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Charles Krauthammer: War with terrorists entering ominous phase

The Paris attacks mark a new phase of terrorism: coordinated commando strikes by homegrown Islamists activated and instructed from abroad.
The Paris attacks mark a new phase of terrorism: coordinated commando strikes by homegrown Islamists activated and instructed from abroad. AP

On Sunday, at the great Paris rally, the whole world was Charlie. By Tuesday, the veneer of solidarity was exposed as tissue thin.

It began dissolving as soon as the real, remaining Charlie Hebdo put out its post-massacre issue featuring a Muhammad cover that, as the New York Times put it, “reignited the debate pitting free speech against religious sensitivities.”

Again? Already? Had not 4 million marchers and 44 foreign leaders just turned out on the streets of France to declare “no” to intimidation?

As for President Obama, he has been practically invisible. At the interstices of various political rallies, he issued bits of muted, mealymouthed boilerplate. Followed by the now-famous absence of any U.S. representative of any stature at the Paris rally, an abdication of moral and political leadership for which the White House has already admitted error.

But this was no mere error of judgment or optics. On the contrary, the no-show, following the near silence, precisely reflected the president’s profound ambivalence about the very idea of the war on terror.

Obama began his administration by purging the phrase from the lexicon of official Washington. He has ever since shuttled between saying that (a) the war must end because of the damage “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing” was doing to us; or (b) the war has already ended, as he suggested repeatedly during the 2012 campaign, with Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaida “on the run.”

Hence his call in a major address at the National Defense University to “refine and ultimately repeal” Congress’ 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, the very legal basis for the war on terror. Hence his accelerating release of Guantanamo Bay inmates, fully knowing that about 30 percent will return to the battlefield. (Five more releases were announced Wednesday.)

Paris shows that this war is not over. On the contrary. As it rages, it is entering an ominous third phase.

The first, circa Sept. 11, involved sending Middle Eastern terrorists abroad to attack the infidel West.

Then came the lone wolf phase – local individuals inspired by foreign jihadists launching one-off attacks, as seen most recently in Quebec, Ottawa and Sydney.

Paris marks the third phase: coordinated commando strikes by homegrown native-speaking Islamists activated and instructed from abroad. (Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo killings, while the kosher-grocery shooter proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State.) They develop and flourish in Europe’s no-go zones where Shariah reigns and legitimate state authorities dare not tread.

The Paris killers were well-trained, thoroughly radicalized, clear-eyed jihadist warriors. They cannot be dismissed as lone loons. Worse, they represent a growing generation of alienated European Muslims whose sheer number is approaching critical mass.

The war on terror is at a new phase with a new geography. At the core are parallel would-be caliphates: in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State; in central Africa, now spilling out of Nigeria into Cameroon, a near-sovereign Boko Haram; in the badlands of Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the most dangerous of all al-Qaida affiliates. And beyond lie not just a cast of mini-caliphates embedded in the most ungovernable parts of the Third World from Libya to Somalia to the borderlands of Pakistan, but an archipelago of no-go Islamist islands embedded in the heart of Europe.

This is serious. In both size and reach it is growing. Our president will not say it. But does he even see it?

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.