Back to square one: the derailed “war on terror” after the Mombasa attacks

The recent attacks on an Israeli hotel and the firing of missiles on an Israeli plane taking off from Mombassa, Kenya, indicate again that terrorism has neither been defeated, exhausted nor even intimidated by the loudly acclaimed American-led “war on terror.” On the contrary, terrorist activities seem to be gathering strength, spreading faster and hitting harder than the most cynical assessments predicted.

The accelerated frequency of terrorist attacks, their varied choice of remote and unexpected targets, their success in accomplishing many of their destructive missions and, in most cases, the safe escape of the perpetrators, are indeed alarming. More staggering is the fact that terrorists still have the ability to continue to reach the media, declare their contentment with the fulfilment of their missions, and issue threats of new outrages to come.

The question remains the same. Has the war on terror been messed up and has it, consequently, failed, or has it been completely and irrationally derailed? The answer is also the same. The war on terror has both been messed up and has been recklessly and impertinently derailed.

It was messed up in two ways. First, the United States’ adamant refusal to conduct any meaningful and objective investigation into the causes of terror and of the possible motives of the terrorists has deprived the war of the means to correctly plan.

The simplistic view that “terror” is simply a decontextualized “evil” has meant that the “war on terror” has been restricted to the short-term task of tracking down, dismantling and disabling the existing terrorists and their infrastructure. What is entirely missing is any long-term strategy of eliminating the root causes of terror, rather than dealing only with its symptoms and its manifestations, and thus preventing the constant recruitment of new people ready and willing to take up where those captured or killed have left off.

The second factor is the detrimental and deliberate American failure to draw a clear distinction between Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate terror, which hit at the heart of America on 11 Septemver 2001, causing unspeakable atrocities, and other kinds of violence related to specific, long-standing political conflicts, and which have nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaeda or its philosophy.

This is obviously not to suggest that the US should endorse or tolerate any other form of terror, but a successful conduct of the war on terror requires that kind of distinction in order to better define the problem and combat it effectively. Where there is genuine injustice that gives rise to indiscriminate and illegitimate terror targeted at innocent civilians, doing justice is not a “capitulation to terrorism,” but simply a wise course that should be pursued any way.

Unfortunately that has not happened. Instead, the US has most imprudently acquiesced to Israeli pressure to include any anti-Israel activity as a form of terror to be faought on the same terms as America is fighting the September 11 attackers. This includes not just reprehensible suicide attacks against civilians, but even entirely legitimate resistance activities against armed combatants in the Occupied Territories. Even the verbal opposition to the continued Israeli occupation is seen by Israel (and subsequently by Washington) as incitement and sometimes as “verbal terrorism.”

The fundamental point here is not to subjectively determine the nature of the general Arab and specific Palestinian reaction to the nearly four-decade long Israeli occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese lands, as it is the need to emphasise that this is a totally different issue and it should be dealt with on its own terms so that an effective solution can be found and all the awful manifestations of the conflict, including the violence that has claimed thousands of mostly Palestinian, but also Israeli lives, can be stopped at its source.

It must be clear that the radical injustice of the occupation and the unprecedented oppression it opposes on millions of people cannot but produce a vicious conflict characterized by a pattern of escalating violence by both sides. Even as we condemn any attacks on civilians no matter who they are, it must be clear that there is a difference between an unlawful occupation ruthlessly robbing a people of its land and rights to benefit a few heavily armed settlers, and on the other side an almost entirely defenceless people desperately trying to fight for their very existence and, hopefully, for their freedom.

The distinction between the two issues becomes all the more urgent as we increasingly realise that much of the growing and widespread resentment of the American policies is directly related to the American endorsement of Israel’s aggression and barbaric practices in Palestine, as well as to America’s unreserved protection of Israeli defiance of international law. By maintaining this stance, the Americans have not only compromised the effectiveness of their battle against the terrorists, they have also been reinforcing the causes of their increasing unpopularity.

The US has also derailed its campaign against terror at a very critical juncture. No matter how “valid” the Iraqi issue can be for the US, it remains very difficult to comprehend the abrupt shift of the US attention from a pressing and real direct threat to American security and citizens to the Iraqi “threat” which the current arms inspections may soon prove is in fact more imagined than real. Yet the drums of war are still thundering with no respite, as if the Security Council plan to “disarm” Iraq did not exist and as if the war on terror had been successfully fulfilled.

It is indeed a shocking reality that while the US is mobilising every potential and dedicating every effort to the possible attack on Iraq, a war which can only make a very grave situation worse, the terrorists seem to be regrouping and getting ready for more devastating, life-disrupting action. It is exactly like the antibiotic which makes the infectious bacteria flourish, rather than vanish, when administered irregularly and arbitrarily. More shocking is the United States’ seeming indifference to this reality.

While this madness marches on, the desperate plight of Afghanistan, and the evident failure of the United States to install anything like a functioning government in that tragic country is simply ignored by people and press. Few dare to question what more than a year of war there has achieved other than further misery for the Afghan people.

The Mombassa attacks are adding a new, alarming dimension to the phenomenon of terror. We do not know for sure yet who is behind the attacks. If it is Al Qaeda, at which many fingers have already been pointing, it is the first time it aimed at specific Israeli targets. Obviously the intention is to create a direct link between Al Qaeda’s senseless terror and the Palestinian cause in an attempt to provide the latter with the kind of popular legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds that the September 11 attacks manifestly failed to achieve. It could also be the random choice of soft, unexpected targets, and after all, what hurts Israel hurts America as well.

Either way, and although this blow must be devastating for Israel, it plays well into the hands of those who have insisted all along that terror is one and the same and it should be fought in the same manner and with the same firmness, whether it is the Palestinian anti-occupation struggle or otherwise.

This may now facilitate the approval of a long-standing Israeli demand to join the “coalition against terror,” a demand which has so far been resisted by the Americans. Worse, this development will certainly deprive the otherwise valid argument for separating the two issues, (Al Qaeda and the Palestinian resistance) of its basic premise. The Palestinians should be extremely vigilant as they should be very clear in rejecting any such vicious attempt to hijack their legitimate cause and stain the face of their struggle.

If, however, the attacks are the work of an organisation or a group which is linked to the Palestinian struggle, or sympathetic to it, and if Israel is indeed the real target not the proxy, the same also applies. This is, again, a new and dangerous phase of terror, reminiscent of the events in the seventies that caused, at the time, catastrophic reactions and widespread condemnations.

The Palestinians should not allow this to happen in their name. They should keep their struggle clean and within its lawful and tolerable limits, they should dissociate themselves and their struggle from any terrorist activities in other countries, and they should clearly condemn any tendency towards endangering the safety of civil aviation and innocent civilians anywhere. So far, no serious analysts have attributed the Mombasa operations to any Palestinian group.

With all that, there is another lesson that could be taken from the Mombasa attacks. It is that no amount of suppression of peoples’ legitimate national aspirations can force them to simply capitulate. Even if they did, there is no way to prevent misguided others from exploiting those people’s suffering and just struggle to pursue their own agenda.

The Palestinians will follow the countless examples of liberation movements which always maintained their struggle until they achieved their just and legitimate goals. When a build-up of Palestinian national pressure is tightly suppressed in the West Bank and Gaza, it may have to find for itself an outlet somewhere else, even in East Africa.

Preventing that does indeed require a lot of wisdom, caution and restraint. But it also requires much more from Israel, by way of understanding that the only way to eliminate terror is to eliminate its root causes. The same understanding is essentially required for winning the American war on terror. Although that is easier than securing every airport, discotheque or hotel in the world against a terror attack, it requires far greater moral and political courage.

The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN