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The Missing Dimension in Counter-Terrorism

12/12/2011

When Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993, was arrested in Pakistan in 1995 and flown back to the United States he informed federal agents that he hoped that by bombing American targets he would effect a change in Washington’s policy towards the Middle East. To put it more directly – threatened with violence the US will cave in to the demands of the blackmailer/terrorist.

Why would Yousef believe this? Did US troops not leave Lebanon following a horrendous terror attack on its marine barracks? Did the US not leave Somalia following the bodies of US rangers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu? Did the US not leave Saudi Arabia following the bombings of the Khobar Towers?

Of course, there were far more strategic reasons why the US left the countries when it did but in the collective psyche of your Islamist terrorist, there is a perception that the US is a weak and declining power, that when given a choice between staying and fighting or to cut and run would inevitably choose the latter. Indeed the characterisation of Americans as weak has a long history in radical Muslim circles. Go back over fifty years ago and read the writings of Syed Qutb characterizing America as a society more concerned about sensuality than about anything else. When attending a recent conference on the Middle East, Muslim scholars echoed Qutb by announcing that the “Americans had no stomach for a fight” and this was their reason for withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, any understanding of American society and history will prove that few nations can rival their success in adversity, their strength in their own beliefs and their desire never to give up. In a recent article, Risa Brooks points out the terrorist challenge the United States was confronted with in the form of Puerto Rican nationalists and militant leftists. Between January 1969 and October 1970, 370 bombings occurred in New York City alone. The American resolve remained undaunted and the challenge posed by these violent nationalists and the Weather Underground joined history’s legions of other failures.

Unfortunately this aspect of America is not getting through to those who believe that Americans are essentially weak and will easily give in to blackmail. To the extent that this perception of American weakness persists, it will continue to encourage terrorists to strike American targets in the hope of affecting some change in policy.

This constitutes a missing dimension in US counter-terrorism efforts. Whilst US public diplomacy has been extremely active on a variety of fronts, it would need to do much more not only to project a positive image of the US but also to clarify its strength as a nation that will not give in to blackmail and will ensure that those who harm innocent civilians will pay a steep price indeed.