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Terror: Lessons from the Front

In a deadly cascade of coordinated suicide attacks — 15 bombings on three continents in the space of seven days — Islamic fundamentalists demonstrated with brutal clarity last week that whatever our leaders’ claims about winning the war on terrorism, the terrorists haven’t been beaten.

Far from it. While America and its allies have succeeded in driving Al Qaeda out of its main camps in Afghanistan and rounding up some of its top leaders, the terrorist network appears to have adapted, decentralized and rebuilt itself along new and nimbler lines. Indeed, there are growing signs, as Marc Perelman reports on Page 1, that Al Qaeda is expanding its reach by joining forces with local Islamic groups, from Bali and the Philippines to Morocco, Chechnya, Lebanon and the West Bank. The end result, if the trend continues, could be a sprawling entity with greatly expanded capacity for destruction and no clear head to cut off.

The pattern is not entirely new. The Al Qaeda that first announced itself to the world in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998 was actually a mutation born earlier that year, through a merger of the original Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s jihad against the “infidels” of the Saudi regime, with the anti-Mubarak extremists of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The combined entity, though commonly known as Al Qaeda, originally adopted a more cumbersome and chillingly revealing name: the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews.

The Evolving Challenge

Most experts have continued to see Al Qaeda as it was originally formed in the early 1990s, as a movement for Islamic purification within the Saudi and other regimes. But the evolving nature of the organization is reinforcing the new trends begun in 1998 — both its outreach to other Islamic groups and its focus on Jews. During the last year the group has attacked a synagogue in Tunisia, an Israeli tourist hotel in Kenya and at least three Jewish targets in Morocco. The emerging links between Al Qaeda and the anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah can only reinforce the anti-Jewish trend. Indeed, Al Qaeda’s still-at-large operations chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made the point explicitly this week in a taped message to supporters that was broadcast over the Al Jazeera television network. “Carry arms against your enemies, the Americans, the Jews,” he declared.

This emerging new reality poses a stark challenge to America, Israel and the West. Put plainly, our war on terrorism isn’t working.

During the last two years, leaders in Washington and Jerusalem have poured vast resources into a war on terrorism that has been predicated on the deployment of overwhelming force. The goal is partly to disrupt the terrorists’ organizational infrastructure, but no less important to reduce their bases of support through sheer intimidation. That was the point of the Iraq war, which was supposed to send a message throughout the Islamic Middle East, cowing extremists and encouraging would-be democrats. That was the point, too, of Israel’s repeated incursions with armored columns and helicopter gunships into Gaza and the West Bank, driving home to Palestinians the cost to themselves of continued violence.

The Strategic Dilemma

In both countries, the strategy of overwhelming force has been portrayed by its architects and advocates as the only possible response to the terrorists’ repeated outrages. In fact, however, the strategy is relatively new in both countries, introduced during the last two years to replace the subtler anti-terrorism strategies of earlier administrations. America before George W. Bush and Israel before Ariel Sharon had relied on a complex approach to fighting terrorism that combined extensive undercover operations with occasional armed incursions and, most important, close cooperation with European and moderate Arab allies.

The eruption of Palestinian violence in September 2000 convinced Israelis that their subtle approach wasn’t working, and they turned instead to blunt force. The attacks on New York and Washington a year later convinced Americans of the same thing. As the two nations have pursued their similar strategies, they have been drawn together in an alliance of unprecedented warmth. The feeling of common cause has been strengthened by the growing alienation of the two friends from their erstwhile allies and partners in Europe. Bound together against a hostile world, Americans and Israelis have been lulled into a sense that their path is the only one possible.

As last week’s wave of bombings demonstrated, the strategy of blunt force hasn’t stopped terrorism. On the contrary, it’s made our situation more difficult. The military operations intended to cow the Muslim world into compliance have served instead to inflame anti-American, anti-Israel and, increasingly, anti-Jewish sentiment across the Middle East. That, in turn, has made it harder, not easier, for Arab moderates in Cairo and Ramallah to join forces with our side against the extremists. Because of resentment at our go-it-alone stance, cooperation with our allies has suffered in the crucial areas of intelligence and undercover work, where the war on terrorism will ultimately be won or lost. And so, while our tanks prowled the main highways of the Middle East, agents of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and a host of other groups were meeting in caves, planning their next moves.

To win the war on terrorism, more than muscle-flexing is called for. We will need patience, nerve, skill and, most of all, wisdom. The deadly bombings last week in Riyadh and Casablanca, Chechnya, Jerusalem and Afula were our wake-up call.

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