Yesterday, a man wielding a hatchet attacked four New York City police officers, inflicting a head wound on one that left the officer in critical condition. The other officers opened fire on the attacker, killing him and wounding a bystander. At first, the attack could have been chalked up to simple insanity, butthen SITE took a look at Zale Thompson’s Facebook page:
The man who attacked New York City police officers with a hatchet before being shot dead was reported to have Islamic “extremist leanings” police and a monitoring group said.
The man, identified in the US media as Zale Thompson, had posted an array of statements on YouTube and Facebook that “display a hyper-racial focus in both religious and historical contexts, and ultimately hint at his extremist leanings,” the SITE monitoring group said. …
SITE, which monitors radical Muslim groups, said that in a comment Thompson had posted to a pro-Islamic State video on September 13, 2014, he described “jihad as a justifiable response to the oppression of the ‘Zionists and the Crusaders.’”
Police commissioner Bill Bratton advised people not to jump to conclusions:
“There is nothing we know of at this time that would indicate that were the case,” he said.
“I think certainly the heightened concern is relative to that type of assault, based on what just happened in Canada and recent events in Israel — certainly one of the things that first comes to mind — but that’s what the investigation will attempt to determine,” Bratton said.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Jim Sciutto, their national-security correspondent, about the issue later last night. Sciutto reports that the NYPD is looking at the same data as SITE:
The New York Daily News notes that Thompson had recently been talking about terrorism with a Facebook friend, according to the police:
Police are investigating the possibility that the attacker killed on a rainswept shopping corridor, identified by police sources as Zale Thompson, 32, had links to terrorism. A Zale Thompson on Facebook is pictured wearing a keffiyeh and had a recent terrorism-related conversation with one of his Facebook friends, according to a police source.
Thompson made no statements as he approached the four officers with hatchet in hand on Jamaica Ave. near 162nd St. in Jamaica at 2 p.m., officials said.
According to a CNN report this morning, Thompson had a criminal record and had been discharged from the US Navy for disorderly conduct, and some “commonalities” that have investigators worried enough to issue a warning to all law-enforcement agencies:
And there are uncomfortable commonalities with other Islamist attacks that have law enforcement in New York and Washington on high alert.
On a Facebook page bearing Thompson’s name, a warrior masked in a head and face scarf and armed with spear, sword and rifle gazes out at the beholder. The vintage black and white photo is the profile picture of the user, who lives in Queens.
A Quran quote in classic Arabic calligraphy mentioning judgment against those who have wandered astray serves as the page’s banner.
Some of the user’s Facebook friends posted articles about Thompson’s attack and death, referring to him by name and linking back to the Facebook page.
Thompson has been in trouble with the law before. He had a criminal record in California, a law enforcement official said, and the Navy discharged him for disorderly conduct.
This report notes another “commonality” — the somewhat similar circumstances of the murder of UK soldier Lee Rigby in London last December. There are also differences; two men conducted that murder on a single target, which they ran down in a car first. Both attacks, though, involve very personal attacks on figures of authority with cutting weapons by people who have publicly associated themselves with radical Islam. Sciutto notes that it’s these commonalities, plus the proximity of other lone-wolf attacks, that has police leaning toward terrorism as an explanation, rather than workplace violence.
Arab protesters wave Islamic flags in front of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel / AP
Six years into the Obama presidency, not only has the vocabulary of jihad been removed from official rhetoric and counterterrorism policy, but troops have been removed from Iraq, troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, the administration has condemned Israeli settlement activity while coddling Hamas’ backers in Ankara and Doha, “torture” has been banned, the White House intends to close Guantanamo unilaterally, Hosni Mubarak was abandoned in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the president is desperate for a partnership with the Islamic theocracy of Iran.
We must recognize the global and unitary nature of the threat. We must recognize that there is only one way to deal with a poison tree: You chop it down.
Last month, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu made a connection between the Islamic State and Hamas. These terrorist entities, Netanyahu said, have a lot in common. Separated by geography, they nonetheless share ideology and tactics and goals: Islamism, terrorism, the destruction of Israel, and the establishment of a global caliphate.
And yet, Netanyahu observed, the very nations now campaigning against the Islamic State treated Hamas like a legitimate combatant during last summer’s Israel-Gaza war. “They evidently don’t understand,” he said, “that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree.”
The State Department dismissed Netanyahu’s metaphor. “Obviously, we’ve designated both as terrorist organizations,” said spokesman Jen Psaki. “But ISIL poses a different threat to Western interests and to the United States.”
Psaki was wrong, of course. She’s always wrong. And, after the events of the last 48 hours, there ought not to be any doubt as to just how wrong she was. As news broke that a convert to Islam had murdered a soldier and stormed the Canadian parliament, one read of another attack in Jerusalem, where a Palestinian terrorist ran his car over passengers disembarking from light rail, injuring seven, and killing 3-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun, who held a U.S. passport.
Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hamas—these awful people are literally baby killers. And yet they produce a remarkable amount of dissension, confusion, willful ignorance, and moral equivalence on the part of the men and women who conduct U.S. foreign policy. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic,’” President Obama said of the terrorist army imposing sharia law across Syria and Iraq. “Obviously, we’re shaken by it,” President Obama said of the attack in Canada. “We urge all sides to maintain calm and avoid escalating tensions in the wake of this incident,” the State Department said of the murder of a Jewish child.
“Not Islamic,” despite the fact that the Caliphate grounds its barbarous activities in Islamic law. “Shaken,” not stirred to action. “All sides,” not the side that targets civilians again and again and again. The evasions continue. They create space for the poison tree to grow.
The persistent denial of the ideological unity of Islamic terrorism—the studied avoidance of politically incorrect facts that has characterized our response to the Ft. Hood shooting, the Benghazi attack, the Boston Marathon bombing, the march of the caliphate across Syria and Iraq, and the crimes of Hamas—is not random. Behind it is a set of ideas with a long history, and with great purchase among the holders of graduate degrees who staff the Department of Justice, the National Security Council, Foggy Bottom, and the diplomatic corps. These ideas are why, in the words of John McCain, the terrorists “are winning, and we’re not.”
A report by Katherine Gorka of the Council on Global Security, “The Bad Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” analyzes the soil from which the poison tree draws strength. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Gorka writes, U.S. policymakers have faced a dilemma: “how to talk about Islam in a way that is instructive in dealing with Muslims who are enemies but not destructive to those who are friends.” For decades, the preferred solution has been to declare America’s friendship with Islam, and to distinguish between jihadists and everyday Muslims.
One of Gorka’s earliest examples of this policy comes from former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, who said in 1992, “The U.S. government does not view Islam as the next ‘ism’ confronting the West or threatening world peace.” Similar assurances were uttered by officials in the Clinton administration, by Clinton himself, and by President George W. Bush. The policy was meant to delegitimize terrorism by denying the terrorists’ claim that they are acting according to religious precepts. “Policymakers believed that by tempering their language with regard to Islam, they might forestall further radicalization of moderate Muslims and indeed even potentially win moderates into the American circle of friendship.”
George W. Bush, Gorka notes, combined his rhetorical appeals to moderate Muslims with denunciations of the immorality of terrorism and illiberalism. And yet, for the government at large, downplaying the religious and ideological component to terrorist activities became an end in itself.
The Global War on Terror was renamed the “global struggle against violent extremism.” In 2008 the Department of Homeland Security published a lexicon of terrorism that said, “Our terminology must be properly calibrated to diminish the recruitment efforts of extremists who argue that the West is at war with Islam.” State Department guidelines issued in 2008 said, “Never use the terms jihadist or mujahedeen to describe a terrorist.”
Then came Obama. As a candidate, he stressed his experiences in Indonesia and Pakistan. He told Nick Kristof of the New York Times that the call of the muezzin is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.” In one of his first major addresses as president, he traveled to Cairo to inaugurate a new beginning with the Muslim world. His counterterrorism adviser, now director of the CIA, called jihad a “legitimate tenet of Islam,” and referred to Jerusalem as “Al Quds.”
The change in the manner in which the government treated Islamism was profound. “Whereas the 9/11 Commission report, published under the presidency of George W. Bush in July 2004 as a bipartisan product, had used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times,” Gorka writes, “the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued by the Obama administration in August 2009, used the term Islam 0 times, Muslim 0 times, jihad 0 times.” The omission is stunning.
For Bush, terrorism consisted of immoral deeds committed by evil men animated by anti-Western ideology. Obama downplayed such judgmental language. He preferred an interpretation of terrorism as discrete acts of wrongdoing by extremists, driven by resentments and grievances such as the American failure to establish a Palestinian state, American support for secular Arab dictatorships, American forces in the Middle East, U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, and, infamously, an anti-Islamic YouTube video. “The logic that follows,” Gorka writes, “is that once those grievances are addressed, the extremism will subside.”
Some logic. Six years into the Obama presidency, not only has the vocabulary of jihad been removed from official rhetoric and counterterrorism policy, but troops have been removed from Iraq, troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, the administration has condemned Israeli settlement activity while coddling Hamas’ backers in Ankara and Doha, “torture” has been banned, the White House intends to close Guantanamo unilaterally, Hosni Mubarak was abandoned in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the president is desperate for a partnership with the Islamic theocracy of Iran.
The result? The Islamic State rules Mosul, threatens Baghdad, and has conquered half of Syria as Bashar Assad gasses the other half. Libya has collapsed into tribal warfare. Egypt has gone from military dictatorship to Islamic authoritarianism and back again. An Islamic strongman rules Turkey, Hamas murders with impunity, Al Jazeera broadcasts anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda around the world, and the Taliban are biding time in Afghanistan. Not only is al Qaeda not on the run, it governs more territory than at any point since 2001. It is once again the “strong horse,” attracting jihadists to its crusade who inevitably turn their attention to the West.
“Without an ideological catalyst,” Gorka writes, “grievances remain merely grievances. They are dull and banal. They only transform into acts of transcendental violence when ignited by Sayyid Qutb or Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is the narrative of Holy War that gives value to local grievances, not the other way around.” Before we can hope to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State or the al Qaeda movement, we must recognize the poison tree of jihad for what it is. We must recognize the global and unitary nature of the threat. We must recognize that there is only one way to deal with a poison tree: You chop it down.
The U.S.-led air campaign in Syria has killed 521 Islamic State fighters in the past month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the civil war. But the heavy death toll does not mean the United States is winning its fight to “degrade and destroy” the Sunni extremist group. Experts say that won’t happen until the group also known as ISIS loses support and its fighters begin defecting.
“Until that happens, we will not see a quantum shift in the war in Iraq and Syria,” said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.
Since June, ISIS has gained control of large swaths of land that stretch from Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border to the outskirts of Baghdad. The group is currently waging campaigns in several different areas of both countries, but has focused its forces in recent weeks on capturing the Kurdish city of Kobani. As a result, the U.S.-led air campaign has targeted several ISIS convoys and strongholds in Kobani and is air-dropping weapons and other resources to the Syrian Kurds fighting there.
“Like many aerial campaigns you can cite from history, it is a gradual process,” White said. “ISIS has a finite number of heavy weapons, and they are being picked off. And ISIS is losing a lot of combatants that are not easily replaced. ISIS is driven to expand its domain, and every time it tries to expand it is putting its fighters out in the open where they can be taken out. The question is: How long will the degrading take until you get to the destruction … a long time.”
Witnesses on the ground in Kobani told International Business Times that ISIS had been pushed back from the center of the city, but that the fighting was still raging on the outskirts. Meanwhile, ISIS is making gains in other parts of Syria and in Baghdad. According to the Syrian Observatory, ISIS fighters seized Tal Shaer, a town just west of Kobani, this week. And in Baghdad, the Sunni militant group has claimed responsibility for several car and suicide bomb attacks that have killed dozens of people in the last two weeks.
The uptick in ISIS attacks since June in Iraq has not only caused hundreds of civilian deaths, but has also infiltrated the psyche of the Iraqi people, especially those living in the capital, Noof Assi, a woman from Baghdad, told the International Business Times.
At the beginning of the ISIS campaign, “Baghdad looked like a ghost city,” Assi said. “People were staying at home or fleeing, saving food and fuel.”
Now, she said, people in Baghdad are used to the ISIS insurgency. Discussions in shops, cafes and restaurants have shifted. No longer are Iraqis talking about the destruction that ISIS is inflicting on the country. Now, people are talking about how many people are beginning to support the militant group.
“There are people talking about people of Mosul,” she said of the big northern city. “Some people are saying that they betrayed Iraq and welcomed ISIS.”
The State Department and White House have both confirmed that part of the U.S. strategy to fight ISIS is to undercut its propaganda and recruitment, especially on social media. So far, though, the U.S. has not launched a successful countercampaign.
In September, the State Department produced and distributed a graphic mock Islamic State propaganda video via social media. The video, “Welcome to ISIS Land,” was published by the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
The mock video showed graphic images of the militant group committing war crimes that have been widely reported over the past two months and that are now being investigated by the United Nations. The video looks similar to those ISIS promotes on social media like Twitter and YouTube. Despite the counterpropaganda drive, ISIS continues to expand on social media, and more and more Western fighters, as well as Iraqi and Syrian civilians, are joining up.
While some experts say the only way the U.S. will defeat ISIS is by sending in ground troops, others say more credit should be given to the Syrian Kurdish fighters — who now seems to be only force on the ground in Iraq and Syria that is regaining territory ISIS took over in prior months.
“They are the only boots on the ground in the entire Iraqi-Syrian theater capable of standing up to ISIS,” White said. “They are absolutely fierce fighters. The Iraqi Kurds are not.”