For more than three decades, they have sought out and killed Americans. In 1983, in one of the first major anti-American attacks, they bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. In 1992, they used bombs to kill two people in Aden, Yemen, in hopes of killing American troops that might be passing through. In February 1993, they used a truck-based explosive to try and topple the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. They failed, but their attack killed six New Yorkers and injured a thousand others.
What would you call the perpetrators of such acts—militants? Would you copy President Obama and call them violent extremists or simply terrorists? What is missing in such formulations? Even as he identified al-Qaeda as a threat to America, Obama refused to describe the enemy as it describes itself: “Islamic.”
Islamic Terrorists Have a Religious Goal
Emboldened by their success in Beirut and their almost-success in New York City in 1993, terrorists used bombs in 1995 to kill five U.S. servicemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The following year, al-Qadea struck again at American troops in Saudi Arabia in the Khobar Tower bombings, killing 19 Americans and wounding 372.
Why did the terrorists persist in their plots to kill Americans? What was it about America that so enraged them? In February 1998, Osama Bin Laden provided an answer when he declared a “fatwa” (a religious decree) declaring war against America in the name of the World Islamic Front, calling for the killing of civilians as well as soldiers:
“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country [emphasis added] in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”
By their own words, Bin Laden and his fellow travelers declared themselves to be not just terrorists but Islamist terrorists with a religious goal—to re-establish true Islamic society in the Middle East by removing any “stain” of American influence by force. Bin Laden believed the whole world was meant to accept his universal message.
While the majority of Muslims prefer peaceful, non-violent, socio-political approaches that lead in time to a peaceful transition to Islamic society, a minority, led by revolutionary groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, favor a jihad or holy war dependent upon violence and military action. This brand of Salafist Islam does not distinguish between combatants and civilians as the West does but sees the West as an imperialist enemy with America as its leader.
It is self-evident that the terrorists who have sought to kill us all these years are Islamist. Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists consider themselves to be holy warriors who believe in a specific ideology (Islamist extremism) that is tied to a specific religion: Islam.
From Al-Qaeda to ISIS
Following Bin Laden’s fatwa, the killing continued. In January 2000, al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden, killing 17 and injuring 39 Americans. In the world today, Bin Laden said, “the worst terrorists are the Americans,” and he predicted “a black future for America.” We did not understand how black they would try to make it.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two hijacked passenger jets smashed into New York City’s World Trade Center, destroying the two towers and killing 2,753 people. A third hijacked jet slammed into the side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 184 civilians and military personnel. A fourth plane, whose target was probably the U.S. Capitol, was diverted by courageous passengers and crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, killing 33 passengers, seven crew, and four hijackers.
In response, President George W. Bush approved and later President Barack Obama supported a global manhunt for Bin Laden, which ended on May 1, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with his death in a raid by American Navy SEALs. Commented President Obama: “For over two decades, bin Laden has been al-Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.”
While President Obama acknowledged that the fight against al-Qaeda was not over, neither he nor any other Western leader foresaw the change that Islamist terrorism would undergo.
As the central branch of al-Qaeda withered under American assault, a regional affiliate, known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI, grew and spread. In 2013, this group rebranded itself as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s mission was to do more than harass American troops with improvised explosive devices or commit acts of terror. Rather, it aspired to territorial government and expansion across the Muslim world in the name of Sunni Islam. ISIS has proclaimed itself to be a re-establishment of the caliphate, or transnational Islamist state that ruled the Middle East and much of Europe a thousand years ago.
Beheadings and Massacres: Yes, They’re Serious
It shocked the world by beheading on camera James Foley, a freelance reporter with the GlobalPost; former Army Ranger Peter Kassig; and freelance journalist Steven Sotloff. In addition, ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller, an American volunteer worker in Syria, was accidentally killed by a coalition airstrike.
While the West condemned the callousness of the beheadings, ISIS’s reach grew. “We announce our allegiance to the Caliph … and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity,” announced Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group dedicated to the goals of an Islamist society that ISIS represents.
Boko Haram is merciless. In the past year, it has killed more than 10,000 people. This includes a brutal massacre of some 2,000 women, children, and elderly in the town of Baga, Nigeria. Nor is its reach limited to Nigeria. Boko Haram continues to spread havoc across parts of Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. Its declared allegiance to ISIS further demonstrates the accelerating appeal of Islamist terrorism not just in the Middle East and in Africa but around the world.
In Islamist terrorism, the United States and the West face a foe of the same ideological mold as the Soviet Union. Both communism and Islamist terrorism are threats grounded in principles deeper than geo-political or social considerations. In the 14 years since 9/11 there have been 65 separate Islamist terrorist plots or attacks on U.S. soil. Thanks to the diligence of American intelligence and security operations, few of these plots have come to fruition. However, Islamist terrorism will only be defeated when we see it is as far more than mindless violence and “extremism.”
President Obama recognizes that Islamist terrorism is a problem, sort of. Last September he declared that America would use a broad coalition to ultimately “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS. Destroy? Yes. Degrade? No. ISIS is a terrorist group, not a street gang.
President Obama’s preferred use of the euphemistic “violent extremism” to describe our enemies is problematic. The President’s desire not to offend Muslims who are not engaged in terrorism may win some points in the Muslim world but it will weaken efforts to build a broad coalition against ISIS. Furthermore, it will confuse the American public. Without clarity in language there can be no clarity in strategy.
Don’t Impose Western Values on Islamic Terrorists
Obama’s socio-economic analysis of 9/11, at the time of the tragedy, reveals an inability to see clearly on a matter of national security:
The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers … It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.
But the root of the 9/11 terror attacks was not a “lack of empathy” or “poverty and ignorance.” It was an ideology of religious terrorism that Bin Laden willingly embraced. His beliefs flowed from forces more potent than the superficial categories Obama suggested. Islamist terrorism is grounded in a rigid theocratic political view of the world. As Walter Lohman, director of Heritage’s Asian Study Center has put it, “the threat cannot be honestly separated from its religious context … Calling the threat ‘Islamist’ allows us to distinguish friend from foe.”
There is no need for America to declare its own “fatwa” against all Muslims. Rather, we must recognize that ISIS and al-Qaeda represent a clear and present transnational danger that calls for precise definition and decisive action. We must be willing to understand our enemy as he is, not as we might wish him to be.
Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards is the author or editor of 20 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.
Josiah Lippincott is a member of the Young Leaders program at The Heritage Foundation.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.