Terrorism is a growing threat. The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent attacks on Madrid's Atocha train station and the London underground signaled that 21st century terrorism was not a problem that could be localized to the Middle East and South Asia. As the terror threat grows and groups like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah demonstrate worldwide reach, democracies fumble not only for an effective political strategy to combat terrorism, but also for a definition. In order to protect pet interests or excuse specific groups, diplomats and officials complicate what should be a simple definition. Whether in Berlin or Beirut, the definition should be the same: Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain. Any nuance or justification of the targeting of civilians for political gain merely undercuts efforts to eradicate terrorism.
To combat terrorism effectively, political leaders and diplomats should look not at the terrorists' goals, but rather at their success. After all, terrorism is only a tactic. Adversaries commit terrorist acts when they win more than they lose. Some commit terrorism for publicity, others for ransom, and still others for concession. The key to defeat of terrorism is not through diplomacy, but rather through strategies more forceful and less compromising. Terrorism will only cease to be a useful tactic only when its costs become too great for terrorists and their sponsors to bear.
Is Terrorism Ever Legitimate?
Terrorism should never be legitimate. While European politicians, conflict resolution specialists, and some journalists counsel diplomats to address root causes, any group utilizing terror, regardless of their goal, makes their cause illegitimate. The greatest handicap to defeating terrorism today is the assumption that addressing root causes will mitigate the problem. Many seek to twist counter-terror efforts to their own pet cause. Some, for example, say poverty breeds terrorism. This is false. Mali, one of the world's poorest nations is, according to Freedom House, the most democratic Muslim country. It does not produce terrorists.
Nor does lack of opportunity cause terrorism. Most of the September 11, 2001 hijackers were well-educated. Many were engineers. Many suicide bombers likewise have received high school and, in some cases, even university education. Indeed, a twenty-first century Modest Proposal might interpret data collected about perpetrators of suicide bombings to suggest that stymieing rather than creating educational opportunities could better inhibit recruitment of terrorists.
A third root cause cited by diplomats and scholars is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The lack of a final status peace accord, the argument goes, is what causes terror. This too is disingenuous. Terrorism has spiked every time negotiators appear on the brink of Arab-Israeli peace. It was during a declared Palestinian truce, for example, that terrorists sought to import 50 tons of Iranian weaponry, a shipment only stopped when the Israeli navy intercepted the Karine-A. Likewise, Usama Bin Laden started planning the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon just before the Camp David II summit, at a time of great optimism in the peace process.
Discussion of root causes can blur the immorality of terrorism and actually encourage the act. No where was this more evident than when, on April 15, 2002, France, Belgium and four other European Union members endorsed a UN Human Rights Commission resolution condoning "all available means, including armed struggle" to establish a Palestinian state. While publicly declaring their opposition to terrorism, six EU members joined the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference to legitimize suicide bombing, at least in certain circumstances.
Political adversaries take advantage of the Western obsession with root causes. Terror sponsors extend an olive branch on one hand, but seek to advance their own goals by terrorist proxy on the other. In the midst of Arab-Israeli negotiations in 1993, the Syrian government encouraged Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon. While Iranian president Muhammad Khatami won plaudits in Western capitals for his talk of civilization dialogue, for example, his government continued to fund proxy groups like Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah which worked to advance the Islamic Republic's desire to export revolution and undermine the Middle East peace process.
Too often Western powers try to make negotiating partners out of dictators and terrorists. Seldom does this curb terrorism. Prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, senior State Department official Robin Rafael, for example, counseled the U.S. government to accommodate the Taliban. Diplomatic promises are as ephemeral as terrorists' sincerity. The Taliban embraced engagement to entrench. The Palestinian Authority embraced engagement to rearm. Meanwhile, the Taliban's regime facilitated al-Qaeda and Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat equipped his proxy militias with far more lethal weapons, explosives, and missiles.
The refusal of Arafat to acknowledge agreements made by his negotiators further showed the fallacy of embracing dictators and terror sponsors. The Palestinian Authority made no secret of its willingness to win concession through terror. While Western powers trained the Palestinian police to keep order and prevent terrorism, Palestinian Police Commander Ghazi Jabali told the Palestinian Authority's official newspaper, "The Palestinian police will be leading, together with all other noble sons of the Palestinian people when the hour of confrontation arrives…." On the month anniversary of the collapse of Camp David II, Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Freih Abu Middein, demanding further Israeli concessions, declared, "Violence is near and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties."
Some in the international community risk replicating the mistake with outreach to Hamas. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision to receive a senior Hamas delegation prior to that group's renunciation of terrorism legitimatized both Hamas and its tactics. Indeed, the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], as vicious in its targeting of civilians as Hamas, seized upon the precedent established by Erdoğan. "Is it not blood that is shed in the fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan freedom movement, just like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?" asked senior PKK commander Murat Karayilan.
Erdoğan's decision has both undercut both the Turkish government's own fight against terrorism as well as Ankara's diplomatic leverage should officials in Athens, Nicosia, or other European capitals seek to engage the PKK. He not only legitimized terrorists as negotiating partners, but reaffirmed that the path to political recognition was through the murder of civilians.
The U.S.-led Coalition's willingness to negotiate with terrorists in Iraq has likewise backfired. Between April 6 and April 30, 2004, U.S. Marines surrounded the hotbed town of Fallujah. European officials and human rights groups condemned the U.S. siege. Facing growing international pressure, U.S. forces compromised: They empowered insurgent leaders into a Fallujah Brigade. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained, "We want peace in Fallujah, not war in Fallujah. And we won't have to take this to a military climax." Islamists interpreted events differently. Minaret-mounted loudspeakers lauded "victory over the Americans." Rather than bring peace, the decision to compromise sparked an upsurge in violence. The Jihadists learned that violence brings concession. While there were five car bombings during the siege, in the same period following its lifting, there were 30. For the car bombers of Fallujah, the gains of their terror far outweighed its cost.
A Western desire for compromise can also backfire for the simple reason that, while Western officials see their intercession as central to almost every conflict, terrorists do not. At times a groups' decision to engage in terror is due as much to local power politics as outside grievance. During the Second Intifada, groups such as Force-17 and Tanzim took the lead in launching attacks against Israeli targets. The reason was not enhanced grievance relative to other terror groups, but rather a desire for local legitimacy. While the first Intifada raged, Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization remained in Tunisian exile. Many West Bank and Gaza Palestinians subsequently resented Arafat's henchmen as illegitimate interlopers imposed on them by outside powers. Arafat used the second Intifada to win local legitimacy through a contest to draw Israeli blood.
A similar dynamic is at work with Hamas now. Hamas rose to popularity in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a result of its terror attacks. While some diplomats may also point to its Saudi-subsidized social service network, the fact remains that non-governmental organizations which operated similar programs did not win populist support because of their failure to bomb buses. Hamas terrorism was meant not only to kill Israelis, but also to bolster its own popularity vis-א-vis its rivals. The movement craved publicity, and it received it. It is loathe to lose its populist card.
Further undercutting the fight against terrorism has been Western officials' desire for a peaceful solution regardless of provocation. Even Jerusalem's no-nonsense approach to terrorism has frayed in the face of equivocation and compromise. Any solution short of a violent response to terrorism is akin to rewarding it.
Rewarding violence always backfires. On May 25, 2000, the day after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah declared, "The road to Palestine and freedom is the road of the resistance and the intifada!" While European and U.S. officials hoped and predicted that withdrawal would curb violence on the south Lebanon-Israeli border, the reality was far different. Hezbollah refused to accept the UN ruling that Israel was in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 425 and, instead, simply added new demands.
More importantly, the precipitous withdrawal demonstrated that Western democracies were weak and would concede to violence. Two months after Israel' pullback, Arafat turned down Israel's offer of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, on 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and three percent of Israel proper and launched a war designed to strike not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Israel. And so was born the second Intifada. The impact of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon went beyond Israel and its neighbors, though. The willingness of a Western democracy to make concessions to improvised explosive devices and mortar attacks has subsequently inspired terrorists in Iraq, Turkey, and India.
Unfortunately, the West has not learned its lesson. While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued that Israel's unilateral disengagement was a move for peace, various Palestinian and terrorist groups portrayed Israel's withdrawal as a victory. Former Palestinian Authority security chief Mohammed Dahlan explained, "Hizbullah turned Israel's retreat from southern Lebanon into victory. The withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and some West Bank settlements is one of the most important achievements of the Intifada." Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri similarly proclaimed, "All the Israeli statements about a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip are due to the Palestinian resistance operations. We are completely confident that as the Hezbollah Organization managed to the Israeli forces out of Lebanon, the Palestinian resistance will kick them out of the Palestinian territories, and we will continue our resistance." Hamas put a video on its official website which showed footage of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza accompanying singing of "The army of the Jews has been defeated. The home and homeland is returning through blood. Not through negotiations, surrender or promises." The "homeland is returning" is sung over a photo of Haifa.
Indeed, like the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, the Israeli army's Gaza evacuation promises to spark more violence. Already Hezbollah has set up a forward base in Gaza from which to operate cells in the West Bank. On March 2, 2006, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised concern of al-Qaeda infiltration into Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, while some U.S. and European officials believe that Israeli occupation of disputed territories is a root cause of terror, the fact is that their prescription of more concession and/or withdrawal will increase rather than decrease international terrorism.
While terrorists consider Israel vulnerable, they realize that its defeat will require protracted struggle. From the Palestinian perspective, Israel's surrender in Gaza occurred after 35 years of constant struggle. Terrorists see Israel as vulnerable, but recognize that the Jewish state still has a residue of strength. Not so Europe. In the wake of the Atocha station bombing, the Spanish electorate ousted Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Their perceived ability to swing an election convinced terrorists that Europe was both weak and malleable. The decision of Aznar's successor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to withdraw immediately from Iraq guaranteed Europeans to be in terrorist crosshairs for years to come. Islamists use terrorism because it works. Zapatero demonstrated that at very little cost, terrorists could win tremendous result.
Just as damaging was Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's July 2004 decision to comply with terrorist demands to evacuate Filipino troops from Iraq in exchange for a Filipino truck driver's life. Terrorism and hostage-taking subsequently skyrocketed. Foreign workers are dead because Arroyo's decision to comply with the kidnappers' demands convinced terrorists that their aims could be achieved through violence.
Ransom and Hostage-Taking
Hostage-taking has become a particularly effective tactic. Terrorists crave an audience. With the spread of terrorism in the late twentieth century, audiences became inured to violence. Suicide bombings which might once have garnered headlines and commentary for a week now pass with bare mention. For a bombing or slaughter to win significant public attention, it must target children (the Palestine Liberation Organization's slaughter of school children in Ma'alot in 1974 or Chechen Jihadists' seizure of a Beslan school thirty years later); shock (Black September's 1972 massacre of the Israeli Olympic team or the 2006 bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra); or result in several thousand casualties, such as occurred on September 11, 2001. Planning and execution of such attacks is difficult and costly. As audiences become increasingly inured to violence, the ability to shock and achieve aims through terror becomes harder. Each incident must surpass the last or it will simply fade into background static. While the Western media once covered every car bombing in Iraq, explosions which claim several dozen lives now seldom get more than a brief mention on television or a couple lines of newspaper print.
Kidnapping allows terrorists to bypass this dynamic. Hostage-taking extends media attention and allows reporters to humanize the victim. For journalists, an assassination or bombing is anti-climatic; the press only begins its coverage after the operation has ended. But uncertainty about whether a hostage remains alive creates the suspense necessary for a good story. Terrorists have repeatedly used videos of hostages pleading for their lives in order to seize headlines. The plight of freelance journalist Jill Carroll captivated audiences as each video is released and deadline passed.
While negotiating may successfully address the short-term objective of freeing the hostage, without exception, it causes terrorism to proliferate. Dialogue is dangerous. The very act of negotiating, whether directly or through intermediaries, legitimizes the perpetrators and the act. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure in Iran, many former hostages reflected upon their ordeal. According to David Roeder, one of the captives, "If we had done something other than just walked away [from Iran at the conclusion of the ordeal], I keep thinking maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't have planted the seed that terrorism is a profitable thing." Terrorism has been very profitable. Kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon increased in the 1980s after the U.S. and Iran entered into secret talks to win their release.
Governments have made matters worse by engaging hostage-takers and, in some cases, even paying ransom. The Philippines had previous experience with high profile hostage seizure. In March 2000, for example, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi paid an estimated $25 million ransom to win the release of priests, teachers, and children seized from a school on Basilan Island. While the ransom may have solved a short-term problem, it compounded the long-term terrorist threat. Within months of receiving the ransom, Abu Sayyaf expanded from a couple hundred to more than a thousand members. The group used the influx of cash to upgrade their equipment. The ransom paid for speedboats and weapons used in subsequent kidnappings.
The pattern is international. In April 2003, Ammari Saifi, the "Bin Laden of the Desert," seized 32 European vacationers in the Algerian desert, holding them captive for 177 days. He released them only after the German government paid a five million euro ransom. Rather than settle for peace, Saifi used the money to buy new vehicles and better weapons. He remains at large and a threat to stability across the Sahel.
In Iraq, hostage negotiation has sparked a kidnapping industry. The French and Italian government's decision to ransom its hostages has encouraged further hostage taking. In August 2004, the Iraqi Islamic Army seized two French journalists. Contradicting official denials, a high official in the Direction Gיnיrale de la Sיcuritי Extיrieure, France's secret service, confirmed that ransom had been paid. Serge July, editor of left-leaning Liberation questioned whether the cost of Chirac's political gestures was too high. The Italian government did little better. While the Italian government denied the payment of any ransom for kidnapped Italian journalists Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, Gustavo Selvo, the head of an Italian parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said that there had been a payment of $1 million. He told France's RTL radio, "The lives of the girls was the most important thing. In principle, we shouldn't give in to blackmail, but this time we had to." The terrorists rightly calculated that European leaders were weak. They were right.
How then should Western governments respond to the seizure of hostages? With firmness calculated to defend the long-term safety of both their own citizens and Iraqis. Terrorists do not employ ineffective tactics. The key to defeating the scourge of kidnapping is to make it unprofitable. Sometimes long-term victory trumps short-term tragedy.
The Importance of Ideology
The belief that engagement can moderate terrorists is naןve, for it ignores the importance of ideology. Too often, political correctness undercuts the war on terrorism. It has become fashionable to suggest that religion does not motivate terrorism. The statements of many terrorists--and the last will and testament of the 9-11 hijackers--undercuts such a belief. While foreign policy realists pride themselves on their practicality, they often adhere blindly to the belief that diplomacy and negotiation can resolve any conflict. They may be sincere, but their analysis is undercut by mirror imaging. When Islamist terrorists kidnapped and later beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, their goal was to humiliate, not negotiate. Sheer brutality is effective. The video of the beheading of U.S. traveler Nicholas Berg circulated around the world shocking the Iraqis and Westerners alike. There were no demands for his life.
Often terrorists are either unwilling to compromise upon ideology. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, declared, "There is no truce in Jihad against the enemies of Allah." In other instances, the price of accommodation is too high. In a video tape aired on January 23, 2005, al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared "We have declared a bitter war against democracy." To engage Zarqawi would be counterproductive. No government should be willing to sacrifice democracy for peace. Still, many in the West try, especially when the negotiating chit is not their own society. This too backfires. Engaging ideologues not only legitimizes extremism, but may actually encourage it. If the natural inclination of Western diplomats is to compromise with any demand, why not stake out even more extreme positions?
What does Hamas believe? Article 13 of its Charter makes clear:
[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad.
It should simply never be acceptable to open negotiations with any group whose goal is the destruction of a state or a people. Unfortunately, the willingness to engage Hamas politically--or, in the case of Jacques Chirac's government--financially has undercut the moral clarity of the fight against terrorism and encouraged more. Unfortunately, here Hamas is more the rule rather than the exception. European governments and self-described peace activists still continue to engage Hezbollah, even after the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, declared, "If they [the Jews] gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide." It does not make sense to excuse an organization that stands by such principles in the midst of a battle against terror and a fight for peace.
How then can governments counter terrorism? Ideologues ultimately must be marginalized to the point of impotence, isolated, or eliminated. If Western officials, diplomats, and self-described progressives engage with terrorists, they empower them. Rather than be treated as powerbrokers, Nasrallah and Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mishaal should be international pariahs. Likewise, engagement with Arafat increased rather than diminished Palestinian terrorism.
Terrorists, whether secular or religious, engage in terrorism for a simple reason: They find it a useful tactic. If the West is to defeat terror, it must raise the cost of terrorism beyond the endurance of terrorists. In this, diplomacy and compromise can be counterproductive. The second Palestinian intifada was sparked by Israel's willingness to engage in diplomacy and withdrawal from southern Lebanon. It was ended because of Jerusalem's willingness to engage in targeted assassination.
Such forceful measures work on a number of levels. In the short-term, they can disrupt planning for specific attacks. When the Israeli military assassinated Hamas official Umar Sa'adah in July 2001, he was planning a major attack at the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics. His death foiled the attack.
In the long-term, disrupting leadership weakens terrorist organizations. When terrorist leaders are eliminated, leadership struggles ensue. Rather than spark a cycle of violence, a desire for revenge can exhaust it. After Israel began targeting terrorist leaders, their deputies began rushing revenge attacks. Many of these were ill-prepared and accelerated the exposure and elimination of terror cells. The Israeli government raised the cost of engaging in terrorism beyond what Palestinian supporters could bare. Only with unilateral disengagement did the cost of engaging in terrorism again become worthwhile.
The same logic works on a state level. Libyan leader Mu‘ammar Qadhafi reduced terrorism--at least that directed against the West--after President Ronald Reagan launched an air strike against the North African state in response to a Libyan-sponosred Berlin disco bombing. The Syrian government ceased sheltering PKK leader Abdullah ײcalan after the Turkish military staged exercises along the Syrian border. Likewise, a 1999 Turkish air strike on the Iranian border city of Piranshahr convinced Tehran that using PKK fighters as leverage against the Turkish state might not be in Iran's national interest. President George W. Bush's willingness to oust the Taliban prevented attacks on the U.S. mainland not only by denying al-Qaeda a safe-haven, but also by giving pause to other potential terror sponsors.
Still, many governments are afraid to take action. They fear a cycle of violence. Terrorists do not need a reason to attack. The Clinton administration's failure to respond to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing did not prevent the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, nor did its inaction against al-Qaeda after the 2000 USS Cole bombing convince Bin Laden to call off the World Trade Center attack. Indeed, terrorists feed off of diplomatic hand-wringing and fear of a cycle of violence to amplify the cost effectiveness of their attacks.
It may be difficult for democracies to take effective counter terror measures, but it is necessary. Terrorists may exploit public opinion. As Israeli Major General Dan Halouts said, "Israel's democracy is particularly sensitive to the humanitarian aspects of the conflict, and is far more exposed to the media than the regimes of its opponents." The same holds true in the United States, Great Britain, or France. Political leadership should be about protecting national security, not just winning popularity in the weekly opinion poll. Ultimately, investing in short-term force can win long-term security and contain the terrorist scourge. Democratic nations must not forget, though, that they are up against an international community that accommodates terrorists and blames the victims--Western democracies and Israel--for terrorists' actions. If democracies do not defend their own legitimacy, no one will.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI. Suzanne Gershowitz is a foreign policy and defense studies researcher at AEI.
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20. Le Monde, Dec. 22, 2004. This episode is discussed more thoroughly in Oliver Guitta. "The Chirac Doctrine." Middle East Quarterly. Autumn 2005.
21. Agence France-Presse, Jan. 25, 2005.
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23. See, for example: Robert Pape. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Bombing. New York: Random House, 2005. During a November 8, 2005 Washington Institute for Near East Policy debate, University of Tel Aviv historian Martin Kramer demonstrated that Pape had manipulated data and definitions to draw conclusions unwarranted by evidence.
24. William Helmreich. "No sense negotiating with terrorists." Newsday (New York). June 30, 2004.
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26. The Daily Star (Beirut). October 24, 2002.
27. Gal Luft. "The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killings." Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003.
29. Maj. Gen. Dan Haloutz, "21st Century Threats Facing Israel," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 3 No. 16, February 3, 2004.
This paper is published as a chapter in The Evolving Threat: International Terrorism in the post 9-11 Era (Rome: Globe Research, 2006), Nicola Pedde, ed.