A lesson in defeating a terrorist
Destruction of Abu Nidal network in '80s offers a precedent for delegitimizing leaders.
WASHINGTON — It's been done successfully before - at least once, according to former intelligence officers. A terror group that had launched attacks in some 20 countries and killed nearly 1,000 people was destroyed.
By the late 1980s, CIA operatives had identified the top echelon of the Abu Nidal Organization. The spies had also discovered the terrorists' banking patterns. So they devised a novel, if nefarious, scheme.
Along with some cooperative foreign counterparts, the agents began moving money - electronically - from some of the top members' accounts into others, which made it look as though members were skimming from their leader.
The result: Abu Nidal himself had some 150 to 200 of his 500-member group killed. That created such chaos that the group eventually destroyed itself.
As the US formulates a comprehensive strategy to ending Al Qaeda's reign of terror, lessons learned from past experiences with terror groups can be helpful.
The Abu Nidal case shows how the breakthroughs against terrorism sometimes hinge on methods much more subtle than the CIA's dramatic recent assassination of Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen using a drone-fired missile.
To be sure, clandestine activities can create problems. And the Al Qaeda network is an organization very different from Abu Nidal's - it is a loosely affiliated network of several terror groups spread worldwide with a shared goal of attacking US interests.
Yet both government intelligence sources and outside experts say the US stands to benefit from employing the most creative strategies possible. Such steps include military might - like the help of US Special Forces in the Yemen operation. But they also include a variety of other activities aimed at tearing the group apart from within and dissuading new recruits from joining.
"America cannot defeat Al Qaeda with a pure military and intelligence effort," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terror at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "You must do other things to cut off support for Al Qaeda - develop a project to counter the Al Qaeda ideology."
A key goal is to eliminate or delegitimize the leadership of Al Qaeda. "As long as the leadership is alive, they can give strategic and tactical direction to the organization," Dr. Gunaratna says.
The US has made gains. "We've disrupted their communications, sanctuary, fundraising, and ability to fund their attacks," says FBI head Robert Mueller. "But disrupt doesn't mean eliminate.... They have the ability to attack us."
Bruce Hoffman, a specialist on terrorism at the RAND Corp., agrees that a more comprehensive approach is needed. "We shouldn't be so blinded by retaliation that we don't pursue other creative possibilities - look at options that get at the moral and cohesive disintegration of the group, provide people with an alternative to violence."
Mr. Hoffman recently presented a paper on countering Al Qaeda to the Congressional Joint Inquiry looking into intelligence lapses. It included lessons learned from a survey the RAND Corp. conducted in five countries with experience in fighting terrorism. Among the key points:
• Mid-level leaders are often more important to a group's survival than the top leaders. Israel, for example, has often targeted the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, and Hizbullah, the Iran- and Syrian-backed anti-Israeli group in Lebanon. Israel has either killed or deported the top leaders of both groups. But the attacks against Israel have continued, because mid-level leaders have stepped into the gap.
• It's necessary to not only arrest or kill top leaders, but also to delegitimize them. Hoffman points to Peru's arrest of Sendero Luminoso leader Abimael Guzman and Turkey's arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish militant group, PKK. In both cases, governments turned these charismatic leaders into abject failures, "pathetic leaders" in the eyes of their followers.
• It's vital to disrupt support networks. Hoffman says attention is often focused on the front organizations and individuals who contribute money to terror groups. It is often more important to focus on the middlemen - those who purchase diamonds from terrorists on the black market or sell them weapons. Colombia, for example, has focused intelligence and investigative resources on the financiers and arms-trafficking middlemen that supply the FARC. The Marxist group is still in business, but the move is beginning to have an impact on its capabilities.
IN addition to such steps, though, Hoffman and other experts say the US must counter bin Laden's ability to tap religious fervor and grievance as an ideological force. They point to bin Laden's effective use of televised and taped messages and the Internet to appeal to a broad Muslim audience. Bin Laden, these experts say, has effectively cast himself as a David to the US Goliath - one man able to stand up to the lone superpower, which they say represses Muslims.
To counter that, some experts call for a more robust effort on the part of the US to educate and explain its position abroad. The US State Department has begun a sort of hearts and minds campaign to explain its stance toward Islam in some countries, such as Indonesia. But critics want to see something with more teeth, such as the former United States Information Agency programs.
During the cold war, the USIA maintained informational centers in countries such as Pakistan. A combination of the cold war's end and violent attacks on these centers led the US to close them.
"We have to look at US foreign policy on a variety of levels," says Madeleine Albright, former secretary of State. "We need to figure out what are the circumstances that cause unhappy people to strap bombs to themselves."