On the Unity of Terror

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

July 4, 2016


Islamic terrorism has had a banner few weeks, with 49 Americans gunned down in Orlando, 45 travelers killed in Istanbul, 20 diners butchered in Dhaka, and more than 200 Iraqis blown up in Baghdad.

Oh, and some Israeli settlers were killed, too. But they’re not quite in the same category, right?

In November, after Islamic State’s massacres in Paris, John Kerry offered some unscripted thoughts on how the atrocity differed from others. “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” he said, referring to the January 2015 attack on the satirical French newspaper. He continued:

“There was a sort of particularized focus [to the Hebdo attack] and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday [in Paris] was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.”

Mr. Kerry’s remarks again betrayed the administration’s cluelessness about ISIS, which aims to annihilate anything it doesn’t consider . . . Islamic. Understanding its takfiri version of Islam, with its sweeping declarations of apostasy, is essential to understanding how it thinks and operates.

But no less telling was Mr. Kerry’s view that not all terrorism is fundamentally alike; that some acts of terror have a rationale “you could attach yourself to.” The comment is striking not for being unusual but for being ordinary, another formulation of the conventional wisdom that terrorism, like war, is politics by other means. From such a view it’s a short step to treating some acts of terror as legitimate, or nearly so.

Which brings me to the case of Hallel Yaffe Ariel, a 13-year-old Israeli girl who on Thursday was stabbed to death in her sleep by a 19-year-old intruder named Mohammad Tra’ayra. It’s difficult to imagine any act as evil or as cowardly as murdering a child in her sleep. But Hallel lived with her family in the West Bank Israeli town of Kiryat Arba, making her a settler, while Tra’ayra, who was shot dead on the scene, came from a nearby Palestinian village.

What happened to Hallel has happened to countless settlers: five members of the Fogel family, butchered in their beds in 2011; the three teenage boys who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 2014; the rabbi who was shot and killed on Friday on a West Bank road while driving with his wife and two children. Yet their deaths are supposed to be different from those of other terrorism victims, since they were all “occupiers” whose political crimes rendered them complicit in their own tragedy. That’s how much of global public opinion has long treated terrorism when the target is Israel. It has a rationale. It’s understandable, if not justifiable. It’s Israel’s problem, Israel’s fault, and has no bearing on the rest of us.

For many years, the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan made common cause with Hamas. Israeli officials have accused Turkey of hosting a Hamas command center—a key point of contention in Jerusalem’s efforts to reconcile with Ankara—and Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, including just days before last month’s airport attack.

The Turkish people deserve full sympathy for that atrocity. But no sympathy is owed a Turkish potentate who has been sympathetic to terrorists as long as they aimed their fire at Israel or other convenient targets. All the more so since until recently Mr. Erdogan’s attitude toward Islamic State matched ambivalence with indifference, to put it diplomatically.

What’s true of Turkey goes for other recent victims of terrorism. Pakistan has long played a double game with terrorists, supporting groups that hit civilian targets in Afghanistan and India, only to be shocked when the same groups, or their cousins, turned against the mother country.

Saudi Arabia’s former interior minister, the late Prince Nayef, was for years the head of the Saudi Committee for Supporting the Al Aqsa Intifada, in which capacity he distributed millions to “the families of martyrs.” As late as November 2002, he blamed 9/11 on a Zionist plot, only to be disabused of the view once al Qaeda began attacking Saudi Arabia directly.

Or take Bangladesh. In April, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressed the murder of a secularist blogger named Nazimuddin Samad—part of an assassination campaign in which some 30 secularists have been killed in the past three years—by asking, “If someone writes filthy things about my religion, why should we tolerate it?” Now her government seems astonished to learn that ISIS has Bangladesh in its sights.

It’s depressing to think that the only way the world might understand the truth about terrorism is to have some experience of it. Still, it’s worth stressing that terrorism is not the continuation of politics but the negation of it, and that the murder of a 13-year-old “settler” has no more a rationale than what ISIS did in Orlando, Istanbul and Dhaka. Terrorism can be defeated, but only once that lesson is learned.