Walter Laqueur, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the threat is global not only because Islamic extremists form a world-wide movement but because they aspire to rule the world. Students of Islam and the Middle East tend to dispute this claim, arguing that bin Laden and company only want the infidels out of Arabia, or the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, or changes in some specific U.S. policies. Laqueur offers a description of the origins of the bin Laden movement and quotes from participants (he could have cited more) to show that the movement wants Islam to rule everywhere. The movement may accept, momentarily, control of Saudi Arabia or territories where Islam once ruled (e.g., Spain), but it will not rest until Islam in effect rules the world. The movement understands Islam to require jihad until Islam conquers all. The United States is the principal enemy because it is the principal non-Islamic power, not just in military or political terms but as an alternative to what the extremists consider a proper Islamic way of life. The United States is thus the principal obstacle to Islamic world rule. Consequently, it must be destroyed. Islamic and Middle East experts would argue that this is not the view of most Muslims and that we should act in a way to make sure, to the extent that we can, that it does not become the view of most Muslims. They are right on both counts, but Laqueur is right to insist that the fight with Islamic extremism is a fight not over policies but over the right way to live and that our enemy is implacable.
Given this characterization of the fight, it will not be a surprise to learn that Laqueur sees fanaticism as essential to Islamic terrorism. His argument on this point is not entirely clear. He notes that the word "fanaticism" comes from the Latin for "holy place" and thus calls on his readers to remember the connection between religion and fanatics. But he also considers some non-religious terrorists fanatics (secular terrorists have carried out many, if not most, suicide attacks) and cites Hitler, who was not motivated by religion, as an authority on the need for fanaticism in mass politics. Half-hearted gestures, Hitler believed, do not mobilize the masses. At some points, Laqueur argues that fanaticism is necessary for all terrorism (how else does one explain the killing of innocents in often brutal fashion?) and at others that terrorism has changed over the past decade or so and become more fanatic as Islam and other religions have come to be more associated with terrorism. Perhaps what Laqueur needs to argue here is that, whether religious or secular in nature, fanaticism is the denial that your opponent is human or in any respect your equal or like you. This view would help explain the increasingly indiscriminate nature of terrorist violence. Those carrying it out have no more concern for those they kill than do stable boys who swat flies.
To explain the fanaticism that he sees dominating contemporary and future terrorism, Laqueur discusses its psychological roots. Again, he does not offer a clearly stated conclusion, nor is it apparent that his argument applies to more than Islamic extremism. His contention is that the political and economic failures of the Muslim (or Middle Eastern and north African?) lands create the conditions for young men to become terrorists. They have no power, no jobs, and thus no wife and, therefore, because of the sexual repression of Muslim society, no other outlet for their sexual energy. All of this makes them frustrated, which in turn makes them angry and aggressive. Defense analyst Norman Friedman indirectly supports Laqueur's argument that sexual frustration is at least part of what explains Islamic terrorism, noting that when they controlled Afghanistan, bin Laden's so-called Afghan Arabs were given their pick of Afghan women, a benefit denied them in the lands they came from. Both Friedman and Laqueur note that not all angry and aggressive young males become terrorists, however. To explain why some do, Laqueur says we must consider individual psychology. In doing so, at some points, Laqueur appears to argue that there is a particular psychological profile or pathology for terrorists, a claim that virtually no psychologist who has studied terrorism would support. At other points, he seems to mean only that the frustrated and aggressive who have a taste for adventure and violence and can tolerate a lot of risk, decide to become terrorists. This latter explanation fits more readily psychological findings about the origins of terrorism.
It is also important to note that terrorism may have more than one set of causes or that there may be different kinds of terrorism. If, following Laqueur, we divide terrorists into the fanatics and the non-fanatics, then we might divide the fanatics into those who operate in small covert groups and those who operate in larger groups, which may function more like marauding bands of savages. Much of the evidence that Laqueur cites for the increased brutality and bloodiness, if not sadism, of recent terrorism comes from the slaughter that went on in Algeria in the 1990s. The psychological profile and dynamics of the large bands that carried out this violence might be very different from the small clandestine cells of leftists that operated in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s or the cells of Islamic extremists currently operating in Europe and the United States. A large band might be able to tolerate some psychopaths and might even find them useful, although this is not clear. A small clandestine cell operating against a competent security force requires very steady members. We can surmise that individuals with psychopathologies would be too great a risk in such cells.
Laqueur does not address this issue. If he did, it might change one of his most important arguments. Laqueur believes that 9/11 signifies above all that technological development is putting in the hands of small groups of people great power, perhaps even regime-threatening power, at lower and lower cost. He argues that, because of this, these small groups will not need to appeal to large publics in order to get the resources they need to do what they want to do. They will thus be able to develop idiosyncratic or even, he argues, irrational views and characteristics. In his concluding chapter he even says that there is increasing madness in terrorism and that this will manifest itself in these small highly destructive groups. But can such odd groups really function as effective organizations and carry out complex engineering and weaponeering tasks? The only detailed evidence we have to date on this issue comes from Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that was relatively small and certainly idiosyncratic, if not mad. The evidence suggests that the group's psychological quirks were at least a significant part of the explanation for the failure of its various efforts to destroy Japan with weapons of mass destruction.
If Laqueur is wrong about the combination of madness and destructiveness in small groups, he is also silent about an important element in the origin of terrorism. Laqueur does not discuss the role of entrepreneurs. The frustration and aggression that Laqueur describes can manifest itself in street demonstrations and the occasional bread riot but if it is to lead to something sustained, someone needs to organize it. The role of bin Laden as an organizer is one of Freidman's themes. He goes so far as to suggest more than once that if bin Laden died, the world-wide movement of fractious organizations that he put together might fall apart. While this is a possibility, it is also possible that someone might be able to replace him. It might also be the case that having been organized and given a purpose by bin Laden, the movement can carry on without him. The history of terrorist movements offers examples of organizations that both did and didn't survive the death of their founder. In the case of al-Qaeda, the integration during the 1990s of experienced people from Islamist struggles in Egypt suggests that the organization will survive its leader's demise. Also, Laqueur's analysis of the frustration of young men in Muslim lands and the demographic trends in these lands (millions and millions of young men) means there will be fertile ground in which future bin Laden's might grow.
Another element of the threat we face that Laqueur does not explore as thoroughly as Friedman is our enemy's strategy. Friedman argues that for bin Laden the key question was how to mobilize support within the Muslim world. Bin Laden's task was two-fold. He had both to make Muslims see who was their true enemy and organize attacks to show that he was powerful enough to challenge that enemy. The latter effort could contribute to the former, Friedman suggests. A rising level of violent attacks on the United States might provoke the United States to attack Muslims, thus revealing the United States as the enemy of Muslims. If that did not occur, then at least bin Laden's attacks would show that he was powerful.
An analysis such as this suggests that attacking Muslim countries plays into bin Laden's hands. Friedman acknowledges this problem but also points out that bin Laden may well have miscalculated the effect of U.S. attacks. Instead of inspiring Muslims to fight the United States, these attacks might make Muslims think twice about that choice. More generally, we might say that it is easy to be a fanatic when the cost is low. When the cost becomes death or indefinite confinement on Guantanamo, some who thought they were fanatics might rediscover the virtues of moderation. While a strong U.S. response might discourage some, the evidence from Iraq, which has become a magnet for jihadists, and polling in the Muslim world, which shows increasingly unfavorable attitudes towards the United States, suggest on balance that invading Muslim countries, at least in the short term, is not the best way to fight Islamic extremism. Such attacks may discourage some from becoming fanatics but they probably provide those who carry out the attacks with a much wider base of supporters.
Friedman argues that the attack on Afghanistan was necessary because of the advantages that al-Qaeda gained by having such a sanctuary. Among these advantages are the leisure to plan and recruit, infrastructure to support training, an increased ability to extract and manage resources, and, most important as far as Laqueur is concerned, the facilities and opportunity to develop weapons of mass destruction. Fanaticism will lead terrorists to use these, Laqueur believes, if they have the opportunity. Destroying the Taliban was also necessary to discourage other states from supporting the extremists. Minus state support, Friedman argues, terrorism becomes a more manageable problem, one that police and intelligence services can handle.
By discussing the socio-economic, demographic, and psychological causes of Muslim fanaticism and analyzing al-Qaeda's strategy, Laqueur and Friedman go beyond the simple retelling of bin Laden's story or the 9/11 plot that makes up most of what has passed so far as analysis of what al-Qaeda represents. They do much more than this. Friedman gives an insightful account of the campaign in Afghanistan and what it tells us about the current state and probable future of warfare. Laqueur, who apparently reads all Indo-European languages, has a grasp unparalleled among those writing on terrorism of the literature in this area and events around the world relevant to it. He is thus able to make connections that others cannot. He discusses ongoing contacts between extreme right-wing groups and Islamists, for example, that might well become a serious problem for the United States and Europe, both home to these violent movements. Although Laqueur has much less to say than Friedman about how we should respond, together he and Friedman provide probably the best analysis we have of the threat we face and the responses we can make.
For a number of reasons, investigative journalist Richard Miniter is not in the same league as Laqueur and Freidman. His argument is simplistic. At some point between January 20, 1993, and January 20, 2001, did something go wrong? If it did, it was Bill Clinton's fault. For example, Clinton sent troops to Somalia in 1993 to support the UN's efforts to pacify and civilize the place. Capturing a warlord, Mohamed Farah Aideed, was supposed to contribute to that end. In trying to capture him, the troops made tactical errors that led to 18 of them being killed. According to Miniter, the tactical errors were Clinton's fault because he sent the troops to Somalia. Again, Miniter points out that after the first World Trade Center bombing, Clinton did not order an all-out war against Osama bin Laden. He argues that Clinton therefore missed an opportunity to end before it started the wave of global terrorism that eventually washed away the WTC and a chunk of the Pentagon. Of course, as we see later in Miniter's account, no one knew until quite a while after the first WTC attack that bin Laden had anything to do with it.
Not only does Miniter make unjust accusations against Clinton, but he appears to understand little of the context in which Clinton operated. The most important example is his presentation of the issue of whether bin Laden should have been captured or, even easier, accepted as a gift from his protectors offering him up to curry favor with us. There is controversy about whether the Sudanese made such an offer. Miniter's account of the evidence is not persuasive. He concludes, of course, that they did, and the feckless, distracted Clinton and his administration again failed to save the country. The real problem appears to have been that there was not enough evidence to indict bin Laden when the offers were first allegedly made. What would we have done with him if we had accepted Sudan's offer--thrown him out of a helicopter, detained him indefinitely, put him on trial and risked his acquittal? After 9/11, indefinite detention is controversial, but in the mid-1990s, certainly before the embassy bombings in 1998, it was unthinkable. Knowing what we know now, should it have been? The point, however, is that neither Clinton nor anyone else knew then what we know post 9/11. When Miniter describes bin Laden's activities in the 1980s, he refers to him as the "arch-terrorist" bin Laden, which makes Clinton seem more culpable. Bin Laden was not the "arch-terrorist" then, of course, and would not be for almost another decade. By the late 1990s, as Friedman notes, but Miniter does not, Clinton had signed a "finding" authorizing the use of lethal force against al-Qaeda's leaders (the equivalent of throwing them out of a helicopter). Moreover, our ability to start operating in Afghanistan when we did was the result of various initiatives that the Clinton Administration had taken.
The problem here is not only on what basis we judge statesmen (on what they knew and should have known, or on what we have learned subsequently?). Miniter also fails to understand the bureaucratic context. He does a good job of explaining the pros and cons of the legal approach to terrorism (i.e., capturing terrorists for trial), argues that the bad outweighs the good, and faults the Clinton Administration, many of whose leading officials were lawyers, for sticking with the legal approach and thinking about terrorism in narrow, legalistic terms. This meant that when the evidence could not stand up in court, nothing else was done. He fails to note, however, that the legal approach developed during the Reagan Administration and came to dominate official U.S. government thinking about terrorism following the criminal investigation of the wreckage of Pan Am 103 in Scotland in 1989 during the Bush Administration. This investigation came slowly to contradict intelligence gathered by the U.S. government and ultimately identified two Libyan intelligence officers as those responsible for putting the bomb on the plane. In other words, the Clinton Administration's legalistic approach to terrorism was not peculiar to that administration. It was standard operating procedure in the U.S. government. It may have been bad SOP, as Miniter and others have argued, but it was not Clinton's SOP alone. He inherited it from two Republican administrations.
Miniter also assumes that there were good alternatives to the legal approach. He never describes what they were. He mentions covert action but never mentions that the Reagan Administration tried this (killing terrorists without attributing the killing to the United States) but gave it up after newspaper reports linked the CIA to a bombing in Lebanon that killed 80 people but not the intended target. (The CIA denied that it was responsible but did admit that it intended to work with the group that carried out the attack.) Military force is a blunt instrument when it comes to terrorism and has not been noticeably effective. There were more Libyan attacks on American targets and more American deaths from Libyan terrorism after the Reagan Administration's bombing raid on Libya, April 15, 1986, than before it. And this does not count those killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103. Miniter provides no discussion of the feasibility or cost of courses of action different from those taken by the Clinton Administration. Nor does he consider the costs the U.S. would have borne if the Clinton Administration had acted as if fighting terrorism was the sole or most important activity of the U.S. government. Without such considerations, however, it is impossible to come to any reasonable judgment of what the Clinton Administration did or did not do.
After 9/11, of course, the Bush Administration declared that fighting terrorism was its priority, at least as far as foreign policy was concerned. But prior to 9/11, the Bush Administration doesn't seem to have accorded a greater priority to terrorism than did the Clinton Administration. In fact, it probably gave it a lower priority than its predecessor did, because Clinton and his officials had seen the threat grow and had lived through the first WTC bombing, the destruction of the Murrah Federal building, two bombings of military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the two embassy bombings. Miniter does not consider this. Neither does he acknowledge that in treating terrorism as less than its top priority, the Clinton Administration acted as had every administration since Richard Nixon's. Friedman knows this and concludes that given what it knew, the Clinton Administration had the right priorities.
Not only does Miniter fail to offer the context or analysis necessary to judge Clinton, his argument is incoherent. Throughout the book, Miniter faults Clinton for failing to see the threat that bin Laden and al-Qaeda posed: Clinton should have done more, because al-Qaeda was such a serious threat. In an appendix, Miniter contradicts this argument by claiming, as he does nowhere else in his book, that loose networks of Islamic extremists are not capable of the organization necessary to pull off two nearly simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa: Saddam Hussein must be responsible. If this is so, then Clinton was right not to make destroying al-Qaeda his highest priority, the opposite of what Miniter argues in the eleven chapters preceding the appendix.
The various faults of Miniter's book (including a host of mistakes about terminology and U.S. government and military operations) render it useless for anyone attempting to make an assessment of what the U.S. government did prior to 9/11. In fact, so imbalanced and uninformed is its criticism of Clinton that it actually undermines the argument that Clinton was derelict in his duty by making this seem the last resort of the ignorant and prejudiced. Furthermore, Miniter's argument is pernicious because it claims, in effect, that the only problem in our response to Islamic extremism was Bill Clinton.
Anyone interested in the larger problems of responding to terrorism will find important evidence in Gerald Posner's account of the various mistakes, oversights, and missed opportunities that marked America's dealing with Islamic extremists prior to 9/11. A former Wall Street lawyer and award-winning author, Posner begins his account by detailing the bad blood between the CIA and the FBI that made it hard for them to share information. His account of these problems comes largely from interviews with former CIA officers, as well as with James Woolsey, a former Director of Central Intelligence, so it is most unflattering to the FBI, but it does establish why the agencies did not share information. The reasons range from personal animosities to procedural issues, such as respecting the secrecy of grand jury hearings, and questions of agency autonomy and authority. The FBI is responsible for counterintelligence, for example, but until the mid-1990s, when the FBI was given more authority over counterintelligence at the Agency, the CIA was able to hide its counterintelligence problems from the Bureau. Underlying all this was the failure of both agencies to understand and appreciate the kind of work the other did. The FBI thought only of criminal prosecutions and tracked only the information suitable for such legal proceedings, while the Agency sought intelligence on threats to U.S. security. The same individuals did not appear in the same light to either organization. Consequently, not all relevant information reached either agency or the various watch lists that the government had set up over the years to keep track of dangerous individuals who might try to enter the United States. In addition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not monitor foreigners moving about the United States. It is thus easy to see how the 19 hijackers were able to live in the United States and board the planes that Tuesday morning.
These interagency problems are longstanding. Moreover, it is not clear that reforms undertaken after 9/11 (such as creating the Department of Homeland Security) will fix them, because they are fundamental. If we want effective law enforcement or human intelligence collection, we need people who specialize in these different activities. We need people dedicated to doing them as well as they can be done. We need people who will fight to insure that these activities are not misused or neglected by those who do not understand them. We need people, therefore, who will insist on the autonomy and prerogatives of the agencies that are home to these different activities. We need, in the end, the kind of people who inhabited the FBI and the CIA's Directorate of Operations and who, in fighting to maintain the focus and autonomy of their agencies, did not pay sufficient attention to the needs and interests of other agencies and thus failed to cooperate sufficiently. The danger in the post 9/11 reforms is that the autonomy associated with effective agencies will be impaired, in the urge to make everyone get along better.
After recounting the problems of coordinating law enforcement and intelligence, Posner begins to develop another important theme in his account, the role of Saudi Arabia in bin Laden's development. Posner recounts a deal in the early 1990s between Prince Turki bin Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence, and bin Laden, in which according to Posner the Saudis gave bin Laden money and carte blanche to operate as he wished as long as he did not attack Saudi Arabia. At the end of the book, in what is considered its only revelation, Posner describes the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a high ranking al-Qaeda member who was captured in a safe house in Pakistan in March 2002. During his interrogation, Zubaydah revealed that he and al-Qaeda had well-established relations with members of the Saudi Royal family who gave al-Qaeda significant financial support and supplies, again with the understanding that al-Qaeda would not attack Saudi Arabia.
According to Posner, Saudi Arabia was not the only country that supported al-Qaeda. During his interrogation, Zubaydah also described how high-ranking officials in the government of Pakistan were working with al-Qaeda. Posner also describes a series of terrorism conferences organized by Iran that included representatives from Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, and other Islamic extremist groups. Posner claims that at these conferences the participants laid out plans for attacking the United States and Israel, with Iranian support.
In addition to problems among U.S. government agencies and the help afforded al-Qaeda by foreign governments, Posner emphasizes another element in our failure to prevent 9/11. During the 1990s, terrorist attacks and suspected attacks occurred that distracted the U.S. government, including the FBI and the CIA, from the emerging threat posed by al-Qaeda. The bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, followed by the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, made everyone think that the domestic terrorism threat was greater than the foreign threat. The explosion of TWA 800 in July 1996 led to an investigation of what was thought to be a terrorist attack. Lasting over a year, the investigation absorbed enormous amounts of FBI resources, some of which, at least, could have been devoted to Islamic extremist activity in the United States.
Public opinion, with all its vagaries, is the final element in Posner's explanation of why more was not done to prevent 9/11. He suggests that if the public had been more attentive to terrorism, the government as a whole might have done more about it. This is similar to the argument of Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, former counterterrorism officials on the Clinton National Security Council staff, in The Age of Sacred Terror, their account of the administration's efforts against terrorism. They fault the media for failing to inform the public about important issues like terrorism, thus making it hard for the president to lead and do what needed to be done. Posner points to the public itself. He notes that while the trial of the blind sheik, Abdel Rahman, and his fellow conspirators was going on, the country was transfixed by the O. J. Simpson trial. The public thus lost its best chance to learn about Islamic extremism. Ignorant of the threat, it was not prepared, he implies, to support the government in its efforts against it, thus limiting what the government could do.
It would have taken a particularly well-informed, resolute, and focused president to bring the resources of the federal government to bear on the threat of Islamic extremism. As Posner relates, this threat emerged in a complex environment of feuding agencies, untrustworthy allies, various and complex international problems (including the Balkans), and a public that was obsessed with a celebrity murder case. His account makes clear that Clinton was not, at least when it came to terrorism or foreign affairs generally, the well-informed, resolute, or focused president the country needed. The most damning evidence he presents comes from Clinton's former pollster, Dick Morris. In an article that Morris wrote and a subsequent interview with Posner, Morris portrays Clinton as self-absorbed and obsessed with his popularity. In the wake of some al-Qaeda attacks, Morris conducted focus groups to find out if the public wanted a strong Clinton or an accommodating Clinton. Discovering that the public preferred a strong Clinton, the president took a tough stance. But both Posner and Morris conclude that this was largely rhetorical. The tough stance was not designed to affect the terrorists but to boost Clinton's popularity. Clinton's absorbing interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of his administration, even as the 9/11 plot developed, was not meant to deal with al-Qaeda or any other pressing problem but rather to secure his place in history.
Posner, like Benjamin and Simon, argues that the climate of opinion in America was such that Clinton could not get and hold the attention of the American people on the subject of terrorism. Yet, Posner and Benjamin and Simon cite polls that show that the American people were very concerned about terrorism. In fact, over the twenty years prior to 9/11, polls show that the American public had become increasingly convinced that terrorism was a major problem. Polls also show that the public was willing to take increasingly strong measures against terrorists. This latent public opinion needed to be shaped and led. No one was in a better position to do this than Clinton. Posner's account shows, however, that Clinton failed at this task of leadership: he was more inclined to follow opinion than to lead it. Clinton did do more than Miniter will admit to counter al-Qaeda, but he did not do the most important thing. Clinton authorized a number of covert activities, but he did not provide the sustained public leadership that would have prepared the American people and the civilian and military bureaucracies to do what Clinton's supporters claim he knew was necessary.
Having considered the threat and our response, can we come up with some assessment of where the conflict now stands and what the future holds? In the past, terrorism campaigns have typically followed the same pattern. The terrorists begin their violence in order to mobilize public opinion, and the government doesn't take it seriously enough. At some point, the terrorists miscalculate and kill too many or the wrong kind of people. The government now pays attention. It focuses on the terrorists, improves its security and intelligence, and hurts the terrorists badly. Usually, however, the government cannot wipe them out, and as terrorist attacks decline, the government's focus drifts to other problems. The public becomes less concerned. This gives the terrorists a chance to recover, and they become smarter and more professional. They recruit new members and pass on their expertise. Slowly, the frequency and severity of their attacks begins to increase. The terrorists and the government are now locked in a long battle.
It's difficult to know, of course, but it appears that we are currently in the stage where the government finally responds to the terrorists' provocations and hurts them badly. Given Laqueur's and Friedman's arguments, we should expect the other stages typical in terrorism campaigns to follow. We will not get all the terrorists, and the war against Islamic extremism will develop into a long indecisive struggle. We will not have a return to pre-9/11 America or a march to victory but rather "a long, hard slog," as Secretary Rumsfeld recently put it in a leaked memo. Laqueur is particularly forceful on this point, predicting that we are facing an age of small, possibly mad groups capable of vast destruction, all opposed to the liberal democratic order that we lead. We might hope that over decades, changes to the socio-economic and political order in the Middle East will take care of the conditions that breed terrorists, but even if this happens, what are we to make of the right-wing extremists who thrive in the United States and Europe? What are their socio-economic and political problems? Laqueur, probably the best informed of our terrorism experts, concludes his book by warning that "there is a huge reservoir of aggression, and for this reason terrorism will be with us as far as one can look ahead."