The Terror Trap

The four men, veterans of a grim business, had only grim words. Former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service entrusted with fighting terrorism, they gathered to tell Israel's largest newspaper that the Sharon government was failing completely in its war on terrorism.

The problem, said Ami Ayalon, who headed the elite, secretive agency in the late 1990s, is, "We have built a strategy of immediate prevention"—of stopping the next attack—while ignoring causes. His colleagues echoed that evaluation in a mid-November joint interview. "We must, once and for all, admit that there is an other side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering," said Avraham Shalom, who held the agency's top post in the early '80s.

Insisting that Israel needs to end the occupation, the four seized attention at home and abroad. Yet for all the headlines, their message deserves
a closer reading than it got, as it contains a lesson for the U.S. war on terrorism as well. In effect, they argued that fighting terrorism with military and intelligence efforts alone is likely to boomerang, creating the fury and despair that drive people to support suicide bombers.

Perhaps that should be obvious. But both Israeli and American policies, with their focus on military and intelligence responses, indicate it's not. I'd suggest that the problem begins with the way terrorism is usually described: as a behavior rather than as a political doctrine, an "ism." The U.S. Department of State definition is typical: It says terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups … usually intended to influence an audience." The Israeli army uses a similar definition. Those descriptions fail to explain just how terrorism is meant to influence an audience. They ignore strategy.

In fact, terrorism is rooted in an intellectual tradition that's at least 120 years old, according to University of California, Los Angeles political scientist David Rapoport, editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence. The strategy was first proposed by late-19th-century Russian anarchists in response to public apathy, after older revolutionary efforts, including pamphlets and meetings, had failed to awaken the masses. Terrorists, the new theory went, would seize public attention through their willingness to violate conventions and take risks. More important, they'd engage in political judo: By breaking accepted rules on the use of force, they'd provoke the government to break its own rules and polarize society. The apathetic masses would discover that moderation and fence-sitting were impossible. Terrorism, says Rapoport, was designed to "command the masses' attention, arouse latent political tensions and provoke government to respond indiscriminately, undermining in the process its own credibility and legitimacy."

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychoanalyst and social philosopher who joined the Algerian revolution, took the notion to new heights. His 1961 treatise on decolonialization, "The Wretched of the Earth," with its breathless preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, inspired a generation of Western leftists and Third World revolutionaries. Fanon anointed "absolute violence" as the only means of ending colonial rule. "If the last shall be first," he wrote, borrowing Jesus' words, it would require "murderous and decisive struggle." Violence "is a cleansing force." It forges the nation, which embodies truth. The dead are instruments of liberation, not shattered human beings.

Fanon makes killing a therapy for the oppressed. But he also gives unbridled violence a strategic purpose: It will eliminate the middle ground. Violence by the oppressed will call forth "mass slaughter" by the regime. And then, even "the most estranged members of the colonized race" will realize that the options of going on with life, seeking nonviolent change or mouthing Western values are no longer open to them. Responding to brutality with greater brutality, the regime recruits the apathetic to the side of the revolutionaries.

Fanon provided the inspiration for the Palestinian terrorist groups, especially Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization. Israeli researcher Ely Karmon notes that "the third Fatah leaflet, entitled 'Revolution and Violence, the Path to Victory' … was little more than a collection of quotations from … 'The Wretched of the Earth.'" To Fatah in the mid-1960s, Arab leaders were the fence-sitters. Attacks on Israel were intended to invite reprisals, which would pull indecisive Arab countries into
a war to destroy the Jewish state. Working with Syria, Fatah succeeded in igniting the Six Day War in 1967—with rather different results than it expected. But the defeat of Arab armies only gave terrorists greater status as the vanguard against Israel, and Fatah became the tutor in terrorism for other groups in the '70s.

The secular Fanon also helped kindle the Islamic revolution in Iran. As French scholar Gilles Kepel writes in his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Fanon was translated into Persian by Ali Shariati, one of the intellectual fathers of the Iranian revolution. In the process, Shariati translated Fanon into Islam, using religious terms for words such as "oppressed." In doing so, he helped replace traditional Shiite quietism with struggle against the shah and served as a key, though unacknowledged, influence on the Ayatollah Khomeini.

But the terrorist philosophy also entered Islamic thinking in less explicit ways. Arab recruits to Islamic movements of the 1980s came from a milieu saturated with adulation of armed struggle.

Rejecting secular movements as failures, they were also shaped by them. Some experts on Islamic terrorism insist that Islamicists had no need of Western influence to choose terrorism, that they were simply returning to a traditional concept of jihad. But that classical concept, Rapoport stresses, "is not an insurrectional strategy. The Islamic tradition is antagonistic toward internal violence." Yet a central target of jihad in the last generation has been "unbelieving" regimes within the Muslim world—in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. The strategy for insurrection, Rapoport argues, has been drawn from the West, where an intellectual tradition rooted in the French Revolution "recognizes the legitimacy of violence within the system." One part of this move has been importing the doctrine of terrorism and dressing it in tradition.

Osama bin Laden is a case in point. As Kepel points out, bin Laden's attack on America came when Islamic radicalism was at "a political impasse." Afghan-trained rebels had failed in Algeria, Egypt and Bosnia during the '90s. The attacks on America—like the efforts of leftist terrorists of the 1970s after the left had lost its appeal in the West—were a bid to revive mass support "through a cycle of provocation, repression and solidarity."

This doesn't mean that every terrorist follows the traditional strategy, or that the strategy necessarily works. But the essential conclusion remains: A campaign against terrorism that drives moderates to support terrorists isn't just a failure. It fulfills terrorist goals. A long-term strategy against terrorism should drive a wedge between terrorists and the public they'd like to recruit. It should show moderates that they can progress better without extremists than with them.

Initially, the Oslo process was a successful example. It offered Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip an end to Israeli occupation—and not an Islamic state in Israel's place. Pollster Khalil Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, documented the effect: In January 1994, soon after the Oslo Accords were signed, only 51 percent of Palestinians backed negotiations with Israel; by early 1996, after Israeli pullouts from West Bank cities, that had risen to
78 percent. Between late 1994 and early 1996, support for violence against Israeli civilians slid from nearly three-fifths of Palestinians to just one-fifth. The shift, says Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, gave Palestinian Authority security chiefs the mandate they needed to crack down on Hamas, and Israelis enjoyed relative calm.

But by 2000, Klein says, the pendulum had swung. Israeli settlements kept growing. Palestinian moderates put high hopes on then–Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and were frustrated by delays in achieving independence. When negotiations stalled, the intifada erupted with a wave of terrorism against Israeli civilians. Israeli responses, from roadblocks to invasions of Palestinian towns, are perceived as a war against the entire population. Palestinian support for violence and for Islamic groups has since climbed.

For Israel the implication is clear: Renewing dialogue with Palestinian moderates and moving toward a peace deal can't wait until the fight against terrorism ends. It's the only way to push terrorists back to the margins.

And the lessons for the United States? The first is to avoid a "clash
of civilizations," which is what bin Laden seeks to ignite. Shortly after September 11, Bush spoke of the war on terrorism as a "crusade"—which for Muslims means a Christian assault on Islam. His attack on Iraq underscored that point: While the Afghan invasion took away bin Laden's base, the Iraqi invasion convinced many moderates that the United States is at war with the Muslim world as such. The highly publicized affair of Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who declared Allah "an idol" and America a "Christian nation" at war with Satan, risks deepening that impression. So does Bush's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Military measures alone won't defeat Islamic terrorism. The United States should be looking for ways to address moderate Muslim aspirations. A quick turnover of power in Iraq could be a step forward, as would be real American pressure on pro–U.S. Muslim regimes to liberalize. And decisively pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace would help America while serving Israel's interests as well. The problem is that both Bush and Sharon appear much more comfortable using might alone. That's just what terrorists want them to do.

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