Misunderstanding Terrorism

Silly me! When President Bush told Matt Lauer on Monday that you can’t really "win" the vaunted war on terror in the way we have viewed winning traditional state-on-state wars, I thought that it might have been the opening gambit in a shift to more candor about the problems that confront the United States around the world.

Of course you can never eliminate terrorism, because terrorism is a tactic, not a concrete enemy. Terrorism is used by those too weak to prevail in a conventional military confrontation but who are fanatical enough about their cause and contemptuous enough of human life to pull off something so shocking as to cause a less ruthless foe to yield something of value or falter in resolve. As long as there are political conflicts and confrontations, there is likely to be terrorism.

You can undermine groups that practice terrorism in various ways and you can cut the ground from under them by eliminating some of their grievances. You might even be able to marginalize them so much that terrorist acts become routinely counterproductive. But eliminating terrorism from the world is most unlikely. Simple honesty would seem to require acknowledging this.

Not the Best Policy?

Simple honesty, however, is apparently seldom what practitioners of politics see as a winning strategy. So what I had momentarily hoped might be an opening for candor lasted maybe 12 to 18 hours. Soon Dubya was assuring Rush that winning was a sure thing, and Rush was assuring his listeners that resolve and will were enough.

Naturally, the Democrats, seeing an opening in a classic gaffe as Washington sees things – a departure from the scripted party line into an inadvertent utterance of truth – rushed in to say that they were in no doubt, and they would win this thing for sure, although they have yet to vouchsafe to we mere plebeians just how they plan to do it.

The political establishment breathed a sigh of relief that its false pieties – mainly the one that all that is necessary to claim something has actually been done is to announce a government plan or program to address it – were once again secure. I’m reminded of the old H.L. Mencken comment that the American people rather actively prefer lies to truth, and that anybody who bludgeons them too often with uncomfortable or even unconventional truths will be duly punished.

Complexities Abound in Russia

The point that Bush might have been making (had he been inclined to candor except in a rare off-message moment) is unfortunately being brought home by the seizure of a school in Beslan, in the Ossetia region of Russia, near a border with Chechnya. Ossetia is a traditional, mostly Russian Orthodox region, while Chechnya is predominantly Muslim. The war for independence – or whatever, different factions seem to want different things – has been extraordinarily bloody and tinged with terrorism or terrorist-like activities on all sides.

Beyond the obvious – that seizing a school and holding perhaps hundreds of innocent schoolchildren hostage and threatening to kill them if various demands are not met is an especially heinous act of terrorism deserving of the most forceful possible condemnation, and that releasing 26 women, children and babies on the second day when an estimated 350 people are still held hostage doesn’t reduce the viciousness – the school hostage situation illustrates just how complicated and difficult dealing with terrorists can be.

It might be comforting in the well-guarded confines of Madison Square Garden to think you can always just blow them away with overwhelming military force. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, no stranger to ordering overwhelming and even vicious force in certain circumstances, is facing a situation where it might come to that, but that might not be the best option, just the last choice available from a lot of bad options. Even Assaf Hefetz, identified as a former Israeli special forces colonel and national police chief, told Reuters, "I believe that even Israel would suspend its policy of not negotiating with terrorists were children taken hostage on [such] a massive scale."

Didn’t Start Yesterday

I had a long talk Wednesday with Brian M. Jenkins, who founded the RAND Corp.’s study project on terrorism in 1972 and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism. He reminded me that, sadly, this is not the first time children have been used as hostages by terrorists. It happened in the Netherlands in the 1970s, and more recently in Israel and Russia.

By way of background, various factions in Chechnya have sought independence from Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Since most Chechens are Muslim, the struggle has attracted the attention of, and in some cases pilgrimages from jihadists in other parts of the world. There is fairly good evidence that Chechens trained in Osama bin Laden’s training camps in the 1990s, and it is possible some Chechens are with bin Laden now, if he is actually in some cave near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Brian Jenkins doesn’t think the current hostage situation involves an al-Qaeda connection. But nobody really knows right now, and little would surprise him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin solidified his position and popularity by promising to put down the Chechen rebellion, which had flared up in 1999 after having apparently fizzled after a 1994-1996 episode, when he came to power by election in 2000 (after being appointed by Boris Yeltsin in 1999). For a while it looked as if he had succeeded, although often with brutal repression that was condemned by human rights groups. But the rebellion has not disappeared.

Chechen rebels took a Moscow theater in 2002, and the police/military raid that followed left 129 hostages dead, most of them from some kind of gas the police used whose identity has still not been clarified. Just last week, two Russian airplanes went down in circumstances many linked to Chechen terrorism, and the day before the school seizure a suicide bomber at a Moscow subway station killed at least nine people.

How does all this play out?

Risks and Payoffs

Mr. Jenkins will not discuss the specifics of a hostage situation while it is under way, but he offered some general background thoughts. He said using children as hostages is risky, even for vicious terrorists, in that it could discredit their cause even in the eyes of potential sympathizers. But there are possible payoffs.

The government might find it difficult to take a tough stance or mount a rescue operation when children are involved. The terrorists might also hope that public anger will turn on the government, or that the seizure might provoke so extreme a response that it causes revulsion against the Russian authorities – or aids them in recruiting future insurgents.

It is almost impossible yet to be sure just which faction of Chechen rebels mounted this outrage. There are Chechen rebels for whom independence is the main goal and religion is secondary. Others are motivated by religious zealotry or sympathy with the international jihadist movement, and some are simply local warlords seeking to take advantage of chaos.

If one of the first two groups is involved, the intention could be to send a message to Russians that even in the wake of an election in Chechnya, bloodshed will not stop, and it will extend into Russia. Or the school seizure could be an act of desperation by a faction that is unable to muster support for guerrilla actions and sees itself as losing ground.

For the government the situation is, if anything, even more ticklish. The military option seems like the worst, given the presence of children, some of whom would almost certainly be killed. But negotiating with terrorists could undermine the tough stance Putin has generally taken regarding the Chechen rebellion. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that an increasing number of Russians are getting sick of the Chechnya-related violence, are convinced the tough approach hasn’t worked, and are ready to let the stubborn Chechens go.

I don’t know if the Russian security forces know what kind of group – principally independence-minded or principally jihadist – pulled off this seizure. I don’t know whether they have any better idea than I do as to whether this move demonstrates continuing strength or desperation. Even if they do know these things that hardly gives them an infallible guide to how to handle the situation. But it just might be useful here to show a "soft side."

International Implications

Unfortunately, the action has international implications as well, beyond the fact that an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has been called.

President Bush called President Putin to offer help and assure him that the U.S. is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him against international terrorism. That is certainly understandable, but it could be interpreted by jihadists as "proof" that the United States supports repression against Muslims everywhere, and used as a tool to recruit more terrorists to fight against the United States.

In his very useful book, Imperial Hubris, the CIA analyst called "Anonymous" (all right, he has been identified in several news stories as Mike Scheuer, but I don’t know that firsthand) argues that it’s important to view bin Laden as an insurgent rather than a terrorist. The unqualified support the U.S. has generally given to Russia in its fight over Chechnya is a burr in the saddle to bin Laden and a potentially valuable recruiting tool for jihadists/insurgents among Muslims who might not yet be ready to view jihad with sympathy.

"Anonymous" insists that it is not a generalized hatred of freedom, democracy and our way of life that causes al-Qaeda and others to want to attack us, but specific policies that are viewed through some Muslim eyes as anti-Muslim. These include, in his words:

"U.S. support for Israel that keeps Palestinians in the Israelis’ thrall.

"U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula.

"U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"U.S. support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants.

"U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low.

"U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and tyrannical Muslim governments."

What follows from that is that even declaring shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with Putin might help al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in their recruiting. So what seems like a simple and humanitarian gesture could end up harming American interests in the long run.

Terrorism is not a simple phenomenon to confront and defeat. Like most terrorist actions, this vicious seizure in Russia confronts its targets with hard choices, none of which are attractive. It demonstrates just how difficult the struggle against terrorists of different stripes is likely to be. It will take more than will and rhetoric – especially if we are unwilling to consider changing policies (like attacking and occupying Muslim countries) that make it easier to recruit new people into a war on the United States.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).