How millions of violent Muslim deaths feed the cycle of terrorism


The West, especially the United States, is waging a campaign of genocide and oppression against Muslims aimed at wiping Islam’s followers off the map -- at least that’s how radical Islamists see it. 

That propaganda message – publicized and parroted by Islamic militants the world over – has reverberated with deadly results this year in Boston, London and Nairobi. And underscored by continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria, Africa and elsewhere, it is gaining traction among mainstream Muslims and even forcing the White House to consider its impact when setting foreign policy. 

Why? Because of this fact, according to Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations: Muslims have been dying violently in staggering numbers over the past three decades in conflicts around the world, many of them instigated by non-Muslim nations. 

“The ugly truth is that it is real,” he said. “You can't go past a single month in the past 30 years without reports of Muslims being killed in some part of the world or another, and that sticks.”

An NBC News analysis of data from a variety of sources indicates that more than 4 million Muslims have died in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere since 1980. The data, which is imprecise, politically charged and often unverifiable, comes from human rights organizations, academic studies, the U.N. and from groups representing the victims. 

Many terrorism experts and Islamic scholars caution that the notion that the West is orchestrating “a genocide” is a gross oversimplification. 

Click to see some of the major conflicts that have claimed Muslim lives since 1980. NBC News

“Beginning with the Iran-Iraq War and continuing to the present day, more and more casualties are inflicted by Muslims against Muslims,” said P.J. Crowley, a former spokesman for ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and now a professor at George Washington University. “The prevailing narrative in the region remains the faithful waging war against crusaders, but that is not the reality.” 

The data offers some support for this view, with roughly half of the deaths in the NBC analysis attributable to internecine conflict, a trend that has increased in recent years. 

Nonetheless, the perception that non-Muslim global powers are targeting Islam has become so widely accepted in the Arab world and beyond that it is now a consideration in U.S. foreign policy. Steve Simon, who was until earlier this year head of the Middle East Desk at the National Security Council, said it became part of the debate over drone strikes and the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. 

"Over time, my impression was that administration became increasingly aware of the reputational costs of the drone attacks, weighing them against their considerable tactical gains,” said Simon. “There was a concern that over the course of the decade too many people were getting killed." 

Likewise, the spiraling death toll played into decisions to speed the pullout from Iraq, he said. 

“The sanctions, which the U.S. led, took a heavy toll, then (came) the war,” he said. “We also were aware that our involvement had unleashed internecine warfare that … killed many more." 

Experts say the propaganda campaign also is helping embattled terrorist groups like al Qaeda expand their reach by feeding resentment and anger against the “infidels” – be they Christian, Jew, Hindu or Communist – to inspire new attacks. 

This year alone, attackers have used such language to justify terrorist attacks in London and Boston and September’s al Shabaab assault on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed at least 67 people. 

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev expressed it in a scribbled note he left in the Watertown, Mass., boat where he was captured, accusing the U.S. government of "killing our innocent civilians." 

"I don't like killing innocent people," he wrote, according to the Associated Press, "(but) I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. ... We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all."

The underlying notion is even finding its way into the mainstream Muslim discourse. When Egypt’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed El-Baradei told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010 that 1 million Iraqis had died as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, he was merely repeating a figure commonly heard on the Arab street. Most academic research puts the number far lower – between 150,000 and 200,000 – as a direct result of the conflict.

Iraqi Shiites chant as they carry coffins during the funeral for the 13 people killed in suburban Baghdad during clashes between U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Najaf on Aug. 24, 2007. Qassem Zein / AFP - Getty Images file

Clearly, though, the U.S. and other non-Muslim nations have contributed to the perception through acts of aggression.

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan killed as many as 2.1 million Afghans, including 13.5 percent of the male population, according to U.N. estimates. The U.S.-led wars against Saddam Hussein took a brutal toll on the Iraqi population. Russia killed tens of thousands in Chechnya. Serbian and Croatian forces killed or starved to death hundreds of thousands in Bosnia and Kosovo. Indian forces have killed Muslims in Kashmir.

Many of those killed were civilians, often women and children. Norwegian terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer has found that al Qaeda’s most effective recruiting tool is video of women and children killed in such conflicts – footage that is widely available on the Internet. 

Just as notable – and deadly – though, are the internecine wars, like the Iran-Iraq War, sectarian and political violence in places like Algeria or Sudan or Tajikistan and Saddam’s murderous campaign against the Shiites and Kurds in Iraq.

But the loss of Muslim lives in Iraq in multiple conflicts illustrates how, in the narrative put forward by radical Islamists, the hand of the West can be seen even in violence pitting Muslim against Muslim.

In the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), for example, the two Muslim nations – one led by Shiites, the other, Sunnis – battled to a deadlock, leaving hundreds of thousands dead on each side. But many Muslims say the conflict was pushed along by Western nations who armed both nations and wanted to see both bloodied. 

“Local circumstances, local conflicts, local dynamics are ignored for a convenient explanation,” said Husain, the Council on Foreign Relations expert. “Even if it’s Muslim on Muslim, it's still portrayed as they're both fighting for external players.”

Haroon Moghul, a fellow at Fordham University’s Center on National Security, said the years it took for the West – in the form of NATO – to intervene in Bosnia and the failure to act in Chechnya to halt “ethnic cleansing” in both countries may have had an even greater impact on the Muslim psyche.

“Over the last 30 years, the overwhelming proportion of violence in Europe has been against Muslims. Srbrenica was the biggest atrocity in Europe since World War II,” he said, referring to the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces in July 1995. “The (Russian) air war on Chechnya was the biggest assault since World War II.”

To this day, many Muslims believe the U.S. and the West tried to stop genocide in Bosnia too late, and then only stepped in when the Muslim fighters were on the verge of a military victory, he said.

Simon, the former NSC official, said that argument fails to recognize that the intervention resulted in the creation of two Muslim states in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"The Muslim narrative is not to give the West any credit for that,” he said. “The West – it's said – didn't intervene out of a moral imperative, but out of self-interest. When the U.S. motives are perceived to be illegitimate, it's seen to be in the wrong even it does the right thing."

African Union peace-keeping troops bury a Muslim colleague killed during an operation in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan on Oct. 5, 2007. Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images file

Two things must happen for that storyline to change, said Moghul, the Fordham University fellow.

First, he said, the world’s Muslims must develop the ability to see through the one-sided portrayal of the West.

“It produces the refusal to take ownership of anything,” he said. “If everything is a puppet, not only don’t you take responsibility, you can’t! Therefore, there is no actual grievance. ‘It’s a Western plot’.”

But the West also must gain a better understanding of what is going on in the wide belt from North Africa to the East Indies – the human suffering, its scale and the perception of those who are its victims – and become a positive force for change, he said.

“Although everyone is affected by this, the only ones who propose to do anything about it is the extremist groups ... and their solution is violence,” he said. “There is a huge vacuum of leadership that is coupled with a feeling of pessimism and marginalization.”