The author, a retired US Foreign Service officer, served as US Ambassador at Large for Counterterrorism between 1994 and 1997.
The Bush administration has declared “war” against terrorism, suddenly shocked into realizing that it is now the foremost danger to America’s national security. The administration has not yet defined this war, although a head of steam is building for military action. Armed force, however, while politically popular, is usually an ineffective and often counterproductive weapon against terror. Before acting, the US would be wise to construct a more sophisticated strategy. This should include strengthening traditional methods of counterterrorism, while reserving the use of force as a limited option. But a new national security strategy must also include a broader foreign policy that moves away from unilateralism and toward closer engagement with other governments, and that deals not just with the symptoms but with the roots of terrorism, broadly defined. The catastrophe of September 11 could give powerful momentum to such changes.
Islamist terrorists, who are thought to be responsible for the September 11 attacks, were first identified by analysts as the main terrorist threat to the US after a similar, although less sophisticated, gang carried out the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. These terrorists, so far as we know, are not sponsored by states; they have been recognized as posing a more complex and lethal challenge than state sponsors of terrorism, such as Libya, which are now mostly inactive, or anti-American secular terrorist groups, which are practically all moribund.
The deep hatred and suicidal fanaticism of the Islamist terrorists, their lack of a rational political calculus, and their belief in divine sanction make the penalties and deterrents traditionally used against terrorists far less effective. It is difficult for intelligence agencies to penetrate their cells, which are loosely structured and often act on an ad hoc basis, and therefore are extremely hard to identify and keep under surveillance. Porous borders, fake documents, and sympathizers who offer cover in a great many countries give such terrorists global mobility. Worst of all, as analysts have predicted and the horror of September 11 confirmed, Islamist terrorists seek mass casualties, and are heedless of public opinion and conventional morality. Searching for a pattern in this maze, US analysts believe Osama Bin Laden is the mastermind of a global network of fanatic Islamists and the prime suspect behind the September 11 attacks.
Some of President Bush’s civilian advisers want a tough new policy of military retaliation and preemption of terrorism, in place of tedious and uncertain criminal prosecution, the preferred policy of the Clinton administration. Bush himself seems to believe that a dramatic military effort could be a popular catharsis for public outrage and demands for action.
But on the rare occasions that the US has tried to carry out military attacks on terrorist targets, the attacks have failed or backfired. The US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, after a Libyan terrorist attack on Americans in Germany, killed dozens of Libyan…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.