Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The true shape of terrorism

One of the significant points made by Richard Clarke -- and largely obscured in the detritus of the ad-hominem attacks on his testimony -- is that the Bush administration, both before and after Sept. 11, has displayed an abysmal failure to grasp the real nature of terrorism.

It started off well enough, attacking the one state (Afghanistan) that was known to support al Qaeda and harbor their camps. But that military orientation in the "war on terror" obviously dominated the Bush strategy both before and after 9/11, and led ultimately to the adventure in Iraq that has proven not only to be an ever-deepening quagmire with a increasingly mounting toll in American lives, but has, as Clark asserts, actually weakened the real fight against terrorism.

A military orientation, as I discussed recently, almost perforce orients the "war on terror" to formulating attacks on those states -- the "axis of evil" -- that support terrorism. And the reality, as I've explained at length, is that terrorism as a phemonenon is not likely to be defeated under those terms.

The reason is what I've called the "corpuscular" nature of modern terrorism -- it does not need a state for support, and in fact can, as in Oklahoma City, manifest itself simply as a hostile entity within a given state. Home-grown right-wing extremists are every bit a manifestation of the same phenomenon as al Qaeda, and in fact not only share a great deal in common with them ideologically and strategically, but have in many cases (as in the anthrax attacks) clearly piggybacked off of al Qaeda terrorism to create an "echo" effect.

A fascinating piece by terrorism expert Jessica Stern, published in the respected journal Foreign Affairs in July/August 2003, was recently brought to my attention by a colleague because it provides some disturbing details about the rising likelihood of an actual coalescence of American right-wing extremists and Islamist right-wing extremists, including al Qaeda:
The Protean Enemy

Stern points out that there have been several indications that American terrorists are now commingling with Middle Eastern extremists in, of all places, the no-man's land of South America:
The triborder region of South America has become the world's new Libya, a place where terrorists with widely disparate ideologies -- Marxist Colombian rebels, American white supremacists, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others -- meet to swap tradecraft. Authorities now worry that the more sophisticated groups will invite the American radicals to help them. Moneys raised for terrorist organizations in the United States are often funneled through Latin America, which has also become an important stopover point for operatives entering the United States. Reports that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is allowing Colombian rebels and militant Islamist groups to operate in his country are meanwhile becoming more credible, as are claims that Venezuela's Margarita Island has become a terrorist haven.

As these developments suggest and Tenet confirms, "mixing and matching of capabilities, swapping of training, and the use of common facilities" have become the hallmark of professional terrorists today. This fact has been borne out by the leader of a Pakistani jihadi group affiliated with al Qaeda, who recently told me that informal contacts between his group and Hezbollah, Hamas, and others have become common. Operatives with particular skills loan themselves out to different groups, with expenses being covered by the charities that formed to fund the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Not only that, but al Qaeda is apparently modeling its own structure on the one adopted by American right-wing extremists in the 1990s -- namely, "leaderless resistance," the splitting up of organizations into a remote network of terrorist cells, so that if one cell is apprehended or stymied, the others remain intact.
Al Qaeda seems to have learned that in order to evade detection in the West, it must adopt some of the qualities of a "virtual network": a style of organization used by American right-wing extremists for operating in environments (such as the United States) that have effective law enforcement agencies. American antigovernment groups refer to this style as "leaderless resistance." The idea was popularized by Louis Beam, the self-described ambassador-at-large, staff propagandist, and "computer terrorist to the Chosen" for Aryan Nations, an American neo-Nazi group. Beam writes that hierarchical organization is extremely dangerous for insurgents, especially in "technologically advanced societies where electronic surveillance can often penetrate the structure, revealing its chain of command." In leaderless organizations, however, "individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization." Leaders do not issue orders or pay operatives; instead, they inspire small cells or individuals to take action on their own initiative.

This form of resistance often devolves from the larger five- to seven-person cell to smaller, intensely active spin-offs, ultimately manifesting itself in the form of "lone wolf" terrorists like Buford Furrow, Benjamin Smith or Richard Reid.
Lone-wolf terrorists typically act out of a mixture of ideology and personal grievances. For example, Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani national who shot several CIA employees in 1993, described his actions as "between jihad and tribal revenge" -- jihad against America for its support of Israel and revenge against the CIA, which he apparently felt had mistreated his father during Afghanistan's war against the Soviets. Meanwhile, John Allen Muhammad, one of the alleged "Washington snipers," reportedly told a friend that he endorsed the September 11 attacks and disapproved of U.S. policy toward Muslim states, but he appears to have been principally motivated by anger at his ex-wife for keeping him from seeing their children, and some of his victims seem to have been personal enemies. As increasingly powerful weapons become more and more available, lone wolves, who face few political constraints, will become more of a threat, whatever their primary motivation.

The Internet has also greatly facilitated the spread of "virtual" subcultures and has substantially increased the capacity of loosely networked terrorist organizations. For example, Beam's essay on the virtues of "leaderless resistance" has long been available on the Web and, according to researcher Michael Reynolds, has been highlighted by radical Muslim sites. Islamist Web sites also offer on-line training courses in the production of explosives and urge visitors to take action on their own. The "encyclopedia of jihad," parts of which are available on-line, provides instructions for creating "clandestine activity cells," with units for intelligence, supply, planning and preparation, and implementation.

The obstacles these Web sites pose for Western law enforcement are obvious. In one article on the "culture of jihad" available on-line, a Saudi Islamist urges bin Laden's sympathizers to take action without waiting for instructions. "I do not need to meet the Sheikh and ask his permission to carry out some operation," he writes, "the same as I do not need permission to pray, or to think about killing the Jews and the Crusaders that gather on our lands." Nor does it make any difference whether bin Laden is alive or dead: "There are a thousand bin Ladens in this nation. We should not abandon our way, which the Sheikh has paved for you, regardless of the existence of the Sheikh or his absence." And according to U.S. government officials, al Qaeda now uses chat rooms to recruit Latino Muslims with U.S. passports, in the belief that they will arouse less suspicion as operatives than would Arab-Americans. Finally, as the late neo-Nazi William Pierce once told me, using the Web to recruit "leaderless resisters" offers still another advantage: it attracts better-educated young people than do more traditional methods, such as radio programs.

And, as Stern observes, there have been other documented examples of an increasing overlap between right-wing extremists and Islamist radicals:
Focusing on economic and social alienation may help explain why such a surprising array of groups has proved willing to join forces with al Qaeda. Some white supremacists and extremist Christians applaud al Qaeda's rejectionist goals and may eventually contribute to al Qaeda missions. Already a Swiss neo-Nazi named Albert Huber has called for his followers to join forces with Islamists. Indeed, Huber sat on the board of directors of the Bank al Taqwa, which the U.S. government accuses of being a major donor to al Qaeda. Meanwhile, Matt Hale, leader of the white-supremacist World Church of the Creator, has published a book indicting Jews and Israelis as the real culprits behind the attacks of September 11. These groups, along with Horst Mahler (a founder of the radical leftist German group the Red Army Faction), view the September 11 attacks as the first shot in a war against globalization, a phenomenon that they fear will exterminate national cultures. Leaderless resisters drawn from the ranks of white supremacists or other groups are not currently capable of carrying out massive attacks on their own, but they may be if they join forces with al Qaeda.

The important upshot of this is that terrorism is best attacked as the highly amorphous, incredibly volatile thing that it is -- and that a strategy that aims for the root causes both abroad and at home is fundamental to winning the "war." A military-driven operation will seek to attack states where it is believed to be nurtured, with the likely effect being to only drive more and more individuals into the radicalized camps:
In countries where extremist religious schools promote terrorism, Washington should help develop alternative schools rather than attempt to persuade the local government to shut down radical madrasahs. In Pakistan, many children end up at extremist schools because their parents cannot afford the alternatives; better funding for secular education could therefore make a positive difference.

The appeal of radical Islam to alienated youth living in the West is perhaps an even more difficult problem to address. Uneasiness with liberal values, discomfort with uncertain identities, and resentment of the privileged are perennial problems in modern societies. What is new today is that radical leaders are using the tools of globalization to construct new, transnational identities based on death cults, turning grievances and alienation into powerful weapons. To fight these tactics will require getting the input not just of moderate Muslims, but of radical Islamist revivalists who oppose violence.

Besides countering the milieu in which terrorism arises, winning also means adopting flexible strategies that rely primarily on intelligence and the rule of international law, with an emphasis on eliminating their ability to obtain effective weapons of mass destruction. This means breaking up networks and infiltrating their ranks, the approach that appeared to work for law enforcement in its dealings with the American extremist right after 1995:
Especially important is the need to continue upgrading security at vulnerable nuclear sites, many of which, in Russia and other former Soviet states, are still vulnerable to theft. The global system of disease monitoring -- a system sorely tested during the sars epidemic -- should also be upgraded, since biological attacks may be difficult to distinguish from natural outbreaks. Only by matching the radical innovation shown by professional terrorists such as al Qaeda -- and by showing a similar willingness to adapt and adopt new methods and new ways of thinking -- can the United States and its allies make themselves safe from the ongoing threat of terrorist attack.

The Bush strategy, in fact, has failed in nearly all these regards. Richard Clarke's point, ultimately, underscores the extent to which the Bush administration has failed to adequately confronted the reality of terrorism: "When the president starts doing things that risk American lives, then loyalty to him has to be put aside. I think the way he has responded to al Qaeda, both before 9/11 by doing nothing, and by what he's done after 9/11 has made us less safe."

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