The war on terrorism is being won, say Americans who are fighting it. One by one, members of al-Qaida are apprehended, and their capture leads to information on others. Yet there are fears these terrorists may be replaced by others recruited in outrage over the war with Iraq. VOA's Ed Warner reports the mixed signals coming from the war on terrorism.
After the September 11 attacks on the United States, Georgetown University Professor Daniel Byman expected some follow-up disaster. To his and others' relief, it did not come.
“When people asked me on September 12, would the United States suffer a major attack in the next year, I said, ‘Yes,’” the professor said. “And if Richard Reid had been a little less stupid or the stewardess a little less alert, you might have said it would have happened. But nevertheless, the progress that has been made in reduction in the number of attacks against U.S. citizens, even abroad, is surprising. And recent arrests make this even more positive.”
Professor Byman says he would not go so far as to say he feels altogether safe today, but he feels a lot safer than he would have expected a year ago.
He has reason to feel that way, says Peter Goss, chairman of the intelligence committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He told The Washington Post newspaper: "I believe the tide has turned in terms of al-Qaida. They have more to fear from us than we have to fear from them."
The recent capture of a top-ranking al-Qaida member in Pakistan, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was especially useful. Documents in his possession provided hundreds of leads to his organization's plans and funding. The FBI and CIA say they are close to dismantling al-Qaida and doubt it can mount another attack on the scale of September 11, though smaller ones are possible.
But Milt Bearden, a former top CIA official with long experience in Muslim countries, says U.S. allies, in particular Pakistan, are not given sufficient credit for rounding up al-Qaida:
“Almost every single al-Qaida member that has been brought to justice in the United States or is currently in American hands was first rolled up by the Pakistanis,” he said. “We tend to read it in our media coverage as another great American grab in the war against terrorism, and the Pakistanis get almost no mention.”
If anything, says Mr. Bearden, the American media tend to play up Pakistani actions that seem hostile to the United States. He cautions that is not the way to get cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Professor Byman says if we are subduing al-Qaida, we are not doing as well with broader radical elements who have developed such a hatred of America. Mr. Bearden agrees.
“If we got Osama bin Laden and every last one of his 200-odd sworn members of al-Qaida, would we have taken care of the issue? Would we be able to say, ‘That takes care of that,’” he said. “I think we would probably not be able to make that determination and that we would have to say, ‘are there still the reasons out there for these people to sign up and possibly to die in the pursuit of doing harm to the United States.’"
Mr. Bearden cites the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major cause of Muslim hostility toward America, which appears to side with Israel.
Professor Byman notes others: “There are two long-standing grievances that al-Qaida and other radical groups have regarding the United States. One is the American troop presence in the Persian Gulf,” Professor Byman said. “The other is the steady isolation and economic weakness of Iraq. Presumably, after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, both of these would be ended or reduced. So there is some long-term hope, even though the short-term things look quite gloomy.”
The short-term worries many analysts who fear the war with Iraq may serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists. Investigators say even the threat of war has brought many converts into terrorist camps. War itself could bring a surge.
Professor Byman says an assault on Iraq that takes many lives will be a propaganda boon for jihadists. "That will give them a big boost in recruiting and fund raising. There are millions and millions of people whose hearts and minds are in play,” he said.
Jean Louis Bruguiere, a top French terrorist investigator, says an increasing number of people seem to be willing to use violence for Islamic causes in reaction to Iraq and Palestine. He told The New York Times newspaper these people seem to be younger than before, and include many women.
Mr. Bruguiere adds that Osama bin Laden's strategy is to demonstrate that the West, especially the United States, is starting a war against Islam. "An attack on Iraq might confirm this vision for many Muslims," Mr. Bruguiere told the The New York Times. "I am very worried about the next wave of recruits." This also worries Milt Bearden.
“The thing that I think that one has to watch more closely than anything else now is the growing belief in that part of the world that this is indeed a question of Judeo-Christians against the Islamic world,” Mr. Bearden said. “We have heard too many times senior officials in the U.S. Government say, ‘This is not about Islam.’ That is like someone saying to you, ‘Look, this is not about the money.’ You know instantly that it is about the money.”
Mr. Bearden has just returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he found a much altered view of the United States. The once broad, benign outlook associated with America is now seen as narrow, insular, and strangely enough, obsessively religious.
“I believe that there is a growing number of people in the Islamic world that think that America is the most fundamentalist religious state in the world. I just recently traveled in the region and I'm shocked to find that those people are as concerned about our religious fundamentalists as we seem to be about theirs,” he said.
A recent survey seems to support Mr. Bearden's concerns. In early March, the Arab American Institute and Zogby International Poll found that only 10% of Jordanians have a positive view of the United States, while 81% have a negative one. Egypt has 13% favorable, 80% unfavorable. In Saudi Arabia, 3% look kindly on America, 97% do not.
The survey concludes that much of the Arab public has given up on the United States.
That must be corrected, says Professor Byman. Though a relatively small number of die-hards will never be convinced the United States means well, he believes the larger public is open to persuasion, if the United States can learn to make its case.
Along with policy, public diplomacy, he says, is crucial.
“Creating a sense that the United States is not the enemy of Islam should be step one,” Professor Byman said. “In my mind, this would not be exceptionally difficult given that the United States has often gone to war on behalf of Muslims, that foreign aid often benefits Muslims, but nevertheless this perception that the United States is anti-Islamic is very real. There is no denying that. So reversing that perception, which may take years or decades, is the most important thing for the long term.”
Professor Byman says not only should various government media like the Voice of America be strengthened, but the United States should engage with local media in Muslim countries. Make America available to the Muslim world, he urges, and end any notion of religious or civilizational clash.