The Pitfalls of Anti-Terrorism
I have spent much of my life studying the phenomenon of terrorism, but the events of 11 September have provoked a good deal of re-thinking. When I wrote my first published (as distinct from unpublished) book, The Rebels, in 1960, I delivered myself of a phrase that goes deeper than it looks: “It takes a rébel to rebél” (accents added). The same, multiplied by an X factor, is true of terrorists. Terrorists are born as such before they practise the evil inherent in their natures.
I daresay that the 50-plus brethren of the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden may include a few potential emulators, but clearly none so driven by his interpretation of Islamic-blessed sanguinary violence. Things have changed (for the worse) since I traced the origins, aims and methods of insurgencies against French or British rule, in favour of Marxist objectives or against communist tyrannies.
The evolution of political violence is important. In Malaya, Vietnam or Algeria, as in Kenya or Cuba, with many etceteras, terrorism was usually the early stage of guerilla war. Now, as in the unprecedented incidents of New York, Washington and Pittsburgh, terroristic violence appears to be an aim in itself: an expression of unlimited hatred attributed to religious faith. So deeply felt is the hatred, so profoundly based on a malignant interpretation of a centuries-old faith, that no thought appears to have been given to the earlier view that terrorism is merely a prelude to guerilla war against a colonial power or an ideological oppressor.
For after all, the Islamic fundamentalists that constituted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan could not claim that their country was occupied and exploited by the United States. Ironically, the Americans, after years of supporting less extremist groups in their war against the Soviet Union, switched their support to the Taliban, thus helping to bring to power a government that provided the worst terrorist threat of our times, and the one that has picked on the United States as its overriding target.
Narrowly elected in a closely contested contest, President George W. Bush faced the most dramatic and violent challenge to his international role as leader of the West when suicide pilots and highjackers crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, and into a corner of the vast Pentagon in Washington. Much berated for his fumbling public speaking, the new President rose to the occasion. In so doing, however, he ran into two minor oratorical traps. His much praised address to both houses of Congress included a sentence that bothered me, and doubtless many others. Referring to “the heirs to all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century”, he denounced the terrorists for following in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. Why, I wondered, not name the third ideological enemy — communism — instead of Giovanni Gentile’s polysyllabic gift to Mussolini? It emerged that “communism” was removed for fear of offending China.
In other respects, however, the President’s wordsmith, Michael Gerson, deserves congratulations for providing the President with a rousing form of words. On the same subject, however, the President’s earlier call for a “crusade” was bound to arouse hostile reactions, and was duly exploited by bin Laden in the statement he released on 24th September, calling for a jihad (holy war) against “the American crusade”.
And yet, of course, the President’s call was surely justified by events. The problem is that in the current international context, the three major monotheistic religions appear to be at war with one another: Israeli Jews against Palestinian Arabs, and Muslim extremists (sheltering Osama bin Laden) against the Christian world led by the United States. This is, of course, only a segment of the terrorist challenges of the troubled century now ended and the new one made worse by the likes of bin Laden.
Most of the other terrorist challenges in the second half of the 20th century involved ideological or ethnic groups rather than religions. For example, the Spanish Basque terrorism of E.T.A., still flourishing, is an ethnic form of it. But by far the largest number of revolutionary groups in the 1970s and 1980s were led by Marxists of one kind or another, such as the Trotskyist Partito Comunista Revoluzionario in Italy, the Moscow-line Accao Reolucionario Armarda in Portugal or the Castroist Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional in Bolivia or the Maoist Ejercito Popular de Liberacion in Colombia.
The British experience of terrorism is, of course, in its relatively minor way, a religious war between the Catholic terrorists of the I.R.A. and the dominant Protestant population of Ulster. The trouble with extremists, as our present government is re-discovering, is that they do not willingly drop their extremism, even if the politically correct language used in negotiations (“decommissioning” arms instead of handing them over) is designed to accommodate them.
Back to the present. The scale of the terrorist attack on the World Trade buildings, (and of the casualties it caused in the order of 3,000 deaths) dwarfs all previous assaults. Unfortunately, it was made possible by suicide pilots, apparently trained by bin Laden or his disciples in some sixty training centres in many countries. Although Afghanistan has a long history of defeating or discouraging its invaders (including the British as well as the Russians), America and its allies had advantages not enjoyed by previous opponents. Unbelievable as this would have been during the disastrous Soviet attempt to subdue that inhospitably mountainous country, President Putin of post-Soviet Russia has been apparently ready to help the West’s only superpower, the United States. From a man whose early career was in the K.G.B., this is a remarkably helpful volte-face.
President Bush has also enjoyed the support (with minor reservations) of N.A.T.O. More importantly, in my view, he has had the support of Muslim Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, admittedly in the face of considerable opposition from segments of his country’s mixed population. More important still was the support of the Afghan Northern Alliance in control of a pocket of land near the Tajik border and other groupings within Afghanistan. The Alliance suffered a major blow with the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir and a hero of the war against the Soviet invaders. The assassins were two Arabs posing as journalists on the eve of the assault on America. This loss, although severe, was of course an incentive to help the West against the extremist Taliban regime.
The offensive against the ideologically unbalanced Taliban was fraught with difficulties, but the continuing military activities against bin Laden and his supporters can be, and must be, won by the West, to the ultimate benefit of people and peoples oppressed by fundamentalists.
National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002