In the wake of 9/11, the world struggles to understand religious terrorism–its motivations, its aims, and the degree of the danger it poses. Bruce Hoffman delivers a compelling lecture on the history and nature of religious terrorism, focusing on Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Mr. Hoffman likens Bin Laden to a corporate CEO in the ways he thinks, behaves, and runs his organization, helping us to understand him as an individual and a leader. He explains Bin Laden’s success and the multi-layered operations of Al Qaeda. His insightful analysis provides clarity on a complex and emotionally scarring modern phenomenon and helps us to understand the nature and extent of the threat we face.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Bruce Hoffman, director of the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, is one of the world’s most respected analysts of terrorism. He is the author of Inside Terrorism (1999), and he will tell us about the role played by religion in terrorism today.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: It seems to me that since the 1980s, terrorism has changed fundamentally from the post-1968 model, in which terrorism was a secular phenomenon that aims at national-separatist, ethnic, or other ideological goals. That form of terrorism used violence in a relatively targeted way (often attacking specific institutions or individuals, for instance) in service of those secular goals. Now it seems that terrorism, or at least the type that emanates from the Middle East and from South and Southeast Asia, has become less discriminate, more random, and therefore also more lethal.
This shift, moreover, is not confined strictly to terrorism that emanates from the world of Islam. During the 1980s, for example, two separate groups of messianic Jewish terrorists in Israel plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock in order to “cleanse” the Temple Mount of this Muslim shrine and so prepare the way for the rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah. There was also an attack on an Islamic college in Hebron. Christian white supremacists in the United States planned to poison the water in Chicago and Washington, and they stockpiled cyanide. In the Punjab, Sikh terrorists were thinking about mass ethnic cleansing and the creation of “Khalistan” — the land of the pure — as a sacred homeland. But generally these religious terrorists at first could not come up with plots that were even quarter-baked, much less half-baked. Fortunately, they just didn’t have the competence that Al Qaeda has, the competence that makes Al Qaeda so worrisome.
In 1993 came the first World Trade Center bombing and then a plot to bomb tunnels and bridges in New York City. Followers of the blind Muslim sheikh Abdul Rahman were implicated in both. Religion clearly was on the verge of becoming a dominant trend in defining the most worrisome kind of terrorism, meaning the sort that aims mass-casualty attacks directly against the United States. By 1995, when Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, proudly declared, “I did it, and I acted on God’s orders,” the same sentiment could have come from many other perpetrators of terrorism.
I define terrorism as “religious” when some liturgy, scripture, or clerical authority is involved in sanctioning the violent act. Now there are all sorts of groups around the world that use force and can be identified using religious terms but are not “religious” in the sense that I am using the term. In Northern Ireland, for instance, Protestants and Catholics fight using terrorist (or as they say locally, “paramilitary”) tactics, but theological justifications play little or no role. Even in Sri Lanka, where there has been terrible bloodletting between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils, religion plays no role. But in the Israeli plots or the World Trade Center bombing, religious authority in some form approved the assault, as when Sheikh Rahman blessed the 1993 attempt to blow up the twin towers.
By the mid-nineties, the growing prominence of religion as a factor in terrorism could be traced through a chart that RAND began keeping in 1968. In that year, there were only eleven active and identifiable terrorist groups worldwide, and they were overwhelmingly linked to irredentist or national-separatist causes. None was religious. In 1980, there were sixty-four identifiable terrorist groups active; just two were religious. Both happened to be made up of Shi’ite Muslims, which is not surprising given that the previous year had seen the rise to power of Khomeini in Iran.
By 1992, with the Cold War over, terrorist groups declined in number to forty-eight, of which eleven (or roughly a quarter) were religious according to my definition. And then things began to peak. In 1994, sixteen of forty-nine terrorist groups — about a third, that is — had a salient religious component. By 1995, it was twenty-six out of fifty-six, or almost half. With this surge of religiously motivated groups, terrorism was no longer the preserve of secular ideological leftists, nationalists, and irredentists. And by the mid-nineties we saw more cults, apocalyptic groups that added a different layer in Japan, in various parts of the United States, in Switzerland, and elsewhere.
So is religious terrorism a new phenomenon? No. Like most things involving terrorism, it has long historical antecedents. At least three of the English words that we often use to describe terrorists and what they do are derived from ancient or medieval times. A “zealot,” for instance, was originally a member of a radical Jewish splinter sect that was active in Roman-ruled Palestine between A.D. 66 and 73. According to Josephus, one of the first historians to document terrorist incidents, the Zealots had no interest in getting away. They wielded a small dagger called a sicca in public, broad-daylight attacks on Jews deemed apostates, as well as on Roman officials. The culture of martyrdom is not restricted to Muslims, and the propaganda of the deed pre-dates CNN. The Zealots also seem to have carried out the first known acts of chemical terrorism, tainting grain supplies destined for Roman use. They may even have poisoned the aqueducts that supplied water to Jerusalem.
Then there are the famous “Assassins” in what is today Iraq, Syria, and Iran between about 1100 and 1250. These were members of a secret Muslim order that terrorized and murdered Christian Crusaders as well as others, typically in the open and with knives handled by killers who did not expect to get away. With the Assassins we see the dramatic ethos of martyrdom and violent self-sacrifice gaining legendary status in the Islamic community. The order reportedly got its name from the hashish that it gave its members as a foretaste of the heavenly pleasures they would enjoy once they had given up their lives.
Finally, we have the word “thug,” which comes from what is probably history’s most successful terrorist movement. The Thugs were members of an Indian religious movement devoted to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. At certain times of the year, they would waylay travelers and strangle them as a ritual offering to Kali. Before the British stamped them out in the mid-nineteenth century, the Thugs are thought to have killed about a million people. That figure is one that no modern terrorist organization has yet been able to match — and those million victims were killed one by one, and by hand.
From earliest times right up until the nineteenth century rise of nationalism, religion was what motivated terrorism. But as democracy rose and governments moved away from the idea of rule by divine right, terrorism began to change, too, by embracing anarchism, nihilism, or revolutionary politics. Until 1980 — almost the end of the twentieth century — terrorism remained an almost wholly secular enterprise.
Since 1980 we have seen a resurgence of terrorism legitimized by religious authorities and precepts, in part because of Iran but also because of wider and more profound social effects flowing from faith and ideology. As in the case of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, violence becomes something justified by sacred texts. This historical reversion back to religious motives for terrorism is hugely important because, as three decades of research into how and why people become terrorists suggests, secular terrorists become such at the end of a long process that involves a political conversion, intensifying political activity, and gradually increasing radicalization until a dramatic line is crossed and people get killed. Religious terrorism, worrisomely, seems to make active converts more quickly. In the West Bank and Gaza, for example, many of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad bomb-carriers are recruited just weeks or even days before they carry out their suicide attacks.
“Terrorism is and always will be a form of psychological warfare. The killing and destruction are designed to send a broader message, to harm the economy, to sap our will to absorb casualties, and, last but not least, to undermine confidence in leaders and the government.”
Their path to violence is much shorter, I think, because religion plays a large part. A secular leader with an audience that may not be sophisticated or even literate has to do a lot of convincing to sell his abstract political ideology about the evils of the government or some rival ethnic group. A leader with a religious title in front of his name, on the other hand, can say that God is commanding the use of force and offering rewards in the next life to those who obey. So you have this charismatic figure who says he speaks for God and who can draw on the pre-existing organizational cohesion of religion, all of which tends to cut the lag time involved in terrorist recruitment.
To make what may be the understatement of the decade, religious terrorists generally tend to be deeply alienated people. They see themselves as fighting a total war, on the defensive and with no options. And yet, oddly, they often have very ambitious goals that go far beyond the usual political or ideological agenda. They also tend to dismiss those outside their religion and even their particular sect or offshoot, legitimizing actions against them as necessary in dealing with “infidels,” “mud people,” “dogs,” or “children of Satan.” The literature of religious terrorist movements is rife with such epithets, which dehumanize victims and make it easier to kill them. In some cases, religious terrorists have convinced themselves that they’re doing their victims a favor.
What we see in religious terrorism is the justification of mass, indiscriminate violence at a higher level than we had seen in secular terrorism. A string of incidents in the 1990s underscored this: the Hamas bus bombing campaign in February and March 1996 that killed sixty people; the thirteen almost simultaneously detonated car and truck bombs that Muslim terrorists used to convulse Bombay three days after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the December 1994 hijacking of an Air France plane in Algiers with the intent of crashing it into the heart of Paris, full of fuel and passengers — an earlier version of 9/11 that was prevented when French commandos successfully stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseilles.
All this, then, is what I think distinguishes religious terrorism from secular terrorism. While I was working on my book Inside Terrorism, I tended to view religious terrorism as an end in itself. Now I’m not so sure. I still think religious motives for terrorism are important, but I see a profound cynicism in people like Bin Laden and Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in March 1995, killing twelve people and harming nearly five thousand others. I don’t think that this throws my theory about religious terrorism out the window, but it does remind me that terrorism is idiosyncratic, if only because it has to change in order to retain its effectiveness. We analysts have to adjust our thinking to keep up with it. Hence I make no apologies when I say that I didn’t get it completely right before. This is a work in progress.
Bin Laden and Asahara use religion as a means to promote internal cohesion and to appeal to wider and more diverse constituencies. They also create personality cults centered on themselves, but that’s not so different from cults in general. For these people, terrorism is about power; as they see it, the only means of achieving power is force. As C. Wright Mills wrote back in 1957, “All politics is a struggle for power, and the ultimate kind of power is violence.” That is very much what informs someone like Bin Laden today.
Bin Laden originally declared that he wanted to liberate the holy places of Mecca and Medina and to expel from Saudi Arabian soil the U.S military “crusaders” (to use Bin Laden’s term) whom the Saudi princes had invited to build bases there. But he drew relatively little attention and support in the Muslim world, so he began broadening his appeals and his message, suddenly taking an interest in the plight of the Palestinians, for instance. Since the defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda regime in Afghanistan he has had no choice but to cast the struggle in the widest way possible: as a clash of civilizations. Bin Laden has succeeded as no other terrorist chieftain before him at creating a fairly effective umbrella organization to bring together disparate Islamist groups that in the past had not had much to do with one another. That’s why his training camps and bases in Afghanistan were so important. They were for hands-on training, to be sure, but they were also places to make real Bin Laden’s vision of a global insurgency held together by religion.
Why do I find Bin Laden a cynic? To my knowledge, he has no theological credentials (his academic background, significantly, is in economics and public administration) but he issues fatwas — religious edicts. This betrays an instrumental and opportunistic attitude toward religion. His ultimate goal, like Asahara’s, is to seize power. He wants to defeat the House of Saud, and he wants to defeat the United States—not just because we’re infidels and Westerners but because, like many others in his part of the world, he sees us as an obstacle to revolution, both directly and through the governments we support. Over time, Bin Laden has sought to broaden his appeal with more religious rhetoric about restoring the greatness of Islam and so on, but in his mind, it comes down to power and revolution.
Shoko Asahara in Japan was just the same. His goal was to make himself ruler of Japan; that’s what Aum Shinrikyo was all about. He couldn’t win an election, of course, so he turned to terrorism. His use of sarin and VX nerve gas was part of a scenario that was meant to confirm his prophetic powers — he predicted the end of the world five times and claimed he had foretold the Kobe earthquake — and to bond together his group, which at its peak in 1995 was thought to number about 10,000 people in Japan and another 30,000 abroad. The United States in his mind was the power that was going to engineer Armageddon, which would of course make his stockpiling of plastic explosives and AK-47 knockoffs purely defensive. There is evidence that the sarin gas attack was a provocation meant to show that the United States was using these weapons, which would prove that his prophecies were coming true and help him seize power.
Getting back to Bin Laden, I think it is most useful to view him not as a traditional mullah, which he surely is not, but as a modern corporate CEO. He has vision, money, patience, cunning, and organizational skills. He has a long-range plan whose first major goal is to take over Saudi Arabia. One of the extraordinary things about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is their patience. They spent at least four years planning the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Lag times between other operations and their follow-ups seem to have been about a year or two. He has harnessed modern technology to a retrograde worldview based on religious precepts. A figure like him couldn’t have existed before satellite phones and computers; they’re what make his kind of worldwide terrorist operation possible. And like any savvy head of a multinational corporation, he has been good at taking advantage of globalization and changing technology.
In the 1990s many corporate bosses made their businesses “flatter” with less top-down decision-making. Bin Laden did the same thing for terrorism. Al Qaeda does not seem to have the pyramidal hierarchy of most other terrorist organizations. Bin Laden does act as the president or CEO — he gives orders and probably has final say. But he also functions as a venture capitalist. People come to him with ideas, and he decides which ones to back. This is what makes Al Qaeda so formidable. It doesn’t have just one set modus operandi; it operates on at least four levels. On one, you’ve got a CEO, trained operatives, and tremendous planning. We know that Bin Laden looked at surveillance photographs of the Nairobi embassy and said, “Put the bomb right there.” We know from the home video found in December 2001 that he micromanaged the September 11 operation. These people are highly dedicated, well trained, and well funded.
And then on the second level you have the amateurs like Ahmed Rasalum, the would-be “millennium bomber” who was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, in late 1999. When he finished his training at an Al Qaeda camp, he was simply told: “We’d like you to attack some commercial aviation target; it’s up to you to decide which one. Here is $12,000 in seed money. Commit crimes to raise more, then recruit your own cell and go and do mischief.” Richard Reid, the notorious “shoe bomber,” fits this profile.
On the third level, you have the walk-ins: radical Muslims in Jordan, for instance, who noticed in 1999 that lots of Americans and Israelis stayed at the Radisson Hotel in Amman and presumably went to Bin Laden saying, “Can we attack these American and Israeli tourists during the Y2K festivities?” They were bankrolled to do that. In Milan, a cell involved in similar planning for attacks on tourists was recently broken up.
Finally, the fourth level contains like-minded insurgencies such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Lashkar Jihad in Pakistan, and Jama Islamiya in Indonesia. Some of these groups, including the Jaish-e-Muhammad in Pakistan, have been tied to Al Qaeda.
Let me add a few more points in closing. First, in an era when history and the social sciences have diminished the role of the individual and focused instead on impersonal, global economic and political forces, Bin Laden has shown once again the power of the individual. He’s very savvy in his media messages. Within hours of the first air strikes in Afghanistan, he had his message out on video.
Bin Laden has also shown that terrorists use violence as part of a plan and are not mere irrational fanatics motivated by pure bloodlust. I’ve heard people from assistant FBI directors to senators opt for that second understanding. They are mistaken: there is always a purpose. We may not understand the inner logic motivating terrorism, and we certainly do not sympathize with it, but there always is some rationality behind it.
Second, terrorism is and always will be a form of psychological warfare. The killing and destruction are designed to send a broader message, to harm the economy, to sap our will to absorb casualties, and, last but not least, to undermine confidence in leaders and the government.
Make no mistake: the United States will remain vulnerable. You can’t defend everything everywhere at every moment. What I find most worrisome about our official response so far is the stress on this or that threat du jour rather than any long-range systematic analysis of what’s most vulnerable and consequential, and how to protect it. Certainly terrorists will remain able to inflict a lot of pain with slender resources, a basic asymmetry that is central to terrorism’s appeal.
The enmity towards the United States is hardly going to diminish. We have scared a lot of people and shown our resolve, but at the same time, powerful motives of revenge can now be factored into whatever motivation Bin Laden had before. And he probably sees the way we fought the ground war in Afghanistan — with air power, native Afghan proxies, and a minimum of U.S. troops — as evidence that we remain highly averse to casualties and therefore psychologically vulnerable.
The hard truth is that fighting terrorism is a perennial, ceaseless struggle. Terrorism has been around for more than two thousand years, so perhaps saying we are fighting a war on it suggests a finality that may be beyond our reach. As the focus of conflict shifts away from Afghanistan, it is very likely that terrorism will shift and change accordingly. Terrorism is the archetypal shark in the water. It must move forward. It must change constantly to survive.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you, Bruce. Our respondent is Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times Magazine and now covers the Middle East for the New Yorker.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I agree with Bruce when he says that Osama Bin Laden is a cynic and has temporal, worldly goals. But I think there’s a danger here for more or less secular people, because we always look for explanations other than simple belief when in fact sometimes belief is simply that — it can’t be explained away or reduced to something else. Sometimes these beliefs contradict our own beliefs, and sometimes these beliefs are actually dangerous.
Bruce’s remarks reminded me of something I witnessed in Ramallah some months ago at the funeral of a Fatah gunman whom the Israelis had shot after he fired on a settlement. It was a typical Fatah funeral: a few thousand Palestinian men, many of them chanting secular-nationalist slogans. But then they began repeating, in Arabic, a line that I had heard during the first intifada, but at a Hamas rally. It meant: “O you Jews of Haibar! The Army of Muhammad is returning.” The Haibar were a Jewish tribe in Arabia, one of many beaten by Muhammad’s army. This was hardly a secular-nationalist chant.
Moving from Fatah to the more overtly Islamic side of Palestinian nationalism, I am struck by the debate on suicide bombing among Islamic scholars and authorities, in which their justification of the act has expanded from blowing up Israeli soldiers to blowing up Israeli settlers to blowing up Israeli teenagers at a disco in Tel Aviv. How much of a leap is it from thinking it’s all right to blow up Israeli teenagers at a disco to saying, “Americans support Israel” or “Americans support India in Kashmir,” so Americans themselves may be targeted. This has repercussions within the Arab world as well, since as Secretary General Amir Mussa of the Arab League has told me, once clerics empower Muslim extremists to use techniques such as suicide bombing against civilians, no Muslim leader is safe either. So we might one day see Arab leaders being targets of suicide bombers, just as those buses full of commuters in Israel are.
I would like to know what Bruce thinks about the argument, made separately by Martin Kramer and Bernard Lewis, that 9/11 happened because certain Muslims had contempt for America, thinking we wouldn’t respond, or would respond weakly because we fear more losses. To put it crudely, what Kramer and Lewis argue is that we need to inspire fear, or in Arabic, hayba. We must make ourselves widely feared; the might of America must be brought to bear on the Muslim world. Then they might still hate us, but their fear will be stronger than their hatred and they will leave us alone. Do I buy this? I don’t know. But I’m curious to know what Bruce thinks about it.
MR. HOFFMAN: In my book and earlier writings, I cite the important role of radical clerics in the violence. The focus on children that has been cropping up in Bin Laden’s recent propaganda worries me. As with the findings of the clerics Jeffrey described who were looking at Israel, Bin Laden’s efforts at legitimizing his violence have kept broadening the slate of those who can be considered enemy combatants. The same sort of linear progression is evident. At first Bin Laden attacked U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (the bombing of a joint Saudi/American military training center in 1995) and issued edicts demanding that the “crusaders” withdraw from sacred Muslim soil. When we didn’t leave, he issued his notorious 1998 fatwa saying that Americans anywhere and everywhere were fair game. And he has stuck to this linear path of escalation. If we’re not afraid of him, then he is going to make sure that we become afraid.
Bin Laden has not so far specifically threatened our children as such, but since we went into Afghanistan he has been talking persistently about the suffering of children in Palestine and Iraq. Given his record, obviously, we ignore him at our peril. His talk about getting chemical and nuclear weapons is also very scary. Many years ago, and I say this with regret, I once wrote while debating two Clinton-era NSC staffers in the publication Survival that Bin Laden was just saber-rattling, trying to scare us without having to lift a finger. Now we know that he was in fact working toward obtaining chemical and biological weapons, as the Wall Street Journal recently confirmed with information unearthed in Afghanistan. He also has nuclear ambitions. He is someone we should take at his word. He wants to escalate, and he intends the worst.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thanks, Bruce and Jeffrey. Now we invite everyone else to join in the discussion.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: Bruce, some of your RAND colleagues have been talking about “netwars” and Bin Laden’s adeptness at this new kind of weapon — the same theme you touch on when you talk about his grasp of the advantages of “flat” organizations, the Internet, satellite phones, and so on. It seems that a decentralized style of organizing for asymmetric warfare is converging with a religion that itself is traditionally quite decentralized. This seems particularly frightening because here we have new modes of communication and organization that seem ideally suited to a form of religious terrorism emanating from within the already decentralized world of Islam. Could you address that?
MR. HOFFMAN: Clearly, the opportunity to gather a large group of people in one place to hear an address — as at Friday mosque services — is a superb communications opportunity, a chance to reinforce beliefs and back them with the weight of religion, especially in places where literacy rates are not that high.
But Al Qaeda is not totally decentralized. It’s a mix-and-match organization. Parts of the operation are actually very rigid. So it goes both ways. The aspect of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s new book Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy that I find most salient now is that the terrorists are going to change their methods. We’ve taken away their country sized physical sanctuary and many of their fixed training bases. But they are not going away. Instead, I think that their organizations will get even flatter. They have no choice. Al Qaeda’s hallmark has been that they train and train, plan and plan. Now they can’t do those things conventionally, as they did when they had camps in Afghanistan, so they will have to find another way. While I have always been kind of skeptical about cyberterrorism given the paucity of documented episodes (teenage hackers and hostile governments don’t count), I do think that now terrorists may become more interested in striking at us through electronic means.
MR. GOLDBERG: Is this an optimistic point? Does it mean we are finished with physical violence?
MR. HOFFMAN: No, unfortunately. What I expect is a mix of attacks. Some will be electronic. Low-level chemical and biological assaults are a big worry; as the anthrax-by-mail incidents show, you don’t need to kill huge numbers of people in order to spread an enormous amount of fear and even panic. So in addition to weapons of mass destruction, we need to guard against the small-scale use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons — the kinds of things that can be cooked up in an apartment.
JUDITH SHULEVITZ, The New York Times: The rise of religious terrorism poses an enormous theological challenge that I find is not being very well addressed by clergy, not only in the Islamic world but here and elsewhere. The challenge comes when secular people say to their religiously observant friends, “How can you espouse your religious faith if this is what it leads to?” We have all seen priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams getting up and saying, “Ours is a religion of peace. True religion is peaceful.” But the weight of historical evidence says that’s not true, and that religion has indeed been a cause of violence. So when the history of this era is written, one of the things that people will be judged on will be their ability to address this question, and to explain religion in a way that honestly faces its record in this matter of violence.
Bruce, one of your major points is that terrorism means committing violent acts in order to send a message.
Doesn’t that make us as journalists part of its workings? Forget about questions of censorship and whether or not we play this or that tape that is said to be from Bin Laden. The real “tape” that he wants us to play — and we’ve played it over and over again — is the one with images of the World Trade Center falling. That’s the most effective message he can get across. Of course we want and need to see those images for our own purposes. But is there a way to talk about the role of journalism in all this that doesn’t break down into a hackneyed debate about censorship?
MR. HOFFMAN: Your point about the Bin Laden case is a good one. What most countries don’t have is a comprehensive strategy for how the press can deal with terrorism and all its dimensions, and that includes, I think, a very strong public diplomacy.
The idea of banning Bin Laden’s tapes from the airwaves bewilders me, because I think those videos hardly portray him in a way that anyone is likely to find favorable. We saw him gloating over the World Trade Center casualties, acting childish, and apparently finding it amusing that some of the hijackers — his own people — did not learn until the last minute that these were suicide missions. In the October 7 tape he did make the astute point that this is a war of ideology. But other than that, Bin Laden seemed completely divorced from reality. Of course, all terrorists believe their own fantasies and interpret every tactical success as a great victory. Then too, the man lives in a cave, so maybe it’s starting to show.
The lesson here is that the media coverage does not always have to serve the terrorists’ purposes. We should be thinking seriously about ways in which coverage can be used against them. We lack an understanding of how to do really sophisticated propaganda — it doesn’t always have to be a dirty word — and public diplomacy. And sometimes the media fall down by uncritically reporting official leaks, as in the case of the FBI leaks about Richard Jewell following the 1996 Olympic bombings in Atlanta, or by over hyping sensationalistic stories about supercatastrophic terrorist threats when more realistic threats (such as we saw come true in the anthrax incidents) went undercovered. Because in journalism there are so many pressures to be the first to break a story, often what officials do and say is taken at face value, and the media become the government’s messengers.
E. J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: People in secular groups such as Fatah who chant Islamic slogans may begin as semi-cynics who just want to manipulate religion. But isn’t it possible that they might wind up changing their own minds, or at least creating a climate less friendly to their own secular ideas? Perhaps this explains the power shift we see going on within the Palestinian community — away from the secular nationalists and toward the Islamists.
“Make no mistake: the United States will remain vulnerable. You can’t defend everything everywhere at every moment. What I find most worrisome about our official response so far is the stress on this or that threat du jour rather than any long-range systematic analysis of what’s most vulnerable and consequential, and how to protect it.”
MR. GOLDBERG: Although I believe that Yasir Arafat — who came out of a Muslim brotherhood and not a secular tradition — uses religious rhetoric sincerely, I’m not sure of the authenticity of the larger trend. There is intense jockeying for primacy in the Palestinian community, as you know, and I think that the imperatives of that struggle, and not religious feeling, are what drive the use of religious language by many of these militants.
As for the people in the street, as conditions in the Palestinian Authority have deteriorated we’ve seen a rise in the prominence of men like Bassam Jarar, a Hamas member in Ramallah who writes eschatology. It’s basically the Left Behind series for Palestinians — just much less profitable. Secularists read him, too. Like a lot of Jewish and Christian apocalypticists, he does a lot of numerological heavy lifting in order to claim that Israel will be destroyed in the year 2021. So there is a turn toward this kind of mystical “end of days” thinking that is drawn from Islamic eschatology.
MR. HOFFMAN: In the Palestinian case, I think we are seeing fallout from the failure of secular nationalism. The collapse of the Oslo Accords and the last Camp David attempt underlined this failure, and so Palestinians are turning to something different that is more appealing on a visceral level. In Kashmir and other places around the world where there are separatist or irredentist groups drawn from historically Muslim populations, the degree to which these movements should be called secular as opposed to religious always seems to be up in the air. Right now, religion seems to be a potent rallying point and means of cohesion, perhaps because a kind of muscular Islam seems to be reasserting itself generally throughout the Islamic world. Certainly it seems that secular-nationalist groups such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front have been left in the dust by their Islamist counterparts.
PAUL RICHTER, The Los Angeles Times: I’m interested in your description of Al Qaeda as an organization that has Bin Laden at its center but is also decentralized and non-hierarchical in important ways. To what extent would Al Qaeda be crippled both on an inspirational level and in a practical way if Bin Laden were captured or killed?
MR. HOFFMAN: That’s the question of the hour. I don’t think Al Qaeda will be crippled; I think they have a succession plan that includes not only Bin Laden’s senior lieutenants but levels deeper down in the organization. Given what we know about his penchant for meticulous planning, I’ve never thought that he was going to sit around and wait to be killed or caught anyway. With some terrorist groups, when you decapitate the senior leadership, things get worse because the way is clear for young Turks who vow to avenge the martyred chief while simultaneously trying to outstrip both him and their living rivals by pulling off ever bloodier and more audacious assaults.
Certainly Al Qaeda can be weakened and rendered less effective, but it will not be eliminated entirely, and we can be sure that Bin Laden has planned for contingencies.
KAREN TUMULTY, Time: One argument that we’ve been hearing from the Bush administration, and particularly from Secretary Rumsfeld, is that these tapes have hurt Bin Laden and his associates by revealing their true agenda. Osama set up those suicide bombers, who didn’t know that they were not coming back; Mullah Omar tells everybody that this is a great opportunity to become a martyr and then flees. Is it naïve to think that tapes such as these actually discredit Al Qaeda?
MR. HOFFMAN: Well, my personal view is that it does make Bin Laden seem like a worse person if those fifteen hijackers were tricked. But the Al Qaeda jihad manual that was found in Manchester, England, says explicitly that the leaders of an operation should keep as much of the operation secret as they can until the very last minute and only tell their subordinates right then. We already saw that these people have tremendous dedication. Did those who were sent to the United States to help take over the planes know they were going to die? If they did, they probably saw it as an honor.
Even if these guys weren’t told beforehand, they knew they were doing a hijacking, and no hijacker in his right mind could believe you can maintain control of a plane and its passengers indefinitely with nothing but box cutters. In all likelihood these men knew they had a one-way ticket. We have to resist the temptation always to see things through our own eyes and assume that the terrorists’ reactions must be the same as those we would have.
DR. ROY MOTTAHEDEH, Harvard University: I have a couple of points. First, the Arabic word hayba, which is the word that Bernard Lewis cites in his argument about fear, actually does not mean fear. It means awe. I wrote what I think is the first treatment of it as a political term in the Middle Eastern context in my 1980 book Loyalty and Leadership. This kind of awe is nothing more than the majesty that normally surrounds government and the great institutions and occasions of state. It has nothing to do with Islam. It means the kind of feeling that is associated with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or the moment in a U.S.presidential inauguration when the Chief Justice administers the oath of office. When this awe disappears, it is said, the government that has lost it will soon follow. This is just good common political sense.
Second, I don’t think we should entertain fantasies about how some religions foster terrorism. Recall the section in the book of Judges about Samson and the destruction of the temple. At a point when the Philistines were particularly powerful, Samson brought down the temple — as they were offering sacrifices to the god Dagon. All the lords and ladies of the Philistines were killed, as was Samson, and the might of the Israelites was restored. Let’s recognize that this is a theme that people have returned to throughout history. If a coup succeeds, it becomes sanctified.
A point about the Zealots, whom Bruce mentioned. There were actually a number of Zealot movements — the Siccari are the most famous. They lasted about sixty or seventy years total, and then they disappeared. They were a reflection of particular political circumstances at the time. The Palestinian suicide bomber today would not be a suicide bomber for any other Islamic cause anywhere else. As for the Assassins, the whole business about their taking hashish as a foretaste of paradise is complete fantasy. I recommend a fine book by Farhad Daftary published in 1995, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis.
MR. GOLDBERG: The story of Samson has been invoked to me several times, by various people. One thing I would like to point out is that it happened three thousand years ago. We often hear it said that all religions have their terrorists, but the fact of the matter is that Muslims are the ones committing mass terror right now, and that’s what I as a journalist have to deal with. I’m not saying that Judaism is Quakerism, that there’s no history of violence and martyrdom in Judaism. But the fact of the matter is that Jews aren’t crashing airplanes into buildings right now.
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: That’s correct. But during the Roman occupation, Jews were doing the equivalent. I’m just saying that this does not arise out of a propensity toward this kind of behavior within a particular religion.
MR. GOLDBERG: I wonder whether the Zealots targeted only Roman officials and soldiers and not their wives and children.
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: In Bruce’s very good survey of terrorism, he didn’t mention where the term “terror” in its modern political sense comes from. Its source is the French Revolution, during which terror came from the state. I know people are annoyed that Arabs keep talking about state terrorism, but in Algeria over the last ten years, at least 80,000 people have been killed in a war between armed Islamists and the state. The Israelis’ insistence that “terrorism always has an address” has led them from wrecking people’s houses to targeting individuals. I don’t think it is a winning policy. It has created the suicide bomber. The idea that awe will be restored by targeting somebody who is not necessarily involved in the event—that’s crazy and inexcusable terrorism. Finally, I commend Jeff for talking about the importance of Islamic millenarianism.
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: I am not sure that Bin Laden is the cynic that Bruce describes. Didn’t he study under some pretty forceful mullahs at a formative time in his life? And by the way, religious conversions don’t often mean that you change your personality. Chuck Colson, for instance, still seems to be a tough customer who might run over his mother or grandmother, albeit for different reasons now than during the Nixon years. So yes, sure, Bin Laden is a CEO type, given the money and the family background that he comes from, but it seems to me that he could be a very extreme and committed Muslim at the same time.
MR. HOFFMAN: I didn’t deny that he’s devout; I just said that he lacks the theological training to issue fatwas. People wouldn’t be listening to him if he weren’t such an effective terror master. I don’t mean to gainsay his commitment to his religion. That’s really there. But I do think it’s useful to look at him not only from the religious angle but also as a product of globalism and corporate-management training. It’s these qualities, and not the religious element, that make Al Qaeda so different and so effective. This is not some chowder head running the show. It’s somebody who knows and understands management, which means—more fundamentally than making money –knowing how to motivate people. That’s one of his big assets.
MR. WOODWARD: In the history of religion there are these figures who set off immense transformations by taking what they’ve learned in one area and applying it in another. I think of Ignatius Loyola, a soldier who infused his military sense of discipline into religious life through the Spiritual Exercises. Management skills learned in business could certainly be brought to bear on a whole new enterprise with a whole new sense of itself.
DAVID BROOKS, The Weekly Standard: I’ve had a couple of experiences like Jeff had at that funeral in Ramallah. Since the collapse of the Camp David Accords, for instance, I’ve heard people I thought of as secular and moderate say things like “breeders” when referring to the killing of Israeli women of childbearing age.
I want to ask two questions. The first has to do with something Bruce said about Bin Laden being mostly interested in toppling the House of Saud. Does this mean that 9/11 really wasn’t about us, and that we are vain and narcissistic to think that it was?
And secondly, I couldn’t go back to the Weekly Standard if I didn’t talk about Iraq, so I wanted to raise the general issue of state-sponsored terrorism. I know that both of you think we should not invade Iraq.
MR. HOFFMAN: I don’t think that we are being narcissistic or vain to interpret 9/11 as we do. My point is that Bin Laden began with the narrower goal of fomenting revolution in Saudi Arabia, and has come to see the United States as standing in his way. He has broadened his constituency to include many Muslims who resent the United States as a hegemonic power. He probably thought that 9/11 would contribute to his cachet and power. I think he overplayed his hand, but clearly he has benefited from this “David versus Goliath” depiction of himself since 1998. That has resonance, as does his assertion of personal agency in a part of the world where many feel an angry sense of dispossession and powerlessness. He knows that this stuff sells.
The United States is as much in his gun sights as Saudi Arabia, and to an extent always has been. Part of his reasoning, and it’s a view shared by many in the world today, is that the local government he hates wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for American support. Strike the puppet master, he seems to be thinking, and the puppets will tumble.
As for state-sponsored terrorism, one of the things I find interesting about Afghanistan is that it was the terrorists who were running the state, to the extent that the Taliban regime can be called a state. Something like that has been happening more often in recent years, with states themselves becoming less important and terrorist or militant organizations having an influence that goes far beyond their numbers on the ground. Before 9/11, the Kashmiri separatist groups had a disproportionate amount of power vis-à-vis the Pakistani government. None of this means, however, that the threat from state-sponsored terrorists is gone. The Karine A, the ship loaded with arms that the Israelis just seized on its way to the Palestinian Authority, came from Iran. The problem we need to focus on is how to sort out and rank these threats. Are Iraq and Al Qaeda the same threat? If not, which is the more salient right now?
NINA EASTON, Columnist and author: News coverage seems to have gone back to the usual fare, but I wonder: What should we as journalists be focusing on right now so that 9/11 doesn’t happen again? What should we be looking at?
MR. HOFFMAN: Many Americans have an understandable but quite unrealistic desire to return to a world before 9/11. It will be a big challenge for our leaders to sustain national interest in global terrorism. And it may be part of Al Qaeda’s strategy to wait until we have lapsed into complacency before mounting any more big attacks against us here at home.
In most countries that are targets of terrorism, the threat is everyday but low-intensity—a reality, but in the background. In London, Madrid, or Tel Aviv, attacks can come at any time but are likely to be fairly small-scale. We, however, are a huge target; we may not experience frequent attacks, but when one is attempted it will be big.
MR. GOLDBERG: It’s amazing that no one is really writing on the catastrophic failures of the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, and the INS, which all contributed to one of the worst disasters in American history.
MR. BROOKS: On December 9, 1941, there was a vicious debate in the U.S. Senate over who screwed up at Pearl Harbor. They immediately kicked in an inquiry, and there was a brutal report within three months. I think we are more emotionally scarred by 9/11 than our parents or grandparents were by Pearl Harbor. They didn’t cancel any football games or Christmas parties after Pearl Harbor.
MS. SHULEVITZ: On the earlier point about why there has been no blame shifting: the biggest, most telling indicator of this is the fact that nobody has been fired. But I think that not only do you have to look at how the country reacted to it—you also have to look at George Bush and his modus operandi; that’s just the way he operates. The first thing he did after it happened was wrap his arms around George Tenet. So I think that the tone of this has been much more emotional.
JOHN LEO, U.S. News & World Report: I agree with most of what Judith said earlier about religion’s role in violence, but I am a little worried about the possible scapegoating of religion in general. In the West, the elites are secular and already regard religion as toxic. This is a wonderful opportunity to scapegoat religion.
JEFFERY SHELER, U.S. News & World Report: I’d like to hear Bruce talk about the relationship of American Muslim organizations to terrorism. We have heard from various terrorism experts in this country who say that the links are real and strong, with money passing back and forth and so on. Are these allegations soundly based? Virtually every major Muslim organization in the United States publicly condemned the 9/11 attacks right after they happened. But since then, for whatever reasons, these organizations have not moved aggressively to flesh out a critique of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam.
Is this an example of the power of internal cohesion within a religion? Is there a strong reluctance to criticize one’s co-religionists, or is something else going on here? And what is the responsibility of American Muslim organizations to repudiate not only 9/11 but terrorism and terrorist organizations more broadly?
MR. HOFFMAN: I’m going to have to sidestep the issue here. It’s enormously complex and tough to get a handle on. But consider the debate over Hezbollah. Some say that the U.S. State Department is wrong and that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization. These people say that it is a political party, that it provides crucial social-welfare services to the impoverished and isolated Shi’ites of southern Lebanon, who suffer at the hands of Israelis and the South Lebanese army. To generalize grossly, I think that many people in this country elieve they are giving money to charity when they give to these organizations. In many cases, they are. Part of the problem is that terrorist organizations are, as I’ve said, fundamentally political entities and as such may provide social services if that’s what it takes to build up a constituency.
Lots of the money that goes to some of the dodgier organizations doesn’t go specifically to buy guns or bombs. Hamas, for instance, uses explosives made from commercially available materials. Bomb-building is not a high-cost activity for them. They want money to burnish their images and reputations and to help them cultivate support close to home.
Nor is this a purely Islamic phenomenon. Some American Jews give money to questionable Israeli organizations. The more clever groups deliberately obfuscate matters so that such donations can’t be linked directly to arms-buying and things like that; but money is fungible, so ultimately the funding is helping those organizations grow and become stronger.
Yes, Hamas is a political party, and yes, it does perform a great deal of social-welfare activity. It also has terrorist capabilities, and it actively trains terrorists. Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda all raise money here. A few years ago it was discovered that a Hezbollah cell in North Carolina was skimming money off the sale of cigarettes and sending it back to Lebanon. Some of that money no doubt went for charitable purposes. These groups become generally stronger — and therefore more capable of terrorist acts — in part because they gain supporters by giving out charity.
For most of these groups, actual terrorist operations are not that expensive, and they don’t rely on donations from abroad to pay for them directly; but the donations are critical in enabling them to do other things that further their goals as well.
MR. SHELER: Is it legitimate, then, to try to stop the funding and freeze the assets of organizations that may be giving a tiny fraction of their money to terrorist sponsors?
MR. HOFFMAN: I think it is. In the Middle East and most of South Asia, these groups have filled a vacuum caused by the lack of public services. People support organizations that can give them jobs, medical care, and schooling for their children. One could speculate that all the social welfare activities and the desire for legitimation have helped to modify a group like Hezbollah, but how far does that go? Hezbollah is certainly not a group I can view without some fear and trepidation.
JOHN COCHRAN, ABC News: Is the risk-averse or casualty-averse strategy that we are using in Afghanistan such a bad approach? Is the United States also keeping its ground-troop commitment limited so as to avoid looking like a blundering elephant? Isn’t that a good idea?
MR. HOFFMAN: My comments about our risk-aversion and reluctance to countenance casualties had to do with how Bin Laden views us. When you look at his statements, there are two episodes that he cites. One is the pullout from Lebanon after the truck-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The other, from ten years later, is the Black Hawk Down firefight in Mogadishu, which led to another U.S. pullout. In his view, episodes like these prove that Americans are a bunch of sissies. He says that Americans don’t like to fight on the ground, and therefore use high technology to avoid having their own people killed. When he struck us on September 11, I think he probably thought he was striking a paper tiger. And it’s true that casualties burn us, especially if they are civilians.
I’m not saying that using cruise missiles and Predator drones and air strikes is a bad idea. It does spare the lives of American troops. But to Bin Laden, our strategy in Afghanistan says that he’s right. When Johnny Spann was killed, CIA officers couldn’t believe how much attention that got. When Sergeant Nathan Ross Chapman was killed, that was a major story. That’s how we are: every life is valuable. But in Bin Laden’s mind, that is our weakness. We are gauging the war in Afghanistan as a success because we’ve lost so few servicepeople there. But Bin Laden says to his followers: “What did I tell you? They are cowards! They use the Northern Alliance to do all the fighting and dirty work, while they call in air strikes and stay in the background. We may not have beaten them in Afghanistan, but we can beat them in the next place.”
Bin Laden probably also says something like, “Don’t forget that when we defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, that led to the Soviet collapse because the Russians were so morally bankrupt and corrupt. The Americans are no different.” For him, it’s the same old song: not losing is winning; the strongest country in the world wants him dead, but he is still around. He has the wit to spin that and say: “Not only have I survived, but, you see, everything that I told you about the Americans is true. They got lucky with the Northern Alliance because those were our people on the ground and they were good fighters. But the United States cannot bear pain.”
MS. EASTON: Do you think ground forces would have been more effective at really eliminating Al Qaeda?
MR. HOFFMAN: It’s impossible to say. Our way of going to war is based on allies. Perhaps we might have portrayed it differently; what won the war, really, was the coordination between our Special Forces and our airpower, working together to target pinpoint strikes that shattered highly mobile Taliban units. But we also had the Special Forces and Army Rangers tracking down and systematically engaging Al Qaeda cadres on the ground. Maybe we could have played up that angle as a form of psychological warfare, forcing Bin Laden and his followers to confront this aspect that does not conform to his “Americans are cowards” script. But I fear that such an opportunity has been lost, and that Bin Laden and his followers still think of us as casualty averse.
MR. COCHRAN: Going back to Iraq in 1991, I wonder: If we had gone all the way then and not only toppled Saddam but established ourselves as strong and far from risk-averse, would we be in a more secure position now?
MR. HOFFMAN: The mistake wasn’t so much refusing to go to Baghdad as it was letting the Kurds and Shi’a get annihilated after they rose up against Saddam. That challenged our credibility in that region. We got a reputation for walking away.
MR. GOLDBERG: I agree: it was not only a mistake but a moral tragedy to walk away from allies who had been slaughtered after we encouraged them to rise up. What we did with Iraq was like hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick and then running. A Turkish general once said that the problem with America is that you never know when it is going to stab its own in the back. And you never know when Americans are going to do something that is screwy and walk away from an ally on the way to victory. The Kurds and the Shi’ites in Iraq are very wary of us. When and if the time comes, they are going to want all kinds of ironclad guarantees that we really mean it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Don’t you think one of the reasons we didn’t go after Saddam was that it was going to be as hard to find him as it is to find Bin Laden now?
MR. HOFFMAN: I don’t know. But I don’t think so. A number of different factors and concerns were in play back then.
ALAN COOPERMAN, The Washington Post: Can’t “just war” theory, particularly in Christianity, serve as a theological response to terrorism? Maybe it doesn’t strike us as theological because the basic principles of the just war — like trying to avoid harming noncombatants and keeping proportionality in mind — have become embedded in international law and are embraced even by people on the agnostic, socialist left, like Michael Walzer. But the standards for just war were laid out over centuries by Christian religious thinkers. So I have two questions. The first is for Roy Mottahedeh: What would a moderate Muslim cite as a basis for protecting noncombatants in Islam? Is there something like a just war theory?
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: It would be easy to write an Islamic brief against the Taliban. There should also be an explication of Islamic law governing the resort to force, or what in Christian just war theory you would call the jus ad bellum. Also, laws governing the use of force in war (jus in bello) are well developed, and with them you can condemn Bin Laden from many angles.
The jus ad bellum question would be something like: Who has the right to issue fatwas or declare a jihad? It’s an extremely complicated question. As for jus in bello, the rule in Islam against deliberately hurting noncombatants is strong and very clear. There’s a famous verse that goes, “Fight on behalf of the believer, but do not do any excess.” Very interestingly, the medieval law books on this point list not only women and children but also peasants and merchants, meaning male civilians. In Islamic law, there is a saying that “God alone has the right to punish by fire,” speaking about hell. Any use of explosives, in fact, is contrary to the law about not using fire. Also, Islamic law is very developed in the area of what’s called international highwaymen and pirates. It says that such people, wherever they are in the world, can be hunted out and put down. One of the big characteristics of international highwaymen and robbers is that they attack by stealth. I could go on.
MR. COOPERMAN: My other question is for Bruce. The impression has been that the Saudis, who should have responded to 9/11 in spades, have actually done very little. Is that correct, or is there something we don’t know about the Saudis’ response?
MR. HOFFMAN: I’m concerned that Saudi Arabia’s degree of cooperation has seemed to be uneven. The Saudis’ internal situation may have affected this. I think they’re very concerned that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. The Saudi princes are probably thinking about what happened to the Shah, and they don’t know what to do for fear of being seen as too close to the United States.
COLLEEN CARROLL, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Does either of you have any sense of how these religious terrorists would regard the religious rhetoric in President Bush’s State of the Union speech , and even the miniature post-9/11 religious revival that we’ve seen in America? Can you speculate about how they would regard this kind of thriving religious sentiment among people they generally see as decadent and secular?
MR. HOFFMAN: I honestly don’t know. That’s a very good question.
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: I think the United States has done a lousy job overall of explaining itself. The religious tone of Bush is all right. He has gone out of his way also to show that he’s not anti-Muslim. But here’s an opportunity for the United States to talk about things it has done in the world that have helped the Muslim community. I agree with Sam Huntington that even though this was a really bad thing, we should look for a solution that is more than just military.
DUNCAN MOON, NPR: How badly has it hurt Al Qaeda to lose Afghanistan as a base?
MR. HOFFMAN: I think it’s enormously important. It certainly diminishes their ability to operate. After the Israelis kicked the PLO out of Beirut, the PLO was never the same. It’s thought that tens of thousands of people — maybe as many as 60,000 — got Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan. Losing those camps hurt them. But terrorists rarely lay down their arms and leave the playing field. Instead, they adjust their tactics and targets and carry on. That’s what I think will happen now. The Viet Cong took astronomical losses during the Tet Offensive, but they kept on fighting, and they changed their tactics.
So by all means, there has been progress. I don’t want to denigrate or diminish it. God willing, there may never be another September 11. But I still believe — and I certainly hope I’m wrong — that another big terrorist spectacular is already in motion. That’s been Al Qaeda’s modus operandi all along. And as the intense fear and anxiety over anthrax showed, you don’t have to kill 3,000 people to inflict pain. Our sensitivity, ironically, may have increased. We remain resilient, but even a low-level attack could have grave psychological implications, which is what the terrorists want.
MR. TOLSON: This country is always looking for a moral equivalent of war in order to focus its energies, and perhaps also to transcend partisan differences. Do you think that the struggle against terrorism should be thought of as a war? The Cold War gave us a kind of consensus. It allowed us to transcend political divisions and, at least in certain areas of foreign policy and national security policy, pursue common goals. It gave us a direction. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, the period from 1989 to 2001 was one of great purposelessness in U.S. foreign policy. We acted as if we had no objectives, no compass, no consensus. Does the struggle against terrorism give those back to us? Do we need to emphasize again and again that the threat of this kind of terrorism — working through networks, using tremendously lethal weapons –must be resisted in a warlike fashion?
MR. HOFFMAN: Great questions. But there are two problems. One is that our response to terrorism has always been spasmodic; it hasn’t been sustained at such a level that it’s constantly inflicting pain. We’ve done sharp jabbing rather than persistent choking. One of the big challenges will be to sustain interest, especially if there are no dramatic new terrorist incidents. This challenge will be even greater as the war shifts from Afghanistan — highly visible and very telegenic — to behind the scenes. And that’s the next phase of war, in my view. The battle against Al Qaeda is going to be very much a behind-the-scenes war, predicated on intelligence and on dealings with local authorities in places like Singapore. But here’s the rub: averted terrorist incidents never have great impact. There were plenty of averted terrorist incidents before September 11, but instead of scaring us they may have had the opposite effect, making us more complacent and leading us to underrate the terrorist threat. We need some way to elevate wariness to something that is sustainable.
On the other hand, we use war metaphorically for all sorts of other crusades: the “war on poverty,” or the “war on drugs.” Now we have a real war on our hands. But to most people, wars are specific, are fought on battlefields, and end in defeat or victory or some sort of settlement; then you go back to normal life. That’s the way history looks to us. It does not look that way to people living in the places in the world where we are now involved. There it is more common to think of being “at war” as a normal condition.
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: Since we are not applying the Geneva Convention, how can we call it war? Talking about this as a war may galvanize the American people, but it not only involves us in a process that may have no end but also commits us to certain standards that we may not be ready to meet but that are required by the jus in bello principles.
MR. CROMARTIE: What would you call it, Roy, if not war?
DR. MOTTAHEDEH: We should call it the “campaign against terrorism.” What happened on 9/11 was a crime against humanity, and we cannot allow our nation to be the subject of international criminal behavior.
MR. COCHRAN: Bruce, why is it important for the nation to keep this heightened interest, apart from the fact of observing personal security and cooperating with security measures? There’s no draft or rationing. What can the public do? Isn’t there something to be said for letting people get on with their lives? If you sustain this tension too long, there will be a downside.
MR. HOFFMAN: I agree entirely. But we shouldn’t let complacency set in. And we shouldn’t go on autopilot and just assume that everything is being handled right.
MR. COCHRAN: Actually, it’s our job. We journalists are supposed to be the watchdogs. You are absolutely right: we need to keep a critical eye.
MR. COOPERMAN: Bruce, how do you define terrorism? Are we are stepping into a sort of gray area of that definition?
MR. HOFFMAN: Terrorism is an enormously elastic concept. It was born during the French Revolution, and was closely associated with democracy. Today its connotations are different. My nutshell definition is, the use of threats and violence designed to achieve far-reaching psychological repercussions in a targeted audience. And I believe that even religious terrorism is about power and politics.
The way we’re describing these Al Qaeda prisoners that we’re shipping to Guantanamo Bay once again plays into the terrorists’ heroic image of themselves. I don’t want to be overly critical, but we’re helping to create an image of superhuman adversaries, guys so tough and so mean that they might chew through a hydraulic line. We have to be careful we’re not serving their interests with this treatment.
I don’t think that we created Bin Laden, but he certainly has been able to stay one step ahead of us. Everything we did to try to weaken him and bring him to justice he has been able to use to increase his strength. We flooded the Middle East and South Asia with matchbooks bearing his image, and we upped the price on his head from one million to twenty-five million dollars. But that just made him seem more like David holding out against Goliath. He was very effective in turning that against us.