ZURICH, SWITZERLAND — The terrorism blame game being played by America's leaders in recent weeks goes beyond political sport. It is polarizing the country in the worst possible way in front of enemies, who revel in our divisiveness. They know better than we that neither side of the political spectrum has gotten it right in combating their extremist march against civilization.
While the Clinton administration ignored Osama bin Laden's brand of Islamist terrorism as a national security threat until it was all too evident, the Bush administration has installed policies that are breeding baby bin Ladens at a rate faster than civilization can contain. The former walked on legal eggshells. The latter – through Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and domestic wiretapping – has spilled yolks on America's reputation.
Meanwhile, extremists are skillfully adapting to our dysfunctional antiterror strategies. They are smarter than we are, capable of outmaneuvering us, and unflappable in pursuit of their hideous cause. The threat they pose requires us to stop pointing fingers – and to develop a new blueprint for fighting terror.
I make these observations as one who sparked an important phase of this national debate. Five years ago, based on my personal experiences, I questioned whether President Clinton's national security team had done enough to cut off radical Islam's growing tentacles during his two terms in office. Had I known that my efforts to raise the issue for debate so future policy planners could learn from past mistakes would become so politicized and divisive, I would not have willingly taken that step.
In 1997, as a private American citizen, I negotiated Sudan's offer to share intelligence on radical Islamists, including bin Laden, with the Clinton administration. The offer was first accepted by the State Department and then rejected by some Clinton officials who distrusted Sudan and had regional priorities that did not mesh well with a Sudanese reconciliation.
Had this offer been accepted, the US could have unearthed important cells within the Al Qaeda franchise that were in part responsible for the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa. That deal would also have given the US data tying bin Laden to the attacks on US Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia in 1993 – key evidence needed to pursue bin Laden. I know, because I testified as much in front of the 9/11 commission in May 2004.
Unfortunately for Americans, heated debates about the past, a 9/11 commission report outlining what went wrong, and a change of administrations have not improved the bottom line. Bin Laden and his high-IQ sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still at large. And radicals across the globe are emboldened.
Course corrections are needed – and urgently.
•We need to create a Global Intelligence Center (GIC) with regional offices. The GIC would gather data from sources with unique language skills, cultural affiliations, and knowledge of remote regions. This intelligence, centrally stored and managed by an international team of impartial observers, must be available on demand to member states. Contributions would be voluntary until GIC is shown to be useful.
Given their desire to protect sources and methods, nations are reluctant to share intelligence broadly. But given the magnitude of the terrorist threat, that is no longer an acceptable excuse.
•We also need to bring moderate Muslims into top-level Western policy posts: foreign ministers, directors of intelligence, and senior military officers.
Appointing one or two token Muslims who will be ostracized in their own communities as Uncle Abdullahs is not sufficient. As many as can obtain clearance to do the job are needed.
Only when Muslim community members are given responsibilities to safeguard their nation's security will we know whether ac- cepting that responsibility can create a community firewall against the virus of radicalism.
Such moves will also give pause to Muslim leaders abroad who flay Western governments for not listening more to their own Muslim citizens. And it could spark a change in the attitudes of today's budding extremists – convincing them that their hopes and aspirations lie rooted in principled democracies.
Britain's police and intelligence experts are building relations within Muslim communities to root out extremist cells. Such cooperation led to the dismantling of a major terrorist plot there earlier this summer.
It's time to end the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" debate and begin the earnest work of developing an effective global counterterrorism policy.
• Mansoor Ijaz is a New York financier.