September 11, 2006 | Family Security Matters

Terrorism Happens Because It Works – and We Let It

Since the 1970s, Islamist terrorists have been attacking Western interests. It took almost thirty years before many realized it. FSM Contributing Editor Peter Pham examines major attacks since 1973, and argues that they continue in part because Western policy doesn't have the strength to stop them.

Since Mohammed Atta and his four Saudi companions flew the first of what was ultimately four hijacked aircraft, American Airlines Flight 11, into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, we have endlessly asked ourselves, “Why do they hate us so?” While the question is not an unworthy one and certainly merits thoughtful consideration, it is nonetheless not necessarily the most relevant one from the strategic point of view of having to fight a truly global war on terror. Human beings and human nature being what they are, it is inevitable that any nation, much less the world's sole superpower, and any civilization, much less the one that has achieved unparalleled material prosperity, will have those who hate it. The truly pertinent question, then, is why do these detractors choose terrorism as their tactic to lash out?
 
The fact is that while the motivations of the individual terrorist may vary considerably and, in the case of the suicide terrorist, may perhaps even be deemed inscrutable, the strategic logic of the terror masterminds without whom there would be transnational terrorist threat is quite simple. They do it because it works.
 
The real answer to “Why 9/11?” is 3/2, 11/4, 4/18, 10/23, 8/7, 10/12…and so on.
 
March 2, 1973: U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo A. Noel, Jr., his departing deputy, George Curtis Moore, the Belgian chargé d'affaires, Guy Eid, and two others are murdered by Palestinian terrorists from Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization—intelligence intercepts even record Arafat speaking with the ringleader of the killers shortly before the murders. Consequences? None to speak of: barely one year after ordering the hit Arafat is addressing the United Nations General Assembly; two decades after that, he's the foreign “leader” who holds the title for being the most frequent visitor to the Clinton White House.
 
November 4, 1979: Iranian militants, acting with the approbation of the self-proclaimed “Imam” Khomeini, seize the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, holding 66 diplomats and other American citizens hostage, some for as long as 444 days. Consequences? Again, none to speak of: in fact, several former hostages—including William Daugherty, Kevin Hermening, Colonel Charles Scott, and Captain Donald Sharer—have identified Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as one of the terrorists responsible for their captivity and torture.
 
April 18, 1983: In the first suicide bombing in the Middle East, a van carrying 400 pounds of explosives slams into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. The attack was carried out by Iran's new proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Consequences? None.
 
October 23, 1983: Hezbollah sends a truck bomb to the barracks of U.S. Marines who are in Lebanon to serve as part of an international peacekeeping mission, killing 241 American servicemen as well as the building's elderly Lebanese custodian. Consequences? President Ronald Reagan calls the attack “a despicable act,” but Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger aborted a retaliatory air strike on Iranian-run Hezbollah training camps in the Beqaa Valley for fear of harming relations with “friendly” Arab states. Instead, the U.S. and its partners withdraw.
 
August 7, 1998: Al-Qaeda car bombs demolish the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing 257 people, including a dozen Americans, and wounding more than 4,000. Consequences? A few prosecutions and a few cruise missiles fired at a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (which turns out not to be linked to Osama bin Laden) and some tents in Afghanistan. A retaliatory strike on bin Laden, planned for February 11, 1999, is cancelled because it is discovered that some royals from the United Arab Emirates will be hunting with the terrorist that day.
 
October 12, 2000: Al-Qaeda suicide bombers attack the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. Consequences? President Bill Clinton promises to “find out who was responsible and hold them accountable,” but leaves office three months later with the pledge unfulfilled.
 
And while we finally did respond after the 9/11 attacks, there are disturbing indications that, in many quarters, our resolve is again faltering and being substituted by mealy-mouthed mumblings about understanding “root causes” and the need for “dialogue.” If Iraq, for example, goes over the precipice into full-fledge civil war, it will be in large measure to the failure of squash the upstart Muqtada al-Sadr when we had the chance. If Lebanon goes up in flames again, it will be because the international community was more concerned with making nice with the likes of Hassan Nasrallah, who has not even been required to release the two Israeli soldiers he kidnapped. And if, heaven forbid, terrorists ever get hold of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction, it will be because we let Pakistan off the hook despite the A.Q. Khan nuclear bazaar and because the international community will not back its own demands with meaningful action with regard to Iran's nuclear program (to say nothing of its sponsorship of the Hezbollah death cult.)
 
In the end, what we need to remind ourselves is that despite the apparent irrationality of terrorist violence, terrorism as a strategic tool is not incomprehensible, even if the motivations of the individual terrorist are difficult to fathom. For example, no suicide bomber—the most “incomprehensible” kind of terrorist—has ever been known to have acted alone. Whatever his or her background and circumstances, he or she was recruited, indoctrinated, and eventually sent out by some person or organization with a political agenda. Even if one is inclined to accept the myth that the suicide terrorist is driven by despair to lash out and is indeed unstoppable, it does not follow that this holds true for those who direct him or her.
 
These architects of terror have certain strategic aims and they choose their means on the basis of their perceptions of our reaction. The only influence we have over that deadly calculus is to ensure that the killers know that the cost of their operations will redound on their own heads—and on the countries and peoples that shelter them or consort with them—in the form of unsustainable losses and irreparable damages. This, after all, is the strategic logic of warfare in any war: to hasten the end of the conflict by destroying the enemy's will or ability to carry out hostile actions.
 
And it is the least we owe to the memory of three thousand of our fellow citizens.
 
J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.

Issues:

Al Qaeda