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Intelligence works better than bullets

by Ramesh Thakur

The British police, acting closely with intelligence agencies in the United States, Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere over many months, have foiled a major terrorist plot of blowing up numerous planes between Britain and America.

Western observers are pleased and relieved that the planned mass murder has been thwarted by vigilant law-enforcement authorities. But the hardline reaction of some, who take this as vindication of the “tough” policies of London and Washington (not to mention Israel), and proof of the naivete and error of liberals’ talk about “root causes” of terrorism, is enough to make one despair.

Dealing with terrorism requires hard-nosed analysis followed by an equally hard-nosed multipronged policy: apprehending and punishing those who commit terrorism; preventing acts of terrorism; reducing the numbers of terrorists; weakening their motivation; and softening support for them in their communities. Instead we get rhetoric on steroids.

There is unanimous support for the first two tasks but disagreement over the rest. The old balance between liberty, due process and security may have to be re-examined and readjusted — but not abandoned, for then indeed the terrorists will have won in destroying our values and freedoms. The British success is vindication of the approach that emphasizes law enforcement and criminalization over military warfare and detention without trial. Putting arrested suspects on trial, presenting compelling evidence of guilt, and securing a criminal conviction will avoid suspicions of group-directed vendetta and force British Muslims to confront the reality of the evil in their midst.

But thwarting some planned attacks through clever detection will not, of itself, stop the numbers of terrorists from multiplying, their motivation to carry out mass carnage from strengthening, or in-community support for them from firming and increasing. The equation is quite simple: Are we, the good guys, capturing, killing, deterring and dissuading more would-be terrorists than they, the bad guys, are recruiting, training and deploying? Do our actions, statements and policies increase or diminish sympathy, support and incentives for them?

The difference between terrorism and criminality lies mainly in the political motivation: the desire to change politics through violence targeted at civilians. In addition to, but not as a substitute for, tough criminal law enforcement, therefore, we need to address the political causes. More terrorists have been spawned by outsiders occupying their territory than by any other cause. The Iraq and Lebanon wars are likely to multiply terrorists by spawning a new generation of battle-hardened jihadists. The occupation of Iraq played into the hands of U.S. enemies ideologically, tactically and strategically. It incited a deep hatred of U.S. foreign policy around the world in general and among Muslims in particular.

Al-Qaida and its fundamentalist fellow-travelers were on the run after 9/11. Iraq fragmented U.S. military and political efforts, ensnared it in a military and diplomatic quagmire, regained sympathy to al-Qaida’s cause and fresh recruits to their ranks, reinvigorated their sense of mission clarity, and turned a strategic setback into a fresh opportunity. There was no al-Qaida in Iraq before the arrival of Western troops. It became a terrorist swamp because of the war.

Between them, Iraq and Lebanon will lead many more to sympathize with and support radical jihadists willing to kill Westerners. Again, the equation is remarkably simple: If we kill one terrorist in a strike on a house that also has 100 civilians, of whom 10 survivors or relatives of those killed join the terrorists, we have gone nine steps backward.

More people today than on 9/11 view the U.S. as a major threat. In a 15-nation poll in June, more people in more countries considered the U.S. to be a greater danger to world peace than Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In another poll, 36 percent of Europeans identified the U.S. as the greatest threat to world stability.

Iraq and Lebanon are devastated and Islamist forces are strengthening. Iran is more empowered, enriched and emboldened. Washington is unable to engage Syria and Iran, which have influence over Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiites. U.S. allies in the region have little credibility with Arab opinion, their legitimacy with their own people is suspect and their pro-U.S. policies helps to promote the growth of militant Islamists.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, reports that Israel has repeatedly hit civilian homes and cars, killing dozens of people, with no evidence of any military objective. Rather, “Israel is prefabricating excuses to justify killing civilians.” Incidentally, he was the investigator who debunked widely reported allegations of Israeli massacres in Jenin in 2002: hardly a stereotypical anti-Semite.

U.S. and British backing of Israel’s military offensive and resistance to calls for an immediate ceasefire will give a new generation of angry and vengeful Arabs and Muslims a renewed mission and cause against Israel and the West.

Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, but its proven resistance to Israel has galvanized the Arab street, united the Arab and Islamic worlds and, in Hassan Nasrullah, produced the first pan-Arab hero since Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1956. Even with victories in sporadic battles like the London plot, the war on terror may be getting longer. The correct, British, approach is through intelligence that apprehends wannabe terrorists with pinpoint precision: no bombs, no invasions, no one killed. The other approach is through scattershot attacks that kill many civilians in unnecessary wars and add to the lengthening line of jihadists. It is not possible to delegitimize terrorism while killing many civilians in endless wars.