March 4, 1999
On Winning the Terror War
It was one of America's most controversial "victories" against international terrorism: a negotiated settlement with a gang of Arabic-speaking hijackers who were holding American hostages. After military action proved ineffective, a U.S. diplomat in the region decided -- apparently without authorization -- to pay off the hijackers. The hostages were released, but, in the ensuing furor, the diplomat, a Jew, lost his job.
Pencils ready? Name the year, the place, the terrorists and the diplomat, for five points each. For extra credit, explain the lessons for future terrorist confrontations.
Time's up. Figured it out?
Answers: The year was 1815, the place Tunis. The hijackers were seagoing bandits known as the Barbary pirates. The diplomat was Mordecai Manuel Noah, U.S. consul in Tunis and the first Jew ever to head an American diplomatic mission abroad.
Extra credit: If you said nothing much ever changes in the Middle East, add five points. If you said things have a way of changing without seeming to, add 10 points. Fifty points if you said nothing is as it appears in the looking-glass war of terrorism.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Noah went to Tunis. America's relations with the Moslem world have risen and fallen many times over. Jews have moved from center stage to the margins and back. America has become a world power. The Middle East has gone through independence, Arab nationalism, Islamic revolution and the discovery of oil. Yet here we are again, caught in another looking-glass war against shadowy Middle Eastern thugs who play by their own rules, or no rules. And, as always, Washington and the West are divided over how to respond.
The tactical dilemmas vary from case to case, but they boil down to one basic question. Should the fight against terrorism follow the niceties of civil society, or the cruder rules of the battlefield? Put differently, is terrorism a matter of statecraft or simple law enforcement? Are terrorists an international enemy, or common criminals?
It's not clear-cut. Criminals enjoy elaborate protections from the moment of arrest, while battlefield foes are shot on sight. But enemies can sit down after the fighting and negotiate for their position. Criminals don't get to have a position.
The United States today is fighting the shadow war on a half-dozen fronts, from interdicting terror at home, to chasing the Saudi-born terrormaster Osama Bin Laden, to making Libya give up the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
Critics say the war lacks a clear vision. "The Clinton administration and, to some extent, the Bush administration basically look at terrorism as a law enforcement problem, but it doesn't really work," says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of anti-terrorism operations at the CIA. "On the other hand, the sporadic attempts at some kind of military response don't really work either. You're not going to destroy a terrorist infrastructure by bombing their barracks."
Still, there have been victories. Just last week, the U.N. Security Council rejected a bid to lift the sanctions imposed on Libya after the Pan Am bombing. Some Europeans wanted the decade-old sanctions lifted because Libya has agreed in principle to surrender the suspects under a compromise deal. Washington wanted the sanctions kept in place until the suspects are actually delivered. The council backed Washington.
It was the second victory inside a week. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court upheld the Justice Department's 12-year struggle to deport eight members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, detained in Los Angeles in 1987 for fund-raising for the terror group. The eight claimed that they were singled out for deportation because of their beliefs, violating their First Amendment rights. The administration replied that since they were in America illegally, they had no First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled for the administration.
Victories like these send a firm message to terrorists and their supporters: You can run, and maybe you can hide, but the long arm of American justice will eventually reach you, if you don't die of old age first.
The problem is that terrorism doesn't really fit either a military or police mold. Military strikes are too blunt a weapon. Traditional police work is too polite and too slow. Terrorists slip across borders, kill with abandon and don't mind dying. What's needed is a third way.
Some experts say the answer is to rescind the mid-1970s executive order that bans assassination by U.S. agents. "We're caught in this ridiculous position," says conservative scholar Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute. "If somebody kills an American and runs away, you have a choice of bombing them or asking Interpol to arrest them. What you can't do is go out and shoot them."
Washington hasn't returned to assassinations, but it has moved toward finding that third way. The solution: unconventional legal doctrines. One is extraterritorial jurisdiction, the startling notion that the United States can punish crimes committed on others' soil. Another is the 1996 Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act, which limits the rights of terror suspects to lodge appeals, view the evidence against them, even talk to lawyers. Civil libertarians howl about the erosion of democratic rights. So far, the courts haven't agreed.
The new law plays a key role in Washington's current hunt for the Bin Laden gang. Indictments were drawn up last fall against 11 members, including Bin Laden himself. Six are in custody so far. Over the last three months, they've filed countless pretrial motions, claiming infringement of their rights in jail. The courts haven't agreed.
The bottom line, then, is that for all the screaming headlines, we're not losing the terrorism war. The Palestinians have largely abandoned terror in favor of negotiations. As for Libya, "it hasn't directed terrorist actions against the United States in recent times, because the sanctions are working," says Cannistraro. "The answer is a coherent, integrated approach that combines diplomacy and politics. You can't let law enforcement drive the train."
As for the remaining terror, get used to it. "Terrorism is a chronic phenomenon," Cannistraro says. "But it's not a serious threat to our national security. Someone like Bin Laden kills people, but he's not going to cause the destruction of the United States."
Cannistraro's sanguine view, common among professionals, isn't popular with politicians or the public. "The problem is that everyone wants to treat the symptoms and not the causes," he says. "It's a common problem in terrorism-expert circles."
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.