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War on Terror Pits Islamic Radicals Against West, Islamic Moderates - 2003-12-03


Everyone is aware of terrorism, but there is far less certainty about what it actually is and how it should be fought. Opinions are as varied as the terrorist acts themselves. VOA's Ed Warner presents the contrasting views of two longstanding intelligence analysts who find different causes of terrorism and different implications for the United States.

Going into Iraq did not suppress terrorism but stirred it, says Larry Johnson, a former counter-intelligence official of the U.S. State Department: “We are seen in Iraq as a foreign power, and so it ends up having a unifying effect on a disparate number of groups that range from Islamic extremists to Arab nationalists. As a result, we find that there is not just one enemy. There are multiple enemies.”

These enemies are now busily sending their terrorist message through cyber space, using the war in Iraq as a recruiting tool. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pondered this dilemma: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Mr. Johnson says in the last several months, terrorist attacks have increased in number and intensity: “Since March of this year, we have had ten terrorist spectaculars, as compared to last year when most of the terrorist attacks were confined to places like India, Israel and Colombia. We are now seeing them pop up in more areas, and this in my judgment is reflecting the fact that these folks are much more energized now and willing to take risks that they were unwilling to take before.”

But the United States has failed to meet the threat, says Larry Johnson, because it veered away from the war on terrorism to go to conventional war in Iraq. They are two quite different wars: “The unfortunate thing is that the United States diverted resources from going after al-Qaida in order to go after the regime of Saddam Hussein, and as a consequence of that, a whole realm of interpreters and intelligence analysts are now focused more on the problems we have in Iraq. We have really for the last eight months essentially ignored the al-Qaida remnants.”

Key resources have also been diverted to searching so far unsuccessfully for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After weeks of debate in Washington, dozens of linguists and intelligence officers have now been reassigned from the WMD search to deal with the current danger of armed insurgency.

True believers in Washington, obsessed with their vision at the expense of the facts, have led to the mistakes in Iraq, says Larry Johnson. There are insufficient troops to control the country, patrol its borders or keep extensive weapons depots from being raided by the enemy.

But Larry Johnson says Iraq cannot be abandoned now that it has become entwined with the war on terrorism: “If we pull out of Iraq without a clear victory and leaving in place a stable government that is in solid control, we are going to repeat the mistake that we made when we retreated from Lebanon back in 1984, following the two bombings of the U.S. embassy and the bombing of the Marine barracks. That event was interpreted by the Islamic extremists that if you kill enough Americans, you will cause them to retreat.”

Guess who closely studied this seminal event? asks Larry Johnson. None other than Osama bin Laden, who has tried to repeat it on various occasions.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq did not launch a new round of terrorism, says Robert Andrews, a former CIA officer and Green Beret: “If it had not been Iraq, it would have been somewhere else. In other words, our going into Iraq did not cause the Islamic jihadists to rise up and begin this war. This war began a long time ago.”

He believes its modern phase began with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and built to a climax in the 9/11 attacks on America. Anti-Americanism, he says, is not its chief element but a by-product: “This entire conflict that we face is a war of ideas at the very core. We are not going to see an end to the Islamic fundamentalist terror campaign either against us or against their own people until the Islamic world comes to view the fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers as heretics and not as martyrs.”

How Muslims choose in this matter will largely determine the outcome of the war, says Mr. Andrews. It is only in part a war against non-Muslims: “The less obvious campaign that is being conducted, but equally important, is that the Islamic fundamentalists are waging war within the Islamic world against the moderates. And this is the war that I think is going to decide how the overall war on terrorism turns out.”

Mr. Andrews, like others, notes the lack of economic and political progress in much of the Muslim world. Going the way of bin Laden would make Muslim prospects even bleaker. But he says it is for Muslims to decide.

Meanwhile, there is an immediate war to be won. By striking Afghanistan, writes Mr. Andrews in The Washington Post, we drove the terrorists out to various parts of the world where they may be harder to find. They have dispersed into tight cells with perhaps only three to five members. And if they no longer receive orders from a central source, they share a general inspiration. There are fewer leaders, it is noted, but more followers.

Mr. Andrews says U.S. special forces, like the Green Berets, must be re-equipped for the task ahead. The global manhunt requires them to be stationed close to their targets and move fast. "They must be more invisible and more mobile than al-Qaida cells. We must spread a large number of small teams around the world and we must support them in total secrecy."

This war will always be a matter of trial and error, says Mr. Andrews. The best-laid plans will inevitably go astray. That is why Paul Bremer, U.S. administrator of Iraq, should not be blamed for policy shifts as he tries to deal with competing forces in establishing a government in Iraq: “Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority had one set of ideas in mind, and then the Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country said no, we want to go this way. It is a very positive kind of development that shows that there is flexibility and understanding and learning on both sides.”

The years ahead will require similar flexibility on an indefinite basis, says Mr. Andrews, drawing on the comments of a naval friend of his shortly after 9/11: “You know, the Americans kids who are going to win this war are probably in high school or grade school right now. We spent 50 years in the Cold War. This is a cultural struggle. Cultures are always in some kind of conflict or competition. This happens to be fairly bloody right now. Let's hope we can stop the bloodshed and get back to the ideas again.”

Is the war on terrorism a matter of prolonged cultural conflict, as Robert Andrews says? Or is it more related to specific issues like the war in Iraq or in Palestine, as Larry Johnson suggests? The terrorists themselves give conflicting answers. Perhaps it can be agreed that any path is worth pursuing to bring this war to an end.

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