Is There a Good Terrorist?

Have you heard that Osama bin Laden is coming to Macedonia?
No. Why?
Because we’ve declared an amnesty for terrorists.

This Macedonian joke, told to me recently in Skopje, invites us to reflect on one of the most important questions in the post–September 11 world: Who is a terrorist? It is a question to which the international community sorely needs an answer.

Slav Macedonian nationalists insist that they face their own Osama bin Laden in an Albanian Macedonian guerrilla leader called Ali Ahmeti.1 Yet, they say, the United States and NATO have been making deals with this terrorist, and pressing the Macedonian government to grant him amnesty. Of course, nationalist regimes around the world have always played this semantic card—Russia denounces Chechen “terrorists”; Israel, Palestinian “terrorists”; China, Tibetan “terrorists”; and so on—with widely varying degrees of justification. In this case, however, it is not just the local nationalists who have taken a dim view of Mr. Ali Ahmeti.

On June 27, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order freezing all US-based property of, and blocking donations to, a list of persons engaged in or supporting “extremist violence in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and in other parts of the Western Balkans. “I find,” said the presidential order, “that such actions constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” Near the top of the list of persons thus dramatically stigmatized is “AHMETI, Ali, Member of National Liberation Army (NLA),” born in Kicevo, Macedonia, on January 4, 1959. The presidential order does not actually use the word “terrorist,” yet it treats him as such. In May this year, the NATO secretary-general, Lord (George) Robertson, described the National Liberation Army that Ahmeti leads as “a bunch of murderous thugs whose objective is to destroy a democratic Macedonia.”

In mid-August, however, under heavy pressure from the United States, NATO, and European negotiators, representatives of the Slav and Albanian Macedonians signed a peace deal. In return for constitutional and administrative changes designed to secure equal rights for Albanian Macedonians in the Macedonian state, the NLA would stop fighting and hand in many of its weapons to NATO. As part of the deal, the Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski, committed himself to giving amnesty to the insurgents, a commitment effectively guaranteed to Ahmeti by NATO. As President Trajkovski memorably explained to me: “I signed an agreement with the Secretary- General [of NATO] and the Secretary-General’s representative signed an agreement with the terrorists.”

I found some confusion among Western representatives in Skopje about the proper characterization of Mr. Ahmeti. One senior British military officer, who had spent years fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland, told me with emphasis and passion that Ahmeti and his colleagues in the NLA are terrorists. “If you take the NATO definition of terrorism, they absolutely fit,” he said.2 Other senior civilian and military NATO representatives described…

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