Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Anatomy of Terror 1: A Bloody Past

"It's déja vu all over again."

This delightful expression from baseball player and inadvertent homespun philosopher Yogi Berra aptly sums up America's national habit of locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Another bad habit is our tendency to concentrate on the messenger and overlook the message. These habits characterize our reaction to terrorism.

In March of 2004, ten bombs concealed in innocent-looking parcels and backpacks exploded on commuter trains arriving at Madrid's railway station, leaving 191 dead and 1,800 injured. The perpetrators were quickly identified and brought to justice. Sixteen months later, the day after London was named host to the 2012 Olympic Games, four bombs exploded in central London, bringing that city's transportation system to a standstill. Fifty-two were killed and 700 injured. Although homemade, the three bombs that struck London's Underground showed a remarkable level of coordination, exploding within seconds of each other. A fourth bomb exploded belatedly on the upper level of a double-decker bus, perhaps accidentally by a rattled bomber.

Having experienced Hitler's firebombing and rocket blitz during World War II and 30 years of intermittent bombing by the Irish Republican Army, Londoners stoically took this latest onslaught in stride. Taking a cue from our reference to the 2001 attacks as 9/11, the London incidents became 7/7. We now know that the London attacks had nothing to do with the Olympic Games and were made by locally home-grown al-Quaida wannabees. Significantly, they occurred on the opening day of the G8 Summit in Scotland. London was targeted for the same reason Spain was hit: because of its participation in the coalition--Britain contributed the second largest contingent to the invasion and occupation of Iraq--and to discourage continued participation in the coalition.

Here in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level for the mass transit sector of the transportation system from code yellow (elevated) to orange (high). Patrols and surveillance were increased on all forms of transportation. While our attention was diverted to trains and buses, independent experts warned that terrorist plotters could strike some unexpected new target--for example, a lightly protected chemical plant near an urban area.

We should never forget that the basic purpose of these acts of terrorism is to disrupt the way we lead our lives, to turn our open society into a closed, intimidated society and to turn one group against another. But isn't it time for us to pay attention to the message fanatical terrorists are trying to deliver? To do this, we must see ourselves as the rest of the world sees us, particularly the Third World.

The President has declared war on terror, but have we ever formulated clear-cut objectives for this war? Foolish taunts like "Bring 'em on" don't help. And the attacks in London underscore how empty is the President's statement, "We're taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home." Simply stated, there are no front lines in this war, not in Iraq nor elsewhere; the front line is everywhere. From Bali to Casablanca, from Buenos Aires to Istanbul, all of which have been terrorist targets, we're all in it together, by golly--and we have been since long before 9/11.

Terror's Long History
The evil of terrorism has been abroad in the world for centuries, and in the service of many causes. To help put terrorism in proper perspective, it may be useful to examine it through a historian's eyes.

In 1776, the British meted out harsh punishment to "terrorist" American colonists who fought frontier-style and took potshots at Redcoats from behind stone walls and trees. Two centuries later, the South African government labeled Nelson Mandela a terrorist for opposing apartheid and imprisoned him for 30 years.

Terrorism has long been the weapon of choice in the Middle East, where it has not been limited to Muslims. For example, on July 22, 1946, working to set up an independent state, members of the Jewish underground military organization Irgun Zvai Leumi exploded a bomb in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel was then the headquarters of the secretariat administering the British mandated territory of Palestine and of the British Army.

The death toll was 91, mostly civilians, including 17 Jews; 45 persons were injured. The bombing was condemned as "cowardly" in the British Houses of Parliament, but the British did not retaliate. The perpetrators, David Ben Gurion, who had ordered the bombing but later rescinded his order, and Menachem Begin, who carried it out anyway, were never brought to justice. In fact, both later became prime ministers of Israel. If anything, the bombing hastened the British decision to give up the mandate.

America and Terrorism
For many years, America has been a toothless tiger, peculiarly tolerant of terrorist attacks on its citizens and regarding them almost as annoyances. Repeated hijackings of American commercial aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in few changes in routines or baggage examination. There has been more than enough blame to go around among a succession of presidencies for their responses to terrorist attacks. Consider this sampling of incidents:

Khartoum, Sudan, March 1, 1973. Eight Palestinian gunmen take five hostages at a party at the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. Two are Americans, ambassador Cleo Noel and George Curtis Moore, chargé d'affaires. The Black September faction claims responsibility for the kidnapping and demands the release of Palestinians jailed everywhere, including Sirhan Bisrah Sirhan, who had assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968.

The customary practice of the State Department then was to negotiate the release of Americans being held by terrorists. When a reporter asks President Nixon to comment on the demand for the release of Kennedy's assassin, he explodes, "We will do everything to get them released--but we will not pay blackmail!" President Nixon's "no concessions" policy continues to this day.

The Nixon statement seals the fate of Noel and Moore. Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization sends a message to the terrorists in the embassy containing the code words Nahr al-Bard ("Cold River") ordering the death of the Western hostages. Nahr al-Bard was a terrorist training facility in Lebanon that had been attacked by Israeli troops 11 days earlier. With a third diplomat, Guy Eid, chargé d'affaires of the Belgian embassy, they are hustled to the Saudi embassy basement and machine-gunned. The perpetrators are detained briefly, but are never punished for the crime.

Before the kidnapping, an American listening post on Cyprus had intercepted a message indicating that terrorist action of some sort was about to happen in Khartoum and notified the State Department in Washington. Instead of immediately radioing a warning to the American embassy in Khartoum, the message was handled routinely by a State Department functionary. After the diplomats are killed, Nixon, up to his elbows in the uproar over the Watergate break-in, orders copies of all messages about the incident to be destroyed.

Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 23, 1983. A suicide bomber drives a truckload of dynamite into the barracks of U.S. Marines established at the Beirut Airport, killing 241. The troops were sent by Ronald Reagan to stabilize the country. Retaliation against Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles is considered. Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense, vetoes the idea out of fear that a misfired missile might be retrieved by Syria and passed to the Soviet Union, where the secret of its new technology could be revealed by reverse-engineering. President Reagan's response is to withdraw our troops.

Beirut, Lebanon, June 14, 1985. Two Hezbollah hijackers seize TWA Flight 847 between Athens and Rome. Demanding the release of 766 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, they divert the plane to Beirut. [TWA is then the major American overseas carrier; this is the fourth TWA flight hijacked by terrorists in 16 years. Previous TWA hijackings have taken place in 1969, 1970 and 1976.] The terrorists hope to find many Israelis on board. There are none, so they turn their attention to Americans with what they believe are "Jewish-sounding" names or with military ID. After murdering a U.S. young sailor named Robert Stethem, they dump his body from the plane onto the tarmac. Seventeen women and two children are released. The pilot is forced to fly to Algiers, where additional women and children are released. The plane again returns to Beirut. Here, after additional negotiations involving Syria and Iran, the remaining passengers are set free. The Syrian and Lebanese governments arrest and later release the hijackers. Although an American serviceman had been murdered, President Reagan does little more than impose sanctions on Lebanese air carriers to show his displeasure.

Mogadishu, Somalia, Dec. 8, 1992. Near the end of his term as President, George H.W.Bush sends U.S. troops into Somalia in support of U.N. humanitarian activities, promising to withdraw them by inauguration day, January 20th. Bill Clinton is sworn in and discovers that 25,000 U.S. troops are still in Somalia. The misadventure ends with the Mogadishu disaster on October 3, 1993, in which 18 American soldiers are killed and mutilated, and 84 are wounded. President Clinton's response is to withdraw our troops, and the last soldiers leave Somalia in March of 1994. The perpetrators are never caught or prosecuted.

New York, Feb. 26, 1993. A rented van containing 1,300 pounds of homemade explosives was driven into the underground garage of the World Trade Center. The intention was to cause one of the city's two tallest towers to topple into its adjoining twin. Although it did considerable damage underground, the targeted tower did not topple into the other. The perpetrators were brought to justice--but no attention was paid to their message. Ramzi Yousef, the bomb's mastermind was captured later in Pakistan and returned to the United States. He and two accomplices were convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Aug. 7, 1998. The Clinton administration's ineffectual response to al-Quaida's almost simultaneous bomb attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is to launch 79 cruise missiles at targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in the hope of killing bin Laden. Each missile costs about a million dollars.

Aden, Yemen, Oct. 12, 2000. As the American destroyer USS Cole is refueling in the inner harbor, two men in an inflatable Zodiac boat loaded with C-4 explosives pull alongside. The explosion that follows blows a huge hole in the side of the ship and kills 17 sailors in the main and auxiliary engine rooms and the crew's mess.

By the time it is established that bin Laden was behind this attack, hopes are running high for an agreement between new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat. President Clinton is reluctant to launch more attacks on another Islamic country and does nothing.

New York and Washington, September 11, 2001. Four commercial airliners are hijacked in flight and steered toward emblematic buildings: the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the seat of financial power, and the Pentagon in Washington, seat of military power. On the fourth plane, intended to strike either the U.S. Capitol or the White House, seats of government power, passengers heroically battle the hijackers. The plane crashes in Pennsylvania, far short of its intended target.

A wave of revulsion sweeps the country, which clamors for the capture and punishment of the perpetrators. Screening techniques that should always have been in place are instituted at airports to guarantee that this method of massive destruction would never again be attempted. President Bush declares that the country is now engaged in a "war on terror."

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator on the Middle East and usually a supporter of the President, points out in the Jerusalem Post that terror is a tactic, not an enemy. Pipes points out that by insisting its quarrel is with terror and not with radical Islam, the U.S. is obscuring the political roots of the confrontation.

Our primary adversary should always have been Osama bin Laden. Yet he was allowed to escape from our clutches, and now seems to thrive and issue pronouncements via taped messages from the safety of the tribal area of northwest Pakistan.

Ironically, bin Laden is a creation of the United States, although the U.S. government, probably out of embarrassment, has been singularly quiet about its participation in the recruitment and arming of fighters who forced the Russians in 1989 to abandon their occupation of Afghanistan. After Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA, operating at arm's length, organized an Afghan jihad, or holy war, against the godless Russians, with the cooperation of the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan. The CIA provided weapons and recruited candidates from various Muslim countries and facilitated their travel to Pakistan for training.

Arab countries were the main source of fighters, who were jocularly called "Afghan Arabs." Non-Afghan recruits came from Algeria, Indonesia, Kosovo, Chechnya and Sudan. The Pakistani embassy in Algiers issued 2,800 visas to Algerian volunteers in the 1980s. Fighters from all countries trained at Peshawar in Pakistan and received the comparatively high salary of $1,500 a month.

The CIA had hoped to turn up a Saudi prince to lead this jihad but could not find one. It settled for Osama bin Laden, recruited in 1980--with CIA approval--by the head of Saudi intelligence. Osama bin Laden shuttled frequently between Saudi Arabia and Peshawar in Pakistan with Saudi donations for the jihad. By 1986, bin Laden, whose family had made millions in construction, was the major contractor on a large CIA-funded project, the Khost tunnel complex deep in the mountains near the border with Pakistan.

Not many years later, with the Russians gone, bin Laden turned on his erstwhile American employers. In Operation Anaconda, U.S. planes would bomb this same tunnel complex. Although ample Special Forces were available, with peculiar timidity and to spare American casualties U.S., commanders choose to use Northern Alliance fighters of doubtful allegiance to root out Taliban die-hards in 2002.

Michael Scheuer, author of two books on Osama bin Laden under the pen name "Anonymous," spent many of his years of service as a CIA analyst studying bin Laden. Scheuer's advice in his 2004 book Imperial Hubris was not to see bin Laden as a criminal terrorist or as a lunatic, but rather as a talented, clever and brilliant military and political genius, with the attributes of a successful CEO. Scheuer warned that bin Laden has been precise in telling us the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, as George W. Bush insists. They have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world. Scheuer confidently predicted another massive bin Laden attack on the United States. In bin Laden's words, "just as you lay waste to our nation, so shall we lay waste to yours."

Osama bin Laden's long-term strategy is one developed by Mahatma Gandhi and refined by radical Chicago labor and civil rights organizer Saul Alinsky. It is embodied in the phrase, "The action is the reaction." In his 1971 book Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote, "The real action is in the enemy's reaction. The enemy, properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength. Tactics, like life, require that you move with the action."

The bin Laden action was the bombing of American symbols: the twin WTC towers (Wall Street/wealth), the Pentagon (the military), and (probably) the White House or the Capitol Building (the government). The American reaction exceeded his wildest dreams. We attacked bin Laden's enemy, the hated secularist Saddam, and laid waste to Iraq. Now we are engaged in rebuilding it. In bin Laden's words, "The policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy various corporations--whether in the field of arms or reconstruction--has helped us to achieve our results." What is remarkable about bin Laden as an adversary is that he has clearly spelled out his intentions and objectives in his many taped messages to the West.

For an investment of about a half million dollars, bin Laden succeeded in goading us into attacking a Muslim country and committing us to spending billions of dollars. He has acknowledged that his policy is to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy--and we are foolishly cooperating with him in this. He knows that the soft underbelly of the West is oil, and oil will never get cheaper. Yet we continue to do nothing about reducing our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels.

Despite a record-shattering reward of $50 million offered for his capture, Osama bin Laden still remains at large, a potent threat to the United States and the West. Are most intelligence professionals worried about the possibility of another major incident masterminded by this formidable adversary? Yes, they are very worried--and you should be too.

The Second Iraq War
Ignoring the findings of U.N.inspectors and wanting to believe that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, in 2003 the Bush administration attacks Iraq. Unlike the Gulf War of ten years before, other than Britain few countries send sizable contingents to participate.

Opponents of the war point out that if the undeclared war on Iraq was intended to be payback for participation in the 9/11 attacks, we were attacking the wrong enemy. A more logical opponent would have been Saudi Arabia, 15 of whose citizens made up the majority of the 19 plane hijackers. Although a huge reward is posted for the capture of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, this extremely tall and conspicuous Arab who travels with dialysis equipment disappears from our radar.

On the eve of the 1994 Republican convention in New York, George W. Bush, answering a question from Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show, admits that the war on terror cannot be won. Realizing that such a remark smacks of defeatism, an administration spokesman quickly explains that the President was merely pointing out the unconventional nature of the conflict. George W. Bush hastily backpedals at the American Legion convention in Nashville a day later. Nevertheless, the toothpaste is out of the tube and cannot be put back.

Today, a tidal wave of uneasiness is sweeping the country fed by revelations that the Iraq war was launched without a postwar plan and concerns over the lamentable lack of a timetable for withdrawal of our forces from that unhappy country.

The administration is now living in fear that the public will attach the word "quagmire" to the word Iraq and completely abandon support for the ongoing war, just as they once appended it to the word Vietnam with disastrous political and military consequences.

Although there are obvious differences between the struggles (jungle vs. desert) and political considerations and military technology have changed significantly, there are many uncomfortable parallels in the two wars.

Vietnam vs. Iraq
Four decades ago, the Kennedy administration saw Vietnam as an avenue of Chinese expansionism, although it was actually an obstacle to it. They closed their eyes to what any historian specializing in the Far East could have told them. Namely, that the Vietnamese have always feared and distrusted their giant neighbor to the north, convictions born of a thousand years of hated Chinese occupation.

Secular Iraq, debilitated by ten years of sanctions and daily reconnaissance flights, posed no real threat to America's security. Nevertheless, using flimsy evidence we convinced ourselves of the presence of weapons of mass destruction and launched a "pre-emptive" attack.

Lyndon Johnson surrounded himself with "the best and the brightest": Robert McNamara, inherited from assassinated John F. Kennedy as Secretary of Defense, with his number-crunching "whiz kids," and McGeorge Bundy, first in his class at Yale, as National Security Advisor. Preferring the advice of these civilian experts, Johnson ignored counsel from his Joint Chiefs of Staff even going so far as to exclude them from his Tuesday luncheon strategy meetings with advisors.

Similarly, George W. Bush has given Donald Rumsfeld, a former congressman wise in the ways of Washington and industry executive, a free hand in the redesign of the military. Although the Middle East loomed as the prime problem, the inexperienced president chose as his National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, an academic expert on Russia with no knowledge of the Middle East.

Vietnam was a costly undeclared war with hazy objectives, blessed by a compliant Congress, and characterized by the glaring disparity between the troops' bloody sacrifices and indifference of the home front. The Iraq war now resembles that earlier war, with a similar disconnect between battlefield and home front. American unit commanders in Iraq now report insurgents' "body counts," which were often falsified in Vietnam to give politicians at home the impression of progress.

One reason for the present administration's growing problem in keeping the public's attention focused on the war on terror is its unwillingness to level with the public and admit mistakes, a flawed stance matched by Presidents Johnson and Nixon in the earlier war. Consider what Lyndon Johnson told Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy in a taped phone conversation on Feb. 1, 1966. Although he publicly defended the war, Johnson frankly admitted to the Minnesota senator that going into Vietnam was a mistake. The following is a transcript of that conversation:
"Well, I know we oughtn't to be there, but I can't get out. I just can't be the architect of surrender. (pause) I'm willing to do damn near everything. If I told you what I was willing to do, I wouldn't have any program. Dirksen [Senate majority leader Everett Dirksen, Republican from Illinois] wouldn't give me a dollar to operate the war. I just can't operate in a glass bowl with all these things. But I'm willing to do nearly anything a human can do, if I can do it with any honor at all."

[Readers interested in hearing or reading transcripts of this and other presidential tapes are referred to]

Up until the day of that conversation, only a comparatively small number of battle deaths had occurred in Vietnam--3,078 to be exact. With the stroke of a presidential pen, Johnson could have kept our losses at that low figure. But because he lacked political courage and feared being charged with being soft on Communism if he withdrew, Johnson continued to ship American troops into the meat grinder that was Vietnam.

By the time the last troops were withdrawn in 1973 in accordance with the Paris peace agreements, a staggering 44,291 battle deaths were added, 28,975 of them on Johnson's watch and 15,316 on Nixon's. The total battle deaths in Vietnam eventually reached 47,369. [These numbers are taken from the OASD's "Southeast Asia Statistical Summary" and do not include losses due to disease, accident, heart attack, criminal activity, barroom brawls or suicide.]

The Vietnam War is popularly perceived as a stinging defeat for the United States military at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army. In reality, it was more like a self-inflicted wound. The last American troops departed in 1973. In retrospect, the U.S. Army actually gave a good account of itself and won every battle it engaged in, even though it was severely hampered by restrictive policies instituted by Defense Secretary McNamara and President Johnson. These two, with no military experience, prevented American troops from pursuing North Vietnamese units into North Vietnam. The majority of Americans killed in action died in South Vietnam's four northern provinces.

Nevertheless, the massive American casualties in Vietnam were the result of both the Johnson and Nixon administrations' foolish persistence in error. An apt quotation from The March of Folly, by Pulitzer prize-winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman, says: "Politicians and political appointees continued down the wrong road, as if in thrall to some magic power which directs their steps. To recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course is the most repugnant option in government."

The lingering question remains: "Have we not made the same mistake in Iraq?"

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