indeed few anywhere in the Western world with access to a newspaper, a radio or a television set, have not asked.
Why would a group of young Middle Eastern Muslims, many of them with good educations, promising futures and the opportunity to benefit in their travels from much that is best in the life of the West, want to leave such a terrible mark in history? What passion so great, what commitment of faith and unreason so immutable, what cast of mind so hostile to gentleness and compassion, could drive 19 young men to commit such appalling acts of mass murder, extinguishing their own lives in the process?
Millions of words have been written in search of answers since that day, and the days of extremist horror that have followed in Baghdad, Bali, Istanbul, Kabul, London, Madrid and elsewhere; so many that I fear that there is little new or insightful anyone can contribute at this remove to the understanding of Islamic extremism that is now so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of the West. As a reporter, I, like so many others, have had personal exposure to the world of violence and intolerance engendered by the extremists, through a decade and more of assignments to places where their hatred of the West took its most dramatic form – the rise of the Talibanin Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s, and the miseries they imposed on the Afghan people until their overthrow after 9/11; a period of many months in Yemen, before and after the October 2000 attack by a bomb-laden skiff that killed 17 sailors on the USS Cole, the last major al Qaeda attack before the Twin Towers; after 9/11, assignment to Pakistan, and later Afghanistan, during the campaign to topple the Taliban and its aftermath; from there, on to Iraq for five years during the run-up to the invasion of 2003, and through the years of insurgency and civil conflict that followed.
Now, based in London, Islamic extremism continues to run like a thick thread through my professional life, and never more so than in the month since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s actions caused him to be accused of attempting to ignite a powerful bomb sewn into his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines passenger jet approaching Detroit from Amsterdam on Dec. 25. The path to jihad for the young Nigerian ran through three years of associations with Islamic radicals in the mosques and college conference halls of London while he was an engineering student at University College London; building a picture of his time here, with other colleagues in London, felt at times as though we were reading from a well-worn script – one traced out before, in their associations with the extremist diaspora here, by an entire platoon of suicide attackers, would-be and actual, including the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, arrested by the FBI because of an immigration breach before, prosecutors alleged, he could join in 9/11; the failed airline shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, whose own attack in 2001 occurred on a plane bound for Miami from Paris; the perpetrators of the London transit bombings in July 2005 that killed 56 people, including the four bombers; and the group of young British Muslims alleged to have been involved in a 2006 plot to bomb seven transatlantic airliners flying out of Heathrow airport on a single day, three of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment after a second lengthy trial last fall.
Of necessity, then, I have been thinking about Islamic extremism, one way or another, almost every day for the past 15 years. On occasions, those ruminations have taken on a highly personal edge, from instances both ludicrous and potentially lethal. I came to know the Islamic furies of the Taliban early on, first as an offender against their prohibition against trimmed beards, which caused me to be seized on the street in Kabul in 1996, my chin forced upwards by my heavily-bearded captors to allow a measuring of my grown-out stubble against a six-inch strip of metal that constituted one of the Taliban’s rough-and-ready measures of their fellow Afghans’ fealty to pre-medieval Islamic codes. That encounter saw me thrust into a rusty shipping container with other miscreants who were destined to spend weeks in the container while growing their own inadequate stubble, but an appeal to a friendly United Nations official with influence among the Taliban led to my early reprieve. Later, caught trying to disguise myself as an Afghan under a shoulder blanket in the crowd at the execution by a volley of Kalashnikov fire of alleged murderers and adulterers in a Kabul soccer stadium, I had to run for my life from an angry mob shouting “Kafir!”, meaning infidel, and throwing stones.
In Yemen, after the Cole attack, I talked my way into an al Qaeda-linked indoctrination school in the remote desert close to the Saudi Arabian border that an FBI source had flagged for us as a known way station for young extremists being groomed ideologically, and vetted, before being moved on to terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With my companion Peter Bergen, now a well-known American writer and broadcast commentator on Islamic terrorism, we had represented ourselves as travelers seeking enlightenment from Islam, only to have a sinister-looking enforcer dig into our shoulder bags and discover, among other things, my Times identity card. Our hosts, bristling with Kalashnikovs, looked angry enough to kill us right away, and if they had, we might still be lying beneath the desert sands, since we had told nobody where we were going. But for reasons never explained, they marched us out of their compound, pushed us into our 4-by-4, then followed us for miles, glued to our tail, as we headed for the relative safety of the closest desert town, before turning around and disappearing back into the desert.
In Iraq in 2004, I was kidnapped with eight other Times employees and driven to a cinder-block building deep in the desert outside the holy city of Najaf by armed militants loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric with a ready resort to murderous violence who was at that time involved in a major insurrection against U.S. troops; they, too, thought better of threats to kill us, and released us before dawn the next day. In October 2005, the Times compound in Iraq suffered extensive collateral damage in an al Qaeda-directed bombing attack on Baghdad’s own Twin Towers, the Palestine and Sheraton hotels. When we measured it on Google Earth, we found that the third bomb in that attack, involving half a ton of high explosive in a cement-mixer truck, had detonated 255 yards from my office, which was largely obliterated by the blast.
Most reporters who have covered the Islamic extremist upheavals of these years have similar stories to tell; by themselves they mean little, other than as stories to tell each other down the years of the “how close I came” or “what a brave fellow I am” schools, the sort of thing that builds more distaste than approbation among people who point out, quite rightly, that we make our own free choices in getting ourselves into such fixes. Indeed, if these stories have any bearing on the quest for understanding of what motivates the extremists, it could be that the experience of bearding the lion in his den is counter-productive, in the sense that being chased by angry mobs, kidnapped, threatened at gunpoint and suicide-bombed are not, by their nature, consciousness-expanding, any more than being mugged by a knife-wielding thug on the subway is likely — in the immediate term, anyway — to enhance socially liberal convictions about the deprivations that may have led the attacker to travel his chosen path.
For this reason, among others, I have found reading the comments that have flowed into the “At War” blog this week enlightening, and, in their way, encouraging – as I have on many other occasions since joining the “At War” team last summer. Once again, posting the topic of Islamic radicalization has provided us with a matchless opportunity not only to communicate with our readers, but to learn much in the process — above all, just how deeply many of our contributors have thought the issue through, and how, in the main, their quest has been driven by the reach for understanding and a path toward accommodation, more than by the instinct, strong though it is with many, for retribution alone. As it happens, I am writing after a Cambridge University dinner in honour of David Puttnam, director of “Chariots of Fire” and “The Killing Fields,” who spoke at Trinity College on his vision of the vast educational potential inherent in the new tools of the digital age. A passionate believer in the benefits of the Internet, he nonetheless referred at one point to its downside potential, describing demagogic bloggers who exploit their access to the medium as “a digital lynch mob.”
While that’s a specter that always lurks at the edge of blogging, the more so when the topic is as emotive as Islamic radicalization, what has been striking about the blogs this topic has attracted – like so many others on the ‘At War’ site in recent months – is the sense I take from the flow of questions and comments of how well many of our readers have understood the multiple causes of radicalization in the Islamic world, and how widespread, judging from this sample, is the understanding that these causes seem unlikely to yield to greater tolerance among radicalized Muslims within a generation, and perhaps for far longer than that. In that sense, at least, those who have cast the confrontation between Islamic extremism and the West as “the long war” seem to have grasped an unpalatable but inescapable truth. If the West is to find an accommodation with this new enemy, we will have to work hard at addressing these causes, with military power only one of the many tools in our armory, and we will most surely have to draw on the one resource, patience, that is always in short supply when nations and creeds and ways of life find themselves under violent attack.
Source: Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company