The Magazine

G-Men East of Suez

A serious anti-terrorism policy would unleash the military, not deploy the Justice Department

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Imagine dirt streets and walled, stone walkways worn smooth by centuries of footsteps and weather. Imagine flat-roofed, mud-brick and cracked-cinder-block houses providing little comfort to an intensely tribalized, poverty-stricken people among whom communitarian spats and individual greed often translate into kidnapping, murder, and, on occasion, grenade-throwing and bombings.

Then imagine clean-shaven American suburbanites, moving in packs, decked out in khaki pants, top-siders, tennis shoes, and Ray-Ban sunglasses. Don't forget to hitch cell-phones to the Americans' belts and drape walkie-talkies around their necks. Don't forget the local guides and translators and, depending on the quarter and time, armed guards so the Americans don't get "lost" and can speak to the natives, who have rarely seen Amrikiyyun in such numbers.

This scene is probably pretty close to reality in Yemen, where hundreds of civilian and military investigators have descended since the USS Cole was attacked and nearly sunk by suicide boat-bombers in the port of Aden. The contrasting images ought to tell us that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is using a modus operandi in the Middle East that flouts common sense. More important, the FBI's methods reveal, again, the strategic vacuum at the heart of the Clinton administration's counterterrorist policies. Trying to arrest and prosecute terrorists -- treating terrorism as crime -- actually endangers American power overseas. Traditional realpolitik and gunboat diplomacy -- the only meaningful responses to terrorists who kill Americans -- gets cast aside in favor of far-off prosecutions that may well do more damage to America than terrorism.

One cannot but wonder whether FBI director Louis Freeh, who oversaw the investigation of the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, has forgotten the lessons learned when large numbers of FBI officials collided with a conservative Arab nation's security services. The Saudi Interior Ministry shut down the American side of the Khobar investigation. The Saudis would have probably blinded us in any case for political reasons, but the FBI's culturally insensitive and linguistically weak battalions (which even included female agents) rubbing shoulders with Saudi security men didn't help.

So far, the Yemenis appear to be cooperating. But we shouldn't conclude that Yemen, which has been fertile ground for a variety of radical Islamic groups and whose military and intellectual elites have had a long history of aligning themselves against American causes, wouldn't stifle or mislead us. Even if innocent, the Yemeni government could plant clues leading away from culpable Yemeni officials.

For example, the RDX plastic explosive used in the attack may possibly have come, one way or the other, from an official Yemeni source. Though not the exclusive domain of governments, plastic explosives in large quantities suggest that the terrorists' logistical supply chain somewhere had a knowing, official military source. Saddam Hussein, of course, or even Muammar Qaddafi, who bought a ton of Semtex from Communist Czechoslovakia and C-4 through rogue CIA middlemen, could have supplied RDX to the bombers, who were in all probability true-believing, radical Islamic types. Though tracing explosives is a very tricky affair, the Yemenis would be disinclined, to say the least, to allow us to assess their own supply of plastiques.

In other words, the U.S. investigation in Yemen is totally dependent upon the efforts and goodwill of the locals. The Yemenis will either round up all of the possible suspects and forcefully interrogate them, or they won't. They will either relay to the Americans what they have learned and solicit U.S. participation in the questioning of subjects and the analysis of collected information, or they won't.

It wouldn't be surprising, given the tribal, gossipy nature of Yemeni society and the toughness of the country's security service, if the Yemeni government were to crack this case in fairly short order. As the investigation progresses, it may be impossible for the United States to avoid annoying, if not infuriating, the Yemenis. Certainly, putting hundreds of American investigators, who know neither Arabic nor the country, on the ground is likely to cause problems while not advancing the quality of the U.S.-Yemeni investigation. Maintaining an effective relationship with the Yemeni security service and offering counsel and, if possible and appropriate, guidance to it isn't a labor-intensive endeavor. A handful of knowledgeable FBI and CIA officers ought to be able to handle the front-line work without suggesting an American invasion of a Muslim land.

But the bloat in the FBI's counterterrorist work isn't just a manifestation of the American bureaucratic ethic of overkill, which is really just the straightforward transfer of domestic FBI practices overseas. First and foremost, it springs from the Clinton administration's depoliticization of terrorism. Middle Eastern terrorism against the United States, particularly a kamikaze strike against a U.S. Navy vessel, is, from any angle, an act of war by unconventional means, as former secretary of the Navy John Lehman recently pointed out in the Washington Post. In the nineteenth century, when the Western world was graced with fewer lawyers, this would have been self-evident, not requiring a reminder from a historically minded former official.

The primary reason, of course, why the Clinton administration has made the Justice Department and the FBI the lead counterterrorist agencies is that doing so offers more foreign-policy wiggle room: We can blink in the face of a foreign threat and pretend we haven't.

As a case in point, let us look at Usama bin Laden, who, odds are, is with his buddies in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad lurking somewhere behind the bombing of the USS Cole. It's doubtful there are many souls left in the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency who really believe that bin Laden is just a "guest" of the Taliban. They may not fully appreciate how bin Laden has helped the Taliban define its own raison d'etre and foreign aspirations, but they unquestionably know that if the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, really wanted to shut down bin Laden's operations or hand him to the Americans, he could certainly do so.

Yet we meaningfully threaten neither the Taliban nor the Pakistanis, who provide the Taliban with essential military support. (U.S. sanctions against Afghanistan, a war-shattered country with a virtually non-existent per capita income whose denizens excel at smuggling and the opium trade, are an oxymoron and thus don't count.) Mollah Omar and the Taliban are, by any meaningful definition, state-sponsors of terrorism.

The Pakistanis, if not state-sponsors, are sympathetic cousins who use Afghanistan and its para-military-cumterrorist training camps for their own purposes in Kashmir. One would think -- given bin Laden's terrorist actions in Africa, the repeated worldwide embassy alerts that Washington ascribes to the Saudi militant and his allies, and the eminence bin Laden has in America's multi-billion-dollar counterterrorist programs -- that someone might seriously consider militarily retaliating against Mollah Omar and his close Afghan associates. We can find them, in Qandahar, Afghanistan -- unlike bin Laden and company.

But the criminalization of terrorism allows timidity and caution in foreign affairs -- always the bureaucratic default choice in American foreign policy -- to hold the foreground. The strategic aspect to counterterrorism -- incorporating America's fight against this or that terrorist into a larger regional game plan -- haphazardly happens, if at all.

Given the Taliban's support of bin Laden and the Pakistanis' avoidance of the issue, one might think we would consider giving a sliver of our annual counterterrorism budget to the anti-Taliban forces of Ahmad Shah Masoud in northern Afghanistan. Masoud, the most accomplished of the Mujahedeen commanders of the Soviet-Afghan war, drives the Taliban and the Pakistanis nuts since they've been unable to conquer his domain. As long as he survives, the Taliban grip on Afghanistan could be cracked. Financial aid to Masoud would send a crystal-clear signal to the Taliban and the Pakistanis that America was displeased with their toleration, indeed encouragement, of bin Laden and his virulently anti-Western Islamic radicalism.

The State Department and the National Security Council, of course, cannot conceive of doing anything more forceful than utter reproaches and reprimands, which inevitably preface new appeals to the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service with very close links to the Taliban, to do something about bin Laden. If bin Laden is discovered to be behind the attack on the USS Cole before January 2001, the Clinton administration, given the past, can be expected to fire more cruise missiles at tent and mud-brick Afghan training camps. CIA director George Tenet and his minions will complement the attack by leaking to the press that "we now have bin Laden in a box." Counterterrorism budgets in Washington will inevitably go up, further increasing the possible size of the next FBI-led team sent overseas to investigate a bombing.

Where the attack on the USS Cole may well lead us -- and this is easily the most terrifying scenario -- is to a courtroom in Holland. The continuing trial of Libyan intelligence officers for the bombing of Pan Am 103 is the logical end of the criminalization of terrorism. If the two Libyan officers are not convicted, which seems ever more likely, Muammar Qaddafi obviously wins. (The two gentlemen are, by the way, guilty as charged, even though proving that in a court of law may not be possible.) If the two Libyan officers are convicted, Qaddafi, who unquestionably authorized any actions by these Libyan intelligence officials, also wins since the U.S. government has already agreed to end the Pan Am 103 affair with this trial.

The only way we could ever make Qaddafi pay for blowing an American jetliner out of the air is through the use of military force. But the primary purpose of the criminalization of terrorism is precisely the avoidance of the use of force. Thus, the sponsors of terrorism, if they happen to be tough, rich, dictatorial rulers, have the happy prospect of eventually beating and embarrassing the United States in court. As our attention has been focused on violent events elsewhere in the Middle East, we haven't noticed that Qaddafi is on the verge of becoming, once again, a hero to the region's radical forces. Though we can probably rely on Saddam Hussein to trump Qaddafi as a rallying point for the Middle East's radicals, the Libyan's inevitable victory in Holland is likely to generate very unpleasant repercussions throughout the Middle East. We will probably rue the day that the Bush and Clinton administrations chose to prosecute Qaddafi's operatives instead of bomb him.

One can only hope that a Gore or Bush II administration will not repeat past mistakes. Yet the reluctance to use military force in the Middle East is clearly a bipartisan American reflex. The fear that serious military responses to terrorist attacks can lead to an endless series of attacks and reprisals is an understandable foreboding. But what ought to be clear is that whoever perpetrated the attack on the USS Cole isn't going to desist voluntarily. Two men vaporized themselves to express their hatred of the United States. By any true-believing standard, their act was a glorious success, quite sufficient to inspire others to follow. We cannot counter such determination and passion in a courtroom. We cannot counter it without demonstrating, as ancient Rome knew well, that there must be a frightful price for provoking a giant. Our enemies, and the friends of our enemies, must know that an easygoing, corpulent, wealthy Western nation is, when it wants to be, an indomitable, bloody-minded force that will seek awful vengeance upon its foes.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service and the author, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, of Know thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran.