Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 July 2003
Issue No. 648
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The balance sheet, two years on

Two years after 11 September, is the terrorist threat receding or growing, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed As the second anniversary of 9/11 draws closer, more than three thousand suspected terrorists are still awaiting trial in different parts of the world. On May first, President Bush announced that the war on terror is "changing course", and that while "it may not have ended yet, it will end some day!" What he did not say but which was implicit in his assertion is that his war on terror had placed the Al-Qa'eda network on the defensive, although, at the very time he was making this optimistic appraisal of the situation, an Al-Qa'eda cell was preparing an offensive against American troops which resulted in 35 casualties. A few weeks later, Al-Qa'eda struck again, first in Riyadh then in Casablanca. In order to develop a better understanding of how the war on terror is progressing it is necessary to see these events not as isolated incidents but as a coherent whole extending over a time span of two years. Only in this way can we come up with a balance sheet to help us determine which of the protagonists, in the final analysis, is gaining ground.

Let us begin with an analysis based on quantitative criteria, by comparing terrorist acts which have succeeded with those which failed to reach their goal. How many have been successes and how many failures? Is terrorism on the ascendancy or the opposite? Do all the acts currently attributed to terrorism fit this description or are they, in many cases, expressions of legitimate resistance?

As abortive terrorist acts attest to the success of intelligence gathering operations, so too do successful terrorist acts attest to their failure. A case in point is the Bali explosions, which revealed the inadequacy of intelligence monitoring when it comes to penetrating the dark and secret world of terrorists. The main weapon deployed in the fight against terrorism is intelligence-gathering and the exchange of information between the many countries which are coordinating their efforts to root out terrorists and to take preemptive measures aimed at foiling planned attacks before they are launched. But despite a state of high alert and the full mobilisation of all state apparatus in the fight against terrorism, the attacks have not stopped, even if none have been on a scale comparable to what happened on 11 September. On the plus side of the balance sheet, a planned terrorist attack on British warships in Gibraltar was foiled thanks to reliable intelligence. But does this quantitative mode of evaluation genuinely reflect the balance of power in the war on terror?

Another way of measuring how successful the anti-terrorist drive has been is by counting how many people have been arrested in that capacity. Let us take the case of Israel where, in the name of the war on terror, 8000 Palestinian detainees are being held in Israeli prisons, including 350 children, 77 women and 1100 administrative detainees arrested without trial or specific accusation. Nearly 700 of the detainees are sick, wounded or infirm. The methods used to extract information, which often include torture, have imbued the struggle against terrorism with a terrorist character itself. With all the protagonists using terror to achieve their ends, no one on either side of the barricade can claim to hold the moral high ground. Due process is ignored and the legal maxim that every person is innocent until proven guilty is turned on its head; any person suspected of having links with Al-Qa'eda is assumed to be guilty and treated as a criminal without trial and before ascertaining the facts. The reason given is that as members of Al-Qa'eda are spread over several countries, the only way to avoid the threat they represent is to arrest any suspected member first and ask questions later. This rationale has led to a new strategy in the war on terror, based more on qualitative criteria than on quantitative criteria.

The West is now aware that the way it collects information to fight terrorism no longer fits the present requirements. War on terrorism concentrates mainly on collecting and analysing classified information. It is a war waged by intelligence officers, analysts and researchers far from the public eye, side by side with those who practice torture and other harsh physical means to acquire information as quickly as possible.

The rules of the game with Al-Qa'eda have changed. In November last year, an American plane flying over Yemen, a drone operated by remote control, launched a missile on a car carrying six people suspected of being members of Al-Qa'eda and killed them all. This was the first assassination operation undertaken by the American military outside Afghanistan.

In a place not far from the Yemeni coast, an American warship with state-of-the-art technology monitors wireless transmissions from six countries in the Horn of Africa, collecting data related to the activities of other ships and spying on anybody suspected of being part of a terrorist network. Thus the war on terror is a multi-faceted endeavour, with information gathering at its heart. Humankind is seen as divided into good and evil: the good carry the legacy of human civilisation, the evil represent barbarity, destruction and ruin. The basic unit is no longer the unity of the human species, but the unity of only the part of humankind perceived in the West as upholding its values. The other part is seen as lying beyond the pale of humanity, as creatures governed by the law of the jungle who should be subjected to the law of the jungle.

The West is proceeding from the assumption that small local groups with local ambitions, many of which are dispersed over Africa and Asia, have been encouraged by Al-Qa'eda to extend the scope of their activities and challenge the Western world in its entirety. From this, the West deduces that Al-Qa'eda should be perceived not as an organisation, but as a world movement, and, even if in the past the groups it included had only regional ambitions, in the last few years it has been raising the banner of a global Jihad movement. Its leaders thus harbour ambitions going far beyond the narrow borders of regional affairs. According to Western analysts, they dream of establishing a new Islamic Caliphate of global dimensions. This has become a major source of worry for many western powers, including Israel, who see the 11 September attacks as a call on Muslims to rise in revolution after centuries of persecution and imperialism.

As long as the West's anti-terrorism drive continues to be motivated by fear and waged exclusively on a platform of police procedures, terrorism will prevail, however effective in the short term the sweeping arrests and sophisticated intelligence-gathering techniques may appear to be. The confrontation with terrorism will not end unless and until the reasons for its proliferation are addressed and overcome.

A number of recent developments suggest that the confrontation is acquiring still further momentum. A few days ago, two thousand Muslims attended an Islamic conference in Granada under the title "Islam in Europe", which denounced capitalism as the source of all evil and called on Muslims everywhere to stop using Western currencies like the dollar, the sterling and the euro and to go back to using the gold dinar, on the grounds that a unified currency would be a major step towards the unification of the Islamic world. Claiming that the economic impact of reviving the dinar as legal tender throughout much of the world would be enormous, the advocates of a "dinar zone" predicted that its establishment would wreak worse havoc in western markets than the Wall Street crash of 1929!

At the same time, Spain officially inaugurated the first mosque to be constructed on Spanish soil in five centuries. In France, a Muslim school, the Averroes school, was opened in Lille. Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was the great Muslim philosopher who lived in Andalusia in the 12th century and preached tolerance. The new school will admit students of all faiths, and girls will be accepted, whether they wear the veil or not.

The way out of the quagmire is neither through terrorism nor counter-terrorism, nor by getting more and more involved in the military occupation of territory (a phenomenon that has acquired new dimensions with the recent Knesset decision that Gaza and the West Bank do not qualify as 'occupied territory'!), but by identifying and addressing the reasons that stand behind the exacerbation of terrorism. These reasons are located in the existing world system itself. There have been some modest achievements in the direction of averting a clash of civilisations by encouraging dialogue between civilisations. But the results shown on the balance sheet are far below what they should be two years into the war on terror, and there is no guarantee that cataclysms on the scale of 11 September will not occur again.

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