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.