We Can Fight Terrorism by Fostering Free Debate

Israelis understand terrorism well. Long before 9/11 and Beslan, Israelis experienced unrelenting terrorist attacks for decades, including hijackings, suicide bombings and attacks on children. Nothing that we experience today is new to them. They live in a world of guards outside every restaurant, market and bus stop, guards who check bags for explosives.

During my trip to Israel to attend a counterterrorism conference, an Israeli businessman who showed me around pointed out a spot on a highway where he battled Arab terrorists years ago. The terrorists had come ashore in boats, hijacked a bus full of women and children and attempted to head to Tel Aviv.

Then a young Israeli commando, my acquaintance was driving on the same highway when the situation unfolded. He exited his car, ran toward the bus and was immediately embroiled in a firefight. The terrorists were already executing the hostages. It was a bloodbath.

Despite the unforgivable bloodshed of innocents, the man who was once a warrior is sadly reflective. As a “Sabra,” a native-born Israeli, he had grown up among Arabs and had harbored an idealistic desire to live in harmony. He still holds no hatred toward decent, ordinary Arabs. He and other Israelis like him have many lessons and ideas they can share with us in combating terrorism.

Dr. Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, coined a simple, yet apt equation: “terrorism = motivation + operational capability.”

In order to prevent terrorist attacks like the one recounted above, vigorous and continuous intelligence and military operations are necessary to degrade and even destroy the operational capability of the terrorists. This means cutting off funding to terrorism-supporting “charities,” interdicting the flow of weapons and training, and, yes, killing and capturing terrorists wherever possible.

But these methods alone do not solve terrorism. If the motivation is intact, the degraded capability eventually regenerates. New “shahids” (martyrs) are recruited, funds are again obtained and bombs are transported. Ganor does not think that terrorism can be countered successfully in the long-term without addressing motivation.

Islamic terrorists are increasingly relying on the Internet to foster motivation. Pan-Arabism was an utter failure, but pan-Islamism is flourishing in part thanks to what Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on radical Islam, calls “virtual Islamic nation (Ummah).”

Unaffected by nation-state boundaries and other barriers, radical Islamists are inciting and recruiting while indoctrinating a new, tech-savvy generation of Muslims through the Internet. Ironically, radical jihadis are using a manifestation of ultra-modernity, the Internet, to prevent modernization of the Islamic world.

In order to counter this trend, then, the West must invest significant resources into helping to shape the minds of the next generation of Muslims. This is not simply about implanting “Western propaganda.” It is about providing venues through which rational, moderate and reformist Muslims can debate freely about the future of Islam.

Media outlets such as Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra satellite broadcast are an important start, but they are not enough. As Paz explains, the response to the radical jihadism can “only come from within the Arab and Muslim world, not by outside force.” That response must be an “Islamic answer” in the end.

Here, the Internet may provide at least a part of the answer. Because radical jihadis do not debate, but merely preach and incite, we must help to create vibrant digital forums through which Islamic scholars, clerics, intellectuals and students can have meaningful discussions on topics such as democracy and representative politics in an Islamic context.

In a recent television appearance, my on-air adversary, Philip Gold, said, “These people do not want freedom, at least not freedom as we know it.” Indeed, they may not accept “American-style” freedom with its free-flowing sacrilege and pornography, but I suspect that they will come to embrace “democracy with Islamic characteristics” if open debate is allowed to flourish under American protection.

Yearning for self-determination is not a uniquely Western value. It is a universal value. I saw that with my own eyes while growing up in South Korea, where people who lived under decades of repressive rule began to speak up when they no longer feared the few who terrorized the many with force.

It can happen again, this time in the Middle East. Our job is to ensure that the voices that speak out bravely are protected from those who seek to silence these voices with terror.

James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute in Seattle ( He also runs the “Guns and Butter Blog” ( He can be reached at