ATbar The Changing Threat of International Terrorism
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The Changing Threat of International Terrorism

20/12/2002 | by Ganor, Boaz (Prof.)  
Since September 2001, the world has awakened to a new danger; terrorism after the September attacks is a totally different phenomenon from that which existed before the attacks in the United States. This is not merely due to the scale of the atrocities, but also because these actions took place on American soil. The message conveyed was that no place is safe; not even a superpower is immune.

The September 11 attacks represented a crossing of the Rubicon for international terrorism. This of course was partly due to the scale of the attacks—three thousand people killed in one day. But terrorism also passed a point of no return, in my view, in another regard, not specifically to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but with what came after. I refer to the anthrax-laced letters sent through the U.S. postal system. Although most of my colleagues see no connection between the anthrax attacks and the 9/11 attacks, I personally feel that there may in fact be some link between them. I admit that I have no proof that this is the case. And yet … there was that rumored meeting of Mohammed Atta with an Iraqi agent in Czechoslovakia. If this meeting actually took place, then it seems too much of a coincidence: the timing of these anthrax letters and the fact that the first letter was sent from the neighborhood where Mohammed Atta had formerly resided. Could Atta have served as a conduit for the transfer of Anthrax powder from some foreign power into the hands of an amateur terrorist in the United States? Could there be a connection to Iraq in these anthrax attacks in the United States?

This is the first fatal incidence of bio-terrorism, and the first non-conventional attack in many years. The only other bio-attack was not the infamous sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway (which was a chemical attack), but a biological attack perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo a year before they released sarin in Tokyo. In this small scale precursor to a much more ambitious attack, the Japanese cult attempted to spread botulinum in cities in Japan but they didn’t succeed in causing any damage.

I believe that the international community, in the wake of the 11 September attacks, finds itself in unprecedented peril. The danger is based on a combination of three main factors inherent in modern international terrorism: the very extreme ideology inherent in the Islamic radical worldview, the deadly methods used, and the possibility that these radicals will turn to non-conventional means. This is a scale of danger that humanity has not been accustomed to facing on a daily basis, and with which we do not yet have the tools to deal adequately. True, there were some dangerous terrorist networks operating in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But these networks were not on the same scale as those we face today; they were nothing like as extreme in their ideology. The terrorist of the 70’s and 80’s did not believe that in blowing up innocent civilians, he was doing God’s work; nor did he see terrorism as a holy duty. The modern Islamist terrorist does believe this, and this, plus his desire to die in the carrying out of his mission, places him in a category beyond the kind of terrorism we’ve seen in the past.

These days, we can all agree that modern international terrorism represents a serious threat. But what makes it so? How did it all start? To understand the origins of the movement that now threatens, literally, most of the civilized world, we need to go back to the Afghan War. The Islamic Jihad against the West actually started with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces at the end of the 1970’s. The invasion was meant to support the communist agenda, and was the last great standoff between the USSR and the U.S.A. The Soviet forces were met with fierce resistance by the Afghan “mujehideen,” or Islamic warriors. One faction of these fighters would eventually become the Taliban. The mujehideen called upon Muslims from all over the world to come and join them in their fight against the USSR. And thousands answered the call. From all over the Muslim world, young men flocked to Afghanistan to fight off the Soviet invasion. What’s more, they won! A ragtag army of Islamic warriors drove back the army of a superpower. This victory made a powerful impression on the consciousness of the Muslim world; it was seen as an expression of God’s will.

Now, flushed with victory, the mujehideen had three choices: to return to their countries of origin and get on with their lives; to go back to their countries and start radical movements to bring the “true Islam” to their homelands; or to go on to fight for Islamist causes in other lands. Many did indeed return home after the war, only to find that the only profession they had—that of holy warrior—was not at all welcome to their totalitarian governments. And so, the Afghan Veterans, as they came to be called, became involved in terrorist groups in Muslim countries from Egypt to Malaysia.

Others attempted to return to their homelands but were refused entry. Their governments knew better than to allow these young firebrands into their territory to make trouble. Refused admission to their countries of origin, many of the Afghan Veterans sought political asylum in Western society, especially in the United States. We should not be surprised to find that the United States granted these requests; after all, the United States had supported the mujehideen. These mercenaries had fought the USSR, and now the US had to pay the price—a green card and political asylum. Islamic radical mercenaries were granted political asylum not only in the United States, but in Germany, Britain, Switzerland and a host of other Western countries.

Yet a third group of mercenaries stayed on in Afghanistan. Many were recruited by Osama bin Laden into his newborn Al-Qaida organization. Thus, the end of the Afghan war saw the emergence of a totally new kind of international terrorism; a terrorism that could draw upon hundreds of thousands of Islamic activists, sharing a common extremist ideology, and common goals. What’s more, these people were veterans with a decade of fighting experience behind them; they knew warfare in all its aspects. And, perhaps more important than anything else, they knew each other: they had fought together in the trenches of Afghanistan; they knew one another’s minds and they shared a common bond of experience. It was these battle-hardened fanatics, now spread all over the world who formed the nucleus of modern Islamist terrorism.

It is this network of Islamist radicals that now threatens the Western world, as well as the moderate Muslim regimes of the Arab world. The question then becomes, what did this network hope to achieve in the September 11 attacks against the Americans – what did Bin Laden hope to gain? I believe the answer lies in a three-stage global strategy adopted by bin Ladin to achieve his ultimate goal. What is this goal? Although bin Ladin has declared his intentions countless times, it still seems unbelievable, like something from an imaginative novel. Put simply, bin Ladin wants to conquer the world—to spread his version of radical Islam to every region of the globe, so that there will be no place not ruled by Islamic religious law. This notion is based in the distinction in fundamentalist Islam between “Dar el-Harb” (the realm of the Sword) and “Dar el-Islam” (the realm of Islam). The realm of Islam—that part of the world ruled by Islamic law—stands forever opposed to the realm of the Sword—the regions not yet under Islamic control. In this war of radical Islam there is not gray area—either you are an Islamic radical or you are an enemy.

I should, at this point, differentiate between Islamism—Islamic radicalism—and Islam as a religion. The Islamic religion is not necessarily more or less violent than any other religion, whether it be Judaism, Hinduism, or Christianity. The problem for the vast majority of moderate Muslims is the emerging misconception of Islam. This misconception is that Islamic radicalism and Islam are one and the same. Islamic radicals hold Jihad to be the supreme religious duty, over and above all other values of traditional Islam. In fact, the Islamists view moderate Muslims as their enemies no less than the Jews and the Christians. Perhaps even more, since the moderate Muslims are seen as heretics. Islamic radicals see their first task as the conquest of the moderate Muslim countries, and the establishment of fundamentalist Muslim regimes.

This is the background of the worldwide network that has declared war on the Western world, and of Osama bin Ladin himself. Bin Laden wears two hats: he is the leader of Al-Qaida, his own terrorist organization, but he also heads another organization, which is somewhat less familiar to the world at large. In 1998, bin Laden created a global movement, called the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders. This World Islamic Front serves as an umbrella organization, which is supported by more than a dozen Islamic radical terrorist organizations belong. Among these are the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Jaish-e-Muhammad in Pakistan, the jihad groups in Egypt, the GIA in Algeria, and other, less-known organizations. Moreover, this is not just a political organization. When we analyze the attacks Bin Laden has executed in the past, such as the attack on American warships, on the American embassies in Africa, we find that each of these attacks was executed by activists from a different nationality and a different terrorist organization. This is important to bear in mind when we talk of the “culture of terrorism.”

As mentioned, bin Laden has adopted a three-stage strategy toward the ultimate goal of spreading Islamic radicalism all over the world. The first stage is to spread his version of Islam to Muslim countries in central Asia and the Middle East. Why these countries specifically? Because they are already home to Islamic radical organizations, some of which have large numbers of supporters. Among the countries with Islamic movements which could serve as the nucleus of radicalism are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Once this first stage is achieved, these “Islamized” countries can serve as the staging ground for the second stage—the spread of radical Islam to countries with a large Muslim minorities: Kosovo, Bosnia, Germany, and the former Islamic republics of the USSR. Later, more countries will be added to the circle of radical Islam: China—especially to Xinjiang—the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and finally north of Africa. Only upon the completion of this stage, will Islamic radicalism be ready for the final stage—the ultimate battle to spread their rule to the rest of Western society.

So, if I’m right, why should Bin Laden attack The United States now? The United States, after all, belongs to the third stage, not the first stage. I would argue that Bin Laden recognized, or at least believed, that in order to achieve the first stage he must keep the Americans from interfering with his plans for the moderate Muslim regimes. He must force Americans to withdraw their military forces and their influence from Arab soil—from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and so on. In effect, the spread of radical Islam to these moderate states cannot be accomplished unless the United States can be forced into isolationism.

Bin Ladin had a plan to accomplish this—a campaign of terrorism against American interests, combined with a propaganda blitz designed to reinforce his message. The terrorist campaign was exemplified by the horrific attacks in New York and Washington, in September 2001. But these attacks in themselves would not be sufficient to make the Americans isolationists; it must be accompanied by the appropriate propaganda. Thus, bin Ladin launched a campaign to sell his message to the American audience, via videotapes and speeches aimed to reinforce the message: “Only withdraw from Arab lands—stop trying to spread your values in our region; stop supporting the Israeli democracy and the moderate Muslim regimes—and you will be safe.” But the American media didn’t fall for it. They refused to broadcast or transmit these tapes in America. So the media campaign failed. Moreover, Americans were not terrorized by the horrific attacks. They were afraid, but their reaction was a wave of patriotism—the very opposite of what Bin Laden wanted to achieve.

So, this was Bin Laden’s strategy. However, if all this is true, then we face the further possibility of major attacks perpetrated by a worldwide web of Islamic radical terrorism. How can we counter this? I believe that the world has changed since 9/11, and even more since the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. I also believe that the next atrocity is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.

In order to clarify this, consider the basic format of terrorism. Put simply, terrorism is a combination of two factors—motivation to attack and the operational capability to do so. Only when terrorists, whether a group of individuals or an organization, have both the motivation and the ability to act on it, will a terrorist attack occur. If one of these factors is missing—say, an organization is highly motivated but lacks operational capability, or is capability of inflicting damage but has no reason to do so—then there will be no campaign of terrorism. In order to judge the effectiveness of the American-led campaign in Afghanistan, we should ask ourselves how this campaign affected these two factors?

Well, I think we can say with certainty that the Western campaign in Afghanistan did no exactly decrease the motivation of the Islamists to execute attacks on Western governments. It would not be jumping to conclusions to say that the motivation is even higher than it was before. What about their operational capabilities? I was surprised at how successful the military campaign in Afghanistan was. It actually did quite a lot to destroy al-Qaida’s military capabilities in Afghanistan and pretty much demolished the organization’s infrastructure there. However, this does not mean that the war is over; al-Qaida was not destroyed, but only scattered. We are not talking about a single organization, or a single individual leader; we are talking about a global network. And this web was not affected by the destruction of al-Qaida’s home base in Afghanistan. The groups that support bin Ladin’s network were unaffected by the war in Afghanistan. Not only is their operational capability unaffected, but their motivation to attack is now higher than ever. So it is only a question of where and when the next attack will come.

So how should we meet this danger of radical Islamist terrorism? I suggest a comprehensive international campaign comprised of four phases of operation. The first phase, the military campaign against al Qaida, has already been launched, though not completed. The second phase should be a campaign against all other Islamic radical terrorist organizations in the Arab and Muslim world. This is not a task to be undertaken by the Americans or by other Western countries. Rather, it falls to the moderate Muslim governments to combat the Islamic radicals in their own countries, in their own territory. Western society can only offer support in this battle.

The military campaign alone is not enough. Those countries facing the threat of a radical Islamist takeover must also take thought for the future. Thus, the military campaign must be accompanied by an educational an social welfare campaign. Over the past decade or two, Islamic radical movements have infiltrated the masses in the Muslim world, and their influence is especially directed at the young. Consider the situation. In Egypt for example, families may have as many as 20 children. Few can provide the basic needs, food and shelter, for such large numbers. Evidently the central government does not have ample resourto provide for these people. So other movements backed by the resources collected from supporters in the West and in wealthy Arab states, have moved in to fill the void. It is they who provide food, shelter and education—but it is education of their own variety—to these youngsters from childhood. By the time these kids are grown, they have been totally brainwashed. The task of combating this phenomenon falls to moderate Islam more than to anybody else, though with the backing of the West.

On September 11, 2001, I was in the United States. That same day I was interviewed on public radio and asked who could be responsible for this attack. I said that I thought it was Bin Laden and explained the difference between the Islamic radicals and the rest of Muslim world. There was a phone-caller, a Muslim man, who complemented me for differentiating between moderate Islam and the kind of Islamic radicals capable of carrying out such an attack. “I’m a Muslim, an Arab, and an American citizen,” he said, “and I condemn these atrocities on the United States.” This man is much to be praised for having the courage to say that; it was important to say it in English, on national radio. But, even more important is it for those who feel this way to say it in Arabic on Al-Jazeera. This is the main task for moderate Islam today—to contradict the Islamists claim that theirs is the only true Islam; to fight them and their influence all over the Muslim world. Unfortunately, many are reluctant to do this. Perhaps they are afraid; perhaps they believe the issue is someone else’s problem. And yet they are a majority, albeit a quiet one.

The third phase in the battle against radical Islamic terrorism is a campaign against the state sponsors of terror. In order to achieve success in this, two fundamental norms must be adopted. We must, once and for all, reach a definition of what constitutes terrorism. Others may disagree, but I believe that only when we can all agree on exactly who the enemy is, can we effectively join together to do battle. Thus an objective and internationally accepted definition of terrorism is a necessary step toward international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

In counter-terrorism there are two schools of thought: one says that terrorism is a criminal act, and what is needed to deal with it is criminal legislation. The other school, with which I agree, says that terrorism is not a criminal act but an act of war. Thus, the relevant legislation is that dealing with the rules of warfare. This legislation has already been codified in the Geneva and the Hague Conventions. These laws differentiate between the two types of people engaged in violent acts of war—soldiers who fight enemy soldiers on the battlefield, whose actions can be said to be legitimate within the framework of the war; and soldiers who deliberately attack civilians. These latter are viewed as war criminals, and those who send them on these missions are war criminals as well.

What I propose is that this legislation, which today applies only to states, be extended to apply to sub-state entities and organizations. Thus we could differentiate between two kinds of violence used by an organization against a state to achieve a political goal. If the organization wages its battles against the soldiers of the state, we would call it guerilla warfare. However, if the organization deliberately targets civilians, then this would constitute terrorism, and would be viewed as a war crime. To sum up, terrorism is the deliberate use of violence against civilians in order to achieve political aims, while guerilla warfare would be the deliberate use of violence against military personnel in order to achieve political aims. It is important to note that in both cases, the political aims may be identical; what distinguishes guerilla warfare from terrorism is not the use of violence, but rather the choice of target.

Now, we often hear that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. On the face of it, this sounds quite reasonable. What it says is that everything in life is subjective: anyone who fights against me is a terrorist and anyone who fights against my enemy is a freedom fighter. However, this is a misconception. The proposed definition would draw a clear line between freedom fighter and terrorist, while marking a distinction between the aims of a conflict, and the means used to achieve that aim. Let’s take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example. Many people identify with the Palestinian cause, and see all Palestinian militants as freedom fighters. For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the Palestinians are freedom fighters. As freedom-fighters (and I believe that anyone who fights for his freedom is fighting for a holy aim) one may use violence to achieve this aim. However, there is one particular type of violence that should always be forbidden, no matter how righteous ones cause: violence specifically and deliberately directed against civilians, that is, terrorism. Regardless of who you are and what your aims, even if in your own eyes you are a freedom fighter; if you choose people eating in restaurants, or working in office buildings, or commuting to work as your primary targets, then as far as I’m concerned, you are a terrorist, pure and simple.

At the risk of seeming naive, I really do believe that if the international community adopts these definitions, we can arrive at international legislation and international conventions, and even an international criminal court that will be able to deal objectively with terrorism.

Though I am an Israeli, I must point out that my campaign for an internationally accepted definition of terrorism is not a reflection of the official Israeli point of view. Most Israelis prefer the American definition of terrorism, which defines terrorism as the deliberate use of violence against non-combatants—not civilians, but non-combatants—in order to achieve political aims. According to the American definition, the attack against the American warship USS Cole, in Yemen, was guerilla warfare, rather than a terror attack. Likewise, the attack on the Khobar Towers apartments housing U.S. military personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was a guerilla attack, rather than a terror attack. However, the September attacks were not guerilla warfare, but terrorism.

This applies not only to American forces, but also to Israeli soldiers who come under attack—whether on the battlefield or hitchhiking to their bases, or eating in restaurants. Any attack on military personnel, whether combatants or not, would be defined as guerilla warfare rather than terrorism.

Everyone agrees that fighting terrorism is in the interest of civilized states. The problem is that counter-terrorism ranks very low in the hierarchy of state interests, coming a long way behind economic and political interests. Every year, the American State Department publishes its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and they have their own legislation that applies to such states. However, the American list would not be accepted by other nations in the international community. This is because each country has its own interests, and they see the American list as representing American interests more than any others. For example, the French attitude toward state sponsors of terrorism is different from that of the American government. In the case of Iran and Syria, the French will argue that it’s important to tighten economic, diplomatic, political and cultural ties in order to persuade them to stop sponsoring international terrorist organizations. However, this policy is really merely window-dressing for the French government’s desire for good economic ties with these states. In my mind there is no place for such an approach; terrorism has become too great a danger to the international community for the economic interests of any country to have priority over the fight against state-sponsored terrorism.

So we have discussed military action against terrorism, education to counter radical propaganda, and international legislation against terrorism. The last phase of the proposed international campaign against Islamic radical terrorist organizations is the campaign against the sleeper groups that have already infiltrated the West’s backyard—in the United States, Germany and Britain. This is a matter for each individual nation to deal with, and is likely to give rise to considerable tension between the need to combat the terrorist threat while still remaining true to liberal democratic values. But the ultimate aim is to demolish the frontline platform that Islamic Radical groups have built inside Western society.

It is important that all four phases of the international campaign be launched simultaneously. We cannot do it piece-meal, dealing first with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and only afterwards with the organizations and state sponsors of terrorism—it must be a simultaneous campaign. Nor should we attempt to downplay the importance of this campaign, for the price of failure is too great. If we cannot lessen the capabilities of the terrorist networks to strike against us, then the next atrocity is only a matter of time.