In the wake of the deadly attacks on the WorldTrade Centerand the Pentagon last September, Americans were suddenly acquainted with a new vocabulary—names like “Osama bin Laden” and phrases like “weapons of mass destruction” and “homeland security” became oft-used. But how much do we really understand? The Council on Foreign Relations has compiled the nation’s first online encyclopedia of terrorism to provide up-to-date information on more than 120 topics, in an easy-to-follow Q&A format—from profiles of major terrorist groups to weapons of mass destruction to homeland security.
Warren Bass, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of the “Terrorism: Questions and Answers” site, was online Thursday, Sept. 12 at Noon ET to discuss the Council’s new Web site and answer your questions about the war on terrorism.
Warren Bass: Good afternoon, all, and thanks for coming.
I’m looking forward to tackling some of the questions on your mind after the anniversary of 9/11.
Baltimore, Md.: One of the most informative interviews I heard last year was with Yossef Bodansky on NPR. He apparently identified Osama bin Laden as a problem long before 9/11.
He made an interesting statement that I still remember: That the Muslim world has both legitimate and illegitimate grievances against the West. There is no doubt that the attacks of 9/11 were not legitimate actions, regardless of the grievances. However, it does not appear to me that our government is acknowledging that there may be legitimate grievances, much less correcting those issues that caused the grievances.
Do you think Mr. Bodanksy was correct, and do you share my concern? And which grievances are legitimate?
Warren Bass: Well, perhaps we can start by considering bin Laden’s grievances with the West (and above all America): that it has about 5,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, at Saudi invitation, propping up a monarchy that bin Laden detests; that it supports the government of Egypt; that it (well, actually the U.N.) keeps sanctions on Iraq; and that it backs Israel. Plus, he hates American diversity, democracy, culture, and power.
Those beefs don’t impress me much. The U.S. troops were invited in, to deter Saddam from attacking Saudi Arabia, which he almost ate in 1991; the government of Egypt is pretty rotten, but it’s not easy to see a better alternative; the sanctions could be lifted if Saddam would just stop trying to get the bomb and other doomsday weapons; and while America supports Israel, it’s also backed Palestinian statehood and criticized Israeli settlements.
And about America’s very existence, well, there’s not much we can do about that.
I don’t think we’ve done well at telling our Arab friends some hard truths: that their closed, repressive governments are unworthy and unsustainable, and that their sclerotic, corrupt economics are denying prosperity for their citizens. It couldn’t hurt for us to have a respectful series of conversations about such topics. But they’re not that high on bin Laden’s own totalitarian agenda.
And nothing, but nothing, excuses 9/11.
Alameda, Calif.: While bin Laden is certainly a charismatic leader, shouldn’t we be more concerned with Ayman al Zawahiri as the megalomanical murderer? His c.v. would make Saddam envious.
Warren Bass: Zawahiri—bin Laden’s deputy and, to some extent, mentor—is certainly someone to seriously worry about. He’s an Egyptian Islamist; there’s a very good profile of him in this week’s New Yorker, by the way. But I think it’s deeply important that the U.S. stay focused on getting the entire top leadership of al-Qaeda. They have savvy, resources, charisma, and contacts that the next batch might not have. Plus, they deserve it.
This has to remain a top, top priority for U.S. foreign policy. It’s important to keep our eyes on the prize: devastating the al-Qaeda network that represents a grave threat to U.S. civilians.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think we should allocate more resources in finding the source of the Anthrax attacks, and give it more priority than going to war against Iraq at this stage?
Warren Bass: I like to think we can walk and chew gum at the same time... Anyway, the anthrax inquiry is the FBI’s problem, and they’re not in the Iraq loop.
But it is still dispiriting that, almost a year after the attacks, the FBI still doesn’t seem to have an answer—let alone a culprit—at hand.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Bass, Over the past year, I’ve heard all sorts of reports concerning the level of support/approval the attacks of 9/11 had throughout the Islamic world. The terrorists have often been described as a minority on the radical fringe of Islam, and yet other reports seem to suggest majorities of people in “allied” countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.) feel the attacks were justified. Everything I’ve seen and read seems to support the latter view. How do you see it, and, perhaps more importantly, how does our leadership see it?
Warren Bass: It’s a great question. First, though, you want to distinguish between the Muslim world and the Arab world. (Remember, the most populous Muslim country is Indonesia.) The political environments can be quite different.
That said, there’s clearly a big, big problem out there. A February Gallup poll conducted in nine largely Muslim countries was pretty unsettling: 53 percent had a negative view of the US, only 9 percent said the US war in Afghanistan was justified, and the overwhelming majority didn’t believe that Arabs conducted the 9/11 attacks. (Some pollsters tell me there’s technical problems with those results, by the way.)
Whatever the exact figures, the rough trend suggests two problems: a small shard of fanatics around al-Qaeda, and a larger pool of sympathizers, apologists, conspiracy theorists, or America-haters.
That said, what worries me sometimes about the Bush administration is that many smart, influential advisers look at this problem of Arab and Muslim contempt for America and, instead of saying “How do we fix this?”, say “Who cares what they think?”
I think we all should care. Because fighting terrorism isn’t just about swatting mosquitoes; it’s about drying up the swamp.
Arlington, Va.: Are the Taliban and al Qaeda operatives who fled to Pakistan back in Afghanistan?
Warren Bass: Some of them, yes. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is more wishful thinking than anything else, and the fugitives have sloshed back and forth.
The underlying problem is that Afghanistan is still incredibly shaky on its feet, despite the brave leadership of Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan is also pretty shaky. I think it’s deeply important to make sure both those places are kept stable, and I hope that there’ll be public support for expanding the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul, the Afghan capital. A mini-force just won’t do it.
Washington, D.C.: Who do you believe is the most dangerous terrorist in the world right now?
Warren Bass: It’s not belief; it’s fact. Osama bin Laden—public enemy number one, and about as nasty a totalitarian, murderous foe as any democracy has faced.
The old line is that terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Not so for bin Laden; he wants a lot of people watching AND a lot of people dead.
Mass casualty terrorism is really no joke, and even older, notorious terrorists like Carlos the Jackal and the late, unlamented Abu Nidal balked at blowing up whole buildings. Not bin Laden’s fanatics. This is something to be deeply, deeply concerned about, and the Bush administration needs to keep this as job one.
Virginia: What is more dispiriting, is that we are picking at an old scab and going after Hussein, instead of finishing the job of hunting down those responsible for the atrocities of 9-11. Bin Laden & his cronies might be wiley, but they shouldn’t be able to hide out for that well and that long.
Warren Bass: I’ve got a lot of sympathy for this view: Osama first, Saddam second.
I do think the idea of Saddam with nukes is incredibly dangerous. But if that threat’s not imminent—and if it is, the Bush administration needs to make the argument—there’s a strong case to be made for keeping the government’s emphasis on crippling al-Qaeda.
Arlingotn, Va.: Does your Web site include information about Iraq and other nations that sponsor terrorist activities?
Warren Bass: It does indeed. The State Department lists seven states as sponsors of terrorism, and we profile all of them:
Portland, Ore.: I’m disappointed that our military hasn’t found bin Laden yet. I’m worried that if we venture into Iraq, we’ll be letting him go.
How important is a “live” Osama bin Laden to al Qaeda? They can claim him as a martyr if he’s dead.
Also, isn’t al Qaeda a threat to the local regimes in the Middle East? However if that’s so, why haven’t there been terrorist incidents against those regimes? I’m really surprised by the absence of any violence against the Saudi royal family, for instance. I would of expected at least some incidents there.
Warren Bass: Bin Laden’s pretty important. He’s a uniquely charismatic figure, and killing or capturing him would be demoralizing to his zealots.
Plus, such terrorist organizations as Peru’s Shining Path, Turkey’s PKK, and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo all were badly weakened by the loss of their leaders. Al-Qaeda’s something of a different animal, but I’d still like to try.
On the second point: you’ve got it, but turn it the other way round. Perhaps because Saudi Arabia and Egypt are so repressive and so difficult for terrorists to operate in, they went elsewhere to attack softer targets—in lower Manhattan and Washington, DC. Being an open society unambiguously gives us weaknesses that terrorists can exploit. But would you want to live in Saudi Arabia?
Columbia, Md.: What weapons of mass destruction does Saddam Hussein have and how long has he had them?
Warren Bass: He’s been trying to get the bomb since at least the late 1970s; Israel took out his Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981, which set him back years. It now sounds like he was a lot closer to getting nukes by the end of the 1991 Gulf War than we’d originally thought. How close is Saddam now to getting the bomb? We don’t know. But the Bush administration certainly owes us—within the bounds of classified intel material—its best sense of it.
Iraq had an extensive chemical weapons program in the 1980s, producing such deadly toxins as sarin, VX, tabun, and mustard gas. Iraq has held on to at least some of those weapons. It’s used gas on Iranian troops and on its own Kurdish civilians—the latter in a truly appalling display of brutality.
The United Nations caught Iraq producing such deadly germs as anthrax, botulinum toxin, and ricin, and it was probably working on more.
Alexandria, Va.: The mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center a decade ago was a mysterious figure of uncertain nationality named Ramzi Yousef.
Who was Yousef working for? Could he have been working for Saddam?
Warren Bass: Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers, is actually Pakistani. But the Yousef trail leads closer to al-Qaeda than to Iraq. Yousef’s associates included a series of Islamist figures with al-Qaeda links.
Washington, D.C.: The UN is clearly not the boss of the United States when it comes to invading Iraq, but don’t you think that if we had the international support to legitimately act militarily in the world, we could first win a UN mandate to do so? Another way, if enough nations are with us to win diplomaticaly and militarily against Saddam, should they also be with us at a UN vote?
Or, finally, isn’t UN support a minimum test of world diplomatic support?
Warren Bass: I think the Bush administration has a terrific case to make in the Security Council, and I find it hard to believe that we couldn’t bring France and Russia along and get China to, at a minimum, abstain.
U.N. legitimacy could be very important. I find the case against going back to the U.N. pretty unconvincing.
Iowa City, Iowa: How many Iraqis are being held as “enemy combatants” or “prisoners of war” by the U.S.?
Warren Bass: I don’t have the exact figure, I’m afraid, but it’s not a lot. The largest groups of detainees captured in Afghanistan came from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. A small number were originally from several other countries—mostly Arab countries, but there were also a handful of Brits, as well as John Walker Lindh.
Cumberland, Md.: Are you currently at work on a new book and if so what is the subject and when is the publication date?
Warren Bass: My publisher thanks you! Yep, I’ve got a book coming out in the spring—probably in May, from Oxford University Press. It’s about President Kennedy and the Middle East.
Wheaton, Md.: Why is it we choose at different times which terrorist groups and brutal dictators that must be destroyed? Shouldn’t we just have a consistent policy on all international terrorist groups? Why go after al Qaeda and not the PLO? Consistancy would certainly help U.S. crediblity.
Warren Bass: Because we can only do so much, and because not every problem in the world is our problem.
Why should we divert our limited resources from the fight against al-Qaeda to fight, say, the Basque separatist group ETA?
That doesn’t mean we can’t help out our friends, like Israel, who also have dreadful problems with terrorism. But the standard that President Bush laid out in his post-9/11 speech to a joint session of Congress still makes sense: America’s foe is “terrorist groups of global reach.”
Rockville, Md.: I’ve never understood what “warlord” refers to. Can the term be applied to anyone who leads during a war?
Also, who are the Kurds and why do the citizens of Iraq have a problem with them?
Lastly, what makes Saddam a madman?
Warren Bass: Usually, warlord means a thug with his own band of “troops,” who operates in defiance of a weak state’s feeble central authority. So you’d apply it to the squabbling warlords in Afghanistan, but not to, say, Colin Powell...
Kurds are an ethnic minority scattered about the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The citizens of Iraq don’t have a problem with them; in fact, they ARE citizens of Iraq. But Saddam has a longstanding vendetta against the Kurds, and he waged a campaign against them in the late 1980s that was so vicious that a group as sober as Human Rights Watch described it as genocidal.
On the third one... years of practice? Actually, I don’t think Saddam’s mad—just reckless and dumb, a brinksman who never knows where the brink is.
Warren Bass: Many thanks for your questions, all—hope this has been useful.