(Note: This was originally published on the Globe and Mail website)
In the wake of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks on the United States in recent memory – perhaps even in history – one of the obvious questions is: Who is responsible? And what kind of action will the U.S. government take, or should it take, if and when it finds out? President George W. Bush has made it clear what he wants to do: He said in a statement that he intends to “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” But how will the United States go about doing that? That is even harder to answer.
International security expert Ian Lesser of Washington-based RAND Corp. said the attack has all the earmarks of what is often called the “new” terrorism – including “the high lethality, the symbolism of the targets, the suicide of the attackers involved” and the fact that “no group has taken credit or claimed responsibility.” The problem with such attacks, Mr. Lesser said, is that it is often difficult to figure out how to retaliate, or even who exactly the government should be retaliating against.
In the past, Mr. Lesser said, terrorism was primarily conducted by organized groups such as the Red Brigade or the Irish Republican Army, whose primary aim was “the liberation of Group X or the freedom or interests of a particular country or group.” They tended to take credit “because they wanted to call attention to their cause,” said Mr. Lesser, “but modern groups have systemic, often religious agendas, and as far as they’re concerned the act itself is enough – and they may see themselves as answerable only to God,” which helps explain why they often involve suicides.
Security experts say the first target of suspicion in such a well-organized attack against the United States is Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile and prominent supporter of Islamic terrorism who has been implicated in dozens of attacks on U.S. institutions – including a previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Living in Afghanistan, where he has been protected by the fundamentalist Taliban government, Mr. bin Laden reportedly warned several weeks ago that he was preparing some kind of major strike.
John Sigler, an adjunct professor of political science at Carleton University and a specialist in American foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, said a warning has been circulating in intelligence circles that Mr. bin Laden was planning an attack – but the assumption was the attack would likely take place in the Middle East, not inside the United States itself. “They’ve been warning for 30 days about a suspected Osama bin Laden attack in the Middle East, and U.S. forces have been on high alert… but nobody had envisaged this kind of multiple hijacking attack” on U.S. targets.
Prof. Sigler said that the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was “extremely sophisticated” and that within the international terrorism community “most of us can’t put the finger on anyone but Osama bin Laden.” There were early reports that an Arab group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had claimed responsibility, but Prof. Sigler said such an idea was “laughable.” Osama bin Laden’s group is one of the only groups that could put together such a well co-ordinated plan to attack several targets at once, Prof. Sigler said.
Several observers have pointed out that in the wake of the attack on the Federal building in Oklahoma, many terrorism experts also pointed the finger at Osama bin Laden, but bomber Timothy McVeigh turned out to be a decorated U.S. Special Forces veteran associated with the anti-government U.S. “militia” movement. Prof. Sigler said militia groups might have the ability to mount such an attack “because many of them have a Special Forces and intelligence background,” but he still thought it was more likely to be Osama bin Laden. “I can see militia attacking the Pentagon and the State Department, but the World Trade Center isn’t a government centre.”
And why does Osama bin Laden hate the United States with such intensity? Prof. Sigler said the Islamic fundamentalist “doesn’t hate America at all – he hates a specific American policy, which is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.” Troops have been stationed on bases in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Prof. Sigler said, despite repeated warnings from security experts that this policy would create even more tension with fundamentalist groups. “A lot of people advised [President]Bush’s father not to put troops in Saudi Arabia,” Prof. Sigler said, because groups such as Mr. bin Laden’s oppose having non-Muslim troops guarding Islamic holy sites.
When it comes to retaliation, the RAND Corp.’s Mr. Lesser said, the problem for the U.S. government is that the new terrorism involves such a diverse network of groups and often even individuals, as opposed to the kind of state-sponsored terrorism that the United States has been used to in the past. One of the problems with rushing to pin the blame on Osama bin Laden, he said, is defining “who is part of bin Laden’s group? Is it the people standing with him in the cave in Afghanistan? The group of people running things in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere? People who share his aims? Or people who took him as inspiration?” It makes retaliation “a very complicated equation,” Mr. Lesser said.
Mr. Bush and some of his advisers, such as Vice-President and notorious hawk Dick Cheney, may see the appalling attacks on the United States as a declaration of war – but with whom? And how do you fight an enemy you can’t put your hands on? That is the dilemma that confronts the U.S. now.