Understanding Terrorism

A Harvard Magazine Roundtable

Beyond the emotional reactions necessarily provoked by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and subsequent anthrax-tainted mailings, the events demand reflective analysis and an attempt at understanding. What is the nature of this kind of terrorism, and what conditions created it? How well has the United States responded to the assault, and what measures will be most effective? Will mobilizing to reduce vulnerability to terrorism alter our democratic society? How can we detect and deter other threats--and defuse the forces that give rise to terrorist groups and acts?

Ever since September 11, Harvard faculty experts on government, Islam, biological warfare, international law, public health, the Middle East, diplomatic and military strategy, civil liberties, and other fields have participated in panel discussions, granted interviews, and written opinion essays to engage the University and the wider public in an attempt to comprehend a world made frighteningly new. In an effort to share some of this expertise, Harvard Magazine invited six faculty members to talk broadly about the causes and consequences of contemporary terrorism. Participants in the conversation, held November 5 at Harvard Law School and moderated by the magazine, included:

Eva Bellin '80, associate professor of government and author of Stalled Democracy (on socioeconomic obstacles to democratization in the Middle East), who teaches courses on "The Struggle for Palestine/Israel" and "The Politics of Islamic Resurgence";

Ashton B. Carter, Ford Foundation professor of science and international affairs and codirector of the Preventive Defense Project at the Kennedy School of Government, coauthor of Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America, and assistant secretary of defense for international security policy from 1993 to 1996;

Philip B. Heymann, J.D. '60, James Barr Ames professor of law, faculty director of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition (which has been active in Northern Ireland and the Middle East), deputy attorney general of the United States from 1993 to 1994, and author of Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society;

David Little, Th.D. '63, T.J. Dermot Dunphy professor of the practice in religion, ethnicity, and international conflict and director of initiatives in religion and public life at the Divinity School, coauthor of Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy, and author of volumes on religion and nationalism in Ukraine and Sri Lanka;

Louise M. Richardson, Ph.D. '89, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and formerly associate professor of government, focusing on international relations and terrorism; and

Jessica E. Stern, Ph.D. '92, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, author of The Ultimate Terrorists, and, from 1994 to 1995, director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.

Edited excerpts of the discussion follow.

In addition, magazine staff members attended several of the public events conducted on campus and elsewhere in October and November. Their reports capture other aspects of the many-faceted dialogue spurred by the terrorism: a Kennedy School forum concerning the roles of Islam in the politics of Muslim countries; a School of Public Health symposium on bioterrorism; a New York City forum convened by President Lawrence H. Summers; and a pair of addresses on war and civil liberties. These dispatches also appear on the following pages.

~The Editors

This article includes 4 sidebars:

Moderator: How would you define terrorism? What's distinctive about what Professor Carter has called the "catastrophic terrorism" visited on the United States September 11? How does that compare to other kinds of terrorism?

Richardson: A great deal of time has been spent trying to define terrorism. I find it more helpful to think about several crucial characteristics of terrorism. A terrorist act must be political, and it must be violent. It's symbolic--the victim and the audience are not the same, so the point is to use a randomly or symbolically selected target to convey a political message to another audience, usually the government, to try to affect their behavior. Finally, and most crucially, is the deliberate targeting of innocents. It is this tactic which sets terrorism apart from other forms of violence, and other forms of political violence, including guerrilla warfare.

So I think it makes more sense to use the means employed as the way of defining terrorism, rather than the goals that are being sought, or the political context in which the act takes place.

Carter: Everything Louise said makes great sense. I think that one needs further to distinguish the motivations that enter into mass or catastrophic terrorism from those that enter into what I'll call ordinary or traditional terrorism--the airline hijacking, the bomb in the marketplace, or hostage-taking. Not in all cases, but at least in some important cases, the motivation for mass terror is a vengeful or messianic one, rather than a politically purposeful one. Our attentions these days happen to be on Al Qaeda, but there are certainly groups in the United States that have long been driven to mass terrorism by rage.

Louise M. Richardson
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Portrait by John Soares

It's very difficult, in many of those cases, to figure out what their political motivation is--whether there is a political motivation, and whether there's any way of building a bridge to that political motivation. When the PLO began, when the IRA began, you could at least imagine some reconciliation of the underlying situation. But when we talk about mass terrorism, we may be dealing with truly fringe motivations that it's very difficult even to understand, let alone to deter, or to bargain with. There will probably always be some fraction of humanity which has motivations of this kind, and which might be prone to mass violence.

Heymann: I agree that you have to include a category of sheer destructiveness without obvious motivation, though it always carries some message. Everything carries some message. But otherwise I think Louise's description is very good. I'd like to note that she has, in some ways, led the definition away from any kind of moral fervor.

It's very important how you describe "innocents." Are police innocents? Are manufacturers of supplies innocents? That's a very troublesome question.

The other troublesome question is, what if it's a nondemocratic state? What if the French Resistance is blowing up tourists from Nazi Germany in Paris? That might seem very justified to a lot of people. Louise says that is terrorism--it may be justified, or it may not be, but we have to call it terrorism from the start. I think she has made a useful move there. A lot of people would insist that terrorism be against a democratic state in some kind of fair system.

Richardson: Conor Cruise O'Brien made popular the argument that terrorism can only occur in a democratic state. It was designed in reaction to the African National Congress in South Africa. Here was a group which appeared to be committing terrorist tactics, but they were completely excluded from the political process. So one didn't want to put them in the same category as the IRA, who had democratic opportunities open to them, but chose not to use them. I don't think that's very helpful, because in a sense it means that the Basque ETA in Spain were not terrorists when they blew up tourists under Franco, but were terrorists when they continued to blow up tourists under the democratic regime.

So if one takes the means-based definition I use, you do move toward a more normatively neutral definition of terrorism, and then you can decide whether the terrorism of the ANC is justified or not--it's a separate question.

If I could come back to Ash, I would say that even most of the messianic groups in fact have political motives. Even Osama bin Laden in his speeches, while he spells out this messianic message, is also spelling out very coherent U.S. policies to which he objects, like our support of Israel and our deployment of troops in the Middle East. So I prefer to keep it staunchly in the political realm.

Heymann: What would you do with Timothy McVeigh?

Richardson: McVeigh's goal--insofar as we knew what it was--was to limit the size of the American government.

Little: That seems like a stretch. So, Louise, you have to have a political motivation somehow clearly defined in order for the group to be terrorist--what about Aum Shinrikyo [the group that released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995]?

Richardson: Otherwise it's a criminal gang. Aum Shinrikyo had very clear political motives. They actually wanted to win political power.

Little: I would like to mention here a definition of terrorism found in international humanitarian law. It appears in the two 1977 protocols that supplement the Geneva Conventions protecting victims of armed conflict: "The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited." Technically, this definition does not apply to the acts of September 11 since the protocols pertain to states and "organized armed groups" engaged in "sustained and concerted military operations." Still, absent a comprehensive convention on international terrorism, this is the clearest legal definition we have. So far as I know, it is the only place where the term "terror" occurs in the international humanitarian legal documents, and it is important that Al Qaeda has, it appears, deliberately committed acts prohibited by the laws of war.

What's interesting about this definition is the exclusive focus on the spreading of terror. There is no mention of political or other motivations, and I am inclined to think that that is the nub of the matter.

Stern: I think this is completely right: it doesn't matter in the least whether terrorists purport to have political motivations. What matters is the means they use to achieve their purported objectives. I think we should turn to the "just war" tradition, which helps us distinguish between the justness of ends and means. Every terrorist I have interviewed has told me he is certain his ends are just. But the justness of terrorists' ends is inherently subjective. If we focus on the means, we run into a lot less trouble. Terrorism as a technique--the deliberate targeting of noncombatants--is a violation of every religious tradition, as well as of international law.

Ashton B. Carter
carter quote
Portrait by John Soares

Carter: There are important definitional issues here, but the thing that arrests people's attention today is the prospect of catastrophic terrorism. In the broadest sense, this prospect arises from the fact that with every passing year, technology puts into the hands of smaller and smaller groups destructive power of a kind that used to be reserved to organized states. And society becomes more and more vulnerable as it becomes more interconnected and intricate. Those two facts are going to be part of the human condition as far into the future as we can see.

Now it seems to me that there will always be some subset of humanity which, for whatever motives, takes that destructive power into their hands and uses it against society writ large. That, in the largest sense, is the problem. And I don't think our approach to protecting society can be based solely, or at this stage in understanding even primarily, on fathoming the motivation.

Louise is rightly urging us to try to understand the underlying motivation, even though it's complicated and various. At the end of the day, though, when it comes to mass terrorism, it's the fact that matters. It becomes a little bit like pornography: I know it when I see it. If a civilian airliner is going into a building, that's the kind of destructive power in a small number of hands which, for whatever motivation, we can't tolerate. It's not possible to continue to operate civil society with that danger ever present.

Stern: Why does it matter how many hands have access to the means of terror? It seems to me it's a moral problem, and why does the perpetrator matter? We are talking about a method of killing or warfare where states are equally as liable...

Carter: Only because it multiplies the number of possible perpetrators. When individuals can do damage that states used to do, then you have to start worrying about every individual, and there are a whole lot more of them than there are states.

Stern: But what about carpet bombing specifically with the aim of terrorizing the civilian population? Does that fit into our definition? What about dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I think that has to fit into our definition, because it's very clear from the documents the purpose was to terrorize the civilian population.

Heymann: The position that Louise has taken is that it may be morally identical, but whether you call it terrorism is a separate question.

Let me say one thing about the definition. There will be a very large number of incidents that will satisfy everyone around the table that they are terrorist. That will include the World Trade Center bombing, and the Pentagon bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing. And there will be a number of things, such as carpet bombing a city, or nuclear attacks, or attacks on police, or attacks not in a democracy, about which there will be debate. But to a very large extent, the dilemma of the United States at the moment involves activities by Al Qaeda that we would all agree were terrorist. Then the question is whether our response is effective and morally acceptable.


Moderator: Whatever definition of terrorism you use, and however you characterize it--some of you characterize terrorism as simultaneously a crime, a war, a threat, a disaster, an emergency, a kind of politics--what do you make of the U.S. response so far to September 11, to the anthrax-laced mailings?

Carter: The administration began talking about retaliation as the core of its response, but has slowly, and I think rightly, moved to a wider kind of response in the appointment of a director of homeland security, which is really the heart of the matter.

Philip B. Heymann
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Portrait by John Soares

One of the difficulties that the president faces is that this is a mission that doesn't really have a home in our government yet. We have a Department of Defense, whose job is war. This isn't really war. Our historical experiences of wars involve foreigners, and foreign places. Not all incidents of catastrophic terrorism will involve foreigners, and they are by definition not in foreign places. It's more than a crime, because our approach to crime is fundamentally to allow it to occur, and then arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. This is a level of destructiveness that you can't allow to take place on a routine basis, the way you allow street crime to take place. It's not a "disaster" because it's an act of man, not an act of God.

We have institutions that deal with war, institutions that deal with crime, and institutions that deal with disaster. This is a mixture of all three. So what you see the administration trying to do is invent a new model of government to deliver a new public service, homeland security. For 200 years, we never really needed to deliver that product on a large scale. Governor Tom Ridge [director of homeland security] is supposed to be doing that, and everybody wishes him well. But it's a tough matter, because it goes to the heart of the way we see ourselves and the way we govern ourselves. In dealing with crime, we attach great protections to the citizen, and deliberately limit the reach of government, whereas war is a much more unfettered matter. We've liked that distinction throughout our history. Now we have a problem that falls between the cracks, and we don't want to start treating our own citizenry the way you treat a foreign military opponent. We have to somehow find a new way. That's the heart of what the Bush administration's trying to do.

So far, I don't see the administration putting together a comprehensive program that covers surveillance and detection of people and threats; preventive measures to understand motivations, and stop people from either wanting to do this, or having the means to do it; protective measures, like reinforcing air-filtration systems in buildings; means to interdict, effectively, a terrorist group once you'd found it (we're obviously trying to do that in Afghanistan today); containing damage, if the worst occurs, and cleaning up after à la New York and Ground Zero; and then when it's all over, finding out who did it--typing anthrax, for example, and deciding whether to retaliate or prosecute. That entire set of activities needs to be organized and lodged somewhere in the federal government. All of those things are new. It's a deep challenge to our way of government, and it's going to require some real innovations in how we structure and conduct ourselves.

Stern: We need to think about this as a form of psychological warfare. When our president was talking about "crusades," he was really playing into the hands of the terrorists. I can tell you that I got a flurry of e-mails from Pakistan from the jihadis who were so excited--they had been waiting for this moment. They have been longing to fight the "Crusaders and Jews"--in other words, the West. Bin Laden himself is clearly trying to turn this into a war between Islam and the West. In his recent communiqués, bin Laden has been dividing the world into two camps--the believers and the infidels--arguing that this is a religious war, not a war against terrorism.

The whole aim of terrorism is to get us to overreact. I think initially we appeared to be coming up with a strategy that was almost a form of psychotherapy for the American people, and a very clear overreaction.

What's far more important over the long term is not bombing raids, but intelligence cooperation--seeking the vulnerabilities in the terrorist network. They seek out our vulnerabilities. We need to seek out theirs. A very important one is drying up the money flows. At last, we hear today that the United Arab Emirates are cooperating with U.S. government authorities in helping to dry up the money flow. The Saudis are cooperating, perhaps not as much as they might. We need much more intelligence cooperation, covert action, diplomacy. I'll feel much better when we know less about what's going on in Afghanistan.

Richardson: There are three aspects to the government's response. First is the fact that a forceful response was required. Second, this was a restrained response--more restrained than many of us would have anticipated, knowing the predilections of this administration. Third come the broader, domestic infrastructure points that Ash admirably captured.

It was simply imperative that we have a forceful response. I tend to look at this in international, rather than domestic, terms. We have to demonstrate to the Iraqs, and the Irans, and other countries around the world that we are prepared to fight, we're prepared to assume casualties, to oppose this kind of action.

Second, on the point that Jess just made, our reaction has been restrained, and it's imperative that it continue to be so. Bin Laden is acting in the way that other terrorist groups before him have acted. There is nothing he would like more than to provoke a spiral of violence. He's trying to provoke massive retaliation, which would have the effect of winning more recruits for his organization, and of supporting his interpretation of our actions to the mass Muslim publics in these regions, who at this point probably share his aspirations, but certainly don't approve of his means of achieving them.

I think it's an effective counterterrorism policy--this is what we've learned from the past--to drive a solid wedge between the perpetrators of the violence and the broader communities. The government has clearly been aware of the need to do that. But it's very difficult to be restrained while conducting a military operation. It requires the effort to protect civilians. It requires putting our own military at greater risk. That's a risk we have to assume in the interests of protecting civilian lives, for normative reasons, but also for pragmatic ones.

But I'm uncomfortable with the whole language of warfare. It's a shame that we have encountered an incident that fits our understanding of terrorism better than any we have ever encountered, and I hope will encounter, and we immediately abandon the language of terrorism and shift to the language of warfare. In doing that, we set ourselves up for failure. It's understandable why the government did it--to facilitate domestic mobilization, and to demonstrate how seriously we take this. But warfare connotes victories, and surrender, and defeat. In this war, there appear to be three goals. One is to capture bin Laden, two is to bring down the Taliban, and three is to protect ourselves from this ever happening again. Our chances of pulling off the first two are pretty good. But our chances of protecting ourselves from ever having another terrorist attack domestically are close to nil.

It rather reminds me of the message the IRA once sent to Prime Minister Thatcher after they had blown up her hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference and narrowly missed killing her. The next day, they sent her a message saying, "You were lucky yesterday, but we've only to be lucky once." I think we cannot cede the initiative to the terrorists, where they can demonstrate, by successfully pulling off one terrorist act in this country, that we have not, in fact, won this war.

Heymann: I also would say that we have three objectives, but the most important one we ought to have in terms of this war is to say, right off the bat, this has to be fought by law enforcement and intelligence people in the countries where the terrorists are. That's what we really need.

I don't think catching bin Laden is the answer, if we could catch him. And I don't think bringing down the Taliban is the answer, if we bring down the Taliban.

But I do think that a critical part of preventing this is establishing that no country will be permitted to openly tolerate sizable groups planning the destruction of American lives and buildings and property, and creating widespread fear. That fits comfortably within the UN definition of self-defense. Our objective in Afghanistan should be to make the point that there's an immense cost to openly supporting a terrorist group that is targeting the United States for massive terrorism.

Little: I agree. It is interesting that the United Nations Security Council really has gone some distance toward authenticating or certifying an armed response. Whether they will continue to do that remains to be seen. But they have gone out of their way to reaffirm the need to respond against activities of the kind you describe. And there have been some other very important statements to that effect. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has gone on record calling September 11 a "crime against humanity" and an assault on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. It seems to me there is significant international support for some kind of armed response along these lines.

On the other hand, one needs to bear in mind the need for restraint and limitation if the just-war categories are to be respected. They are very relevant. Certainly, the protection against indiscriminate destruction is very important. Second, we need always to bear in mind the salience of what the just-war tradition calls "a reasonable probability of success," as we undertake this kind of action. What are the probabilities of doing the kind of thing Louise mentions? If, as Phil suggests, we define the mission of our military response to terrorism as primarily one of retributive punishment, that objective no doubt has a higher probability of success. At the same time, endeavoring by our efforts to restore and advance "international peace and security," together with observance of the norms of human rights and humanitarian law, in line with explicit UN Security Council expectations, should not be lost sight of.

I don't think the present administration has done a very good job of authenticating its response in broader international terms. There is much work to be done to put U.S. activities within a wider international context.


Moderator: In the face of terrorism, one obvious challenge for an open, democratic society like this one is reconciling the tradition of law enforcement and criminal justice with the tradition of externally oriented intelligence-gathering, defense, security, military action. Professor Heymann has written about this topic, and has cautioned against "foolishly gambling" with fundamental civil liberties. How well is America reconciling its need for more intelligence and information--through new law-enforcement powers, detentions, and so on--with our traditional procedures and due process?

Heymann: We tend to think of the choice, or the dilemma, or the tension as between the demands of security, and the risks of intrusive state law enforcement, or intelligence, directed at our privacy, our communications. I don't think that's a careful enough way to state even that issue, and I also don't think that is the major tension we're going to face.

You can't address the question in those broad categories without getting more into facts. I think the use of military tribunals for resident aliens would be outrageous, but that is because it is a terrible offense to our national traditions of justice, and also because, factually, it is wholly unnecessary for our security. It's not because, in the abstract, I favor liberty over security.

As to the second issue, the administration was quite restrained in its legislative proposals, and the bill that came out is still more restrained, in terms of what it asked for in the way of legislation for new powers. But that restraint isn't very important.

My worry is that new powers don't have much to do with a successful battle against terrorism. The tensions are going to be in five other places. We're rarely going to find ourselves being more intrusive in the United States.

But we're going to find ourselves gathering very large amounts of information, and trying to process it. The government apparently has files on 200,000 potential terrorists, which seems to me a quite sizable number. But five years from now, I think we're going to have much larger files.

The next question is going to involve gathering information, largely from public sources--applications for visas, applications for a driver's license, things like that. When you gather that information, so you can identify potential terrorists and deny them access to targets and resources, and follow them, will you do it on everybody, or will you concentrate your efforts on particular groups? In this case of the World Trade Center bombings, the group, obviously, is going to be Arabs and Muslims. So the second big issue is ethnic profiling, whether it's at an airport or in gathering of files. Of those million files we're going to have in five years, an awful lot of them are going to be focused on Muslims and Arabs.

We're going to see a shift toward intelligence organizations. Another way of saying what Ash began with today is that we have not found it proper or desirable to have an internal intelligence organization. The FBI has gathered intelligence, done counterintelligence, only for espionage purposes, not in any other area, criminal or terrorist. So we're going to see a shift there toward intelligence organizations, either under Ridge, or under the FBI, or somewhere else.

It's a mistake to think that the big risks are to U.S. civil liberties and civil rights. The big risks are going to be to Saudi, Jordanian, Algerian, Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, and soon Afghani civil rights and civil liberties, because the terrorists are going to spend most of their time, and are going to have their largest organizations, abroad. So we're going to be pressing hard on other nations, who have no tradition of respect for human rights, to find people plotting against the United States. That's going to be a major issue.

Finally, there's going to be a big question of assassination versus military trials versus what we have previously tried to do in the United States, which is capture people and fly them back to the U.S. It's a very difficult operation.

Those are going to be the issues of the future, not the intrusiveness of surveillance techniques in the United States.

Stern: But when Egypt cracked down hard on the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, they then found other targets. They joined up with Al Qaeda, and now they're targeting us.

Jessica E. Stern
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Portrait by John Soares

Carter: This is a point related to Phil's. Using Septem-ber 11 as an example, it did not surprise or shock me, and my guess is it didn't surprise or shock most Americans, that we had not identified the 19 or so individuals who were operating with these intentions in the vast anonymity of our modern society. I don't see a lot of prospect in the future for rooting out individuals and their motivations.

However, it really outrages me, and I think it does many people, that we did not detect the means of attack. I'm making a distinction between detecting the motivations and people, and detecting the means. It had clearly never really been taken seriously by the air-security system--even though it was in novels, and they were aware of it intellectually--that a small number of people with sharp objects could commandeer an airplane and use it as a cruise missile. That was a tactic which they thought of and we didn't. It was a tactic that's easily counteracted--in fact, it succeeded for only one hour, because as soon as one airplane full of people realized their fate, they counteracted that tactic.

What that shows me is that our surveillance of means is very poor and there's much we can do to improve it. You can require registration of germ cultures and crop dusters. This is the surveillance of means. It raises many fewer civil-liberties problems, and it's much more likely to be effective than trying to figure out what's going on in the heads of Timothy McVeighs, Al Qaeda operatives, or Aum cults.

Stern: How are you going to find those people who are seeking germs? How will you do that without violating their civil liberties? In order to do that, you need to be listening to certain telephones, or...

Carter: No, I'm talking about something quite different--something which in the defense establishment would be called "red teaming." Mercifully, war is not going on all the time, and so a military organization, unlike Federal Express, isn't practicing every day and polishing its tactics. A lot of time is spent thinking what might happen in war. There's an institutionalized way of doing that: the red team pretends it's the enemy, and tries to figure out how to attack our navy and sink our ships; and the blue team tries to counteract those tactics. It's an institutionalized way of identifying the means of attack and establishing corresponding protective measures.

We don't have that in the air-traffic security area. That was demonstrated in spades on September 11. Nor in the case of the anthrax attacks. It is a different kind of surveillance and detection than the surveillance and detection of individuals and what they say and think and intend.

Stern: There is a more practical aspect to identifying possible perpetrators who would purchase germs, and that is that they do use the Internet and telephones to attempt to make those purchases. I will identify another dilemma we have to deal with. After a neo-Nazi named Larry Wayne Harris obtained the bacterium that causes bubonic plague in 1995, the Centers for Disease Control tightened up the regulations for shipping and receiving cultures, but there is nothing illegal about possessing biological agents.

But I want to get back to the issues you were raising. As you probably know, there was a manual revealed at the African embassy bombing trial that instructed operatives how to live in enemy territory. They were instructed to shave their beards, to avoid using typical Islamic expressions, not to talk to cabbies, and not to be too chatty in general. And they were told to live in new developments, where people tend not to know one another. Doesn't this make you nervous, Phil? Are you worried about how we will protect civil liberties, knowing that terrorist "sleepers" may still be living in the United States?

Heymann: Absolutely. I just want to put one footnote on the account, before going to Jessica's point. Ash was talking about what we should have known about planes. We knew on September 11 that a guy named Ramzi Youssef, who was the leading figure in the first World Trade Center bombing, had developed a plan to blow up simultaneously five or six American airliners. We knew that an Egyptian Air flight had gone down after the copilot had said, "Allah be praised." We knew that an Algerian had tried to seize a plane and fly into the Eiffel Tower. And we knew that somebody was trying to get pilot training in the Midwest, and wasn't interested in takeoffs and landings.

Carter: And Tom Clancy had written a book that millions of air travelers had read, in which precisely this happened.

Heymann: It's always easy, in retrospect. In retrospect, this one looks very bad.

Richardson: But I don't think this was actually a failure of means surveillance so much as a failure of coordination. This summer I was involved in discussions with someone from the State Department about why terrorists had not, in fact, tried this. So people were very much aware that this was a tactic terrorists were capable of using, indeed likely to use, and we couldn't protect against it. We discussed why they hadn't done it. We anticipated that they would hit a couple of U.S. embassies around the world, which would drive every American embassy into an underground bunker. But this was simply a conversation. There was no coordinated response mechanism. People didn't talk about this publicly, perhaps because one doesn't want to spread fear, or give ideas by talking about such things. Yet clearly, these kinds of fears should have been conveyed to air-traffic controllers. There should have been some means of coordination.

heymann quoteHeymann: The CIA told the FBI that Atta was coming into the United States. The FBI told the INS too late, and Atta was already in the United States, and the FBI didn't look for Atta, and didn't find him, and the FBI did not notify the FAA to worry about seizure of planes.

Back to Jessica's question. You're absolutely right that there are very serious limits to how optimistic I feel about red teaming, or intelligence. The first limit is the one you mentioned, which I'll just call "new faces." We may have a million files, but the possibility of new faces coming out of some successor to Al Qaeda is very great, and we won't have any files on them. The other limit is that to red team, you have to identify either the targets or the resources needed for striking those targets. To whatever extent that turns out to be a very large number, you have a very hard time anticipating. So you're right that we ought to do this--it is what we're missing most in terms of our prevention. But all it takes to slip through our efforts is new faces going for a target we didn't anticipate, using resources that we weren't monitoring.

Carter: Precisely because of what Phil has said about the difficulty of surveillance, whether of persons or of means, we need the whole spectrum of government activity I sketched out earlier. That is, if surveillance fails--if you're not going to be able to detect perpetrators, or the preparations for an act--then you need to try to keep the stuff out of their hands, to the extent you can. That's where you get to issues like the control of fissile material from Russia or Pakistan, or Jessica's example of germ cultures.

Then if prevention fails, and terrorists obtain the means, and you can't find them, then you have to move to protection. That means vaccines, or antibiotics, or air-filtration systems.

And if protection fails, then you have to have some effective way of going after them. That's interdiction.

And if all that fails, and they do it anyway, you have to have a capability for minimizing the loss of life. That's emergency response, state and local first responders, the public-health system, and so forth.

And then when it's all over, you have to be able to find out who did it, and at least locate them by identifying what strain of anthrax they're using, or where they got fissile material, which you could determine by sampling the residue of nuclear-weapon debris, for example, if God forbid, anybody gets one of those. Doing that forensic analysis might allow you to track them down, and at least eliminate the perpetrator of an act who has already been detected by dint of carrying it out.

We need to have all of those capabilities. We can't depend on any single one of them. Detection isn't going to work all the time. Protection isn't going to work all the time. Prevention isn't going to work all the time. And you can't just sit back and focus on containment.

So the larger question for us is to look beyond Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism to the wider future, and to realize that this kind of danger is going to be with organized human society for a long time, and society is going to have to form this multipronged approach to dealing with it.


Moderator: If we believe what has been reported about the identities of the people involved in September 11, there are lots of common ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. What conditions in those societies--in their polities and cultures, and in ideology or Islamic thought--are associated with this kind of international terrorism? What are the terrorists' aims?

Eva Bellin
bellin quote
Portrait by John Soares
Bellin: I don't think one ought to focus exclusively on domestic conditions in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. What was really striking to me was that despite the fact that something like 14 people involved in this specific incident seemed to be of Saudi nationality, in fact the people who have been involved in these sorts of terror networks come from all over the Arab world. There are Lebanese, Egyptians, people from the UAE, from Tunisia, Algeria. Clearly, a more general phenomenon is driving these activities.

First, there's a general sense of hostility and anger toward the United States in the Arab world, and probably the Muslim world generally. There's a general sense of anger at the U.S.'s making expedient use of countries in the Muslim world for its short-term interests, and then discarding them when its interests shift. There's anger about the U.S. employing a double standard in its implementation of UN resolutions, and in its defense of principles of international law. There's anger at the U.S. because it seems to be the leading symbol of globalization, a force that's disrupting the lives of many. Overall, people in the region are angry over their sense of powerlessness and the humiliation they feel at the hands of what they perceive to be cavalier domination by Western forces, the U.S. in particular.

None of this exactly explains why you get these individual incidents of terror, because there's no correlation between this mass anger and the incidents of terror. This sort of mass anger has been building up for decades, and the instances of terror are recent and unique.

Rami Khoury, who is a journalist from Jordan, gave a talk a few weeks back on this topic. He presented a cogent analogy, which explains the relationship between mass anger toward the United States in the Arab and Muslim world, and distinguishes between that and the acts of the violent few. He compared this anger to the position of people in the United States who oppose abortion. Khoury pointed out that a large number of people in America, maybe even a majority, don't approve of abortion. But only a very small number of people actually commit acts of violence against abortion clinics. It's the same thing in the Arab and Muslim world: there's a vast sense of anger toward the United States, but that doesn't mean the masses of people support terrorist violence to express that anger. There is general disavowal of this kind of violence by the masses of people in the region, even though they are quite angry at the United States.

I think the aims of these terrorist networks are much more expressive than programmatic. The best evidence for this is in the randomness of their targets. They go after the World Trade Center, but there was also a plan to go after a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg, and another to dive-bomb the Eiffel Tower. Also, the terrorists do not make specific demands, saying that if you do X, Y, or Z, we will stop hitting the World Trade Center. To the extent that any objectives are stated, they shift around. At one point it's "Let's get the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia." At another time it's "Let's give the Palestinians just treatment." Another time it's "Let's take care of children in Iraq." Just this past weekend, the situation in Kashmir was suddenly added. The demands shift because the terrorists' goal is really not to solve any one of these problems, but rather to express anger.

This weekend I was reading the new biography of Frantz Fanon, the premier theorist of decolonialization, who wrote Wretched of the Earth. I pulled out my copy again, and was struck that his arguments about violence proved so useful to me in understanding the events of September 11. Fanon talks about the cleansing value of violence. Even random violence against a perceived oppressor is seen as a redemptive act. It's a way for powerless people to feel in power, to feel that they can regain their self-respect, that they can take control of their lives. It really seems to me that these recent terrorist acts are a typical Fanonian act--just an expressive act of trying to recover a sense of power and of self-determination. That's the only way I can understand it.

Moderator: How does this violence compare to terrorism in some of the geographically based or nationality-based conflicts you've looked at--the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, or in Sri Lanka?

Little: Together with the prevailing antagonism that Eva properly emphasizes, there is a more specific appeal--call it the emergency or necessity defense--which is offered for overriding normal prohibitions against attacks on civilians, and so on. In places like Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Israel-Palestine, the following argument is frequently heard: "Our side is so beleaguered and under threat, so at the end of our rope, that although we would not normally engage in activities of this kind, we now have no choice." That is the gist of the arguments put forward by bin Laden and his supporters in defense of attacks on American civilians.

In this connection, certain references contained in the Al Qaeda operations manual, Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants, are interesting. The question is asked, how can a Muslim spy live among enemies and retain his Islamic characteristics? How can he perform his duties to Allah and not want to appear Muslim? The answer is that if "a Muslim is in a combat or godless area, he is not obligated to have a different appearance from those around him. Resembling the polytheist in religious appearance is a kind of 'necessity permits the forbidden,' even though [forbidden acts] are basically prohibited."

This appeal to necessity is extremely important. By bin Laden's account, Islam is under severe pressure from the West--particularly from the United States. There is the contaminating presence of U.S. troops on the "sacred soil" of Saudi Arabia, Israel's appropriation of Muslim lands with full U.S. support, et cetera.

Other examples from the literature of Islamic extremism make a similar point. A text called The Neglected Duty, composed by the [Egyptian] Islamic Jihad who were responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and the charter of the Palestinian organization Hamas, both contend that ordinary prohibitions normally governing armed conflict must be suspended or "stretched" under conditions of necessity.

Richardson: There are a number of ways in which Al Qaeda is different from other terrorist groups, but this is not one of them. The fact that they are a small and dramatic expression of mass feelings--this is common to most terrorist groups, and certainly to all successful groups that manage to last a long time. Tiny, isolated groups tend to be relatively easy to counter, but the ethno-nationalist groups survive precisely because their ultimate aspirations are shared by large numbers of the population from which they derive their support. This is "the sea in which the fish swim," in Mao's terms. There's nothing new about this. The key, again, to effectively countering these groups is to separate them from the broader populations, and not let them persuade the mass angry populations that they are acting in their name. This is the PR battle we should be waging.

Stern: Bin Laden said yesterday, "This is not about terrorism, this is really a war about creed and religion." You can see he's scared, because making an argument to the Muslim people that this is a war about terrorism is going to resonate and delegitimize him, to some extent. I agree with your point, David, that people do feel these are desperate times, and desperate measures are called for. But nonetheless, people of the region unfortunately have a fair amount of experience of terror. If you can tap into that vein of anger over their own experience of terror, you can delegitimize bin Laden.

Little: What bin Laden's trying to do is to gin up the whole discussion so that it is a war between the West and Islam.

Stern: The U.S. has to keep hammering home that this is a war about terror. [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman had a wonderful piece about this, saying that every time you mention Saddam Hussein's name you should say, "Saddam Hussein, the man who killed more Muslims than anybody else in the twentieth century." Every time you mention bin Laden, you say, "bin Laden, the mass murderer." You keep harping on that.

Little: There are important responses from moderate Muslim leaders to the effect that Islam does not under any conditions justify direct attacks on civilians for terrorist purposes. A purported saying of Mohammed, called an hadith, is frequently quoted in this connection: "Whenever [Mohammed] sent forth an [armed] detachment, he said to them, 'Do not cheat, or commit treachery, nor should you mutilate or kill children, women, or old men.'" The blanket prohibition of "treachery" is interesting, especially when compared with the excuses the Al Qaeda manual gives for deceiving an enemy.

Stern: One way to summarize the distinction that helps us understand Al Qaeda is to say that bin Laden's objectives are really expressive, not instrumental. Those groups that have set instrumental objectives are not going to carry out catastrophic attacks, because such attacks will never achieve those objectives, whereas groups that are expressing anger can continuously change their mission statement. If you have a broad one, based on rage, one day you can say that it's to force U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. The next it can be about Iraqi children. The third day it can be about the Palestinians. That's a way to appeal to a much wider public.

Another thing about expressive terrorism is that it enables cynical leaders to attract youth who feel humiliated, culturally or personally. I see this happening in the religious schools, the madrasahs in Pakistan, where they are feeding, housing, clothing desperately poor young men, and then feeding them this very distorted version of jihad.

I would like to see more Islamic scholars making clear that what [Egyptian writer Muhammad Abd al-Salam] Faraj said in The Neglected Duty is an extremist and distorted interpretation of Islam. Most Christians reject the terrorists' claim that Christian teachings justify the killing of abortion providers--it's a similar distortion.

Little: Hear, hear. That's really a challenge to the moderate Islamic community to come forward and stand up. Of course, they pay their own political price in some settings for this kind of thing.

carter quoteCarter: To those of us who are not expert on the region, the most powerful thing that President Bush said, very early on, was, "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists." What that essentially was saying to the governments of Pakistan, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia was that they had what appeared to be a two-faced policy toward the United States and terrorism. One face says they are against terrorism and also in some general way not opposed to the policies of the United States, or at least they do not hold the U.S. responsible for all the ills in the Islamic world.

Face two is at least passively acquiescing in the establishment and institutionalization of a press that routinely and grotesquely distorts history and current events and of an educational/charitable network which is filled with bile and hatred, and pursuing a political strategy toward staying on their own thrones that involves deflecting the aspirations and frustrations of their own people outward.

So Bush's statement seems to me to be really throwing down a gauntlet of substantial proportions. I'd like to get the views of the regional experts on this. If it's stuck to as a matter of policy, it has very, very important implications.

Stern: Didn't it trouble you that bin Laden used the same technique: dividing the world into two camps--those who are for me, and those who are against me?

Carter: Yes, but the question is, who's going to win? The pivots here are the Musharrafs [General Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan], and the Mubaraks [Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt], and the Saudi royal family. Which way are they going to go? It's risky to put them on the griddle. It's very risky to say, "Now is the time you have to choose whether it's modernity or the Middle Ages--to stick with us and confront your Islamic extremists, or to keep on in this two-faced way." This event caused Bush to call the draw now. Maybe some of them can't sustain being faced with that choice.

If Musharraf is any indication, once you stand up and say, "Damn it, work this out," he manages to hang in there. So it seems that nothing succeeds like success. If we win, we'll have won. It's that simple, isn't it?

Bellin: But you both said before it's so hard to win.

Carter: I mean this particular challenge. I don't think we can win in any final sense against mass terrorism. It's a syndrome of modern society. But I believe we can extirpate Al Qaeda and its wider circles as well, and make it less fashionable. But is the Bush statement a good strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism turning to mass terrorism?

Bellin: Well, most of these regimes are no strangers to repression of Islamist groups. Egypt has been brutally repressive of Islamists, with some success, actually.


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