Six months ago, the unexpected Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon left thousands of civilians dead. Since then, the Bush administration has been fighting and facing terrorism on several fronts—on the ground in Afghanistan, at home in the U.S., and abroad in a complicated range of diplomacy.
Warren Bass, director of the Special Projects/Terrorism Program and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Monday, March 11 at Noon EST, to discuss the status of the war on terrorism and the lessons of the past six months.
Bass’ articles on Middle Eastern affairs and U.S. foreign policy have appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic, and he edits the Council’s new "Terrorism: Questions & Answers" Web site.
A transcript follows.
Editor’s Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Warren Bass: Good afternoon, all, and thanks for coming. I’m writing from New York, which is having a pretty sobering day—looking back to the attacks six months ago. I’m looking forward to our discussion.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bass:
Thanks for taking our questions. The Administration has thus far defined a very broad goal of defeating terrorism wherever it exists. This seems impossible as stated, but in reality, it appears that only al Qaeda and those groups linked to al Qaeda are being targeted. This could still be a very broad campaign, depending on how close the link needs to be. Do you see us sending troops, for example, to Chechnya? On a somewhat related note, is there any truth to Milosovic’s claims that al Qaeda was present in Kosovo? (I think he is trying to say he was fighting them before we were, and that we were actually aiding al Qaeda in Kosovo.)
Warren Bass: Actually, the Bush administration’s goal is a bit narrower than that. It’s said that it seeks to destroy "terrorist groups of global reach"—which seems to mean not every terrorist everywhere in every nationalist conflict, but rather an attempt to single out groups with the ability to attack America. Above all, that means al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terror network.
But it’s still a pretty ambitious agenda. I don’t see US troops heading to Chechnya—but they are going to Georgia, which is right next door, to help fight some of bin Laden’s allies who the administration thinks have been helping the Islamist rebels in Chechnya.
To me, the Milosevic remark also points out an upcoming danger of the war on terrorism: that dictators will hijack the cause of fighting terrorism to give themselves carte blanche. Milosevic always said he was attacking terrorists, even as his forces were rounding up innocent Albanian civilians. It’s pretty Orwellian.
And while we’re on Kosovo, let’s remember for a minute: the last time America went to war, it was to defend innocent Muslim civilians. So much for American foreign policy’s being anti-Muslim...
Heidelberg Germany: Good Afternoon Mr. Bass, here is a question that arrives to you from a Italian that lives in Germany.
We heard in the last weeks on the TV that the U.S. is not interested to listen our doubts, ideas and questions about the fact that the U.S. wants to attack Iraq. Now I have one question, we are all in the same boat and if we start to attack other countries like Iraq, it could be dangerous for all of us, and that the moderate Arabian countries are able to change her minds and the people that are able to push the fanatic people to look in a positive way to the extremists.
Warren Bass: This question’s interesting on two levels: both the question, and the way it reminds Americans about how skeptical US allies are about next steps in the war on terrorism.
Going after Saddam would be no joke. But I’m not sure that there’s any better alternative. We know he’s trying to get the bomb, and we know he’s used chemical weapons in the past—on both Iranian soldiers (in a truly brutal war that he started) and on his own civilians (in a horrifying campaign against the Kurds that Human Rights Watch, a terrific and very sober watchdog group, called genocidal).
So I hope the Bush administration will listen to European concerns about Iraq. But I also hope that the Europeans will listen to the very compelling arguments for moving against Saddam. And I do actually think that Arab politics in general would be a whole lot better off with Saddam out of the picture—if it’s done carefully.
Arlington, Va.: What weight do you assign to this weekend’s L.A. Times story about the Nuclear Readiness plan—in which seven nations are mentioned as targets?
Warren Bass: The story you mention said that the US was drafting nuclear plans to target some new countries, some of them sponsor of terrorism. The list included Bush’s "axis of evil"—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—as well as Syria and Libya. It’s a fascinating story—largely because it casts some light on how the administration’s internal debate is going about how to handle nukes in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world. Are they there to be used, or to deter?
Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Do you believe that the current metrics being used to calculate the success of the war on terrorism could possibly be flawed?
I remember reading an article last week which stated "the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism: Thirty al Qaeda and Taliban fighters dead"
Many would agree that killing terrorists in fact does not solve the problem, because for each terrorist killed, more join the cause.
How does this compare to the "metrics" used in Vietnam? and why hasn’t the Administration attempted to put more emphasis on using other channels, which do not require military force, to fight the war on terrorism ? (i.e. peace negotiations, International aid, etc.)
Warren Bass: I didn’t see that story. But yes, that sounds like a flawed way to keep score; I’m just not sure the administration’s using it.
As America learned in Vietnam, body bags are hardly an accurate way to measure progress.
A shrewd campaign against terrorism will certainly involve the use of force—but not rely exclusively on it. Think of it as being less like Vietnam and more like the Cold War, where you had sharp instances of combat alongside long, careful uses of diplomacy, foreign aid, alliance-building, and so on. America’s got a lot of arrows in its quiver.
Alexandria, Va.: Are suicide bombings in civilian areas such as those by Islamic fundamentalists in Israel and India always terrorism? Do the European nations agree?
I ask because some months ago the Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway stated that attacks on Jewish civilians in the West Bank might be legal under international law. He stated that more research on the subject was required.
Warren Bass: The experts tie themselves into pretzels trying to come up with a perfect definition of terrorism, but still, the basic rule in international law is pretty clear: thou shalt not kill civilians. There’s a bright, bold line in what’s called "just war theory" between attacking combat-ready soldiers and attacking civilians. And it’s to the eternal disgrace of al-Qaeda that it’s on the wrong side of that line.
One of the tough things with thinking about terrorism is that sometimes—often—people do awful things in the name of good causes.
Me personally, I’m for the bright red line—no cause is worthy enough that it’s worth murdering innocents. There are other ways to wage a struggle.
I’ve no hesitation calling such awful events as the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem cafe over the weekend or the shooting attack on the Indian Parliament a few months back cases of terrorism. If Palestinians or Kashmiris want to make themselves heard, there are saner ways to do it.
Fairfax, Va.: I am hearing that an attack on Iraq is imminent. When will the U.S. attack Iraq? Does Bush have any plans for Iraq after attacking it? Also, how did Saddam become the leader of Iraq?
Warren Bass: Most of the rumblings are along those lines—that the administration is genuinely gearing up to tackle Iraq. We don’t know that much beyond that, and there’s a big debate between the Pentagon and the State Department about how to go after Saddam. But it’s worth noting that they’re arguing about HOW to get him, not WHETHER to get him.
What happens after Saddam goes depends on the manner in which he goes. If America invades, that’s one thing. If it tries to use the INC (the Iraqi opposition umbrella group) in Iraq the same way it used the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, that’s another. And the region is very worried about the day after. The Turks hate the thought of the Kurds in Iraq’s north splitting off and trying to link up with Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority; the Saudis are nervous about the Shiites in Iraq’s north linking up with neighboring Iran. So it has to be played very, very carefully, and my entirely unsolicited advice would be not to go in without the endgame clearly planned. There’s not that much of a rush.
Saddam took power after a dreary series of coups in Iraq. Up until 1958, Iraq was actually a key Western ally in the region. Then came a military coup, which eventually would up producing today’s highly nasty Ba’ath Party regime.
Washington, D.C.: Do you agree that this war on terrorism is spreading are troops a bit thin? We’re in multiple countries now doing various missions. Doesn’t this leave America open for another attack when our strongest military presence is half way around the globe?
Warren Bass: The US military looks in fighting trim to me. And I think it’s important to commit the resources to win definitively in Afghanistan.
The terrorism-related missions outside Afghanistan aren’t much of a drain on US resources at all. In Georgia, Yemen, and the Philippines, we’re talking about a few hundred advisers who’re not intended to see combat. So I’m not too worried about that one.
What worries me more is the flip side of your question: is US homeland security up to par? And here, even six months after 9/11, we’ve got a long way to go. To some degree, the reality is that open societies are going to be vulnerable. Yes, it’s tougher to launch a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, but there’s plenty of things about living in Saudi Arabia that I’d rather not go through.
Even so, it’s hard to be satisfied that all the sensible, non-intrusive, constitutionally hygienic precautions have been taken. Tom Ridge has got his work cut out for him.
Park Point: Which is the more insidious form of terror... suicide bombings, etc, (unofficial terror); or terrorism instituted by the state? Be it Sharon or any other authoritarian despot that bypasses the people’s choice and creates a war?
Are either/or as offensive when innocents become victims?
Warren Bass: For my money, the phrase "terrorism instituted by the state" doesn’t add up. Most terrorism experts define terrorism as being attacks by substate actors—that is, by smaller groups, not by governments.
That’s not to say that a government that deliberately kills civilians is in any way morally OK. Just call it by its name: a human rights abuse or a war crime. Those are pretty powerful terms, too. But if terrorism is taken to mean everything, then terrorism means nothing.
Innocents are innocents.
For the record, though, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not an authoritarian despot. He was democratically elected. That doesn’t make him a saint, but let’s at least be clear on the terminology.
New York, N.Y.: What is this country coming to? Are we a teenage couple in love for the first time? Why celebrate a six-month anniversary? Aren’t anniversaries yearly events?
I think we have better things to do, like find the folks that sent anthrax to the Democrats, or contemplate the world’s responses to America’s aggressiveness since Bush and company took over.
Warren Bass: I’m in New York, too, and while I wouldn’t dare tell a fellow New Yorker how to grieve, let me gently suggest that today is hardly an anniversary that’s being celebrated—more like a landmark to be mournfully and angrily noted.
Yes, we need to find the anthrax terrorists. Yes, there’s a lot still to do. Yes, robust debate over US foreign policy should continue—let freedom ring. But I don’t equate reprisal with aggression.
Re: Advisors: Aren’t advisors another word for CIA agents? When we send in "advisors," who are we really sending. Not CEO’s with calculators, I assume.
Warren Bass: Nope, it’s not CEOs—although maybe we should consider sending some of the Enron guys for a little public service?
As far as we know, the US advisers in Georgia, Yemen, and the Philippines are supposed to military trainers and some Special Forces troops, to help the local security forces crack down more effectively on the local bad guys. We know there was an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen—remember the USS Cole—but it’s a bit stickier working out how extensive the al-Qaeda ties are to the militants in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge and the Philippines’ Basilan Island. For a good briefing (and forgive the shameless plug), check out the website I edit, at www.terrorismanswers.com.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bass,
From what you know, what is the consensus among intelligence people on the likelihood of al Qaeda having nuclear weapons (as opposed to dirty bombs)? My understanding was that it was viewed as low (at least for now), but The Post article regarding the Bush administration’s nervousness made me wonder if that has changed.
Warren Bass: For anyone unfamiliar with the term: a “dirty bomb” is the crudest form of radiation weapon. It’s basically a conventional bomb—say, dynamite or what have you—that’s been lacked with radioactive material. So when the bomb goes off, the radioactive stuff goes flying. It’s not as dangerous as a real nuke, but it’d be pretty frightening, and the risk of radiation sickness would be added to the damage of the conventional explosive. It’s a nasty little idea.
The published reports say that al-Qaeda doesn’t seem to have the chops to make a nuke on its own—and, in fact, when it tried to buy some nuclear material, it seems to have gotten bilked. The question would be whether some terrorist could steal or buy a nuke—or a nuclear-weapons scientist—from Russia or perhaps Pakistan. For my money, making sure that Russia’s nukes are definitively locked down should be pretty much job one for the White House. And if that means higher taxes, they can bill me, and I’m pretty sure most Americans would feel the same way.
Part of the challenge for the Bush administration is dealing with the spread of doomsday weapons—and that’ll have a lot to do with how they go down in the history books.
New York, N.Y.: If the US rightly responds to massive terrorism against our civilians by obliterating the Taliban in Afghanistan why does the State Department hold Israel’s hands back from acting likewise to Palestinian terrorists that have been killing Israeli civilians purposely for over a year?
Warren Bass: Colin Powell is more than capable of sticking up for himself, but I’m still not sure that’s a fair characterization of US policy. The White House has given Sharon a good deal of leeway in responding to the awful campaign of suicide terror that the Palestinians have been waging. But in return, it’s asked that the Israelis remember that it’s a bigger world out there, and US attempts to uproot al-Qaeda and tackle Saddam can get seriously complicated by Israeli-Palestinian mayhem. Since getting bin Laden and Saddam is so overwhelmingly in Israel’s interest as well, you’d think these longstanding allies would find ways to cooperate.
New York, N.Y.: How necessary is it to eliminate the “the womb of terrorists” (i.e. the radical Islamic schools in Pakistan) in the war against terrorism? and how much progress, if any is being made?
Warren Bass: I’m not crazy about the womb metaphor, but still: there’s no question that there are all kinds of madrasas (Islamic seminaries) teaching pure unmitigated rubbish and hatred. Until that gets tackled, the madrasas will continue producing students who pervert Islam and trample its tenets in what they claim is Islam’s name. And while we’re tackling it, it’s going to require some stern words to such US allies as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The former used to back the Taliban, and the latter produced 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11. Something’s got to change.
Alexandria, Va.: Years ago, a history teacher said—or quoted—to us “I have no idea what weapons will be used in the next war, but the war after that will be fought with sticks and stones.” (Implication being that humanity would be nearly wiped out.) Agree?
Warren Bass: Now it’s going to bug me until I can come up with who originally said that quote…
But there’s something to that. We know bin Laden would like to get nukes. So if the world doesn’t pull together and try to own up to this vast, sprawling, and horribly complicated terrorism problem, then sooner or later we run a terrifying risk of seeing an attack that dwarfs 9/11.
Warren Bass: Thanks again for all your questions. It was good of you to come. I hope you’ll all continue following the news closely, which will give you many more answers to some terribly tough questions.
Thanks again, and my best wishes on a sad, sad day.