Tancredo: Thinking about the end game with ISIS and radical Islam

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In World War II, the end game was easy to understand—the destruction of Nazi Germany and the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan. It’s not so easy to envision what the surrender of radical Islam would look like, or how it can be achieved.

In every declared war, the goal is not only a convincing military domination of the battlefield but a surrender of the enemy and the cessation of all hostilities. So if we are in a “war” with radical Islamists who desire our destruction, how will we know when radical Islam has surrendered? It has no head of state or commanding general who can sign a peace treaty. It does not even have a religious leader with the recognized status of a Pope to negotiate an armistice.

{mosads}In trying to think about a possible “end game” with radical Islam, we confront all the same questions we have struggled with in trying to define the enemy and defend ourselves.


  • President Bush announced a “war on terror” then invaded Iraq, which played no role in al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attack on the United States.
  • President Obama talked only in terms of fighting “violent extremism” and could never bring himself to even utter the words, radical Islam.
  • President Trump is not afraid to speak of radical Islam as the enemy and has vowed to “destroy ISIS,” but has not outlined any strategy for actually defeating the enemy after cutting off one of its many appendages.
  • Europe is under siege by jihadists. Meanwhile, the United States’ political elites are debating a temporary travel ban against migrants from terrorist-infected nations while the American public waits for the next murderous rampage by a “lone wolf, self-radicalized” terrorist.

What no one in the White House or in congressional leadership wants to discuss or debate is, how will this ever end? Or more precisely, how can it end well?

Is there anyone in our establishment who doubts that the number one goal of ISIS is to get its hands on a nuclear device and set it off in Times Square or the Pentagon parking lot? Is there any less doubt that with Iran gaining nuclear weapons, that is a less and less remote possibility?

Trump wants to “destroy ISIS,” and I am for that. But will the threat to Western civilization cease at that point? Will al Qaeda and scores of other such organizations simply go home? Of course not. So, what is the end game?

How would the West deter such an act when — and I say when, not if — radical Islamists do get their hands on nuclear weapons? It may not be this year or next year. It may be five years or ten years from now. But the odds of it happening are stronger than the odds against it.

A few years ago, I got into a heap of trouble by suggesting one possible answer to that question—how do we deter that nuclear attack on our homeland? In 2007, when I was running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, I was asked by a radio host what I would do if a terrorist set off a nuclear device in the United States. I responded that there were no good options, and that cleaning up the dead would be the only task. I went on to say that all effort and resources had to be spent in preventing such an incident.  

To that end, I explained that one of the most important dictates of Sun Tzu was to know your enemy. In every battle, you must know what makes your enemy tick — know why is he doing what he is doing. With radical Islam, the answer to that question is obvious. Its motivation is to destroy unbelievers and impose a worldwide caliphate.

Knowing that they are committed to a religious/political ideology, you know that the threat of death to them is not a deterrent. You are left with relatively few options to stop the nuclear “MOAB” from being used against you.  

So, what would stop a religious fanatic from pursuing a nuclear weapon? With radical Islam there are vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities are Islam’s holiest sites.

For instance, the 12th Imam must reappear before judgment day before his believers. The place that is to occur is the province of Qum in Iran. More specifically, it’s in the village of Jamkaren. 

There is also the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam, located in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca.

In that 2007 radio interview, I asked, could it be that the threat of the destruction of these holy sites would be sufficient to deter the detonation of a nuclear device in the United States?

The reaction to my hypothesis was “nuclear” itself.  No matter how many times I said, “I don’t want to bomb anyone,” the media and my political opponents kept up the mantra that “Tancredo wants to bomb Mecca.” It resulted in death threats and a caricature picture which appeared in Time magazine. Any doubts I had about the effectiveness of such a threat, the depth of emotion that even the mention of those holy sites aroused made me think that its deterrent potential was feasible. 

I want to emphasize — again for the thousandth time — I have no desire to destroy those sites. The only mention I made of that hypothetical act was as a potential threat to deter what I think there is little doubt jihadists are working toward: a nuclear device detonated here in our homeland.

I am now revisiting and retelling that story to illustrate that asking these “end game” questions is as controversial as it is necessary. And to answer those questions and engender that debate, we also must ask the second part of Sun Tzu’s famous axiom: Yes, you must know your enemy and what motivates him, but you must also know yourself.

Do Americans lack the self-confidence and the courage to ask such questions? Is our enemy counting on our cultural rot to immobilize us in the face of this existential threat?

We need to start asking these questions. Radical Islamists have ambitious, murderous plans. Dropping another dozen “MOAB” devices on ISIS bunkers probably will not be enough to alter those ambitions or deter those plans. 

If radical Islam’s end game leads to mutual annihilation, what is ours?

Tom Tancredo represented Colorado’s 6th congressional district from 1999 to 2009.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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