Seeing Osama Plain

Washington’s focus on al-Qaida misses the larger Islamist picture.

Yesterday the Arab satellite networks Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera broadcast a message believed to have come from Osama Bin Laden. In explaining that the March 11 Madrid attack was the “commodity” that Spain had coming to it, and in referring to “the leading media companies” and “the White House gang,” he sounded like Noam Chomsky. In offering a truce to “Europe,” which was rejected out of hand, Bin Laden was impersonating a head of state.

It is probably a good thing Bin Laden did not approach the Bush administration with a truce offer, since, as critics of the White House’s foreign policy have pointed out, the Bush team is predisposed to see threats to national security largely in terms of state actors. If the White House weren’t so consumed with rogue states, so the argument goes, they might have paid more attention to Richard Clarke, who knew all along that we should be worrying about al-Qaida. Still, at this point it’s doubtful that even the administration’s most intransigent Sovietologists would’ve tried detente with Bin Laden.

We should be very glad Bin Laden didn’t approach Richard Clarke with the offer. After all, Clarke has suggested that the Islamist threat comes from an enormous centralized body with one man at the top of a strict organizational hierarchy that carefully manages a vast network of agents—including sleeper cells!—across the world. In other words, Clarke’s portrait of Islamic terrorism very much resembles the old KGB.

Islamist groups are neither states nor their foreign intelligence apparatus. But do they observe truces?

The very large and violent Al-Gama’a al-Islameya says they called a truce in 1997 to end their war against Egyptian society. The problem is, since Egypt is an authoritarian state, and it is not in the regime’s interests to tell the truth, the government won’t confirm whether there really is a truce or if they just made Gama’a cry uncle. If it were the former, President Hosni Mubarak is not going to compromise his prestige by thanking Gama’a for calling off its armed insurgency. If, on the other hand, Gama’a stopped the violence only because the regime had decimated the group, then the government isn’t going to admit that publicly either. Murder and torture may sometimes be acceptable to the international community, as in the case of Sheik Yassin, but it is never acceptable for a state to boast about murder and torture. Also, the last thing any Arab regime wants to do is brag so loudly it wakes a sleeping Islamist dog.

In the 1980s, France let its Islamists in the house and gave them a place to play. As Jeremy Shapiro explains in a Brookings Institution paper that is essential reading for anyone interested in how to combat Islamist terrorism, the French tried a number of different tactics. First was the “sanctuary doctrine,” which gave terrorists room to operate so long as they did not attack French citizens or interests. As that proved unworkable, the French next moved to accommodation, which also earned France the terrorists’ contempt. By the mid-’90s, came prevention, where the French were able to foil major plots, including one on the U.S. Embassy in Paris and another at the 1998 World Cup.

How did they do something the United States was incapable of doing on Sept. 11? Their experience with different groups—Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Algerian—showed the French that the problem wasn’t just about one man or one organization. By the ‘90s, it was clear that terrorism was one manifestation of a broadly ideological and radical movement committed to waging jihad against infidel Muslim regimes and the West. France, as a former colonial power with its hands bloodied in North Africa and the Levant, came to see how it was perceived in the eyes of the Islamists. It’s not about what we do, as President Bush has said, but neither is it about what we are; it’s all about what they believe. The French had to get their picture of the problem in accordance with reality so they could determine and then target threats.

Even if France’s reputation may have suffered of late, it is the last country in the West that would’ve taken Bin Laden seriously. Experience has shown it that one man is not the problem. Moreover, terrorism isn’t going to end, regardless of what Bin Laden decides. There are too many groups, too many weapons and potential weapons, and one all-consuming ideological motive. “Terrorism comes and goes,” Shapiro told me. “It’s an intermittent problem that needs to be managed.” One answer, Shapiro says, is to build “robust institutions that are sufficiently rooted in normal judiciary procedures to exist throughout the duration of a long struggle.”

The Bush administration, however, has got its “war footing” on. With the specter of secret military tribunals in the offing, the Bush administration has de-emphasized normal judicial proceedings and followed the model of authoritarian states like Egypt and Algeria. “Secret military tribunals won’t be around in 20 years,” says Shapiro, “but terrorism will.” Fighting terrorism demands a broad base of legitimacy that will last as long as terrorism does.

Furthermore, regular court proceedings provide the sort of public documentation we need in order to better understand how the groups operate and what jihadists believe. Scholars, journalists, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors should all be working from the same public record in order to bring their specialized expertise to bear. Right now, we know little about the problem but an awful lot about our government’s incompetence.

In July 2002, long after 9/11, an Egyptian national walked into Los Angeles International Airport with a gun and killed two Israeli citizens at the El Al counter. On his application for asylum in the United States, Hesham Mohamed Hedayet had written that in Egypt he’d confessed to being a member of al-Gama’a al-Islameya, but apparently, unless a man has Osama Bin Laden’s phone number in his PalmPilot or a big “AQ” tattooed across his chest, it takes the FBI almost a year to decide he is, in fact, a terrorist. And how did they finally determine this? “The investigation,” said an FBI spokesman in April 2003, “developed information that [Hedayet] openly supported the killings of civilians in order to advance the Palestinian cause.” This is incompetence and there is nothing to indicate our law enforcement agencies are getting better.

When CIA Director George Tenet says it will take five years to build a clandestine service able to serve the country, his over-optimism suggests that either he is lying or too incompetent to know that he is lying. When he says it will take that long for U.S. agents to take root, as the Washington Post reports, “in the rough societies where terrorist sources can be developed,” he is telling us he thinks that the main point is to get our boys in those darned caves and mud castles. The Islamist student union at Cairo University is not a rough society, and it does not take five years to get admitted into the school’s engineering faculty. When Tenet says that al-Qaida’s influence is only recently spreading, he is telling us that no one in his office has briefed him on Sayyid Qutb’s writings, the bible for a very widespread and potent ideological trend that declared war on Jews, Crusaders, and infidel Muslim rulers long before Osama Bin Laden first sprouted whiskers.

In fact, our leaders are telling us they know neither the big picture nor the details. They’re fixated on the global reach of al-Qaida, but in all likelihood al-Qaida is nowhere near as large as described. Extremist Islamist groups cannot maintain group coherence past a certain point—factions develop, especially when the group’s leadership is not concentrated in one place, and power struggles ensue. This happened with Algeria’s GIA—which splintered off into the Islamic Group for Preaching and Combat, which has also reportedly been divided against itself of late—and Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islameya, where the leadership, part of it domestic and some of it abroad, fought constantly over tactics and for power. Extremist groups attract extreme members; that there are apparently no factions in Bin Laden’s group may attest to his winning personality, but it more likely means the group is considerably smaller than described and hence easier for Bin Laden to control.

What does it mean that al-Qaida’s not as big as we thought, with cells all over the world and members waiting to spring into action at any time? It means that al-Qaida has a rather limited operational capacity. It may lend financial or logistical support when it can—and to the extent all Islamist projects entail blowing up Crusaders, Jews, or infidel Muslims who get in the way, al-Qaida almost always bestows its sincere and holy blessings. But the group is not behind everything that blows up in the world. The problem is not al-Qaida itself so much as it is an ideology its members subscribe to and very powerfully represent.

Our country’s former point man on terrorism has publicized the fact that he does not know this. Richard Clarke served two presidents and his country honorably by trying to describe a problem that was unfamiliar to American officials and the American people. However, his description is no longer useful. Richard Clarke can best serve his country at present by ceasing to talk of al-Qaida. He is obscuring the fact that Osama Bin Laden is not the threat, but merely one in a very formidable portfolio.

It is very bad and very dangerous that our leaders are not talking about the real problem, and we know they are not because for the last three weeks the people who are supposed to concern themselves with the safety and welfare of the United States have instead concerned themselves largely with the question: Who knew what al-Qaida was, and under which administration did they know it?

Mistakes were certainly made, and some people should be made accountable, but it’s time to move on, and quickly. To help them make the transition, let our leaders ponder the fact that the world’s most famous Islamist group is apparently the world’s only Islamist group that in its name makes no reference to Jihad, Islam, Muslim, Salafism, Allah, or any figure or monument from Muslim history and political struggle. It just means “The Base.” Best to think of the word not as describing an all-powerful terrorist way station, but as an ideology that serves as the lowest common denominator for the hopes and wishes of a lot of bad guys.