Jihadism and the Cold War

As we sort through the implications of Umar Farouk Abdulmultallab’s alleged attempt to incinerate a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, we’re bound to hear a great deal about “the war on terror” and how it is or isn’t being waged.

We’re also going to have to assimilate the confounding facts that Abdulmultallab converted to Salafism -- Islam’s fundamentalist and puritanical variant -- not in his native Nigeria but in London. He was apparently drawn to Yemen, where his suicide mission was conceived, by sermons and texts posted on the Internet, and it was there, on Monday, that Al Qaeda’s Arabian peninsula organization hailed him as a hero.

One of the paradoxes of our struggle with the jihadi strain of Salafist Islam is its wholehearted embrace of the Internet, which is a quintessential expression of the open society’s creativity and values. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers use the Web for propaganda, education, recruitment and operational communication.

This paradoxical conduct points to some of the emerging similarities between this conflict and the long confrontation with Soviet totalitarianism, as well as at least one significant difference that already is clear.


The West’s victory in the Cold War essentially was built on a three-front strategy. First, of course, was containment of Soviet ambitions through military means. Second was the intellectual and ideological competition for hearts and minds -- including those of reform-minded Soviets -- through the arts, culture and social philosophy. Finally, there was the powerful example of economic and social progress that spread across the Western democracies throughout the post-World War II era. Communists across the Eastern Bloc saw that free people simply lived better and in greater decency than they did.

Counter-terrorism is not confrontation with another nation-state. Moreover, the Cold War was the end point of a great European civil war that dominated the 20th century, eventually drawing into opposition two nations from Europe’s cultural periphery -- the United States and the Soviet Union. Whatever their ideological differences, Washington and Moscow were heirs to a common cultural patrimony. By contrast, the desires and interests of modern America and those of an obscurantist Islam that wishfully evokes an imagined medieval purity are mutually unintelligible. Still, there are lessons from the Cold War that are applicable to the struggle with jihadism.

One is the value of containment, which is why President Obama was correct in authorizing a military surge in Afghanistan and stepped-up covert operations in Yemen. So long as Al Qaeda and other jihadi gangs remain underground organizations with their leaders perpetually on the run and dependent on the Internet, they are in an important sense “contained.” When they gain a foothold in a sympathetic nation, as they did in the Taliban’s Afghanistan or seem to be doing in the tribal regions of Yemen, their lethality escalates dramatically. With more time and security to train the wretched Abdulmultallab or other useful idiots, who knows what kind of tragedy might have been organized for Christmas morning?

While we seem to be applying the containment lesson appropriately, we’re failing badly on the struggle’s intellectual and cultural front. Many of the most devastating blows struck against Soviet totalitarianism were inflicted by writers and artists who’d lived under the system and then found allies in the West who appreciated their work and, most important, disseminated it. Books such as Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind” and, most of all, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” were iron nails in the coffin of Soviet illusion.

Where now are the critics, Western intellectuals and publishing houses searching out and supporting the Islamic world’s voices of tolerance and modernity, whether philosophical or artistic? If we don’t find and embrace them and give them a secure platform from which to speak truth to those within their own societies hungry to listen, we’re waging this struggle with one arm tied behind our collective back -- and, perhaps, hopelessly.

The one Cold War lesson that won’t avail in this instance is that of the open society’s example as a changer of hearts and minds. One of the chilling things about the jihadis is how many of them have lived and been educated in the West. Abdulmultallab graduated from an English university, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed from an American school, and Mohamed Atta studied at a German one.

Jihadism involves a conscious rejection of democracy, modernity and the open society as embodied in the lives of each of these men. Their delusion is as complete as their hostility is implacable. On this count, we can afford no illusions of our own.