Identifying and hunting the enemy within our borders

THE commission set up in the United States to probe into intelligence and organisational failures that allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen has produced a remarkable report. This 400-page document deserves close study, and is currently selling like hot cakes.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 5 Aug 2004, 9:33 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:53 AM

I downloaded ten pages of the chapter entitled What to do? A global strategyat the internet café in the small Canadian town I am in currently, and was riveted by their clarity and focus. So important are the commission's findings and recommendations that Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for the presidential election in November, has proposed that the commission be allowed to function for a further 18 months to oversee the implementation of the proposals it has made.

Apart from the cogency of its contents, unlike most official documents, the report is also elegantly written: "In the post-9/11 world, threats are defined more by the faultlines within societies than by the territorial boundaries between them. From terrorism to global disease or environmental degradation, the challenges have become transnational rather than international. That is the defining quality of world politics in the twenty-first century.

National security used to be considered by studying foreign frontiers, weighing opposing groups of states, and measuring industrial might. To be dangerous, an enemy had to muster large armies. Threats emerged slowly, often visibly, as weapons were forged, armies conscripted, and units trained and moved into place. Because large states were more powerful, they also had more to lose. They could be deterred.

Now threats can emerge quickly. An organisation like Al Qaeda, headquartered in a country on the other side of the earth, in a region so poor that electricity or telephones were scarce, could nonetheless scheme to wield weapons of unprecedented destructive power in the largest cities of the United States.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests 'over there' should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America 'over here'."

One of the most important aspects of this report is that it has clearly identified the enemy as being 'Islamist' terrorism. Earlier, politically correct politicians and commentators shied away from applying a religious label, terming the threat 'terrorism', and the campaign against it the 'war on terror'.

However, the authors of the report go to the heart of the matter: "But the enemy is not just 'terrorism', some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is a threat posed by Islamist terrorism - especially the Al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology."

However, the report makes it clear that this ideology is based on a 'minority tradition' within Islam, harking back to "Ibn Tammiyah, through the founders of Wahabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb. That stream is motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both. It is further fed by grievances stressed by Bin Laden and widely felt throughout the Muslim world - against the US military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel. Bin Laden and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: to them America is the font of all evil, the 'head of the snake', and it must be converted or destroyed."

But more importantly: "It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it, there is no common ground - not even respect for life - on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated."

Strong words which do not hold out much hope for an early resolution to the current conflict. Indeed, due to the steep political, military and economic decline in the Muslim world, and the absence of any tolerant and secular models within these nations, "Bin Laden's message finds receptive ears. It has attracted active support from thousands of disaffected young Muslims and resonates powerfully with a far larger number who do not actively support his methods. The resentment of America and the West is deep, even among leaders of relatively successful Muslim states."

Perceptively, the authors make the point that their enemies comprise both Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as a 'radical ideological movement' within Islam. Thus, even after the former has been crushed, the latter will continue to pose a grave threat to the West. However, the authors emphasise that "Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror."

While discussing strategy, the report identifies possible sanctuaries for terrorist groups, and includes "western Pakistan and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border." Focusing on Pakistan, the document makes the unflattering point that "Pakistan's endemic poverty, widespread corruption, and often ineffective government create opportunities for Islamist recruitment. Poor education is a particular concern." Stressing Pakistan's importance in the fight against Islamist terrorism, the report cites its volatile borders, the presence of nuclear weaponry and the risk of its proliferation, the vast numbers of madrassas, the lack of democracy, and the ambivalent attitude of its military towards elements like the Taleban.

The authors acknowledge Pakistan's post-9/11 role in the war against terrorism. But they also recognise that "In the following two years, the Pakistani government has tried to walk the fence, helping against Al Qaeda while seeking to avoid a larger confrontation with Taleban remnants and other Islamic extremists." Because the recommendations relating to Pakistan may well be crucial to us for years to come, they deserve to be quoted in full: "If Musharraf stands for enlightened moderation in a fight for his life and for the life of his country, the United States should be willing to make hard choices too, and make the difficult long-term commitment to the future of Pakistan. Sustaining the current level of aid to Pakistan, the United States should support Pakistan's government in its struggle against extremists with a comprehensive effort that extends from military aid to support for better education, so long as Pakistan's leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own."

But the question remains whether our leaders are indeed willing to make the 'difficult choices' this report - likely to become official American policy - presses them to make. On current evidence, it seems not: our federal education minister has professed herself to be a fundamentalist when it comes to the curriculum. Our numerous jihadi outfits continue to spread mayhem virtually unchecked. And 'enlightened moderation' remains a cliché mouthed by General Musharraf from time to time without being translated into policy.

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