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Terror Overreach By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, November 20, 2003


With the murder of Muslim Arab children in Riyadh, Turks and Jews in Istanbul and of Italian carabinieri in Nassiriya, Al Qaeda has once again demonstrated its major strategic error, one any successful military strategist from the time of Hannibal to the present has avoided: Do not make new enemies faster than you are prepared to cope with them. It was Hitler’s error in attacking Stalin before finishing off Churchill, with well-known results.

Arab analyst Abdulwahab Badrakhan writes that with the new terrorist strike in Riyadh, “sabotage becomes just sabotage; killing becomes just killing,” with no overarching purpose. No one is interested anymore in the “excuses,” which became irrelevant. Terror has become “a plan for permanent and general chaos,” not only destabilizing society but also dashing any hope for reform and development (“Terror for Terror,” Al-Hayat, Nov. 10, 2003). Amen.

Until Riyadh, Al Qaeda’s declared enemies already included the U.S., Russia, China, India, Western Europe, and most Muslim governments. Now added to the list are Muslims as such, as people, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Egypt, Lebanon, and beyond. In expanding its scope, Al Qaeda demonstrates the truth of what the Bush administration has claimed ever since 9/11: that Al Qaeda is at war with civilization writ large, including the mainstream Islamic one. It was a truth that should have been obvious to all, but was rejected by the famously undefined “Arab street,” as well as by anti-American elites in the West—all the stubborn seekers of some remote but plausible (and possible to pin on the U.S.) “root cause” of Islamist terrorism. Now, at least the Arab world has finally realized that killing has become “just killing,” as Badrakhan put it, and that terrorists are just terrorists.

After Riyadh, the young Saudi cellphone chatterers who felt subliminal or even open satisfaction when Al Qaeda murdered thousands of Americans have to now look over their own shoulders for bombs, snipers, or knife wielders targeting them and their families. One could also hope, but not too much, that Westerners who have remonstrated about America’s “insensitivity” in fighting terror during Ramadan will consider that the terrorists do not seem to be observing the holy month.

It has all happened before. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Egyptian Jamaa Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad— main sources of bin Laden’s ideology and support—drew its own support from the slums of Fayum, Cairo, and Alexandria. But then it murdered Western tourists in Luxor, ruining the Egyptian tourism industry and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it provided until the regime finished it off. Al Qaeda’s inability to learn from its predecessor’s mistakes is great news for its enemies. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, which has long been ambivalent in its dealings with Bin Laden & Co., balancing bribes, threats, and crackdowns within its country with tolerating financial support for it from abroad, has finally had enough. Until the May attacks in their country and these most recent attacks, the Saudis largely made only sympathetic noises and symbolic moves in support of the U.S. war on Islamists. Now their support is serious. Nothing better concentrates the mind, particularly an Arab ruling family’s mind, than an open threat to its physical survival.

Al Qaeda’s attacks on the UN and the Red Cross in Baghdad arguably should have taught  the West the same lessons. But, as usual, it is the “progressive” Western establishment that has the hardest time getting the point. Even after the UN headquarters there were blown up and its representative killed, a large majority of West Europeans still believed that the UN was better prepared to deal with Iraq than the U.S. And after 16 Italian carabinieri and soldiers were killed in Nassiriya this week, the usual suspects in Romeunreconstructed as well as “democratic” ex-communistscalled for withdrawal, evidently taking a page from the book of a majority of U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidates.

For Italians as for Americans, withdrawal from Iraq will do nothing but invite additional terrorist attacks. This is a lesson the Turks may have learned last week as well – after its reluctance to support the US at the beginning of the war in Iraq, and the withdrawal of an offer to deploy troops in that country, Ankara may have believed that it could stay away from the unpleasantness in Baghdad. Instead, the bombing of two Istanbul synagogues last week demonstrated that Turkey is a natural target for Al Qaeda and associates, regardless of any specific position on Iraq, because it is secular, friendly to Israel and tolerant.   

In the U.S. the issue has become a clash of wills between those, led by George Bush, who see this as a war to be won, and those who see it as a marginal but politically useful instrument for gaining elections at home. It may seem paradoxical that ordinary Saudis could get the point of Al Qaeda’s unadulterated terrorism sooner than comfortable and opportunistic Western politicians, academics, and intellectuals, but it is true.

This is even more important because the entire conflict between Islamists and the world is now at a crucial, psychologically decisive point. If Rome, Washington or any other Western power give up now, when Muslims everywhere, especially in Saudi Arabia, are finally beginning to unite against the terrorists in their midst, the two trends will cancel each other, and the Al Qaeda nebula will retain its lease on life. The two immediate centers of confrontation are Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and it is in those countries that the war on Islamic terrorism will be won or lost— as much as in the Western media, Iraqi Sunni attitudes and Saudi mentalities.

As long as Western media, from the New York Times and CNN  to Le Monde, continue to describe the conflict as one between American “occupation” and some hypothetical “Iraqi resistance,” the conflict will continue, innocents will die, the costs will rise and the terrorists’ theater of operations will expand. Nothing produces more incentives for Al Qaeda to murder more Americans and other Westerners than Western calls for concessions, “understanding” or pullouts from Iraq. French sniping at U.S. operations, Italian communists’ calls for withdrawals, and the Kucinich/Sharpton brand of defeatism kill.

As long as the American forces in central Iraq continue to treat the Sunni minority’s reluctance to accept the reality of their minority status in the new Iraq as something to be dealt with by “conquering minds” rather than representing common sense and historical inevitability, the problems and attacks there will continue. In the cities of Faluja and Tikrit we do not need to convince their inhabitants that democracy, or at least an equitable redistribution of power, is good for them, but that they can either accept the new reality or face their cities’ destruction at the hands of either the other Iraqis or the coalition. Period.

No doubt we will soon hear the complaints of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and assorted European human rights groups regarding a Coalition crackdown on Iraqi Sunnis or the Saudis’ treatment of captured Al Qaeda terrorists. But we must not give the terrorists legal defense at taxpayer expense, or move to prevent some undefinable “psychological” torture of those under interrogation. There can be no suicidal interpretation of the “rights of terrorists.” Permitting the Saudis to do what they must may sound regrettable, but recall that Stalin’s treatment of his own people, and of occupied Poland and the Baltics, didn’t prevent—nor should it have prevented—the West’s alliance with the Bolshevik mass murderer against the Nazi one.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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