All Writings
November 14, 2005

A New Terrorism Phase

By now the world has gotten used to the fact that following every heinous terrorist attack, be it in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or London, public officials first issue a rash of condemnations. Next come the adoption of some new security measures, terrorism “experts” appearing in the media with their analysis, the floating of various conspiracy theories, possibly some arrests, and then after a short while it is back to business as usual. The response to the early November triple suicide bombings in Jordan basically followed this by now familiar pattern. And as usual, in its aftermath no leader from the United States, Europe, or the Middle East has suggested any new course of action other than using more forceful means to combat terrorism, and this is why America is not making any headway battling it.

No matter how fierce the methods employed, force alone will not vanquish terrorism as long as Al Qaeda and other extremist militant groups enjoy grass roots support. The so-called war on terrorism is an ideological war between two sets of beliefs that are irreconcilable under the present terms of engagement, which are based primarily on resorting to force. Iraq has provided a haven for Al Qaeda and its operatives precisely because of the ever-increasing level of violence which the United States is unable to control. Al Qaeda thrives on chaos, and in Iraq, the Bush administration has offered up the mother-of-all chaotic situations on a silver platter. It seems that the administration has never understood Al Qaeda’s mindset or its strategy of winning in the long run. While the United States itself remains a prime target, Al Qaeda believes it can pick and choose which one to target from a host of American allies, especially those, like Jordan, that support the American military presence in Iraq. By striking at Arabs states, Al Qaeda seeks to destabilize their internal political structure and heighten the public’s sense of vulnerability in order to create a chaotic environment that will allow local militants and their sympathizers to challenge the current regimes and eventually take control. To succeed, Al Qaeda needs a base of public support, a majority who are alienated from their own governments. Without achieving this end, terrorist organizations or insurgents cannot operate effectively. It is ironic in this context that rather than encouraging the support of the Iraqi people for U.S. ideals and its commitment to establish a free and democratic nation, the Bush administration has further alienated them, not only because of its hard-nosed policy, but because of its failure to understand Al Qaeda’s mode of operations.

The United States and its allies must learn to separate Al Qaeda from its base of support. I am referring to the base that is not made of terrorists but of millions of ordinary Muslims and Arabs who feel disfranchised and marginalized in their own societies while the United States happily supports and makes deals with their oppressors. If it really wants to win over this base, the administration must change its terms of engagement with the Muslim world and begin an honest dialogue. Washington must make serious efforts to alter the common view of decades-long of American exploitation and manipulation. Notwithstanding the accuracy of this perception held by most Arabs, the administration needs to do far more to combat it than dispatch Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy Karen Hughes to the region. Many Arabs feel deeply insulted by this administration’s insensitivity as well as its general misunderstanding of Arab feelings and beliefs, the magnitude of Islamic militancy, and what it would take to have a real dialogue, one that actually resonates.

The United States must begin a new dialogue and open a channel, especially to Arab intellectuals–journalists, academics, poets, religious scholars, and writers who need to be respectfully courted, regardless of their positions or opinions. America must listen to them and show a clear understanding of the issues and grievances they raise and however disagreeable not be dismissive because they need to be heard. Arab intellectuals, more than any other group, shape public opinion, even if they often serve as mouthpieces of their respective governments. As a group, they have been more antagonistic to the United States than any other group, excluding extremists, and from their perspective everything the administration has done since 9/11 reinforces negative beliefs about America. When was the last time Arab academics were invited to the United States for an open-ended dialogue about what America is all about and what are its real intentions in the region and to discuss as well what the Arab peoples are all about? Why is the Bush administration not initiating such symposiums and round table discussions in every Arab state and in the United States on a regular basis? Even with the concern over terrorism, why is the administration not looking for a way to encourage rather than inhibit more Arab and Muslim students studying in the United States and thus exposing them to the real America? Instead of opening up to Arab intellectuals, and through them reaching out to the Arab masses, the administration is fixated on the self-defeating strategy of relying mostly on brutal force. While force is necessary to deal with hard-core terrorists, the administration has ignored with dreadful consequences the “soft” power of ideas and technology to change hearts and minds: these are the ultimate weapons for cutting away terrorist groups from their base of support.

Still, even if it began to genuinely focus on public diplomacy by attempting to engage Arab and Muslim intellectuals in honest dialogue, the occupation of Iraq makes any such effort appear at best hypocritical. Without doubt the occupation is linked to the attacks in Jordan and many of the other attacks against American allies, and what happened in Jordan may well signal the beginning of a new phase in Al Qaeda’s strategy.

The occupation is an insult to all Arabs, regardless of their diverse affinities and political orientations. The situation has been made even more painful to the people because the Arab states seem impotent to do anything about it. In this sense, the occupation becomes a reminder of the repeated humiliations suffered at the hands of the West, and therefore is the best gift America could give to bin-Laden. Instead of exporting democracy to the rest of the Arab states, the administration can be credited with exporting violence and chaos to the region. And because of this, instead of rising against the indiscriminate and senseless attacks, the Arab masses are gripped by a sense of hopelessness, leaving them prey to further exploitation by their tormentors.

The administration has systematically ignored the multiple root causes of terrorism and as a result the United States will end prolonging the war indefinitely at a terrible and debilitating cost. For this reason, the administration must begin immediately an earnest campaign, as extensive as is necessary, to win the hearts of the masses who now form the essential support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. Concurrently, the administration must establish a time table for complete withdrawal from Iraq and in doing so abandon the illusion that it can bring order there or cripple any terrorist group operating there before it permanently departs.