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, it praises as a “soldier” a man who straps a bomb to his own body and detonates it by a concert hall, killing 22 defenceless people, among them an eight-year-old girl.
Every year this movement kills many thousands of people. In 2015 four groups were responsible for three-quarters of more than 29,000 deaths from terrorism: Isis, 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 hadiths. 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 under attack. There were 64 Isis-affiliated attacks in western countries in 2015, including the massacre in Paris in November (130 killed). Only the vigilance of the security services has stopped many more people being killed. In 2014 there were more terrorism-related arrests in the UK than in any year since 2000. A British bomber was bound to get through eventually. We are 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. Salman Abedi was yet another homegrown western terrorist: born in Manchester, the son of two Libyans who were granted asylum in Britain because of their opposition to Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s regime.
Back then Abedi’s father, Ramadan, was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. After Gadaffi was overthrown, he returned to Libya, where he became a supporter of Jabhat 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 showed an image of Abedi’s younger brother, holding a large gun, with the caption: “The lion Hashem . . . is training.” No hidden hands there.
If nothing else, this case will surely lay to rest the fantasy of jihadists as “lone wolves”. Not only was Abedi the product of an extremist family; he was also part of a jihadist network in the Greater Manchester area, which was in turn connected to kindred spirits in Germany, Libya, Turkey and Syria, all countries he is believed to have visited in the days before he committed mass murder. In one of them he received the training needed to build his shrapnel bomb.
We have read it all before. An ordinary lad, not very bright. As a teenager he was a bit of a lout, smoking cannabis and drinking vodka. But then came the telltale signs. A classmate recalls that Abedi “once smashed a girl in the head in a rage because she wore a short skirt”. A neighbour saw him chanting Arabic “really loudly in the street”. The new beard. The switch to non-western clothes. The altercation with the imam who delivered an anti-extremist sermon.
As usual, wise-after-the-event pundits ask: how could the security services have missed these red flags? But do you have any idea how many young men like Abedi there are in western Europe? The answer is: tens of thousands. 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”?
Recently the man who made that pledge went on his first foreign trip as president of the United States. Stop No 1 for Donald Trump was Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holy places Mecca and Medina. Stop No 2 was Israel. 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 was: 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 was supposed to say “Islamist”, not “Islamic”. Oh no he wasn’t.
“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists,” Trump told leaders from Muslim-majority nations. “Drive. Them. Out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.” This seems like advice that European leaders could also use.
Trump, for all his flaws, 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 tap. 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 and Trump’s Jewish hosts in Israel.
This strategy will not be easy to execute. Trump also needs to convince Russia, and indeed the European Union, to stop giving the Iranians military and economic cover. He needs to do more than weaken Iran; he also needs to stabilise Syria and Iraq, not to mention Libya. At the same time he needs to rethink his policy on Muslim immigration. And he needs to get his own security services to work more effectively than they did last week to help their British counterparts.
Yet at least there is a strategy here. It will not bring back the 22 people Abedi killed last Monday. I grieve for them and their families. Nevertheless, the fact that the president of America no longer spouts politically correct newspeak about “countering violent extremism” gives me a glimmer of hope.