The United States has been at war with radical Islamist terrorism for at least 35 years, starting with the November 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taking of 52 American hostages. President Jimmy Carter , in his State of the Union address two months later, declared the American captives “innocent victims of terrorism.”
For the next two decades, radical Islamist terrorism grew more powerful and more sophisticated. On Sept. 11, 2001, a remarkably sophisticated effort by Islamist terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania.
In response to the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, President George W. Bush told a joint session of Congress: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
We have clearly failed to meet that goal. After more than 13 years of war, with thousands of Americans dead, tens of thousands of Americans wounded, and several trillion dollars spent, the U.S. and its allies are losing the war with radical Islamism. The terrorists of Islamic State are ravaging Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram is widening its bloody swath through Nigeria, al Qaeda and its affiliates are killing with impunity in Somalia, Yemen and beyond, and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan. The killings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket are only the most recent evidence of the widening menace of radical Islamism.
Confronted with the atrocities in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told his people on Jan. 10 that they were at war: “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”
Yet France, like the U.S. government, doesn’t have a strategy for victory in this war. Ad hoc responses to attacks have failed to stop the growing threat. We remain vulnerable to a catastrophic attack (or series of smaller attacks) that would have dark and profound consequences for the American people and for freedom around the world.
The U.S. and its allies must now design a strategy to match a global movement of radical Islamists who sincerely want to destroy Western civilization.
Congress should lead the way, first by convening hearings that outline the scale and nature of the threat. Additional hearings should seek advice from a wide range of experts on strategies to defeat radical Islamists.
Understanding the global threat, outlining strategies that might lead to its defeat, identifying the laws and systems that need to be changed to implement those strategies—all are complex problems that will require months to sort out. But the American people will rise to the challenge if they are given the facts about the real dangers we face.
Here is an outline of the sequence of topics that Congress should investigate:
1) The current strength and growth rate of radical Islamists around the world. We need a detailed sense of the total picture. The scale of the threat from this nihilistic global movement, I suspect, will be stunning.
2) The country-by-country danger. Americans simply don’t realize how dire the situation is in specific areas. Boko Haram has killed thousands more people in Nigeria alone than Ebola has in all of Africa, according to data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Centers for Disease Control. One or more hearings should focus on each center of radical Islamism, including Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
3) The role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group is vital to the global radical Islamist movement, yet so little understood by Washington elites that it deserves its own set of hearings.
4) The primary sources of radical Islamist funding, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran.
5) The Arab countries—including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria—that have successfully contained and minimized radical Islamists. We must learn how this was accomplished and what aspects should be replicated.
6) Radicalization in mosques and on social media. How are young Muslims being drawn into terrorism? What can be done to counter a seductive message that has reached deep into Europe and the U.S. and inspired jihadists by the thousands to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training that can be exported back home?
7) The Islamist cyberthreat. The hacking of the U.S. Central Command’s social-media accounts this week apparently didn’t inflict serious damage, but the episode was evidence of a new front in the fight against terrorism.
Once congressional hearings have outlined the scale of the challenge, it is essential to turn to the sources of our enemies’ strategic thinking and doctrine. Doing so will be controversial, but it is vital to understand the motivations and assumptions of the radical Islamist movement.
On Feb. 22, 1946, U.S. attaché to Moscow George Kennan sent what became known as the “Long Telegram.” In 8,000 words, he outlined the nature of Soviet Union communism with clarity and force. His analysis shaped much of the American transition to a policy of containing the Soviet Union. It is a tragedy, if not a scandal, that nearly 14 years after 9/11, we are still in need of an equivalent “Long Telegram” about the nature of radical Islamism.
The terrorists are immersed in Islamic history and doctrine. It is extraordinary that the political correctness of Western elites has discouraged the study of what inspires those who dream of slaughtering us. Congress should hold hearings on the historic patterns, doctrines and principles that drive the radical Islamists. No doubt these facts will make some of our elites uncomfortable. They should. We must understand the deep roots of Islamist beliefs, like the practice of beheading, if we are going to combat them.
Finally, having held hearings on the enemy and its thinking, Congress must hold hearings on strategies for achieving victory. Once the hearings are complete, preferably this year, Congress should form a commission of the wisest witnesses it heard and charge them with designing a national strategy for winning the global war against radical Islamists. If the current administration doesn’t embrace the strategy, then it can become part of the 2016 presidential campaign: Who wants to get America on offense, with a coherent and intelligible strategy, against those who would destroy us?
Mr. Gingrich, a CNN contributor, is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.