Seeing Osama plain.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 16 2004 6:48 PM

Seeing Osama Plain

Washington's focus on al-Qaida misses the larger Islamist picture.

Yesterday the Arab satellite networks Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera broadcast a message believed to have come from Osama Bin Laden. In explaining that the March 11 Madrid attack was the "commodity" that Spain had coming to it, and in referring to "the leading media companies" and "the White House gang," he sounded like Noam Chomsky. In offering a truce to "Europe," which was rejected out of hand, Bin Laden was impersonating a head of state.

It is probably a good thing Bin Laden did not approach the Bush administration with a truce offer, since, as critics of the White House's foreign policy have pointed out, the Bush team is predisposed to see threats to national security largely in terms of state actors. If the White House weren't so consumed with rogue states, so the argument goes, they might have paid more attention to Richard Clarke, who knew all along that we should be worrying about al-Qaida. Still, at this point it's doubtful that even the administration's most intransigent Sovietologists would've tried detente with Bin Laden.

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We should be very glad Bin Laden didn't approach Richard Clarke with the offer. After all, Clarke has suggested that the Islamist threat comes from an enormous centralized body with one man at the top of a strict organizational hierarchy that carefully manages a vast network of agents—including sleeper cells!—across the world. In other words, Clarke's portrait of Islamic terrorism very much resembles the old KGB.

Islamist groups are neither states nor their foreign intelligence apparatus. But do they observe truces?

The very large and violent Al-Gama'a al-Islameya says they called a truce in 1997 to end their war against Egyptian society. The problem is, since Egypt is an authoritarian state, and it is not in the regime's interests to tell the truth, the government won't confirm whether there really is a truce or if they just made Gama'a cry uncle. If it were the former, President Hosni Mubarak is not going to compromise his prestige by thanking Gama'a for calling off its armed insurgency. If, on the other hand, Gama'a stopped the violence only because the regime had decimated the group, then the government isn't going to admit that publicly either. Murder and torture may sometimes be acceptable to the international community, as in the case of Sheik Yassin, but it is never acceptable for a state to boast about murder and torture. Also, the last thing any Arab regime wants to do is brag so loudly it wakes a sleeping Islamist dog.

In the 1980s, France let its Islamists in the house and gave them a place to play. As Jeremy Shapiro explains in a Brookings Institution paper that is essential reading for anyone interested in how to combat Islamist terrorism, the French tried a number of different tactics. First was the "sanctuary doctrine," which gave terrorists room to operate so long as they did not attack French citizens or interests. As that proved unworkable, the French next moved to accommodation, which also earned France the terrorists' contempt. By the mid-'90s, came prevention, where the French were able to foil major plots, including one on the U.S. Embassy in Paris and another at the 1998 World Cup.

How did they do something the United States was incapable of doing on Sept. 11? Their experience with different groups—Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Algerian—showed the French that the problem wasn't just about one man or one organization. By the '90s, it was clear that terrorism was one manifestation of a broadly ideological and radical movement committed to waging jihad against infidel Muslim regimes and the West. France, as a former colonial power with its hands bloodied in North Africa and the Levant, came to see how it was perceived in the eyes of the Islamists. It's not about what we do, as President Bush has said, but neither is it about what we are; it's all about what they believe. The French had to get their picture of the problem in accordance with reality so they could determine and then target threats.

Even if France's reputation may have suffered of late, it is the last country in the West that would've taken Bin Laden seriously. Experience has shown it that one man is not the problem. Moreover, terrorism isn't going to end, regardless of what Bin Laden decides. There are too many groups, too many weapons and potential weapons, and one all-consuming ideological motive. "Terrorism comes and goes," Shapiro told me. "It's an intermittent problem that needs to be managed." One answer, Shapiro says, is to build "robust institutions that are sufficiently rooted in normal judiciary procedures to exist throughout the duration of a long struggle."

The Bush administration, however, has got its "war footing" on. With the specter of secret military tribunals in the offing, the Bush administration has de-emphasized normal judicial proceedings and followed the model of authoritarian states like Egypt and Algeria. "Secret military tribunals won't be around in 20 years," says Shapiro, "but terrorism will." Fighting terrorism demands a broad base of legitimacy that will last as long as terrorism does.

Furthermore, regular court proceedings provide the sort of public documentation we need in order to better understand how the groups operate and what jihadists believe. Scholars, journalists, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors should all be working from the same public record in order to bring their specialized expertise to bear. Right now, we know little about the problem but an awful lot about our government's incompetence.

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