Preventing Terrorism Effectively

Americans are, our politicians and network anchors keep telling us, united. We've set aside our petty differences and are thinking as one. It's true, but not in the sense we're being told. The party line is that we all support a U.S. military response to the attacks of September 11. That's manifestly untrue; A Gallup poll released Sep. 21 found 46 percent of Americans either undecided or opposed to military action, and overwhelming public opposition in 29 of 30 other countries polled. People have their doubts.

But we are united: all of us want the terror to end. The differences come in what we believe an appropriate strategy for trying to end terrorism is. That requires, first, recognition that it can never be totally ended, no matter how many people we jail or kill, no matter how much we tighten our security. Israel can't do it, and we're a much larger, more diverse country. We will always be at risk, and there will always be people who hate us.

The risks of terrorism can be minimized, however, and many people are concluding that war, and the military, are an ineffective, even counterproductive way to do it. For every bad guy we catch, we'll create another; for every bad guy we kill, we'll create hundreds or thousands more. And it's not necessary to resort to such desperate measures, because there are other, more effective ways to respond.

To understand them, it's necessary to acknowledge that this isn't a war at all. It may look and feel like a war when you're standing across the street from what was the World Trade Center; but that massive pile of rubble and crushed dreams is the product not of an enemy attack, but of a horrific crime. The means by which it was carried out were criminal, not military; and the tools that can best catch the accomplices and stop future attacks involve politicians and law enforcement, not the Pentagon and NATO.

Much of what the U.S. says it knows about bin Laden's sponsorship of the September 11 attacks, and the web of groups and cells he is a part of (but does not lead), is being kept classified. There are, I suspect, good and sensible reasons for this, but rather than military, they are the good reasons that law enforcement cites when not wanting to talk about ongoing investigations: sensitive sources, tipping off suspects and the like. However, in the most recent case involving a similar cell, some of the information is becoming public, and it paints a far more pedestrian picture of the all-powerful Al-Qaeda network than most of us have been led to believe.

Ahmed Ressam is an Algerian who was living in Montreal. He was arrested in late 1999 crossing from Canada on a ferry into Port Angeles, Washington, after inspectors found 130 pounds of bomb- making materials in the trunk of his car.

Since his conviction last year, Ressam has been cooperating with investigators, telling both his story and what he knows about other people he has worked with. He's also been talking since September 11. Ressam was tied into the same social and financial network as bin Laden, and his history reads like that of a petty criminal, not a special operations military agent. He sought asylum and entered Canada on a fake passport, assumed several identities, and moved freely across borders as an ordinary citizen, going back to Afghanistan at one point for training. He openly bought bomb-making materials, assembling them in a Vancouver motel, and his papers were in order crossing into the U.S. -- his trunk was searched only after he became sweaty and nervous. That was it; simplicity itself, and nothing law enforcement doesn't deal with pretty routinely.

The September 11 operation was at another level, of course; the hijackers had to have training to fly large commercial jets. But the approach, from what we know, was basically the same: deep cover in places that are most emphatically not in the mountains of Afghanistan; exploiting our freedom of movement; availability of all sorts of dangerous (if misused) consumer goods; and lapses in security. The ultimate crime, again, was simplicity itself: using an innocuous-looking weapon smuggled through security, stealing and flying an occupied plane, times four. And for that simple act, America considers its world irrevocably changed.

The only place anywhere in that chain of events which might benefit from military intervention is locating that Afghani training camp, and how long does it take to build a new one in some other country? How many are already built? In how many countries are there already people living who have made a pact with their god, working toward a day, near or distant, when they will take their own life and (they hope) many others in the service of their cause?

That is a police matter, not a military one. And while racial profiling must be avoided and civil liberties most emphatically are not negotiable, better domestic security, intelligence and more capable investigative work would lots better -- at far less cost -- than military opreations. Ditto for developing better working relationships with law enforcement agencies in other countries.

The other part of the equation is preventing people from becoming suicidal terrorists in the first place. Here, again, is where the military will create more problems (and more suicidal terrorists) than it will dissuade or stop. Intimidation will not work. What will work is a closer and more respectful relationship between the Christian world and the Islamic world; a genuine effort to alleviate the crushing poverty of most Islamic countries, including debt forgiveness, education, aid and investment; working toward more open, democratic regimes (many of the most brutal and dictatorial -- Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt and now Pakistan -- are heavily dependent upon Western support); genuine efforts to alleviate the war and suffering of Moslems in places like Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and the Balkans; and a foreign policy that upholds and practices our ideals of freedom and democracy. Much of the Islamic world is already at war. It needs less war, not more.

Geov Parrish is a columnist for and a longtime peace activist.


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