Lessons of past in stopping terrorism

International cooperation and effective propaganda are crucial.


With the reality setting in of just how long the war on terrorism may last, Americans can take heart from the fact that terrorism has been battled - and even beaten - before.

Certainly, history's record on fighting terrorism is mixed, and many conflicts continue. But consider these high-profile instances:

• Abu Nidal - the most-feared terrorist of the 1980s - was debilitated by a one-two punch of international cooperation and tough pressure on his nation-state sponsors.

• A string of Marxist-Leninist terror groups operating from Latin America to Asia have largely collapsed under government force, as well as the weight of their own ambition.

• Britain's iron-fisted response - coupled with negotiations - has nudged the seemingly intractable Northern Ireland conflict closer to resolution. Last week's decision by the Irish Republican Army to disarm has pumped fresh hope into the peace process.

Clearly, America's war on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is unlike any previous battles against terror. The "new terrorism," as specialist Mark Juergensmeyer calls it, is more likely to be carried out in the name of God - and with more far-reaching goals than traditional tangible aims such as independence or economic justice.

Yet there are also similarities to past battles - and signposts that give guidance for this new war. "A lot of this isn't new," says Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

One important lesson, which the US is well aware of: Winning the public-relations war is crucial. Terrorists try to whip up support among disaffected populations. Dissipating that support - through humanitarian actions, propaganda, even policy changes - is crucial to victory.

Another important element is international cooperation - and indeed, the US is already benefiting from cooperation with Britain, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, and some of the 60 countries where Al Qaeda terror cells are believed to be operating.

In the 1980s, for instance, the Abu Nidal Organization was wreaking havoc in Europe and the Middle East. It was responsible for 900 deaths or injuries in 20 countries, including machine-gun killings at the Rome and Athens airports in 1985. The US State Department called it "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence."

Then, because of a coordinated international pressure campaign - as well as brass-knuckles tactics used by some intelligence services against the group's members - Abu Nidal was kicked out of several countries, including Syria and Libya.

"We turned him into a vagabond," says L. Paul Bremer, head of Marsh Crisis Consulting in New York and the former ambassador who chaired the National Commission on International Terrorism last year. The strain on the organization led to infighting, which thwarted its ability to carry out attacks. Abu Nidal himself is now inactive and reportedly living in Iraq.

Working in concert

Indeed, history suggests one of the best ways to combat terrorist groups is to "so disrupt their operations that they're unable to function," says Mr. Bremer. And in an era of global money flow and quick travel, such disruption requires many nations to work in concert. Strong-arming nations that support terror is a key element of this cooperation. Libya, for instance, turned over Abu Nidal - and two men suspected in the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland - partly to help shed its image as a pariah state.

History has shown, furthermore, that a brass-knuckles approach using military or other kinds of force isn't enough to break up sophisticated international terror groups. It's a particularly relevant point as the US continues to bomb Afghanistan, trying to destroy Al Qaeda's assets.

Certainly force, from military to judicial, has wiped out small, country-specific terrorist groups in the past - in Sri Lanka, India, Japan, and Peru, to name a few. But experts say that more crucial than the physical attack on Al Qaeda will be understanding how the organization works. That means getting information from inside.

"I don't think we can develop a coherent strategy for breaking them down until we know a lot more about the inner workings of the groups," says Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

US authorities are collecting a trove of information, for instance, from Ahmed Ressam, the so-called "millennium bomber" who was arrested in Washington State in December 1999 as he tried to enter the US with explosives that he planned to detonate at the Los Angeles airport. Mr. Ressam says he trained in Mr. bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and helped other Algerian Islamic extremists get false identities in Canada to carry out terrorist acts in the US.

But his low-level information won't be enough. "We need a much deeper understanding of group dynamics," Ms. Crenshaw says. "We have to understand why they're loyal and what motivates them."

Meanwhile, the US must realize that, as hurt as it was by the Sept. 11 attacks, the terrorists' message was not necessarily intended for Americans. "The attacks of Sept. 11 were a punch in America's nose, but they were meant for Al Jazeera [the Arabic all-news network], not CNN," says Dr. Juergensmeyer, director of global and international studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "The intended audience was the Muslim world."

He says the US and its allies must do much more to cultivate American ideals like democracy, equality, and economic opportunity. "We shouldn't act like the satanic power bin Laden says we are," says Juergensmeyer.

Still, the US has done some things right, he says, citing President Bush's visit to a mosque, relief aid to the Afghan people, and administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appearing on Al Jazeera.

Others say the US must better publicize what it already does for Muslims and Arabs, such as going to war in Bosnia and Kosovo to protect Islamic populations. "We have to show them that bin Laden is not the answer to their frustrations - and work with them on what is," says a State Department official.

To do that, the US cannot rely fully on its own voice but must recruit local, respected voices. "You need moderate Muslims and respected clerics to speak up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan," says Crenshaw. Yet even without the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, such work can be tricky for the US.

A doomed rally?

Some observers, meanwhile, say that any attempt by bin Laden to rally the Muslim masses in a long-term struggle against the West is doomed. "It's absurd to think that one person can represent all Muslims worldwide," says Neal Pollard, founding director of the Terrorism Research Center in McLean, Va. "The pope has a hard enough time representing all the Catholics."

In fact, he says, history hints that big, broad terrorist movements can buckle under the weight of their own ambition - which paved the way for governments to wipe them out.

"The bolder your claim - and the wider your constituency," says Mr. Pollard, "the more destined you are to fail." He points to the loosely affiliated Marxist-Leninist groups that operated during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, including the Japanese Red Army, Germany's Red Army Faction, and Peru's Shining Path. "They never came close to sparking a communist revolution anywhere," he says.

By contrast, groups with specific goals and smaller constituencies tend to have more success, Pollard notes. The PLO for instance, has partially achieved its goal of a Palestinian state - although its successes have come through a combination of political negotiation and violence. Some observers also see the IRA as having achieved some aims through violence.

Yet the US can also take cues from how the British have handled IRA terrorism, Juergensmeyer says - especially as it contrasts with how the current Israeli government has responded to Palestinian terror.

"The British went to pains not to always respond in kind," he says. "They treated former terrorists as human beings who could be negotiated with."

In Washington last week, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said negotiation is "infinitely better" than military action. But he also said that while the goal of negotiation is to get "the other side to change its approach," getting to that point required "a firm police and military response."

In contrast, Juergensmeyer says Israel has responded to terrorist acts with such "dehumanizing" measures affecting all Palestinians that ending terrorism there only seems further off.

While it may be unrealistic to think Al Qaeda will back down, experts say part of ending its acts is separating Al Qaeda from any more moderate support bases it has come to rely on.

The US is already trying to split off the Taliban's more moderate elements. Putting out feelers for any disgruntled factions of the Taliban, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that a future Afghan regime might include moderates from the Taliban.

Experts also point to Spain's approach to Basque separatists. The Spanish have culled out more moderate forces as elements the government could work with on sensitive issues such as autonomy, governance, and culture.

All in all, many observers are not pessimistic - just realistic - about ending Al Qaeda's terrorism. "It took the Italians years to deal with the Red Brigades, and that was a domestic problem," says Crenshaw. "Here we're talking about working with many and very diverse countries."

Seeing the terrorism of Sept. 11 in a historical context is also part of defeating it, experts say. Groups like the Red Brigades were destroyed not only by force but also by the government responding to the issues that spawned the organizations - everything from economic inequality to political exclusion. The same can happen with "new" terrorists like Al Qaeda.

Before this kind of terrorism can be defeated, however, the world will have to understand better why frustrated groups - and not only in Islam - meld their religious fervor with violence to try to defeat the modern world.

For Juergensmeyer, part of the answer to ending this terrorism will be a "renewed appreciation" for the role of religion in that globalized world.

"It's important we see that this is not the clash of civilizations," he says. "This is a moment in the transition to a globalized world."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.