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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Draining the Swamp of Terror: One Corner at a Time, or All at Once?

Filed under: Iranian Terrorism, Terrorism, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 6       October 18, 2001

“From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”     — President George Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, September 20, 2001

President Bush has clearly defined the scope of the war on terrorism to include not only terrorist organizations, but the states that support them. So far, America’s focus has been on one organization and one regime — Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and the Taliban of Afghanistan. In exchange for help for, or lack of opposition to, its operations against these two targets, the U.S. has been decidedly low key in opposing other state-sponsors of terror, particularly Syria and Iran. Another part of America’s coalition-building strategy has been to encourage Israel to limit its own war against Palestinian terrorism, under the assumption that the heavier the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, the harder it will be to garner Arab support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

President Bush’s explicit refusal to distinguish between terrorist organizations and their sponsors is absolutely correct, and must be the central pillar of any coherent attempt to greatly reduce the threat of terrorism to America and the world. The U.S. Administration seems to understand, as Charles Krauthammer has written, that attempting to eliminate the terrorists themselves, without addressing their state-sponsors, is like swatting mosquitoes without draining the swamp. Yet the strategy of cobbling together a coalition that includes those who preside over much of the swamp in order to drain one corner seems to have been embarked upon without sufficient consideration of the alternatives.

U.S. treatment of Syria requires special attention. On October 11, President Bush explicitly noted: “The Syrians talked to us about how they can help in the war against terrorism. We take that seriously and we’ll give them an opportunity to do so.” Yet Syria, through its military control over Lebanon, shares responsibility for giving shelter to some of the worst terrorist organizations that have targeted U.S. citizens and not only Israelis:

  • In June 2001 a U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, specifically identified Saudi Hizbullah as the party responsible for the 1996 killing of 19 U.S. servicemen in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Another 372 were wounded in this attack. The indictment specifically notes: “Because Saudi Hizbullah was an outlaw organization in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its members frequently met and trained in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran.”

  • Former CIA officials were cited as stating that Osama bin Laden had used explosives experts from Lebanese Hizbullah in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 12 Americans (UPI, May 20, 2001). It should be noted that Hizbullah camps in eastern Lebanon are located in close proximity to Syrian military positions.

  • According to the U.S. Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000, bin Laden’s al-Qaida has ties with small terrorist groups including the Asbat al-Ansar, located in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

  • The U.S. Navy’s Long Commission specifically identified Hizbullah and Syria as responsible for the October 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut that left 241 Marines dead. Hizbullah was also responsible for the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 embassy personnel. Hizbullah kidnapped and murdered the CIA Station Chief in Beirut, William Buckley, in March 1984, and U.S. Marine Colonel Rich Higgins, the American commander of UN forces in Lebanon, in 1990.

Option I: One Corner at a Time

This is the current U.S. strategy, with the first corner targeted being the al-Qaida network and the Taliban regime. As part of this strategy, the U.S. makes marked distinctions between different state-sponsors of terror. A White House list of terrorist organizations, whose assets were to be frozen, failed to include Syrian or Iranian backed-organizations that appeared in a previous State Department list. At the same moment the Taliban regime is being bombed, the United States did not oppose Syria’s nomination to the UN Security Council, despite Syria’s open support for groups designated by the U.S. as terrorist organizations. Similarly, the U.S. continues to issue evenhanded calls to Israel and the Palestinians to “reduce the level of violence,” rather than recognizing that the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and terrorism is at least as close as between the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Option II: All at Once

On September 20, President Bush told Congress that any state that “harbors or supports” terrorism will be considered a “hostile regime.” If such a policy had been implemented, then Iran and the Arab world would have had to choose between their economic relationship with the West and their claim of a right to engage in terrorism against Israel. On October 10, the Organization of Islamic Countries claimed such a right by stating their refusal “to link terrorism with the right of the Arab and Islamic countries including the Palestinian and the Lebanese peoples to resist occupation.” Far from criticizing the OIC communique, President Bush praised the meeting for “strongly condemning the savage acts of terror and emphasizing that those acts contradict the peaceful teachings of Islam.”

While not criticizing the OIC communique, the Bush Administration obviously disagrees with the Arab world’s assertion that terrorism against Israel is legal, acceptable, and praiseworthy. Still, the U.S. has decided that confronting all state-sponsors of terrorism at once is not practical. The question remains whether it is possible to drain corners of the swamp of terror without undermining the goal of draining the swamp completely.

Option III: One Corner First, But No Concessions to the Rest of the Swamp

In conjunction with the current U.S. efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaida, the United States could take steps to lay the groundwork for its comprehensive goal of eliminating state-sponsored terrorism worldwide. Here are some possible guidelines:

  1. Define Terror Clearly, Reject the Concept of “Good Terrorism”

    The U.S. should define terrorism clearly as the deliberate killing of civilians for political ends, and reject any attempt to legitimize such terror under the rubric of “resisting occupation.” If the grievances of Palestinians, Irish, Basque, Kashmiris, and others can justify terrorism, then it is difficult to argue that the grievances of the Islamic radicals against the United States do not justify terrorism as well. If terrorism is legitimate anywhere, it is potentially legitimate everywhere. The U.S., therefore, must do more than agree to disagree with the statements made by Arab leaders and the OIC justifying terrorism against Israel. It must state that its war on terror applies to all terror, not just terrorism against the United States. There should be one list identifying terrorist organizations including Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and PFLP, among others.

    By treating terrorism against others differently, the U.S. is in danger of creating a double standard in the war against terrorism. To coalition members this will be understood as meaning that Washington opposes terrorism according to its narrow interests alone. Since European and Russian interests may differ from American interests globally, especially with respect to countries like Iraq and Iran, a unified stand against terrorism, regardless of interests, will become increasingly difficult to achieve. The coalition will thus erode over time, given its internal contradictions.

    Secretary of State Colin Powell has begun to move in this direction. Speaking in India on October 17, he stated that “the problem of terrorism is not limited to Afghanistan…the United States and India are united against terrorism, and that includes the terrorism that has been directed against India, as well.” Thus, rather than ignore terrorism against India for reasons of political expedience regarding Pakistan, the U.S. is voicing one standard of opposing terrorism in this case.

  2. Refuse to Politically Engage the Palestinian Authority Until it Utterly Rejects Terrorism

    The Mitchell Committee report, which has been the U.S. and European blueprint for returning to negotiations, stated unequivocally the requirement to “immediately implement an unconditional cessation of violence.” When the Taliban recently made an offer to expel bin Laden if the U.S. met certain conditions, President Bush responded, “They must not have understood, I said no negotiations.” Equally, the U.S. must not try to short-circuit the Mitchell sequence by proposing a new peace initiative that does not require full cessation of violence and terrorism.

    If some U.S. lists of terrorist organizations exclude Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, or Hizbullah, then Yasser Arafat and the Syrians might conclude that the current struggle against international terrorism does not require them to crack down and dismantle these organizations, as well. Moreover, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, or Hizbullah might conclude that they can escalate attacks against Israel without having to fear an Israeli retaliatory response, which will be constrained by U.S. coalition considerations. This resulting situation has tremendous escalatory potential.

  3. Peacemaking and the War on Terrorism: Reverse the Order

    The United States should reject the idea that pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a necessary condition for forming an international coalition against terrorism. Back in 1991, Arab states joined an American-led coalition against Iraq despite the fact that there was no peace process. On the contrary, the Madrid Peace Conference was a product of the coalition victory in the Gulf. Using this precedent, the U.S. should assert that successful prosecution of the war on terrorism will produce a regional climate that is conducive to the creation of a more peaceful and stable order in the Middle East. Peace, in short, is a function of ending state-sponsored terror, not the reverse.

    After the assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, it is imperative that the Palestinian Authority arrest and extradite his murderers. This is a standard the U.S. established in Afghanistan. Failure to implement this requirement, as well as a refusal to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority area, should result in Arafat’s regime being treated like any state that supports international terrorism: as a hostile regime.