2001: Year of the terrorist, Afghans the target    

Gulf States Newsletter issue 651 - 18 December 2000 

Whoever finally emerges as US President is likely to make the fight against “terrorism” a key foreign policy priority during the early months of their administration. In this crusade it is not just traditional allies such as the UK that will provide backing. Gulf heavyweights are also looking to act against sponsors of “terrorism”, which include some of Washington’s bogey people—although as the Al Aqsa intifada unfolds in the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia’s list of terrorist states, as well as Iran’s, is headed by Israel.

Opinions world-wide differ sharply over Israel, the nature of Palestinian resistance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—a terrorist who expects to come in from the cold next year. But there is consensus on the need to act on other issues grouped under the heading of “terrorist”, headed by Afghanistan and its Taliban rulers. As investigations of the attack in Yemen on the USS Cole continue to turn up links to failed or planned terrorist operations, the spectre of Osama Bin Laden—man, concept and organisation—looms large. This spectre is in the sights of politicians as diverse as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdallah, outgoing US President Bill Clinton, president-in-waiting George W. Bush’s advisor Condoleeza Rice, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and possibly Pakistan’s embattled military ruler Parvez Musharraf.

GSN’s analysts in Pakistan report deep concern among Western diplomats about a potentially record Afghan opium crop this year, a near psychosis among the same community whenever the Bin Laden name is mentioned—and a similar response from their Iranian counterparts. The traffic in drugs, arms and other illegal goods from Afghanistan, other ‘Stans’ and Pakistan is troubling Tehran, as the flow of reports of gun battles on Iran’s northern and eastern borders indicates. The UK authorities have cause for concern at the widespread reports in the West—for which solid evidence is in notably short supply—that Dubai is a crucial trans-shipment point for such traffic.

Bin Laden still has his supporters in Saudi Arabia, but no longer within the senior leadership. But whether Riyadh will go further than provide moral support to rid itself of a troublesome former citizen and his allies is questionable. Saudi Arabia recognises the Taliban government, and attitudes towards Kabul were on the agenda in November when Defence and Aviation Minister Prince Sultan met Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana. Kazakhstan has been moving towards recognition of the Taliban, rather than joining any alliance against it.

The Pakistani authorities who once promoted the Taliban and Islamist militants operating against India in Kashmir (another focus for veterans of the Afghan wars) are looking nervously at groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba (the Army of the Pure), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and its Jaesh-e-Mohammad offshoot. These have the potential to pose a challenge to the established order at home. A severe setback for the Taliban and the network of Afghanistan-based support groups might help to rein in these potentially difficult children of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad. The impact of such a move would also be felt in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where Wahabi sympathisers help fund groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, its parent Markaz Ad-Dawa Wal Irshad and Ahle Hadith.

Russia has certainly had enough of the Taliban, and could back a strike against an enemy that may provide backing for the Chechen independence movement. It is already working with the USA within the UN Security Council on measures to target the Taliban. This might even outweigh Moscow’s potential discomfort at the USA mobilising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Partnership for Peace to back the strike. This Nato. initiative includes Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—all of whose troops now train regularly with US forces in Central Asia and have commandos training with US Special Forces in Montana and Alaska. US planners are eyeing the potential for using Uzbekistan as a base for any assault, including the Tashkent air base and the military base in Termez from which the Soviet Union launched its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Targets would include bases in northern Afghanistan including Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Taloqan—which house Bin Laden, his 55 Arab Brigade, the increasingly prominent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, plus Chechen, Kashmiri and Chinese Uighur groups. Such an attack would be very good news indeed for Ahmed Shah Masud’s United Front forces.

Towards confrontation?

Much has been written in recent weeks about the prospects for a US-led attack on the Taliban, starting with an article in The Nation. This generated considerable speculation by publishing an article by Pakistani specialist Ahmed Rashid which said the USA and Russia were “putting together a multilateral coalition to strike at the military camps of Bin Laden, other terrorist groups who have sanctuary in Afghanistan and Taliban military assets in Afghanistan.” Such was the US journal’s enthusiasm for the story that The Nation suggested an attack was “imminent”—which is not what Rashid actually said. He reported the view of US officials that the hands of Bin Laden and Islamist veterans of the Afghan wars were apparent in the USS Cole bombing and more recent incidents. Washington was building an alliance to tackle this, Rashid said, quoting US officials, which could have ramifications well beyond Central Asia.

On 3 December, The Washington Post reported that the Clinton administration was considering a wide range of options, including military force, to punish Bin Laden if investigators concluded he was behind the USS Cole bombing. US officials told the daily that “any military action against Bin Laden’s redoubts in the mountains of Afghanistan would be declared a ‘pre-emptive’ effort to forestall future attacks, not a retaliatory strike… That is because Article 51 of the United Nations Charter prohibits the use of armed force by one state against another, except in self-defence or with the approval of the UN Security Council.”

Those with reason to feel uncomfortable about these developments include Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. As GSN has pointed out, Saleh has sought to cultivate Western support while ruling a country which harbours several radical Islamist groups, that has direct links to Bin Laden and where US officials suspect several Cole suspects were linked to senior officials (GSN 648/3).

Also under scrutiny could be Gulf leaders more usually seen as pro-Western, but who are wavering over sanctions against Iraq and some of whose subjects fund the “International Islamic Legion” and other groups. Rashid reported that “US officials say the [FBI/CIA] investigative team has now determined that the [Cole] bombing was organised by an Arab mastermind who was based in the United Arab Emirates and who provided the group with finances, C4 military type explosives and instructions.” He added: “A Moroccan explosives expert who is also a key aide to Bin Laden and is still at large, is believed to have put together the bombs for the Cole and possibly the attempt in Kuwait.”

Outside this alliance and uncomfortably exposed by its Afghan policy is France, which has argued it is time to deal directly with the Taliban. Recent French Gulf policy has done much to anger the USA and UK (GSN 649/4; 645/3).

If the time for action is coming, the likelihood is it could still take months—unless Clinton decides to, literally, go out with a bang. This would confirm 2001’s status as the global “Year of the Terrorist”, or perhaps better, the “Year of the Counter-Terrorist”. As ever, targets will be selective.

Terrorism: Questions of definition

The issue of transnational terrorism has returned as front-page news in the Gulf and seems set to stay there in 2001. This stands in stark contrast to 1999, a quiet year for terrorism that served as a period of reorganisation and planning after 1998’s high-profile embassy bombings, retaliations and tourist kidnappings and murders. But if 2001 is a Year of the Terrorist, just what is meant by ‘terrorism’ will remain the subject of substantial debate which goes well beyond semantics.

Despite rising alert levels in the Gulf, including the draconian measures widely touted at Doha’s Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting, Arab counter-terrorist communities remain divided internally and from their Western counterparts on some of the key assumptions underpinning the fight against terrorism.

Western speakers at a recent counter-terrorism conference in the UK tended to focus on the practical, operational business of new trends in terrorism and new types of threat. Their Arab co-presenters and audiences were clearly focused on the more abstract, confusing moral issues that bedevil the fight against terrorism in the region.

One issue that continues to clog the arteries of debate in the counter-terrorist field is that of profiling the Islamist or “Islamic fundamentalist terrorist”. This issue throws a spotlight on the internal divisions of the Arab world and in particular between Egypt (and other North African states) and the more religiously focused states of the GCC While it is clear from terrorist cells developing as far afield as the Philippines that Islamist terrorist networks are transnationally active, the motives of such networks and individuals remains a point of division.

Egyptian perspectives

Egyptian ‘men of the services’ compose a predictable feature of any gathering of the GCC counter-terrorism community. Their profiles of the Islamist terrorist closely mirror Egyptian government policy and invariably stir up a hornet’s nest of debate on the issue. Islamist terrorists are unschooled in Islamic lore, Egyptian profiles suggest, and are therefore easy to manipulate by those using religion as a cover for their own essentially secular aims (such as the struggle for political representation). They are rural, without prospects and vulnerable to the group dynamics of “cult-like” terrorist cells. The solution to this class of terrorist is twin track; crack down on the leadership cadre and hit the social roots of terrorist recruitment by improving education and the economy.

This characterisation at best appears to be narrowly applicable to Egypt’s security dilemma—and says little about Islamists such as Osama Bin Laden and Imam Abu Hamza Al-Masri, not to mention the many doctors and engineers that comprise the ranks of Middle Eastern opposition groups. When these elements are taken into account it seems clear that issues of psychology and identity are as important as those of political process, development economics and power.

The key theme is disaffection, with the Arab world as well as one’s daily lot. This disaffection is as apparent in the regional counter-terrorist community as it is in their quarry. Arab counter-terrorist operators find it simple to conjure an understanding, if not sympathy, of the roots of Islamist terrorism. This empathy is evident in the recurrent focus at such events on two issues; the definition of terrorism and discussion of international co-operation in the field. Though Western participants clearly prefer to pass over such intractable and time-consuming issues, their Arab counterparts—mirroring Arab society in general—are happy to mull over the issues in long and ponderous debates about moral and legal responsibilities. Regional counter-terrorist operators are fascinated by what counter-terrorist “mentor states” in the West say and do about the issue, and, in particular, the inevitable difference between the two. They are also interested in gauging what their responsibilities are in international counter-terrorism agreements and set impossibly high standards of moral and legal consistency in critiquing such treaties.

The nub of Arab discomfort is the regional recognition that asymmetric war-fighting strategies like terrorism are the only recourse for disaffected Arab peoples like the Shia of southern Lebanon and the Palestinians. There is no coldly rational view of terrorism and the word is only used to construe its negative moral connotations—such as Israeli “state-terrorism” in contrast to Palestinian “heroic resistance”. Events in the Levant and Yemen show that issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict and the presence of US forces in the Gulf are still as important as those poor education, economic prospects and political participation as drivers of terrorism. Until such issues are resolved one cannot expect GCC thinking on terrorism to move far forward.

Neither will there be great change until Arab states see the West meeting some of their key concerns—especially by taking action against opposition militants based abroad, notably in London. Moves such as the UK High Court ruling that Khalid Al-Fawwaz—a Saudi dissident allegedly linked to Bin Laden’s Al-Quaida movement through the Advice and Reformation Committee—should be extradited to the USA to face conspiracy-to-murder charges will be closely watched in the Gulf. So will UK attitudes towards Abu Hamza and other militants who gather around Finsbury Park and similar radical mosques.

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