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9-11 Commission Hears Stinging Criticism of US Intelligence - 2003-07-10

A U.S. commission set up to probe the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington has held its third public forum. The commission heard stinging criticism of U.S. intelligence efforts prior to September 11, as well as suggestions on U.S. policy towards the Muslim world.

Rohan Gunaratna is considered one of the world's foremost experts on the al-Qaida terrorist network. The head of terrorism research at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies, last year he published a book, titled Inside al-Qaida, that has received international critical acclaim.

Mr. Gunaratna did not mince words Tuesday when addressing the U.S. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. He said the United States and other western democracies stood by idly in the 1990s as al-Qaida transformed Afghanistan into what he described as a "terrorist Disneyland" and a "center of gravity" for the Muslim world's anti-American extremists. The researcher and author said signs of trouble were all too apparent in the years leading up to September 11, from al-Qaida's attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

"There was a failure to act. You [the United States] knew that your country would be attacked, but you did not do what was necessary to prevent your country from being harmed and humiliated," said Mr. Gunaratna. "You knew that the intention of al-Qaida was to kill American people wherever they could be found - but still you did not act, and you paid a very heavy price for it."

Mr. Gunaratna said the U.S.-led war on terrorism has severely curtailed al-Qaida's ability to mount future assaults on the same scale as the September 11 attacks. But, he added, the network will continue to serve as a financial and ideological backer of other anti-American terrorist groups, and that the United States must continue to prosecute the war on terrorism with maximum vigor and energy.

Other speakers addressing the commission said the United States may one day win the battle over al-Qaida, but lose the larger effort of winning over popular sentiment in the Muslim world. Mamoun Fandy is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former professor at Georgetown University's Center for Comparative Arab Studies. Mr. Fandy said that leaders of Muslim nations have, for the most part, chosen to ignore near-constant bashing of the United States by the region's news media and religious figures - all the while privately assuring U.S. officials of their friendship and support in the war on terrorism.

Mr. Fandy says terrorists rely on and take advantage of this silence and that it is something the United States can no tolerate. He says it is time for Middle Eastern leaders to give the United States credit where credit is due. For example, he points to the U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait.

"We [the United States] need to hear gratitude for what we do in that part of the world," said Mr. Fandy. "I think our problems throughout the Middle East are really about an approach that developed over the years that somehow we tolerate Arab leaders telling us one thing in private rooms while letting them deal with their public [citizens] the way they want to. It is very important for friends of the United States to stand by the United States and speak out that, indeed, Kuwait was liberated by the United States."

There was disagreement among panelists as to whether the war in Iraq has helped or hurt overall anti-terrorist efforts. Some argued that occupying Iraq can only intensify anti-American sentiments in the region. Others said that ousting Saddam Hussein sent a clear message to Middle Eastern states about the folly of backing terrorism.

On one point there was broad agreement: that the United States must re-examine and repair what was described as a jumbled and inconsistent message to the Muslim world. "Nobody in the Muslim world knows what our message on Iraq is, what our message on Islam is," Mr. Fandy said. "We have not put out a strategically-positioned message to the Muslim world telling them who we are and what we are all about. The over-arching message ought to be uniform on the question of freedom and democracy."

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks is charged with detailing the circumstances surrounding the events of September 11. It is also to examine U.S. preparedness at the time and how the nation responded to the attacks. Formed in November of last year, the commission has until May, 2004 to complete its findings.

Monday, the head of the commission, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, said several federal agencies are endangering the investigation by failing to provide requested documents in a timely manner.

Tuesday, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer accused the Bush administration of intentionally impeding the probe for political reasons. The Senator called for an independent investigation of the matter, including whether witnesses have been intimidated. The Bush administration denies the charges and ordered all federal agencies to cooperate fully with the commission.